For six horrendous days Mary Helen Spooner, Maclean's correspondent in Bolivia, was imprisoned in a suffocating closet, threatened with death and subjected to other indignities—all because she had filed detailed factual reports of General Garcia Meza’s brutal military coup to this magazine and London’s Financial Times. Released last week, she became one of 25 journalists expelled or arrested by the renegade Bolivian regime which has yet to gain diplomatic recognition from any major power.
Spooner’s ordeal focuses attention on freedom of the press in Canada—a privilege that even those of us who practise journalism seldom appreciate. A free press should claim no special rights or cloistered virtues; it simply requires the unfettered opportunity of a journalist to obtain reasonable access to facts and opinions—and the right to express them. Democracy and freedom cannot survive where there is no sanction of public indignation and no channel through which it can find adequate outlets.
The problem is that the world we live in has changed so radically, become so intensely complex, that readers of magazines and newspapers, TV viewers and radio listeners need to have events interpreted for them.
They rely on the media to serve as their ombudsmen.
Journalism, to those of us in it, is the noblest of professions. We see ourselves as the last angry men and women stalking the truth wherever it leads and however it might be ascertained. But too many Canadians, especially those who hold positions of public and private authority, still seem bound by the tradition that holds that the average journalist is an irresponsible bounder, a blackguard with his ear at the keyhole. Such an anachronistic view rejects the double doctrine of the public’s right to know and the journalist’s right to tell. Those who complain about “the power of the press” forget that the press has little influence (and even less power) except perhaps to help set the agenda for public discussion.
The accusation most frequently hurled at journalists is that we are so seldom “objective,” that personal biases and interests too frequently color what we report. There is, of course, no such thing as pure objectivity. Each one of us sees what his own experience leads him to perceive. Truth is seldom the sum of all the ascertainable facts.
It was Joseph Pulitzer, the famed American publisher, who proudly proclaimed that “objectivity is to a newspaper what virtue is to a lady.” What he forgot to add was that newspapers can print retractions.
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