“We’re supposed to be the Awkward Squad”: Interview with Peter Greste

Latvian Radio correspondent Uģis Lībietis spoke at length with Peter Greste about how his experiences in the field and in jail have changed him as a journalist and whether or not news reporting can be objective. The Australian-Latvian, still on trial with his Al Jazeera colleagues for falsifying news in Egypt, also shared their plan for a Universal Media Freedom Charter to better protect journalists in conflict zones around the world.

Greste said his imprisonment had made him more cautious about where he works, but even more sobering was the death of his colleague Kate Payton, murdered in Somalia while they were working together. But he insisted “we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be intimidated away from reporting.”

As for the debate over satire and free speech, Greste said “we need to be grown up enough to have these open debates without fear of being physically attacked.” He added, “throwing words around, having arguments, debates – that’s the sign of a healthy society. If we shut that down then I think we damage ourselves as well.”

Asked his position on objectivity in journalism, Greste warned that such a concept is a myth.

“I don’t care how good a reporter you are. You’re never objective. There is no such thing as objective truth. If there are two people standing side by side at the same event they’ll have very different memories of what happened. Neither will be wrong, neither will be entirely right either.

Every time we ask a question it has a subjective point to it. You have to make choices about the questions you do ask and those you don’t, the information you leave in, and what you leave out. All of these are subjective choices.

What we need to do is try to forget about being objective and focus on the core principles of our profession – balance, accuracy and fairness. We need to keep our political views out of it, but at the same time understand that they are there.

If you can report in a way that is balanced, and show both sides to a particular conflict, or story, if you’re fair to both sides. Each side must recognize their own views as fairly represented. And if you’re accurate with your basic facts, then I think you’re doing your job as a journalist.”

But he did admit that local reporters in conflict zones had it much tougher than foreign journalists: “when your home country is caught up in a conflict, it’s particularly difficult.”

While in Cairo’s Tora Prison Greste and colleague Baher Mohamed discussed the possible need for a Universal Media Freedom Charter, which could serve as an additional document to protect journalists in prison, outlining the responsibilities of governments to protect journalists, but also the responsibility of news organizations to report fairly.

“Only one in seven people around the planet live in areas that have a genuinely free press,” Greste said, underscoring the need for something to be done beyond existing treaties and habits.

Finally, Greste offered his uncompromising view that the supervising of public media organizations shouldn’t be relinquished to political or religious organizations. He called for the media to keep thinking of themselves as “the Awkward Squad” and challenge all groups in society.

“Doesn’t sound great to me. What always tends to happen is that those groups have their own particular interests to protect and they tend to impose a form of censorship on journalists and reporting.

It doesn’t mean their opinion shouldn’t be considered, but if we give them power of direct control over what is broadcast, then I think we’re moving toward the rather dangerous end of censorship.

Journalism is not supposed to be friendly. We’re not supposed to be supporters of any one group. We’re supposed to be the Awkward Squad, who ask the difficult questions that challenge the politicians, challenge the religious groups.

We shouldn’t apologize for the fact that we get in the way of things. We should be able to have those kind of arguments without the fear of society falling apart.

If we give them direct editorial control then I think we slip down the slope of muzzling the press to the point where we can’t really have those kinds of debates.

That’s what we’re supposed to do, where every force is brought together, where every group is criticized and challenged and attacked. And society works itself out that way,” he concluded.

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