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Trusted news gatekeepers will endure
By Cameron Forbes
Originally Published on Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Published on BunchofMadmen.com on Thursday, December 16, 2010

WikiLeaks shows the value of good, old-fashioned journalism.

MOST Fridays I attend a lunch that over the years has become known as the Gentlemen's Discussion Group. Women are welcome to join us. Some do, but they rarely return. This is understandable: some of us are former foreign correspondents and there is much telling - and retelling and retelling – of tall tales but true about old wars and dead comrades. There will be mention of Peter Smark and Robert Haupt, legendary masters of the long lunch and expenses claims that were works of art, if not fiction. There will be a chorus of "we had the best of it".

Smark and Haupt were, of course, considerable journalists. While Haupt sometimes presented as the playboy of the Western world, he did his best work in his final posting to Moscow, where he immersed himself in the gritty, hard-scrabble world of ordinary Russians. And if there is some romanticising nostalgia in the gentlemen's discussions, there is also a real concern about the diminishing and changing role of foreign correspondents.

We have witnessed it and worried about it. Tony Clifton returned to Australia after 40 years of international reporting, 30 of them for Newsweek. When he left his final posting in Delhi, the once globe-girdling network of Newsweek correspondents had shrunk to a pathetic couple of strands. It is a common phenomenon.

Last month the Media Standards Trust, a British independent watchdog of media behaviour, published a survey titled Shrinking World: The decline of international reporting in the British press. It examines the retreat over three decades in the gamut of British newspapers - The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Mirror - from international coverage. I suspect that except for a blip after September 11, 2001, the American decline would be even more dramatic.

The author, Martin Moore, lists several factors: constricted editorial resources, the end of the Cold War, the rise of alternative news sources(most recently the internet), the globalisation process that merges foreign and home stories, particularly in business coverage, and what he describes as a loss of confidence by newspapers in the importance of foreign news.

Then last week the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University released a report, Are foreign correspondents redundant?, by Richard Sambrook, once the BBC's director of the World Service and Global News. Sambrook too cites economic pressures and the digital revolution. He says: "All news organisations must ask where the risks and opportunities are. And against this background, where does the primary public interest rest in bearing witness?" Thankfully, reducing the risk of apoplexy in the Gentlemen's Discussion Group, Moore emphasises the importance of bearing witness and the danger of losing reports from the journalists who do so.

Consider Wilfred Burchett in the devastation of Hiroshima, surrounded by the ghosts of tens of thousands of men, women and children and the diseased living who would swell their ranks. He declared grandly: "I write this as a warning to the world." But indeed that was what he did in his report on the ashes and doom of the atomic age.

There is a utilitarian aspect to foreign reporting as there is to the structuring of foreign policy: a taking into account of national interests and spheres of influence. Middle (at best) power Australia needs to know what is going on in those countries that affect it economically and strategically. And it would be better if an American public, prone to isolationism, took more interest in the world.

Then there is the matter of bearing witness to the actions and hurts of humanity simply because we are part of it. In those grim apartheid years, South Africa received much Australian attention: the regime was abhorrent; it also gave the white race a bad name. Politicians and news organisations paid little attention to the rest of Africa.

On Friday there is often discussion too of print journalism, the world most of us come from, in the age of the Internet. Some years ago, I spoke at a seminar at Latrobe University on the future of the media. The late Max Teichmann, an interesting academic who had reinvented himself as a scourge of the left, was in the audience. With some delight, he interjected that, because of the coming flood of information on the Internet and its accessibility, a journalist such as me and a newspaper such as The Age were dead. I responded, in effect, that there was simply too much out there. Trusted gatekeepers would always be needed.

The marvelous WikiLeaks trove proves the point. Whatever the cloaks and the technology, whatever the daggers aimed at Julian Assange, this has basically been the product of good, old-fashioned journalism, with newspapers such as this one doing the culling and providing the context.

The conclusion of the Media Standards Trust report quotes City of London University academic John Owen: "No website, however worthy or informative, or no packaged report, slickly produced in London or New York, will ever be able to surpass the impact of original journalism, the discoveries of a single reporter or documentary maker or photojournalist on assignment somewhere in the world."

The gentlemen would drink to that.


Cameron Forbes's latest book is The Korean War: Australia in the Giants' Playground. He is the recipient of this year's Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism.

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