Freedom and the Press

By Clarkson, Adrienne | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Freedom and the Press


Clarkson, Adrienne, Queen's Quarterly


SINCE the time I presented the Michener Awards for Journalism at Rideau Hall, in April 2001, we have lived through September 11th and the aftermath. It is very easy for people to say now that the whole world has changed and that things are "different." Somehow I don't feel that they are.

The world to me seems to be in as much danger as it has always been, and its civilization equally is in as much danger as it will always be. Working yourself or other people into a frenzy, believing that what we're living through is something completely new and different, is a futile exercise. What we have to do is examine the grounds on which we live, the values which we have, and to be realistic about the violence that surrounds us and is always imminent.

I remember the many months in the late '70s when I worked with Brian McKenna and Susan Farkas on two full-length stories on the Kennedy assassination. One of the things we talked about, and which I've always remembered, is that anyone can assassinate anyone if they are willing to give up their own life. The American assassinations, and those of Indira Gandhi and Anwar Sadat, taught us that.

Killing other people is a very high-risk activity and one which not all that many people are suited for by nature. People can be trained to defend themselves individually or to defend themselves as a group and to protect others. But those who are willing to give their lives up instantly for a purpose are never a huge part of even the killing population.

Sometimes when I read about what is going through people's minds since September 11th, I wonder if they actually do not remember any history or did not know it. It is almost as though the word "anarchist" had never existed or represented a violent movement, or as though the nineteenth century - with its clashes between the dramatic rampages of capitalism and the growth of Marxism and revolutionary struggle - had never existed or influenced later events. It is at that point that I am in despair about the education of journalists. It was a week after September 11th that I first saw the name Bakunin in the daily press, and any mention of the political movement of anarchism.

We cannot talk about freedom of expression unless the journalists have something truly to express. This lies in the education of journalists. Journalists need to know more than how to construct paragraphs and conduct adequate interviews, eliciting more or less accurate information. A background of history certainly wouldn't hurt most journalists, even some of the elderly ones writing today.

There is a line of thought that runs through human history, and there is also a continuing presence - that of the human being. It is distressing, to say the least, to see that reporting on the moment means that background history, and knowledge of motivations, simply don't seem to exist.

When we talk about freedom for journalism, we are often and quite rightly so taken up with the cause of people who, against all odds, fight against repression in order to report on what is evil, corrupt and inhuman in their own countries. They defy restrictions and risk torture, jail and death. The recipients of the International Press Freedom Awards are shining examples of that. They show us how human beings can exercise themselves professionally at the very highest level of human reactions. But, at the same time, I worry that we don't make the appropriate distinctions in our own minds about what journalists actually do and what motivates them.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: "If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

For those of us who live in a free society, constrained only by libel laws and the desire to keep a paycheque coming in regularly, such analysis does not take on a burdensome meaning.

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