People often quote with approval, the cliché which claims that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
I have always dismissed this as a figment of someone’s imagination. I think the real truth is that the people who wield a sword use the sword to obtain power through the acquisition of wealth. It is only when they have become capable of buying the services of journalists that they feel the need to flatter journalists by pretending that “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
I was once a stringer for one of the most important newspapers in England, The Sunday Times. It had a fearless editor called Harold Evans, who took on a powerful drug-manufacturing company called Distillers (now part of Diageo) over its distribution of a drug called Thalidomide.
The drug was not at all safe. Pregnant women who took it as a sedative (to help them sleep at night) or to alleviate “morning sickness”, gave birth to babies with parts of their bodies missing. It was usually an arm or a leg that was missing.
Such births brought enormous pain to many mothers. For they had to confront one of the most difficult issues a mother can face: does she kill a deformed baby or does she keep it? What would such a baby feel if it was forced to go through life with stumps for legs or arms?
Because Britain’s libel laws can be used to extort huge damages and costs against newspapers and radio and television stations that offend companies and individuals, not many media organizations were willing to ask too many searching questions about how it was that an internationally renowned drug-manufacturing company with enormous financial clout, could make such a tragic mistake as to release medicine for human consumption that resulted in the loss of limbs in babies.
But The Sunday Times, under its editor, Harold Evans, took the Distillers Company on frontally. The paper felt that the scandal was too big to be allowed to be talked about in whispers, with the power of money being used to hush up both the sufferers and would-be whistleblowers so that the pharmaceutical company could lie its way into staying in business to do probably even greater harm in future.
So the paper set its best investigators and lawyers on the trail of the drug Thalidomide. In 1968, the long campaign by The Sunday Times succeeded in forcing a compensation for the UK victims of Thalidomide. This compensation, which was distributed by the Thalidomide Trust in the UK, was substantially increased by Diageo in 2005.
In addition, the UK Government gave survivors a grant of £20 million, to be distributed through the Thalidomide Trust.
Everyone thought that his victory in the Thalidomide campaign would make Sunday Times editor Harold Evans “untouchable”. But when Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sunday Times and its daily stable-mate, Murdoch managed to get rid of Evans by first sending him to be editor of The Times (daily) and then firing him. There was nothing Evans could do! Murdoch had not used a “sword”. But he had got rid of a “pen-wielder” who was regarded by many as a national hero.
The moral of this story is that whenever “Press Freedom Day” comes round (as it has done this week) people exhort journalists to be brave, fair, truthful and -- practically, everything that ordinary members of the public are not!
But – as I discovered in 1970 when a disagreement with Prime Minister Kofi Busia on “dialogue” with the obnoxious apartheid regime in South Africa ended in my being dismissed as editor of the state-owned Daily Graphic -- journalists who fearlessly write what they really think (as against propaganda from whatever source) can end up on their ear. And society does not appear to possess the means of sustaining such journalists. Except, maybe, through moral support!
In effect, therefore, every society somehow deserves the media it’s got. If the society gets good extra-ordinary journalists and it does not support them, the majority of journalists (who tend to regard journalism as a mere source of employment like any other) will give them mediocre service. Yet it’s enlightened journalists who should lead the way in creating a well-informed populace that can present an articulate public opinion to serve as a yardstick by which the performance of the society’s rulers can be proficiently judged.
Ideally, of course, good journalists should not care a tinker’s dime whether anyone takes notice of their work or not. They should only seek to impart accurate information, discussed in a civilized, fact-based manner, and allow the public to be the judge.
It’s when journalists habitually do this and dot not produce “knee-jerk” or partisan analyses that the consumers of journalistically-provided information can accept them as opinion leaders. There’s nothing better for a journalist than hear this said of him: “I disagree with him on this issue, but by God, it’s a strong argument that he’s put forward! Indeed, I am almost persuaded to revise my own position.”
For those journalists who face hard times because someone somewhere has decided that their opinions should no longer be heard because they do not coincide with his or her own, let me say this: one day, out of the blue, someone will hear your name and come to look at you and ask: “Are you really So-and-So?”.
When you say yes, he will quote a sentence or two that you wrote ages ago and which you have forgotten about, and say, “I am so glad to meet you! I’ve always admired your writing!”
I tell you such an unsolicited greeting always produces a warm feeling inside one. A warm feeling that encourages one to write and write and write!
Write in such a way that one knows that one has contributed well to the enjoyment of life on Planet Earth.
This article by Cameron Duodu was first published on Ghanaweb. Cameron Duodu is a novelist, journalist, editor, broadcaster and a columnist.