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World: Press Freedom Based On Financial And Political Distance

By Nick Krastev

British journalist and editor Alan Rusbridger has been highly honored for his work with the "Guardian" and "Observer" newspapers. Under his editorship, "The Guardian" has been named Newspaper of the Year in Great Britain for the last four years. Correspondent Nick Krastev of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service talks with Rusbridger about what it means to be an independent journalist.

Prague, 12 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Rusbridger was asked how his newspaper structures its work.

"We have a number of section editors to look after news and sport and features, and they are in competition in terms of available resources, in terms of writing and reporters. So if you are a good reporter everyone will want to use you. The way we're structured at The Guardian is to give reporters a lot of power. We take the view that the reporters are generally the people who are closest to the situation. That's probably the best way of getting out the truth. In a lot of newspapers, the editors sit in their offices and think that they can ascertain what the truth is and then send the reporters out to get it. And I think that generally doesn't get to the truth, but there's always a hot debate on these kind of issues in Britain."

Asked what makes an independent journalist, Rusbridger said the key is to stay financially and politically distant from the people you write about.

"I think it has to begin with the ownership of the newspaper. If your paper is owned by a political party -- it's going to be very difficult to be independent. If your paper is owned by a millionaire, foreign owner who has political ambitions, someone like Rupert Murdoch, sometimes it makes your job to be independent difficult. But beyond that as a reporter I think this is a particular difficulty that reporters get too involved in the subjects, they almost become part of the story, they become friends with the people they are writing about, they have their own opinions, they become attached to causes. To a certain extent, that's inevitable, I don't believe in the American ideal of objective reporting. You can believe it's an ideal, but in reality every reporter is subjective."

Rusbridger says reporting is a straightforward activity -- report what is happening.

"I have a very simple view of reporting which is you're paid to find out information -- as much information as possible and to tell people about it. Very simple one. Some reporters think it goes beyond that -- that you are guardian of this or guardian of that, so that your job is to attack politicians or find out why they are lying, or to persecute them or to prosecute them. I think you just have to find out as much as you can."

He adds:

"And I think it becomes harder and harder because the better we get at our jobs -- the better the technology, the better governments become in trying to conceal the information."

Governments must be flexible enough to allow journalists to disagree with them, Rusbridger says. They should allow journalists this freedom even if the journalists sometimes behave irresponsibly.

"The test of the true commitment to the open government is if you're prepared to be open even when you deeply disapprove of the use the journalists are making of the information. And that's incredibly trying, incredibly testing, but unless you do it -- then you're not truly open. You can't divide information and say 'I'm going to give you this information if you behave well with it...' You just have to give them the information and if they behave badly -- that's the price you have to pay for freedom."

The relationship between politicians and journalists can be courteous, Rusbridger, but friendship would be difficult -- and not, perhaps, desirable.

"In a perfect world it will be possible for journalists and politicians to dine together and be friends and share ideas. In reality, I think, that's very difficult. I find it difficult to keep friendships with politicians the paper is writing about. And at the end I've decided it doesn't matter very much. There's no point of me being a big friend of Tony Blair, I never will be and there will be too many tensions in that relationship. That doesn't bother me. But I think you should be trying to be fair to them, trying to understand what they are doing, trying to report what they're doing in a straight way, but be as ferocious as you want in terms of comment and opinion. But you have to somehow separate the two."