Is serious journalism still possible?
Almost exactly the same time as Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was grilling daily Milliyet – though not giving its name – for publishing parts of the minutes of a closed meeting that were a matter of the whole nation’s curiosity, a group of journalists and media experts were about to conclude a three-day conference with exactly the same title as this article.
Milliyet’s story by Namık Durukan, an experienced reporter on the Kurdish issue, was about the talks between Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and three members of Parliament of the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) under the Erdoğan government’s permission in the island prison of İmralı, where Öcalan is being held. The contact was part of Erdoğan’s initiative to find a political way to end Turkey’s painful Kurdish problem. The deputies were on their way to carry Öcalan’s messages to PKK chiefs in Europe and in Iraq, where the PKK has been carrying out cross-border attacks against Turkish official and civilian targets for the last three decades, costing some 40,000 lives.
So, everybody was wondering what could be in those messages. And when some of them said that Öcalan has been sending mixed messages, without leaving the possibility of an even more fierce armed campaign, the opposition parties started to ask Erdoğan to reveal the content of the talks, since everything has been happening under the auspices of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Erdoğan got very angry and said that to print that kind of material at such a critical time was equal to trying to undermine peace efforts in the country.
It is true that Erdoğan’s efforts have lead the way to hopes in Turkish society about the possibility of a peaceful solution to the problem, but to slam the media because of a report on the process was something else.
Prominent Turkish columnist Yalçın Doğan of daily Hürriyet recalled the Washington Post’s failing to print the Bay of Pigs story a day before the operation due to national interest concerns and said that perhaps if the WP could have published the story, one of biggest fiascoes in U.S. history could have been averted.
Almost exactly the same time in the “Is serious journalism still possible?” conference in Oxfordshire, Britain by the Ditchley Foundation, some 40 journalists, academics and media managers from different parts of the world were concluding that freedom of the press and freedom of expression is a must for the present and future of serious journalism. Including some present masters of journalism, the participants mostly agree that the definition of serious journalism is not limited to politics or economy stories of never-smiling gray faces. On the contrary, one participant said that sports reporting could be the litmus test for a paper, TV station or web page. If it is objectively done, as sports is a field most vulnerable to impartial reporting and pressures from interest groups, one can be more confident about the rest of the paper, etc.
The conference tried to find answers to mainly 21 questions under three topics, hoping to understand whether journalism as we know it is under the threat of the digital age, is in an uncomfortable transition or in an irreversible decline. How can the content of serious journalism be defined in the digital age, what kind of business models could be possible to sustain serious journalism and what should be the role of governments and regulators in the nature of information gathering and reporting changes?
There were some other provocative questions of discussion in the Ditchley conference. Do people really want serious journalism and is there enough number of people ready to pay for it? Is “dumbing down” becoming a reality? Is investigative journalism under threat? What do we need to sustain it financially, as investigative journalism gets more expensive? How can people be persuaded to pay for the content in the future? Can good journalism and profit go together? Where is the line between censorship and protection of the public and individual privacy to be drawn? And how can journalists generate and maintain greater trust from the public in what they are writing and saying?
It boils down to production of quality content and a free environment to sustain it. Newspapers, at least some of them that cannot adapt to digital transition, might cease to exist during this transition but journalism will survive, and for the best interests of the public and democracies, journalists’ need for freedom of expression, too.
By the way, today is the fifth anniversary of journalist and writer Mustafa Balbay’s arrest on suspicions that he was among leaders of a terrorist organization planning to overthrow the government. In the meantime, he was elected a Member of Parliament to the main opposition CHP. He was not accused of any terrorist actions in the indictment, no new evidence has been given in court against him in the past four years and he is still under arrest, without being sentenced yet.
Yes, serious journalism is still possible.