Anne Hailes: On World Press Freedom Day remember the media is a force for good

Trevor Birney, left and Barry McCaffrey

THE tragic murder of 29-year-old Lyra McKee has again turned the spotlight on journalists doing their work in dangerous situations. Since the news on Good Friday morning her remarkable short life story has been inspiring. Her colleagues in the family of what's known as the media have been stunned and deeply saddened. Seamus Dooley, Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists, summed it up: “Shocked by the killing of a journalist of courage, style and integrity.”

I get annoyed when people blame the ‘media' for all the woes of the world. For goodness sake, professional journalism is worth its weight in gold and reputable newspapers, both online and print, radio and television coverage is of the very highest degree, though there are few exceptions.

This is a crucial time for the print medium, with newspapers fighting for their lives as young people turn to social media for often unregulated news and comments. OK for messages, but how can an in-depth case be covered in this way? There's no substitute for opening a paper, spreading the words and pictures before you and reading, and often rereading, an article.

Is life too fast to take time with this old-fashioned method of keeping up to date? No interest in the wide coverage of news, the arts, sport and opinion offered?

All this is under threat

And that threat comes from this seemingly uncontrollable monster that continues to grow despite the damage it causes. The pressures on professional reporters are enormous when it comes to covering stories in war zones, even on the streets of London at the moment. Like Lyra and Martin O'Hagan during our own Troubles, so many threats and so many lives lost and injuries sustained in the act of news gathering.

Get your hands on Reporting The Troubles, the recent book compiled by Ivan Little and Deric Henderson charting the experiences of 68 journalists and the lasting impact of working through those dangerous days and witnessing some appalling scenes so that the public will have a firsthand account of the truth behind the headlines.

And who regulates the reporters because this is a tight band of men and women who take pride in their work ethic? They are responsible to their editors and ultimately to their employers. They also have a trades union, the NUJ and every May 3, under the auspices of the United Nations, they honour a World Press Freedom Day which this year will be held in the Linen Hall Library Belfast. The subject is ‘The Media and Democracy – Why Journalism Matters!'

Debating the issues

The UN Association of Northern Ireland has invited a panel of experienced speakers including Jim Boumelha, president of the International Federation of Journalists, Seamus Dooley of the NUJ, and Colin Wrafter, former Irish ambassador and director of Human Rights Unit at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

When I spoke to Colin he brought up an interesting point – that Brexit has revived political journalism. It can't be denied that news hounds have given 100 per cent to getting to the heart of the story but are such people and their publications doomed due to social media?

Colin admits there is a threat, especially as, in the past, advertising helped pay for newsprint and writers but now companies prefer some form of internet presence. Just think chocolate eclair and Facebook will be bombarding you with ads for cream cakes!

“In the old days good journalists explained and articulated the meaning behind what was happening. The arrival of the internet and social media means that monopoly has been eroded. We're not doomed but we've no reason to be complacent, the issues are still there and have to be dealt with,” Colin said.

“Facebook, by definition, is a multinational corporation. How do you regulate it in such a way that you're not involving censorship? You need to set up independent authorities with some judicial input; it's a huge issue.”

What about fake news?

A new and frustrating phenomena thanks to Donald Trump? No, there has always been propaganda, often necessary – for instance, during the Second World War when Churchill was spinning a few yarns in a complex operation.

Why a press freedom day at all?

It serves to inform citizens of violations of press freedom – a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.

Locally the arrest of respected journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey has caused concern; they have been accused of ‘theft' when conducting their research for documentary No Stone Unturned about the 1994 loyalist murder of six men in The Heights Bar in Loughinisland.

Last year the two journalists were arrested for allegedly breaching The Official Secrets Act and their case is set to be heard next month. The men have the support of NUJ, Amnesty International and colleagues from around the world.

As panel member, Seamus Dooley said: "The protection of journalistic sources of confidential information is of vital importance and journalists must be free to operate in the public interest without police interference. These journalists are entitled to claim journalistic privilege and to seek the protection of the legal system if there is any attempt to force them to reveal sources.”

I hope you care and I hope you agree that accurate and honest news gathering and reporting is of vital importance to us all.

Interesting that despite current circulation numbers dropping, every month the NUJ admits four or five new members to the protection and standards of the union and in the service of the public. A good sign for the future.

DON'T MISS: A new play in the Lyric May 2-4, I Am Maura, the story of a 15-year-old girl trying to find a boy. And at the Sunflower Bar in Union Street, performance poet Alice McCullough will be on stage on Friday at 8pm.

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