Andrew Gilligan’s passionate stand for true reporting

Andrew Gilligan: Keynote speaker for the second Bristol NUJ Benn Lecture (Photo by Simon Chapman)

Andrew Gilligan: Keynote speaker for the second Bristol NUJ Benn Lecture (Photo by Simon Chapman)

On Monday 26 November the celebrated investigative journalist Andrew Gilligan gave the second annual Bristol NUJ/Arnolfini Benn lecture on the media and politics in Bristol.

In 2003 it was Gilligan who made the famous statement on BBC radio’s Today programme that he had been told by a source that the Government “probably knew that the 45-minute figure [on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction capability] was wrong even before it decided to put it in”.

This was the report which led to Dr David Kelly taking his own life, which led in turn to the Hutton Report in 2004. The report found against the BBC and Andrew. The NUJ, however, supports what Gilligan did, believes that the BBC acted in the public interest, and maintain that it’s vital for the right of journalists to protect the anonymity of confidential sources to be protected in law.

Gilligan, working these days at the Evening Standard and Channel 4’s Dispatches, spoke about the ongoing attack on journalism since Wapping in the mid-Eighties and the demise of the printers’ unions, the fact that it has since become possible to make real money out of the media and what media-as-marketable-commodity has meant for quality journalism.

He made a passionate argument for the need to stand up for true reporting and impartial analysis – for the dignity of journalism as the fourth estate of the realm.

Speaking about the institutions in Britain (“the most centralised and secretive large democracy in the world”) which have both failed, and have failed to acknowledge their failings, Gilligan pointed out that the forces of hostility to journalism are on the increase, with clampdowns on unofficial sources; new difficulties in publishing memoirs; and leaks – and those who report on them – being punished even with jail to no murmurs of protest from the media.

So it’s hard times, but important ones. Andrew pointed out that we still ARE a democracy; that it IS possible to roll back state power; and that journalists have the potential to produce an alternative narrative which will hold government to account, inform the public, and defend democratic freedoms. Although the economics are going to become more difficult, he said that in a world full of cacophony the power of focused information is still considerable – and that as journalists, we should aim to supply it.

A really lively debate followed the talk and it was clear that the audience had both concerns and possible solutions to offer. It was great to be able to engage with Andrew and ask questions, and bring some local issues under the spotlight too. From weapons of mass destruction to the difficulties of withdrawing labour, we were still at it hammer and tongs in the bar at 10.30….

So yes, a great evening, attended by many NUJ members as well as the public, and it achieved what we as a Branch set out to do – that is, bring the debate on the key issues facing journalism today to a wider and live public, and provide a forum for discussion. Clearly there’s an appetite for it!

And finally, a plug: DVDs of last year’s lecture, featuring Tony Benn and produced by the Branch, are now on sale in the Arnolfini bookshop (£7), and a DVD of this year’s lecture will follow in due course.

For photos from the event, click here…

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