The media column - Peter Wilby
The omission of John Pilger and Robert Fisk from Press Gazette's hall of fame says much abo
To mark its 40th anniversary, Press Gazette has chosen 40 newspaper journalists for a "hall of fame". With some of the names, it is almost impossible to quarrel: the Mirror's Hugh Cudlipp, the Mail's David English, the Sunday Times's Denis Hamilton and Andrew Neil, the Sun's Larry Lamb, the sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, the agony aunt Marje Proops, the photographer Don McCullin, for example. The eight judges, among them Sir Harold Evans and Andreas Whittam Smith, were naturally excluded, as was Piers Morgan, who is now part-owner of Press Gazette. So were those, such as James Cameron, whose best work was done before Press Gazette started.
But the list also excludes two names that would be first on mine: John Pilger and Robert Fisk. Their omission speaks volumes about the provincialism, political prejudice and narrow-mindedess of the British journalistic establishment. On any criteria, their achievements far exceed those of most people on the list.
Fame? Internationally, they are probably the best-known British journalists, though Christopher Hitchens, who isn't there either, would run them close. "A profound influence on the generations of journalists following them" (the words of the Press Gazette editor, Ian Reeves)? Almost every media student in the land wants to be like Pilger or Fisk.
Story-breaking? In Pol Pot's Cambodia, Pilger exposed the greatest state-sponsored slaughter since the Second World War, while Fisk's record of exposes in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia is incomparable. Selling power? Pilger's name on the cover can boost this magazine's news-stand sales by 10 per cent, while Fisk, when the Independent was at its lowest point, was, for many readers, the only reason for buying the paper. Longevity? Both have been at the top for more than 30 years and are still producing superb work. Getting it right? Well, sometimes wrong on the detail perhaps, but events in the Islamic world, for example, have unfolded almost exactly as Fisk predicted, to widespread mockery, during the 1991 Gulf war.
Who would I omit from the 40 to make way for Pilger and Fisk? This is a tricky question, since the judges have been careful to represent different types of journalists (including cartoonists) and I certainly wouldn't exclude the Mail's Ann Leslie, the only proper foreign correspondent on the list. But I don't know what the Sun's chief reporter, John Kay, is famous for, in the field of journalism at least. His colleague Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun's political editor, is famous mainly for turning himself into a noticeboard for new Labour. Lord Rees-Mogg was, at best, an average editor of the Times and, as a columnist, is famous chiefly for inaccurate predictions. The Telegraph's Bill Deedes wasn't even average as an editor, and is surely included only because he has worked into his nineties and is an all-round good egg.
I could go on, but this low-minded quibbling is beside the point.
Pilger and Fisk present a view of the world, and particularly of British and American actions, that is deeply unfashionable. They are treated by the journalistic establishment as boring, hysterical and slightly unhinged propagandists. Their views and their work are persistently marginalised. The "hall of fame" judges (perhaps unwittingly) echo this consensus. Significantly, only one of them can claim the slightest acquaintance with the world beyond Europe and North America. True, they put Paul Foot on the list, but this ex-public-school boy was always the establishment's favourite lefty and his best work was on British miscarriages of justice, which is a classic liberal cause. Pilger and Fisk, by contrast, challenge the western world's image of itself on the basis of decades of experience in overseas reporting, and that is why they have an international audience.
And lest I be accused of cronyism, I should state that I know one of the two only slightly, while the other has recently fallen out with me.
The story of last week was in the Sunday Express. The government had announced its amnesty for IRA fugitives - which outraged some Tory MPs, as well as the unionists - because MI5 had warned of a Christmas bombing campaign "aimed at shoppers in London and Belfast".
Eh? This was sensational news. The IRA is supposed to have disarmed and to have renounced violence irrevocably. Tony Blair, moreover, is supposed to be in the front line of a war on terror. The story was at the bottom of page 17.
One can only assume the Sunday Express editors didn't really believe the story. This is not surprising, as the only source quoted was "a security expert" and the warning to ministers apparently came from a single "trusted agent", neither of which sounds exactly copper-bottomed. As any reporter knows, editors frequently hedge their bets in this way. But a story is either right or wrong. If it is wrong, it is not made less wrong by being placed on page 17.