Two and two make four
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - July 13, 2019 - 12:00am

LONDON  – There is a fierce and ruthless competition underway around the world to shape public opinion in vastly different ways from how things were when I first walked into the newsroom of ABS-CBN in May 1990 and became a working journalist. This is no time for nostalgia for those days before the internet and Wikileaks, before laptops and smartphones. Here and now, anyone can write anything, and upload it to the world, where it may reveal and obscure a truth, sow fear and empathy, to strengthen and weaken values and vested interests – all in equal and  disproportionate measures.

It matters profoundly not just what happens, how and why, when and where, but who is even saying it happened and why. It’s always been so and journalism’s purpose has been to answer those questions with a deep devotion to accuracy over anything else, and then to provide context so that the significance of events and the accompanying noise from the people who are caught up in them can be understood. These days anyone with a smartphone can commit an act of journalism, even if they’re not a journalist. Remember that the first report of the capture (and subsequent death) of Osama Bin Laden was from a guy looking out of his window one night in Abbotabad, Pakistan wondering why there were helicopters and a flurry of activity nearby? Soon afterwards came many more competing accounts and  theories.

I say “it matters profoundly,” but in the depths of the clamour of competing narratives, the confusion brings with it doubt and the sense that perhaps, in the most fundamental, existential sense, it does not.

Shakespeare caught this doubt and despair well when he wrote for the role of his anti-hero Macbeth. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

I suspect that it is this that causes the increasing distance between those who have power and those who don’t. Here in London there is a deepening despair over Brexit because so many people are convinced that politicians are arguing over each other about apparent principles, and making statements that are immediately torn down as lies by opponents or revealed as lies whether by critics or not; all amplified indiscriminately on digital media. The awful gap between the survival of the establishment and the well-being of the public arguably has never been so apparent. We hear the noise but it doesn’t seem to make any difference, leading to the terrible sense that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean anything, even if the issues at stake could mean the future of life on earth like the climate emergency.

Of course that’s not just the case here. As the information landscape has flattened and infinitely broadened with the internet and social media, so their users everywhere have become subject, to an extent, to whoever uses these tools most effectively. This has been a seismic shift from an “age of deference” to the government, big corporations, or owners and controllers of the biggest television networks or newspapers to an “age of reference” to the much more varied marketplace of opinions now available through Facebook or Snapchat or Instagram or Twitter etc. No longer (if they ever did) will people defer to their boss or the government just because of their status, they know their rights and are empowered to “refer” to people they identify with or trust to reach their own opinion, even if these sources are not of any value. Perhaps more so in countries like the Philippines, where trust in those in power has been eroded over years of authoritarian rule of the unimaginably wealthy in distant capitals and people turn to alternative sources of information.

So what is a jobbing journalist to do? There are those that would argue that journalism is a dying profession: if anyone’s got anything to say there’s no need to go through news media any longer. But I’d side with those who argue that proper journalism, with its unswerving laser focus on accuracy and context, is needed now more than ever. And no, this is not just a self-serving view!

There has always been gossip, propaganda and disinformation, it just spreads faster, unedited for accuracy or value on social media; but that doesn’t make it any truer. In the same way that an act of journalism can be said to be made in an upload or a post, it is also made when people have access to information and assess the credibility or trustworthiness of it for themselves. Crucially, truth is a measure of freedom. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows,” wrote George Orwell in  his dystopian novel “1984.” In other words, truth exists in and of itself, independent of any ideology that would obscure or destroy it.

That is, and always has struck fear in the hearts of tyrants. When my mother wrote the unauthorised biography “The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos,” the former First Lady tried to use her charm and status to persuade my grandfather to prevent his daughter-in-law from publishing. In the end, the late President’s administration banned it and by doing so, only made people want to read it even more. Many people have told me how they would  receive, read and pass on well-thumbed copies to friends and family. The truth will out, that is where authentic journalism can and must come into its own.

When my colleagues at Al Jazeera English were arrested and imprisoned by the military government in Egypt in 2013, the campaign for their freedom caught on quickly with the hashtag #journalismisnotacrime. Now it is used in support of journalists under threat everywhere in defence of freedom. Journalism, properly practised, exists when and where people are free.

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