What is the point of journalism?

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Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

It’s a question I was asked early on in my career. For me, journalism has always been about changing things. I didn’t just want to report on what’s happening; I wanted to challenge it.

I was lucky that one of my first jobs in journalism was to work for a campaigning magazine called New Internationalist. It championed the cause of developing countries, impoverished by centuries of subjugation and exploitation by rich countries. And I discovered early on that campaigning journalism can change things.

Apartheid

When we took on the cause of apartheid in South Africa – a despicable regime and set of values – I bought one share in Barclays Bank so I could attend their annual general meeting. I hid a tape recorder in my bag and secretly recorded the proceedings.

Barclays was being boycotted by anti-apartheid campaigners because of the bank’s heavy involvement in the South African regime. My secret recording captured angry shareholders shouting (yes, they were furious) that the profits of the bank were more important than the issue of segregation of black people in an African country.

The report of my recording was published worldwide. Yes, it was just a small chink in the fierce armour that protected the wickedness of an inhumane system of government. But eventually, the apartheid regime in South Africa collapsed. And for sure, campaigning journalism and protests helped that to happen.

Photograph of the article about Barclays bank
Barclays Bank AGM story for New Internationalist

Healthcare

When I wrote for the Daily Mirror and uncovered how women in the UK were being sterilised against their will, NHS policy changed. No longer could (male) doctors ask women (of a certain social class) if they would give consent to having “their tubes tied” whilst they were in the middle of a Caesarean operation. No woman could give ‘informed consent’ under those circumstances. The policy had to change.

Daily Mirror article about sterilisation scandal
Daily Mail story – women sterilised against their will

When I uncovered that across country, NHS hospitals had vastly differing policies on which pregnant women could have testing to see if they were carrying a baby with Downs Syndrome or spina bifida, it exposed shocking inequalities. My investigation was published by the Daily Mirror and broadcast by London Weekend Television. It helped to change policies that were wrong.

Rogue traders

When I worked on a BBC Radio 4 investigative programme with consumer champion, Roger Cook, we tracked down and exposed tricksters and con merchants who had fleeced innocent people. We laid bare their dirty tricks, and yes, it did help to effect change.

Photo of the BBC Radio 4 CheckPoint investigation team

Coronavirus

When it became clear to me that our government, under Boris Johnson, was making a complete mess of protecting the country from Covid-19, I felt a need to write about it.

Keeping quiet is simply not an option, as silence is seen as acceptance – and I don’t accept.

But of course, speaking up gets me into trouble. People get angry with me. They would prefer that I stop and they write to tell me that.

For example, at the start of the pandemic, people urged me to give up my criticism of the government’s handling of Covid-19. With the benefit of hindsight, maybe now we can all see that the government did mishandle the pandemic – and that they still are?

One person, whom I know outside of social media, has never really supported my work. He wrote to me after reading one my criticisms of the government’s handling of the pandemic and the plan to impose emergency measures for two years:

“Lighten up dude or no one will read what you write. You seem to be on a mission to discredit everything Johnson says or does. It does not become you. The nation is in crisis. He is a human being doing the very best he can in extremely difficult circumstances. I have been super impressed by the way it is being handled.

“God forbid Corben [sic] could have been in charge!!!!

“Do you honestly think the two years of Emergency power will be used if not essential? I don’t. There is a time and a place for journalists to be investigative and critical; now is not one of them.”

I wrote back and told him that in a democracy, we have to be free to challenge our political masters (I would have done the same to Corbyn – and have done many times). I asked him to support my right to express myself, rather than tell me to stop doing what I do. I pointed out that I had posted rational articles challenging why the government was not following the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines that were saving lives in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan.

Importantly, I told him that my evidence for these articles was sourced and backed by doctors, who were in despair because the government refused to give them protective clothing and had refused to test them for Covid-19. As a medical journalist first and foremost, my posts also provide vital information on tackling this terrible pandemic.

I finished by saying that in a democracy, attempting to suppress my voice was not acceptable.

Another message was received from someone who otherwise supports my work. Nonetheless, he emailed me at the start of the pandemic to say that although my writing is always accurate, balanced and well presented, what was needed now from journalists and leaders was hope. He felt I was implying a conspiracy on the part of the government, whereas in his opinion they were doing the best they could.

Once again, in my response I pointed out that this is the job of journalists – to hold the government to account (not, of course, to be conspiracy theorists!). It was still in the early days of the pandemic, and it was clear the government was making some questionable decisions. This was exactly the time to put pressure on them to consider an alternative approach, as lives depended on it. In particular, I highlighted that the government’s policy not to test all those with symptoms in the community, or all frontline NHS health workers, was appalling and would cost many lives. It was essential, as a journalist, that I highlighted how this differed to the evidence and guidance from the WHO.


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Brexit

Since 2012, I have been writing about Brexit – ever since the word was invented. My journalism helped to expose the lies of the Brexit campaigns. And I’m constantly told to stop posting – particularly by ardent Brexiters telling me that my side lost. I remind them that when their ‘side’ lost the first referendum, they didn’t give up; they kept on campaigning for a new referendum with a different result.

Will it make any difference? I honestly don’t know. But I won’t give up trying … or speaking out against Brexit, and our government’s ineptitude in tackling the pandemic.

What drives me?

I am not 100 percent sure. It’s certainly not money. I haven’t been paid anything these past few years for my journalism, even though I have been doing more journalism than ever before. (I should add – I would have preferred to be paid! After all, I can’t eat my words – although I am aware that many people would like me to.)

I’ve kept going because it’s difficult to see something that’s wrong and say nothing.


Jon Danzig is an independent journalist and film maker who specialises in writing about health, human rights, and Europe. You can read more of his work via his Facebook page and blogsite.

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