A Journalistic Imperative

4 mins read

Mankind is in a state of constant change.

“The journalist’s task is to write about and, in a sense, promote changes, to prevent society from becoming ossified. Journalists should always test the limits of freedom in society. There are neither moral nor professional norms established once and for all..” -Michel Polac

For more than five years, up to the reign of the conservative Jacques Chirac and the French right wingers, Michel Polac presented the program, THE RIGHT TO ANSWER live on French television, every Saturday. The popular show had an audience of between 5 and 10 million people. THE RIGHT TO ANSWER was watched by people across the board: from politicians to senior secondary school students. Polac could be liked or disliked, but he was always in the public eye. A man of impeccable professional talents, he was the only one who picked two top awards- as the best host and program producer- during the annual TV awards presentation ceremony in 1986.

In the summer of 1987, some fundamental changes came to TF-1, one of France’s most important television channels. It was denationalized. The channel was bought by F. Bouygues, known as “France’s concrete Tsar”, because he owns one of the world’s biggest construction firms. The first two programs he presented under the new boss, proved to be his last. In one of these programs, Polac expressed his doubts about the wayethe government communications commission designed the rules for radio and TV broadcasting. The program incensed the “Concrete Tsar”, Bouygues. A week later, Polac staged a discussion of a very controversial project of a bridge between the mainland and the Isle of Ré in the Atlantic.

If built, the bridge could seriously harm the island’s ecology. Bouygues’ company was to handle the construction. The “Tsar” slammed his hand on the table, closed down the program THE RIGHT TO ANSWER, Michel Polac, together with his 15 associates were fired. The hard-hitting program on social themes, was replaced with the ancient American serial about detective Colombo.

Michel Polac holds very democratic views about the journalist’s role in the society and he also understands the historical context of the individual’s roles in society. “An 18th Century journalist”, he once told an interviewer, “could not even imagine that the royalty or nobility may be criticized, but such criticism was beginning to be in evidence at the end of the 18th Century”. In other words, journalistic criticisms of the feudal order appeared, because the development of society was calling for movement beyond the privileges and rank-ordering so characteristic of the feudal epoch. Polac again: “What did Voltaire do? He broke and bent the rules and got punished. For me, he was the first journalist in the sense that I understand the profession”.

The ethical principles in the work of the journalist are not as clear as can be, since many times it is hard to say what can and cannot be done. But in Polac’s opinion, “journalists should know how to probe the public conscience, and how far they can go at any given time…Your own moral principle should be your guide”. The views expressed by Michel Polac, his courageous pursuit of the truth and disdain for the petty intrigues so characteristic of many a journalistic circle, seem to us an adequate representation of what is demanded of the modern journalist, faced as he is, with the global problems of our times.

To be sure, the journalist must be guided by his own moral principles. Moral principles can only be properly articulated, when the journalist pursues for himself, an all-round spiritual development which comes with thorough education- scientific, literary and aesthetic as well as philosophical. Take some of the disturbing data of the modern world. The awesome nuclear arsenal possessed on both sides of the ideological divide. What is the responsibility of the journalist to the preservation of the peace of the world and life on earth?

On the other hand, can the journalist take a purely “technistic” approach to this question, with utter contempt for history? What is the role of imperialism in the shaping of the modern world? These are far from being idle questions. They define the scope of freedoms in society that the journalist must always defend and seek to broaden. It is said that in the developing countries, more than 700 million people lack the food necessary for healthy life. In Africa, for example, the average dietary standards have fallen below nutritional standards. The average daily protein intake per day of the developing countries is 49.8 grams compared to 92.5 grams in the developed countries.

What analytical approach does the conscientious journalist employ with this kind of disturbing statistics? Isn’t it a journalistic imperative then, to expose the conditions that led to this in the first place and also seek the rational route of the morass? It is worthwhile to state that there cannot be an unbiased arbitration in any issue. Instead of dissembling objectivity, the journalist should voice his subjective opinion and be ready to answer for it. Afterall, each of us has his own position and it cannot be concealed. Even if one reveals some figures, their choice reflects our attitudes one way or another.

Another pressing problem of the development process, is the Housing Question. The United Nations estimates that 1, 250mil people do not have adequate shelter, while one hundred million people have no housing whatsoever. If the statistics that 2.5 million people in the USA and 250, 000 people in Great Britain are homeless, then the Third World can only be described as hopeless. The journalist faced with these facts cannot afford to be hopeless or irresponsible. It is the journalist’s duty to let the world see itself in its naked nastiness, as the saying goes. No embellishments, no lies, and determination to defend the dignity of human life.

Michel Polac once reminded his journalist colleagues that we are entering a period in history when we see morals as the fundamental element for the building of society. Unfortunately, philosophers and politicians have forgotten about this. But the journalist dares not. In the midst of the problems, existential problems, that face the greatest majority of toiling humanity, states spend annually, 1, 000 billion US Dollars on their military- the total volume of developing countries debts. In 1984 alone, 800 billion US Dollars went into arms spending, that is 130 Dollars for each person on earth.

These are unpardonable expenditures for these times of human history. They are more than adequate representations of the fact that civilization itself is at the edge of the precipice. For the journalist whose loyalty is to the species itself, to its rational development in a world freed of exploitation and the social systems that fuel the discordances of the times, it is imperative to learn to speak with the fearlessness of a committed fighter. The journalist business is not as easy as it appears.


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