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Watching the Watchdog: Why Journalists Do What We Do

09/15/2013 11:45 EDT | Updated 11/15/2013 05:12 EST

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

It's that extraordinary recent September day when the temperature climbs to 34 degrees and women are still beautiful and flirty and dressed to affect.

I'm sitting with a couple of journalists on the roof of Scallywag's, my favourite Toronto watering hole. We're disagreeing over Syria and whether Obama loses his mojo by handing Putin a new role as an international statesman, when the conversation idly turns to that most obscure of subjects, the Ontario Press Council (OPC).

You've got to admit, the OPC has mojo. Last week it orders Canada's two biggest newspapers to explain themselves after a few readers complain about their coverage of the farce starring thuggish Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his equally thuggish brother, councillor Doug.

The Toronto Star's story is about a video, apparently showing Mayor Ford smoking crack cocaine while making racist and homophobic remarks. Meantime, the Globe & Mail alleges brother Doug has a history of drug dealings.

So who or what is this OPC which dares to question the most powerful newspapers in the land?

It's executive director, Don McCurdy, explains:

"OPC exists to promote and protect free speech and freedom of expression ... proper journalistic practices and acceptable ethical principles [and] seeks to help develop a public understanding of journalism and how journalists should do their jobs."

It's that last part that gets me most excited. We journalists have done a lousy job of explaining how we do our jobs, how we practice our craft, to the people we serve.

I'm of the opinion, in fact, that our low ranking in public opinion polls -- somewhere down close to politicians -- is because we don't even try to tell the people who we are, what we believe in, what we do and why we do it.

So allow me to try.

It took me 10 years, three continents, two newspapers and two television newsrooms before I figured out that journalism is far more than just a job. When I finally understood, I was already a hot-shot television reporter and documentary producer at ABC News, New York.

My epiphany came when I produced a documentary on the revolutionary Marxist, often violent, Black Panthers. Shooting was easy because I had reported on them in the past and they trusted me.

Post-production was a nightmare because my bosses didn't trust me. They just wanted Panther violence and threats of violence, while I insisted on including Panther programs of breakfasts for slum kids and some insight into their radical Black Power philosophy.

The eventual documentary, after endless fights with "The Dirty Dozen" of executive producers, lawyers, PR people etc., was a watered-down compromise which told something less than the truth but, even so, got me fired.

That was the wakeup call.

That was when I finally realized that there were a whole lot of vested interests -- even in my own craft -- fighting honest journalism.

I moved to NBC which fired me twice, partly because I refused to bend stories to executive producers' dictates. Years and other newsrooms went by and I ended up in Canada as executive producer, CBC Television Journalism Training.

We taught the usual storytelling, writing, interviewing and performance, of course. But I insisted that -- running like a golden thread under every workshop -- must be the highest possible ethical standards guiding the rigorous seeking and telling of truth.

We taught that within the limits of the law, journalism is either free or not free. It can't be three quarters free. Or two thirds free. But there are legions of vested interests out there ready, willing and eager to tamper with, and thus lessen, journalistic freedom.

Such people understand that information -- the currency of democracy -- is power.

Politicians -- by the very nature of their profession put party, power and pragmatism before truth, openness and the people's right to know. It's known fondly as "facing facts," "living in the real world" and "being practical."

But political pragmatism is the enemy of freedom of information, even though politicians love the word freedom itself and throw it around a lot, particularly when trying to limit it.

In the dark midnight of their souls politicians of all parties in all countries yearn to limit journalistic freedom and control the questioning, impertinent, yapping dogs of the media.

In their view, we all, including journalists, are expected to be responsible enough to put the interests of the existing system before the needs of something called free journalism and the people's right to know.

Military and Police -- It's no accident that the people to whom society gives guns so often see journalists and free journalism as the enemy.

Soldiers and cops live in restricted, hierarchical, undemocratic, obedient, uniformed societies themselves, so they -- more than any other group -- fear freedom for the rest of us.

Both military and police consider The Rules more important than democratic freedom. The role of both is to protect those who have against those who want to have. To protect us against them.

Their logic is that if part of the price for protecting us is to restrict a few liberties along the way, so be it. There's too much liberty, too much license, as it is and, anyway, you can't have Law'NOrder without breaking a few eggs.

Military and police ask the question -- whose side are you on, anyway? And they carry guns when they ask it.

Religions have always preferred obedience to freedom.

Their weapons have ranged from ostracism, to book-burning, to torture, to the stake, to that most awful threat of all -- eternal damnation in raging hell fire.

Temporal freedom is the undoubted enemy of the One True God (whichever it is). True freedom can only be attained if the people give freedom away and blindly follow His Word as exclusively revealed to His representative on earth.

Have faith, my children and when the hyenas of journalism question our doings or sayings and claim the democratic right of freedom from religion, scream loud and long that our rights are imperiled and that God's on our side.

Politicians, the military, police and religions are joined in this struggle to try to control journalistic media by whole armies of people with vested interests. (Think bankers, businesspeople, financiers, entertainers, professional athletes, landlords, developers [formerly known as speculators], unions, pimps, people with money and even some newspaper, magazine, TV and radio station owners.) And never, ever forget lawyers.

Since the concept of free journalism was born, powerful forces like these have worked hard to keep journalists in their place, which is out of the affairs of their betters.

They have -- it is the very nature of capitalism -- selfish causes to serve. They fear -- it is the very nature of business -- the honest, disinterested audit.

They would all be a lot more comfortable if probing, questioning journalists had less freedom; if journalists were prohibited from delving into their records and casting a too-critical eye on their methods; if journalists were told to mind our own goddamn business and show some respect for the comfortable institutions that make capitalism so great.

But professional journalists are in the business of social justice, so the nature, health and well-being of society is our business.

And without us, there will be nobody trained, qualified and capable left behind to conduct that business in an ethical, disinterested manner.

If it wasn't from such an obviously religious source, I would recommend that famous adage from the King James version of the bible as journalism's motto:

"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

Parts of this column were adapted from my book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor.