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e-mail: beth@ebcxm.com
Lower Hutt, New Zealand

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University essay written in 2004, for an English Literature paper.   Graded A-.

Brief Note:

This assignment was written as if I was writing an editorial piece for The Dominion Post (Wellington NZ's daily newspaper).

Press Responsibility - The price we pay for Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press is an essential building block for any democratic nation, and the Media has an awesome responsibility that must not be ignored, to inform and educate.   But many fail to take this responsibility seriously.

Journalism regularly falls into the top twenty-five least trustworthy professions, and observing the alarming trend towards shoddy reporting in recent years, journalism seems destined to fall even further from grace.

In January the Hutton Inquiry Report, investigating the sudden death of a government weapons expert, Dr. David Kelly, found that the BBC’s allegations, the government had knowingly "sexed up" a report into Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, were unfounded.   This prompted the immediate resignation of the BBC’s chairman Gavyn Davies, Chief Executive Greg Dyke, and Andrew Gilligan, the journalist who reported the story in May 2003.

Doctor Kelly was Gilligan’s main source for the allegation he made, stating the Government, particularly the press office of Prime Minister Tony Blair, had knowingly exaggerated the dossier on Iraq's military capabilities.  

While many believe the Hutton report was flawed, legally and politically, it brought to light a staggeringly defective editorial system at the BBC that allowed Mr Gilligan's report to go to air without checking the veracity of the allegations.

Who can we trust, if not the BBC?   Though the BBC is a public broadcasting service network they still need to draw an audience.   With no audience their job would be defunct.   So just as any commercial news outlet the BBC is fighting for the finite audience; to be first to get the story, to get the exclusive.   The commercial interests of the news today is partly to blame for this breakdown in editorial practices.  

Andrew Gilligan had been recruited by the BBC to add more spectacle to the programme, he was there not just to report news, but to make news.   The commercial interests are important, but sexing up reports on such serious matters is just not acceptable.   As journalists, we have a duty to report the facts, and not to distort them.

The tragic outcome of this ‘sexed-up’ story was the suicide of Doctor Kelly.   The Hutton Report did not find the BBC culpable in the doctor’s death, and felt no-one involved could have contemplated he would take his own life as a result of the pressures he felt.  

But following the public airing of these allegations, Kelly was publicly disgraced, and possibly confronted with the belief his life’s work had been undermined.   The stress this caused was likely a factor in Kelly’s decision to take his own life.   Just one tragic illustration of the power the press has in our world.  

Though not so tragic, the recent fiasco in the United States, over CBS News reporting a falsified memo as fact, is no less insidious.   CBS News apologized, last Monday, for using unverified documents about President Bush's military service in a "60 Minutes" broadcast and said a key source on the story had lied to the network.  

Sources must be verified, and for this network, long prided for excellence in journalism, this glaring omission is a further indication of a profession losing the plot.   In this fight for viewers, and journalistic prestige, we must not forget the awesome responsibility of the press.   This privileged position of being able to inform and educate people must come first, before entertaining or partisan motivations.

In the wake of CBS’s mistake, Fox News has been berating the network relentlessly, and they are touting themselves as above this sort of reporting.   Yet even a pedestrian viewing of Fox News reveals a strong partisan streak, continually favouring the sitting president.

A partisan media is a natural by-product of the commercial society we live in.   Just as Fox News has clear Republican Party leanings, other US networks have obvious political affiliations, and the memo on President George W. Bush’s time in the Texas National Guard is just the latest in a heated battle in the United States.

One side is assuring the public President Bush did his duty, and doing their level best to belittle the military record of Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry.   The other side is trying to draw attention to President Bush’s weak military record, and strengthening John Kerry’s reputation by hyping his medal winning tours of duty in Vietnam.

Any political leanings for owners of New Zealand media outlets are not as prominent, as in the United States media, but with the 2004 elections fast approaching they need to be considered.   And to that end we at The Dominion Post will continue to seek out stories, and work to get the story to you, the reader, as soon as possible. 

The Dominion Post also has to meet our commercial interests, but the reader may rest assured we verify all our sources before publication, and we will remember our responsibility to inform and educate our readers, and not to distort and manipulate the facts.

Disclaimer: It was only done for a university assignment, so any claim to be speaking for The Dominion Post is of course not real.   I make no claims to knowing that publications viewpoint on this or any issue.   Again I claim no connection to The Dominion Post.   I was just a student writing completing an assignment that was meant to be an editorial piece.

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