News World 2002 - Day One:
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RTE’S COLLINS WARNS OF ‘NEWS TRIVIA’ RISK
Television journalism risks being “trivialised” in the rush to bring viewers the latest news, rather than explain its significance. That was the warning given to News World delegates in Dublin by Bob Collins, director general of Ireland’s state broadcaster, RTE.
“What is needed more than ever is understanding on the part of our audiences,” said Collins. “We’re at risk of seeing news as populism; news as entertainment.”
In his opening address at the News World conference, Collins went on: “We live in a time when as never before objectivity is needed in our journalistic output. At a time when the powers are engaging in a war, and when a battle for understanding has been engaged.”
Later news chiefs debated the challenges of reporting from conflict zones under restrictions imposed by governments. Freelance journalist John Sweeney said agreeing to report under restrictions amounted to a “bargain with the devil”. “You are not reporting properly. You are not showing what the ordinary people think.”
Sweeney said news organisations needed “to really assess how honest and truthful anybody reporting live” from a war zone could be, and whether it was worth doing live two-ways from locations such as Baghdad.
Chris Cramer, president of CNN International Networks, said no one was suggesting that reporting live under restrictions was “perfect, but it’s better to be there rather than not be there.” Cramer said the live two-way was just part of a “complex tapestry” of information presented to viewers.
Mark Damazer, deputy director of BBC News, said there was a danger that news organisations might “assume that the audience knows that reporters are working under restrictions”. The industry should not be worried about the risk of repetition when warning viewers that what reporters said was subject to restrictions, said Damazer.
Delegates went on to tackle the thorny ethical issue of whether journalists should give evidence in trials of suspected war criminals, an issue, said Andrew Neil, the publisher and broadcaster, that “goes to the heart of what it is to be a journalist at the beginning of the 21st Century”. BBC correspondent Jacky Rowland said she had weighed the risks that giving evidence against former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic might endanger future journalists.
Martin Bell, the former British MP and former BBC war reporter, who has also testified at the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague, said his decision had been “easy” since “we’re citizens first and journalists second”. Bell said the issue did not need to cause a problem for news managements. “You can leave it to the conscience of the individual,” he said.
Others, including Vladimir Pozner, the television presenter and journalism professor, said there was a danger that journalism was being jeopardised. In a show of hands, most delegates said they would have followed the actions of Rowland, and given evidence.