Alan Fisher - Journalist

Personal website of Al Jazeera English journalist, Alan Fisher

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The Hack who has never Hacked

Posted on July 21, 2011 at 1:56 AM

Journalists are largely unloved by the public. Survey after survey puts my chosen profession towards the bottom of the likeability scale, only estate agents are held in more distaste, and even that might be a close run thing now.

In TV and the movies, the journalist is rarely the hero, and when he is (and it’s more often a he) he is flawed and broken, ruined by the job and the demands it makes.

The last few weeks have not been good for journalists. And in the fevered revulsion of the underhand, illegal and immoral tactics used by some British newspaper journalists to get their stories it is easy to lose perspective.

In a democracy, journalism should play an important role. It should help inform the public so they can make considered decisions about those who seek to lead. It should hold to account those in power. It may be surprising to quote Rupert Murdoch but as he told the British parliament’s committee meeting he was summoned to attend on Tuesday “The country benefits from a competitive press and a transparent society. That is greatly inconvenient for some people, but it makes this country stronger’.

There are thousands of journalists in Britain and millions worldwide who work hard to do their job, who do what journalists are meant to do. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 11 of my colleagues have died this year –killed for doing their jobs. Journalists like Saleem Shahzad. It’s alleged he was tortured and killed because of a series of articles about how Al Qaeda had infiltrated the country’s navy. Or my Al Jazeera colleague Ali Hassan al-Jaber, caught in an ambush by pro-Gadaffi forces while working in Libya.

I have been a journalist for almost 30 years. I have never hacked a phone. I have never pretended to be someone I’m not to get a story (although I once claimed to be Irish rather than British to avoid a beating by an angry crowd in Macedonia). Most of the people I work with would probably say the same. Our ethics are not in question. Instead we are being held to account for the illegal behaviour of those who didn’t know where to draw the line; that had no sense of shame in the pursuit of the next scoop to please their editor. It should not be forgotten that the stories they produced were enthusiastically read by millions of people each week. And it’s hard for anyone to believe that the News of the World is the only newspaper where this took place in Britain. Journalists talk and gossip and once someone explains how a scoop was landed, others will try it.

At times like this, journalists always trot out the professions successes: Watergate; the Sunday Times investigation into the devastating side effects of the drug thalidomide; the coverage of the famine in Ethiopia.

But many were also secured by subterfuge and a bending of the rules. Nelly Bly feigned insanity to write a damning expose of the treatment of those in mental hospitals in the US at the end of the 19th century, a stunning piece of work. Defence Minister Jonathon Aitken’s links to a Saudi businessman was uncovered by the Guardian newspaper in the UK sending a fax on House of Commons headed paper and claiming to be from the soon-to-be-disgraced MP. The scandal of MPs expenses, which arguably changed the face of British politics, came from a stolen data disc and a cheque from the newspaper The Daily Telegraph. And it should be pointed out that the worst excesses of phone hacking were not revealed in court or in parliament but were uncovered by journalists reporting on journalists.

Context, as always, is everything. And so those who break the law, who cheat, who lie who deceive the public should fear a free and robust media.

In the way not every politician is corrupt, not every policeman is accepting bribes for information, then not every journalist is working on the edge of legality and morality. Each day I and many like me, work to try to make people a little bit smarter about the world, a little bit better informed about what is happening and why it’s happening. It’s not Watergate, but it’s important.

The climate in the UK at the moment means there are many lining up, ready to put the press, the media in its place, ready to introduce tougher regulations. With the current climate of ‘superinjunctions’ where a legal gagging order prevents the media from reporting the details of a story, but also blocks mention of the existence of the injunction itself, and ferocious libel laws this would muzzle a free press. That would be a disaster for democracy – and the only people to be happy would be the powerful and the corrupt.

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8 Comments

Reply Pete Simpson
2:23 AM on July 23, 2011 
I'm grateful for journalists like yourself, Alan, who maintain the integrity of what I, at least, have always considered to be an honourable profession. As you've said yourself, it's turning out to be a big news year and your endless enthusiasm for reporting it, across different media, is inspiring.
Reply Alan Fisher
3:06 AM on July 24, 2011 
Pete Simpson says...
I'm grateful for journalists like yourself, Alan, who maintain the integrity of what I, at least, have always considered to be an honourable profession. As you've said yourself, it's turning out to be a big news year and your endless enthusiasm for reporting it, across different media, is inspiring.


Thanks Pete - messages like this are truly inspiring and glad you'd found the coverage interesting and informative. I honestly believe journalism is an honourable profession - that it is important and significant . However there are always a few (maybe more than a few) who besmirch the work and the efforts of others.
Reply Caroline Harte
4:30 AM on July 24, 2011 
Alan, I think journalists like yourself are absolutely wonderful. It's such a shame that people latch on to the few who are unethical and tar all of you with the same brush. I find it amazing how so many of you willingly put yourselves in danger to bring us up to date on what's happening around the world. What courage and dedication!! People everywhere should be thanking their lucky stars that there are journalists (and photojournalists) like you out there. Thank you for ALL that you and your colleagues do. We just don't say that enough, do we.
Reply SRW
10:14 AM on July 24, 2011 
To be honest, I wasn't surprised when the story broke and revealed just how far the "rot" had spread. What I am surprised at though is the indignation displayed by so many of the other media outlets at the actions of a few at NoW. The old phrase "people in glass houses......." comes to mind.

It's also a sad thing when we see the mainstream media reduced to little more than flashy gossip, scandals & soundbites. People in general seem to have stopped caring about news, issues and the things (in my opinion) that actually matter. They're more interested in the gossip, the dirt and the scandal and sadly, in that hyper-competitive world, it seems the scoop matters more than integrity.

This is one of the reasons why I follow you and AJE. I want news on my TV or computer screen, not fluff, and very few places seem to either know how or even try to deliver that anymore. What you do as a profession is hard, it should be because it's important for many of the reasons you describe. And I as the viewer will reward that hard work with my loyalty. As for those that are too lazy to do the hard work, ethically and honestly, well they deserve their fate.
Reply Russell La Claire
10:45 AM on July 24, 2011 
Alan, thanks for all you, and all the other honorable journalists do every day throughout the world. My fear, like yours, is the retaliation or tightening of laws on the press. There are those in every profession who will find ways to skirt the law. Certainly they should be dealt with in an appropriate manner, but making it more difficult to do their jobs is not the answer.
We await the upcoming news. Best of luck.
Reply selma hassan
3:43 AM on July 26, 2011 
as you just mentioned alan they are many journalists who are lying .hacking&doing anything to get story or scoop but they so many journalists like yourself who are telling the truth all the time risking their lives to get to bottom of the stories so i think it is normal thing &it happens all the time in any other professions
there is always good &bad people
by they way i likeed the confession that you told they angry crowds that you are irish....smile
Reply Alan Fisher
11:23 AM on August 2, 2011 
Caroline Harte says...
Alan, I think journalists like yourself are absolutely wonderful. It's such a shame that people latch on to the few who are unethical and tar all of you with the same brush. I find it amazing how so many of you willingly put yourselves in danger to bring us up to date on what's happening around the world. What courage and dedication!! People everywhere should be thanking their lucky stars that there are journalists (and photojournalists) like you out there. Thank you for ALL that you and your colleagues do. We just don't say that enough, do we.


Hi Caroline

Thank you so much. I'm glad you and many others think so much of what we do. We are not all the gutter press. I'm sure I speak for many when I say what we do is a calling - a wise woman once said it's a way of life rather than a job- and my intention is simply to help people understand the world around them - why some things happen and what it all means. And the reason we do it is for people like you.
Thanks again,
Alan
Reply Alan Fisher
11:25 AM on August 2, 2011 
So many kind words- thank you so much. I'm glad so many of you enjoy what we do at AJE and hold us in such high regard.

I believe it is an honour to have the trust of people and so our reporting must always be shot based on honesty and integrity.

I hope we never let you down

Alan