Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Journalism for what?

It’s a question I was asked early on in my career. Journalism for what? Just to report? Or to change things?

For me, it’s always been to change things. I didn’t just want to report on what’s happening. I wanted to challenge what’s happening.

I was lucky that one of my first jobs in journalism was to work for a campaigning magazine called New Internationalist. It championed the cause of developing countries, impoverished by centuries of subjugation and exploitation by rich countries.

And I discovered early on that campaigning journalism can change things.


When we took on the cause of apartheid in South Africa – a despicable regime and set of values – I bought one share in Barclays bank so I could attend their annual general meeting. I hid a tape recorder in my bag and secretly recorded the proceedings.

Barclays was being boycotted by anti-apartheid campaigners because of the bank’s heavy involvement in the South African regime.

My secret recording captured angry shareholders shouting (yes, they were furious) that the profits of the bank were more important than the issue of segregation of black people in an African country.

The report of my recording was published worldwide. Yes, it was just a small chink in the fierce armour that protected the wickedness of an inhumane system of government.

But eventually, the apartheid regime in South Africa collapsed. And for sure, campaigning journalism and protests helped that to happen.


When I wrote for the Daily Mirror and uncovered how women in the UK were being sterilised against their will, NHS policy changed.

No longer could (male) doctors ask women (of a certain social class) if they would give consent to having “their tubes tied” whilst they were in the middle of a Caesarean operation.

No woman could give ‘informed consent’ under those circumstances. The policy had to change.

When I uncovered that across London, NHS hospitals had vastly differing policies on which pregnant women could have testing to see if they were carrying a baby with Downs Syndrome or spina bifida, it exposed shocking inequalities.

The subsequent programme was broadcast on London Weekend Television. Of course, it helped to change policies that were wrong.


When I worked on a BBC investigative programme with consumer champion, Roger Cook, we tracked down and exposed tricksters and con merchants who had fleeced innocent people. We laid bare their dirty tricks, and yes, it did help to effect change.

Since 2012 I have been writing about Brexit – ever since the word was invented (by a Remainer, believe it or not).

My journalism helped to expose the lies of the Brexit campaigns.

What drives me? I am not 100% sure. It’s certainly not money. I haven’t been paid anything these past few years for my journalism, even though I have been doing more journalism than ever before.

(I should add, I would have preferred to be paid! After all, I can’t eat my words – although I am aware that many people would like me to.)

I’ve kept going because it’s difficult to see something that’s wrong and say nothing.


So, when it’s become clear to me that our government, under Boris Johnson, was making a complete mess of protecting the country from the nasty coronavirus, I felt a need to write about it.

Keeping quiet is simply not an option. Silence is seen as acceptance. And I don’t accept.

But of course, speaking up gets me into trouble. People get angry with me. They would prefer that I stop. And they write to tell me that.

Lately – well, not just lately – I’ve had a lot of private messages telling me to stop, or tone down, or chill out.

I’m going to share two recent ones with you and my replies.


One, let’s call him Peter, I know outside of social media, and he’s never really supported my work. He wrote to me on seeing one my latest criticisms of the government’s handling of the pandemic and the plan to impose emergency measures for two years:
‘Lighten up dude or no one will read what you write. You seem to be on a mission to discredit everything Johnson says or does. It does not become you.
‘The nation is in crisis. He is a human being doing the very best he can in extremely difficult circumstances. I have been super impressed by the way it is being handled. God forbid Corben [sic] could have been in charge!!!!
‘Do you honestly think the two years of Emergency power will be used if not essential? I don’t.
‘There is a time and a place for journalists to be investigative and critical; now is not one of them.’ 


I wrote back:
‘In a democracy, we have to be free to challenge our political masters (I would have done the same to Corbyn - and have many times). Please don't tell me to stop doing what I do. You can support my right to express myself.
‘I have posted rational articles challenging why the government is not following WHO guidelines that are saving lives in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan. 
My evidence is sourced and backed by doctors, who are in despair because the government refuses to give them protective clothing and has refused to test them for Covid-19.
‘As a medical journalist first and foremost, my posts provide vital information on tackling this terrible pandemic.
‘You want to suppress my voice, and that is not acceptable in a democracy.
You are entitled to disagree with me, but to tell me to stop is out of the question.’


Another, let’s call him Andrew, is a supporter of my work. Nonetheless, he emailed me this week to say (in summary):
‘Jon – I loved your coverage of Brexit – honest, truthful and seeking a positive outcome. We didn’t get it, despite your accurate, balanced and well-presented facts.
‘But I think this crisis now means leaders like you need to help us – yes, we need facts, but we also need hope.
‘Some of your posts are almost implying some kind of conspiracy. While that kind of thinking may well be common throughout politics and government in normal times, this is different.
‘Covid-19 is a global pandemic; no-one really knows what is happening and to give the government its due, I think they are doing OK.
‘I think we need to look at the positives at the moment. I don’t think this is the time to criticise anyone – let’s assume everyone is doing their best and celebrate that.’


I replied:
‘Thank you for reaching out. I am doing my best, and I agree it is difficult to strike the right tone.
‘I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, my concern is more that the government is incompetent, and we now have only a very small window – if it exists at all – to put pressure on the government to change its approach, for something that is the most positive of all: to save thousands of lives.
‘The government’s policy – yes, it has been a policy – not to test all those with symptoms in the community, and all frontline NHS health workers, is appalling and will cost many lives.
As a journalist, I feel it is important to report on that and the strong evidence and guidance from organisations such as WHO telling us that testing and isolation are the ways to contain this virus.
‘The only point to report it – emphasis: only point – is for such reports to achieve positive change.
‘We also only have about 24 hours for MPs to raise their voice against the draconian emergency measures that the government is about to impose on us for a terrifying two years.
‘All this needs reporting whilst there might still be a time to change things.
‘What drives me as an independent journalist and commentator (and clearly, I don’t get much reward from this – nobody is paying me) is to publish reports that can make a difference, that could result in change.
That I have been doing ever since I started journalism.
‘This is the time to criticise government if it can result in the government changing their inept and incompetent policies, so that more lives can be saved. Soon, that time will be lost. No point to report something unless something good can come out of it.
‘So, please see my reports in that light: not wanting to spread alarm, but wanting to try and achieve real, positive and life-supporting changes whilst they are still possible.’

Will it make any difference? I honestly don’t know. But I won’t give up trying.
Other articles by Jon Danzig:
  • Join the discussion about this article on Facebook and Twitter: