Category: General
Media scrutiny is the only effective means of forcing politicians to tell the truth. This was the argument put forward by journalists in a debate at the Oxford Union (22.10.2009). The motion was that this house trusts politicians more than journalists. Jones spoke for the journalists. Politicians and journalists are regularly accused of being in collusion with each other – especially at Westminster – but we are two different tribes and I think we do have different ethical values. So I oppose the motion: the public should have more trust in journalists rather than politicians.Politicians have to show loyalty to their party, to their political cause or beliefs.  Their mission is to achieve what they believe in, that is their political creed.Likewise it might be said that quite a few a journalists have a political agenda, many more do have to follow the commercial interests – and sometimes the political line -- of their proprietors.  But almost all the journalists I know are driven by a desire to tell the public what they know, they want to expose what’s happening, and even if they have to work within a political or commercial straightjacket, they do want to tell the truth. And broadcasters – myself included – strive to be as politically impartial as we possibly can. I was a BBC political and industrial correspondent for thirty years and the epitaph I want on my grave stone is simple: “No one knew which way he voted”.  That would be a tribute that I would cherish. But telling the truth is not the guiding principle of a politician. What they have on their gravestones are references to “loyalty”, to “dedication” to their cause.  That is why we the journalists and you the public have to be suspicious of politicians: their party loyalty can distort the truth. When I look back on my career I can point to three seismic events where I believe I was misled.  In 1984-5 when I reported the year long miners’ strike, I believed the Conservatives when they said their party wanted an efficient coal industry. That was a lie. The miners and their communities were betrayed. And yes I do have a crisis of conscience as to how I reported that story.Twenty years later a Labour government assured the public that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  That was another lie. And this year we have seen how British politicians collectively – in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords – were prepared to deceive the public about the true level of their expenses.  When the Daily Telegraph purchased a purloined disc containing details of MPs’ claims and receipts the means did justify the end.  When the House of Commons put itself above the law – by exempting MPs expenses from the Freedom of Information Act – it showed the public that politicians as a class cannot always be trusted. Journalism as I have known it, is under threat.  Established media outlets like newspapers, television and radio are facing all kinds of pressure.  Straight, basic reporting is in short supply, so is investigative journalism.But a lot of journalists are moving on line finding new ways to set the agenda. Social networking sites have transformed the opportunities to disseminate information and hold politicians to account.I suppose my final test would be to suggest that we should look outside Britain and around the world.  Journalists in totalitarian states across the globe are all too often in prison or getting bumped off by the authorities.  What the Oxford Union should do is recognise that journalists – warts and all – are the only force that can hold politicians to account. And it is the intensity of media scrutiny in Britain which forces our politicians to tell the truth. And long may that remain the case.END