I’m suggesting an award for Speaking Truth to Power.
It’s one thing to cheek a senior politician buried in a blog particularly if you have little or no profile yourself, quite another to do so day after day in print, or across a studio floor.
Occasionally in the bad old days – not often – a politician’s friends might go in for a little freelance intimidation, nothing drastic you understand, just a hint of menace. But to be fair, in the normal run politicians are usually fatalistic about criticism, hoping for better treatment next time.
Even so, challenging a politician still carries the risk of drying up an important source and being forced to work twice as hard to get the story, or lose out on an important category altogether. The politician can always talk to someone else. S/he may be under pressure from the party to say nothing without central approval. The risk is considerable but not so much to special investigating journalists who can go off and turn over a completely different area. It reallyapplies to regular journalists, either solo operators or those who hold a brief like political correspondents. They have to keep the flow of stories running and weigh the risks of seriously annoying an important source, like an entire political party.
Fingers crossed, you hope their own compulsion to communicate eventually overcomes their temporary wrath, but in the eye of the storm you can never be sure. Faced with staffing cutbacks, the stakes are raised higher all the time.
To consumers the media may seem powerful but if you are working down on the floor it doesn’t feel like that. It ‘s sometimes about ploughing a lonely furrow as you pursue a controversial story singlemindedly away from the pack.
That’s why speaking truth to power can be so difficult, demanding accuracy, stamina, nerve and judgement – and a ready willingness to make a concession if a detail is wrong.. Behind the journalist must be firm and steady backing from the editor, confident in the journalist’s judgement. No rats allowed.
While I don’t wish to pre-empt any competition, candidates in the last round are not difficult to find. Suzanne Breen for the Adams brothers; David Gordon for double jobbing and probing Assembly expenses; the BBC Spotlight team for Irisgate; Slugger and UTV for NI Watergate
These are all shock stories, sometimes with scandal on or near the surface. But I’d also like to encourage more stories about decision taking in government which has gone wrong or isn’t happening at all. For instance, trace and explain the mistakes that prolong the secondary school deadlock and find the options for a solution. What does a shared future actually entail beyond the slogan? What are the chances of a voluntary coalition or agreement on dealing with the past?
Speaking truth to power is also about evidence-based analysis. We badly need more of it.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London