Lets back the hacks: the 20th Amnesty International UK media awards

Back in my student days I used to read quite a bit of hack journalism. Yes, that’s right, I was poring over 17th-century newspapers with titles like “The Monethly intelligencer” (correct spelling), “Mercurius Melancholicus” and “Mercurius Pragmaticus”.

Because, as any decent scholar of the period will tell you, this was when the newspaper emerged. The proto-newspapers of the 1640s were cheaply-make, badly-printed affairs with crude woodcut illustrations. And a little like their 21st-century descendants, they were packed with political invective (hence the idea of being a mercenary “hack”, churning it out for a political party or faction).

Actually I don’t think you hear the derogatory “hack” used much these days (occasionally you hear the comment “us hacks”: funnily enough it’s journalists putting themselves down). And I think it’s fair enough not to knock them, because journalists generally do a good job, working long hours under a lot of pressure, getting some very important stories out.

In some cases their stories makes a real difference – helping to expose human rights abuse, forcing reluctant authorities to launch investigations into wrongdoing, amplifying the work of human rights defenders, and so on. It doesn’t mean that journalists are all working for Amnesty International. It just means that a powerful radio series from (say) the BBC’s Mike Thomson for the Today programme, or a sensational spread in the Mail on Sunday’s Live supplement can have real effect. 

The cumulative impact of media coverage undoubtedly makes politicians and others in powerful positions nervous, prodding them (however reluctantly) into action. The best journalism (in print, in photographs, on the airwaves, online, even in docu-drama) tells it like it is. Srebrenica, the Hutsi genocidaires, Guantánamo, British gun-runners, Darfur, repression in Iran or Burma: time and time again it’s been journalists getting the stories out.

Reporters often do this stuff at considerable personal risk. Every few weeks a reporter somewhere in the world gets killed. Almost every day one is attacked, intimidated or jailed just for doing their job. For example, one case on Amnesty’s books right now is that of Ebrima B Manneh, a reporter from Gambia’s The Daily Observer, taken away by plain-clothed police officers in July 2006 and not seen since.

Recently in Egypt journalists were very much on the receiving end of coordinated attacks by Mubarak-supporting hardliners. At one stage the Committee to Project Journalists reported 141 attacks on journalists in the first 10 days of February alone. Around the same time the British photojournalist Giles Duley was horribly injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. This is not hack work. It’s a tough profession that at times borders on the downright heroic.

Tough work deserves recognition. There’s still a week left for entries to Amnesty’s annual media awards. These celebrate the breadth of reporting across different media and acknowledge the risks journalists take while reporting the stories that might otherwise remain untold. If you’re a journo reading this do consider entering (info here). Categories include young reporters and digital media journalists (on the latter check out SteveB’s recent post). If you know a really good item that ought in your opinion to be entered, leave a comment on this post and we’ll chase it up.

A final word to Libya’s Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. Speaking late last night he said: “Do not believe these channels, they are dogs”. By channels he means media outlets. I think he’s making my point for me.

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