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Tim Sebastian’s Journalist Award speech – full text

jeu, 16/10/2014 - 11:15 -- admin
Tim Sebastian

Tim Sebastian, journaliste renommé mondialement et président du Jury du Prix de l’Anna Lindh du journalisme pour les reportages parmi les cultures, a adressé lors de son discours d’ouverture de la remise des prix 2014 à Londres le besoin d’une couverture balancée des évènements. La Fondation Thomson Reuters a accueilli la cérémonie le 15 Octobre 2014.

Ladies and gentlemen it’s a great pleasure to be here today, to chair such an eminent jury and to play a part in judging the shortlisted entries.

It’s almost exactly 40 years since I began my journalism career in Reuters, and rode nervously up in the lift to the 4th floor at no.85 fleet street.

I remain grateful to Reuters to this day, for knocking me into some kind of journalistic shape, for investing time and effort in correcting my appalling mistakes – and trying to ensure that I didn’t keep on making them throughout my career.

In that, sadly, they were only partially successful.

But what they taught all those decades ago still holds good today: that your journalism should have a sharp cutting edge, isolating the essential ingredients of a story in clear, urgent and compelling copy.

People don’t read you because you’ve written something.  Remember that.  They read you because your words compel people to sit up and take notice.  Words that jolt them, surprise them, focus them, and force them to confront the news of the day – because you’ve persuaded them that it’s new and it matters.

That may not be true of many stories – but it remains true in the crowded arena of international journalism that we and the contestants in this competition work in.

You have to work to get an audience and it’s one of the most sacred privileges and responsibilities to serve them.

To all those who submitted work – thank you for taking part – you showed tremendous passion and concern for your subjects – and these are valuable assets for reporters.  As one of my colleagues once put it – there’s only one thing worse than being too close to a story – and that’s being indifferent to it.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of the entries disappointed us.  Not because they didn’t show potential, but because they didn’t live up to it.

Too often the stories were one-sided – they featured only one group of opinions – and that’s a dangerous omission. No one group of people, no single faction, no one political stripe has a monopoly on truth – you need to include others in your story. They add depth and credibility.

Sometimes the stories themselves didn’t justify the headlines.  You need to get the facts straight.

You need to be more sceptical of your sources, test them, challenge them – don’t repeat what they say, simply because you share their views.

The point is this: you are the filter between the story and the public. Make sure that story is clean, checked and balanced before you hand it out to us.

If you’ve discovered wrong-doing, injustice and violations of human rights – then you need to put them in front of those who are alleged to be responsible.

You need the other side.

And in the context of today’s middle east – we need to know what those other sides are about.

We on the judges’ panel would have wished to see much more about a region that is living with murder and destruction on a previously unimaginable scale, with torture and wholesale violation of basic rights, with bigotry and hatred at every turn.

On balance we don’t believe the subjects you chose took account of the cataclysmic situation in which this region now finds itself.

These days much of the journalism in the Middle East has sadly collapsed – in many ways for understandable reasons. The danger of offending repressive governments is all too real to those who have to work in such countries, with families to feed and to protect.

We understand this.  A couple of weeks ago, i talked to a well-known television host in the middle east – who told me that he had decided not to rock the boat.  The government in power was the only one they had – and he and his colleagues had reached the decision to live with it.

There would be no criticism, no holding to account, no searching questions.

You can live like that – I understand people who do – but I also applaud the bravery of people who don’t.

Let me be clear – whatever the circumstances, a journalist who doesn’t rock the boat should seriously consider another profession.

How many surgeons do you know who refuse to operate?

And let me add one other thing - if you do give up the right to free speech, it’s worth realizing that you’re giving up a lot of other rights as well.  Like the right to call for free elections, or independent courts, or a living wage or an end to torture.

Your voice – written or spoken – is therefore the most powerful thing you have. And it’s why dictators seek –as their first priority - to muzzle you.

To the contestants – you’ve shown great promise – but these are difficult and demanding times – and people desperately need the light that you can shine in places that are increasingly dark and frightening.

Never forget - you speak for the helpless and the hopeless – now more than ever.