A quiet agent in a media revolution

For more than half century, the Thomson Foundation has helped thousands of journalists in more than 100 countries to develop their abilities to report fairly and incisively. In 2012 Nigel Baker, CEO of the Thomson Foundation, looked back at its achievements to date and the challenges for the future.

The decree has gone out to all journalists. From tomorrow, no government minister can be legally challenged on any subject and an information minister will be appointed with the power to change restrictions on the press at will.

In addition, any coverage from outside London will take the form of a statement from central government and must be published verbatim by all media. The consequences for disobeying will, at best, be loss of livelihood. At worst, a lengthy prison sentence.

Of course, such a scenario is unthinkable in Britain. But it is still the frightening reality for thousands of journalists in dozens of countries in the developing world.

Before the British news media drown in the reservoir of scorn they are currently pouring on themselves, they should pause, step outside present problems, and consider how journalists in those restrictive regimes envy the freedoms we have.

The quintessential point is that we have the ability to hold government and institutions to account - a vital part of good governance in any regime. Whether MPs' expenses, the banking crisis, or the sins of other media, there is no penalty here for uncovering wrongdoing - provided it is done fairly and legally.

Such a point lay behind the Canadian-born media magnate Lord Thomson announcing 50 years ago this month that he was setting up a foundation to help journalists and news media in the developing world establish the skills that would help them inject strong governance into their societies.

Having travelled the world in pursuit of building his media empire, he realised the dire need to provide training to allow all journalists to acquire the kinds of skills which had given them a cohesive role in society in his native Canada and adoptive Britain.

Landmark speech

In a landmark speech in early 1963 he declared that "communication is surely the spine of civilisation. The needs of developing countries are, above all, education and national integration. For both, mass media are all-important weapons."

Since then, the foundation has "armed" thousands of journalists in more than 100 countries with the ability to report fairly and incisively.

I took over as chief executive of the Thomson Foundation at the beginning of this year after nearly 40 years as a newsman - more than half of it in international journalism. But when you're covering the news, it is all too easy not to stop and consider the issues facing your less fortunate colleagues in other countries.

The last year has been humbling, hearing the frustrations of journalists in restrictive regimes. For a start, I discovered that in many parts of the world when they ask for a course in investigative journalism, their definition of "investigative" is not of a relentless campaign to uncover grave misdoings. It is simply the ability to ask questions. In other words, basic journalism as we know it - rather than just being a conduit for official state announcements.

Then there is the uncertainty of working in a regime where no-one knows the reporting rules: what can be published with impunity, and what cannot. The rules can change with each information minister and, through design or omission, are never clearly articulated. The result is heavy-handed, self-censorship by nervous editors.

Next are the countries where publishers don't pay their journalists. So the only way they can live is to take money for writing positive stories. Worse still, take money for not writing negative stories.

The end result is often a missing tier of journalists. Ageing editors surrounded by young reporters or producers with no experienced mid-career practitioners. The more ambitious and able are syphoned off to work in public relations - where they can at least afford to feed their families.

'Life-changing experience'

When journalists toiling in such circumstances get the opportunity to come to Britain to see first-hand how our news media work, to a person they have said: "It's a life-changing experience." It inspires them with what good journalism can achieve -- and fires them with enthusiasm through our news industry's vibrancy and diversity.

This year they looked on nervously in case the law was used to curb Fleet Street's journalistic excess. From Africa to Ukraine, journalists have warned that if Britain used the legal system to limit journalists, it would be used as cynical justification for harsh controls by other regimes.

The foundation has played a quiet part in the international media revolution over the past 50 years, sending skilled practitioners from Britain across the globe to set up TV and radio stations, newspapers and now to advise on digital and social media. But as the world becomes more connected, and media more prevalent, the task grows, rather than shrinks.

As societies in the developing world expand and develop, media has an ever-greater role to play in ensuring good governance - enabling the journalists to highlight the policy issues of importance to the people.

If Roy Thomson ever had any doubts about whether the mission was worthwhile, he might have chuckled to hear Bill Gates address the Abu Dhabi Media Summit last month, declaring: "The world has not yet fully tapped the media as a power for good."

Two media titans delivering the same message half a century apart is a compelling argument. Some stories never lose their power. Theirs certainly has a long way to run.

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