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In defense of journalism

‘Citizen journalists’ are no such thing

November 29, 2019

8:20 AM

29 November 2019

8:20 AM

It was lucky for the New York Times and the Washington Post that they did not uncover the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate Scandal in this unhappy age. They would have found themselves mercilessly beset by ‘citizen journalists’ denouncing them as tools of the Soviet Kremlin or the Red Chinese.

Perhaps the same self-appointed guardians of rectitude would also have gone through the past writings and sayings of the journalists involved, and found they were insufficiently loyal to the fashionable opinions of the time. It is a form of McCarthyism. And if you scoff at that, you have to ask yourself honestly if you would have recognized Joe McCarthy for what he was in his own time, or stood up to him, as so few actually did? How the junior senator for Wisconsin would have loved Twitter.

What they could not have done, of course, would have been to refute the devastating stories which these great newspapers brought into the daylight, with considerable courage. Because those stories were true. But even so, they might have frightened reporters and editors out of pursuing them. And in that case we would be living now in a darker and less truthful world.

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Something of that kind, I believe, is happening now. Since I published my story last week, about the twisting of the truth about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I have been subjected to ceaseless allegations that I am serving Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, or that I am an apologist (this a very polite version of what some people have said) for the gore-spattered Syrian tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. I frequently describe Mr Putin as a sinister tyrant. I have a consistent record of severe criticism of the Assad tyranny going back at least to 2001. This is more than the US and British governments, which now pose as his scourge, can say. The Blair government invited Mr Assad to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2002. In the same year, the US authorities kidnapped an innocent Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, who they accused of being a terrorist, and then rendered him to Damascus where he was beaten and kept in a pit by Assad’s goons. At this time Assad was seen as a possible ally against Saddam. Who knows what he might be in the future? I don’t care. I’ll always think he is disgusting.

But I am not just accused of being his friend. My opinions on everything from mass immigration to climate change have been dragged up and misrepresented. Various guilt-by-association smears have been attempted. Something quite similar has been done to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, one of the very few journalists in the USA with the independence of mind to ask the same questions about the strange way in which we were herded into supporting war in Syria. In tormented prose , a self-described ‘researcher’ has denounced Mr Carlson for ‘spreading misinformation that is a direct result of allegations of Russo-Syrian efforts to block the OPCW and journalists from accessing the site of the attack for weeks to manipulate potentially incriminating evidence.’

By ‘misinformation’, this ‘researcher’ means that he has actually discussed — on air — challenges to the standard view of what happened in Syria in April 2018. In her support she cites a curious British-based organization called ‘Bellingcat’ which has set itself up as the arbiter of truth on such matters, and has set out to spin away the very serious leaks which I and several other journalists have received from inside the chemical weapons watchdog the OPCW. Well, I have information for her and for ‘Bellingcat’. This stuff is serious. It checks out. The people involved are thoughtful scientists pursuing dedicated careers, without any political agenda at all. They are surprised and uncomfortable to find themselves talking to people like me, but they still do it. It is deeply wrong, in my view, for anyone to try to shout them down in this fashion. And it is certainly not the job of any self-described ‘citizen journalist’ to take the side of official silence against that of free inquiry. (You can read my rebuttal to Bellingcat here.)

The initial leak, which I published on Sunday, was swiftly confirmed as authentic (by the OPCW itself) to Reuters news agency. And there is a lot more where it came from.

Journalists are not saints. I don’t ask anyone’s admiration for doing what I love doing anyway. Samuel Johnson called the trade ‘Scribbling on the backs of advertisements’ and there is no doubt that it is a good deal closer to Barnum and Bailey in spirit than it is to the austere truth of the philosophers. But the rougher parts help pay for the good bits.

Luckily for me I have had the backing of people who know deep down that journalism must take risks to be any good. Someone had to say ‘yes’ to me when I headed off at short notice a few days ago, on my complicated way to a safe house somewhere in a major city on the European continent.

Someone had to fork out for my train fares and my cheap station hotels. Someone had to have the guts to let me tell my story about what I found when I got there — which was an honest man in turmoil. His job was to tell the truth and he was being prevented from doing so. So I could help him. In four decades of journalism, I have seldom felt closer to the Holy Grail, truth that had to be told, and truth that would shake power. Here it was. A pretext for war had been manufactured by suppression of research. Did I care who was upset? Did I care who might be pleased? Not at all. And if you have never had that thrill run through your mind, of real news in your hand, then you can’t really understand that. But if you remember Jason Robards, brilliantly playing Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post in All the President’s Men, giving a desk a joyful kick when he learns that his paper has a real story, then you’ll have an inkling.

It’s what we all hoped we would eventually do in those first days of training as a reporter as we trudged to the flower shows, interviewed the survivors of 50 years of marriage, or sat in courts perfecting our shorthand as the shoplifters and the drunks passed before us. One day, this mundane stuff might put us on a night train, to, well, X, and — when we got there — put a story in our hands that would perhaps change the world for the better. It never crossed my mind at the time that other people, calling themselves journalists, would hate me for it.


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