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Friday, 8 July 2016

The morality of fictional journalists

Sarah Lonsdale's The Journalist in British Fiction book launch and symposium, City University, London, July 7 2016.
Why did Edwardian novelists portray journalists as swashbuckling, truth-seeking super-heroes whereas post-WW2 depictions present the journalist as alienated outsider? Why are contemporary fictional journalists often deranged, murderous or intensely vulnerable? As newspaper journalism faces the double crisis of a lack of trust post-Leveson, and a lack of influence in the fragmented internet age, how do cultural producers view journalists and their role in society today?
My contribution... 


My screenplay and book have undergone a name change since I first started work on them a few years ago. Originally, the title was The Moral Maze. I knew about the BBC radio programme of the same name, but did not feel that would be a problem until I realised that it would be a disaster when promoting the book on the internet. Do a Google or Yahoo search on The Moral Maze and up comes hundreds of thousands of references to the radio programme. Any reference to my book and my film would have been buried.

My wife, Rosemary, then came up with the suggestion that the letter T in red be inserted in the title, so that it became The Mortal Maze. This meant that a Google or Yahoo search would take potential readers straight to my book, always a great marketing plus, although I am still waiting to be made rich by being the author of a rocketing global best seller.

The change of name effectively gives the book two titles – both of which reflect how television journalists now face not just the moral challenges that have always been there, but nowadays much greater physical dangers.

Having settled the most-important matter of the title, I was then faced with a dilemma: should I set the story in the BBC or in some fictional broadcasting organisation. My concern was that I didn’t want to do anything to damage the BBC’s hard-earned reputation as the world’s foremost and most trusted broadcasting news organisation. As you will have detected from my accent, I’m originally from Australia. I grew up as a boy in the bush, working on small weekly newspapers owned by my family.  I loved listening to BBC news programmes, such as Radio Newsreel, relayed by the ABC, never for a nanosecond thinking that one day I would be editing some of them.

Although the BBC had – and still has – its faults, I remain immensely proud of having worked for it for more than two decades. There can hardly have been a day when I didn’t walk through the entrance doors of Bush House or Television Centre and be excited by what might lie ahead that day.

 After much thought and after consulting some journalist friends, I decided to go with The Mortal Maze being set in the BBC. As much as anything, this was because it would be widely known that I had been a BBC news editor and the story would really be about the BBC regardless of what I called the organisation. My friends assured me that the BBC was big enough to cope with any critical aspects of my story. They also reminded me that it would hardly be more damaging than the comedy series W1A, which the BBC had made about itself.

I knew that it would be implausible and extremely dull if the main character in The Mortal Maze, Jackson Dunbar, was a goody-two-shoes without flaws. So, I gave him a gambling problem that provided me with a vehicle for some of the ethical issues that journalists often face. In particular, I wanted to explore the often-grey question of when a journalist is spying or merely reporting. And how much pressure would be required to force a journalist to put to one side deeply-held principles?

I began taking a particular interest in this area of journalism while working abroad as a field editor for the BBC, then as head of newsgathering for BBC World Service in charge of around 200 staff correspondents and stringers.

BBC correspondents overwhelmingly are immensely proud of their journalism and would do nothing to discredit their work, but there were a few who I felt had two masters – the BBC and the intelligence services. One of these would spy for the money – because money was what mattered to him most – and another would do it for patriotic reasons. If I had taken that second person aside and accused him of spying he would have been genuinely aghast. For him, he was not spying. He was simply passing on information out of a civic duty.

And in fairness to the reporters in these two examples, the accuracy of their stories was never in question. There was, however, one BBC stringer who I and others were convinced was a spy for South African intelligence. He was not very clever with it and cast serious suspicion on himself by being able to get to places no-one else could with no visible means of support. I fired him -- not because I was able to prove he was a spy, but because he rarely delivered his promised stories. 

As most of you will know, one of the Cambridge Five Espionage Ring, Guy Burgess, spied for the Soviet Union while working for the BBC. And the author Frederick Forsythe, another former BBC correspondent, confirmed last year that he worked for British intelligence for 20 years.

Few would defend the traitorous spying activities of Guy Burgess, but was it okay for Frederick Forsythe to spy, as he was doing it for our benefit, or so he believed anyway? I don’t think so. In my view, journalism and espionage are totally incompatible. Journalists should always aim to be detached observers. Putting aside any moral questions, once journalists cross the line into spying, they put themselves and others in their profession at great physical risk. Already journalists find themselves increasingly targeted in the world’s hot spots and we should do nothing to make that bad situation worse.

As I checked a draft of this speech I realised there was a danger that The Mortal Maze might be seen as a rather pompous, self-righteous moral lecture – hectoring even. There are, of course, several ethical messages in the story, but I also wanted it to be exciting with lots of unexpected developments, amusing revelations about how television journalism achieves its aims – and, above all, a memorable surprise ending. I hope I have succeeded, but that’s for others to decide.

Here’s an extract from The Mortal Maze. It follows on from when the television reporter, Jackson Dunbar was given a tip-off by his one-time friend Thomas Fulham who blackmailed him into become a spy. The tip-off provided Jackson with a spectacular scoop when he witnessed a government minister’s convoy being blown up in the middle of a busy shopping centre. But Jackson is so appalled by what he witnessed that he told his cameraman Pete Fox to get lots of close-ups in an attempt to let the world know the full horror of what has taken place...

That evening, as arranged, Thomas Fulham turns up at the BBC bureau. He is in a hurry and has no time for pleasantries. “So what do you want to show me?”
Jackson goes to the video machine. “I take it that you saw my reports on the assassination?” he asks.
"Not an assassination, Jacko, a neutralisation, if you don’t mind. But, yes, of course I saw your reports and I was impressed, as always.”
“Right, Thomas, I now want you to see some of the scenes that my bosses felt were too dreadful to show.”
Jackson pushes the ‘play’ button and immediately the monitor shows a series of graphic close-ups of wounds and body parts. He winds up the volume, filling the room with piercing blood-curdling screams. Thomas flinches.
Jackson spools through to another section of the video. It shows wounded and terrified children howling at the top of their voices. Thomas angrily hits the ‘stop’ button, unwittingly causing the video to freeze on a close-up of the little boy trying to shake his dead mother alive.
Thomas is furious. “What the fuck is this all about?” he shouts.
“I thought it was just possible that you might feel some shame. I wanted to show you the full, brutal, unadorned result of the actions of you and your ilk. What would you say if those kids had been your children, Sophie and Sam?”
Thomas’s fury now has no limits. “We’re at war. The death of a few innocent women and children is the price that sometimes has to be paid for the higher good of democracy.”
It is now Jackson’s turn to lose control. “I’m out of this, Thomas. No more of your dirty games.”
“Sorry, Jacko, that’s not an option for you – at least not yet.”
Thomas leaves, slamming the door behind him. Jackson switches off the video editor and slumps into a chair behind his desk. He takes several large breaths to try to calm himself. After a few minutes, he hunts through the cupboards until he finds a half-empty bottle of whisky. He flops into a chair and drinks straight from the bottle.
Buy The Mortal Maze here. And The Journalist in British Fiction & Film, written by Sarah Lonsdale, is available here.