Until this week the crisis of local journalism in the English-speaking world was understood as a financial one. In the UK a quarter of all local papers have shut in the last 10 years and the number of full-time journalists has dropped in proportion, a government report has just said. One fairly typical American paper, the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, had lost 90% of its staff this century – down from 250 staff to around 30. But on Thursday evening five of its journalists were murdered by a gunman who shot his way through the front door. It appears he bore a grudge against the paper for accurately reporting an earlier brush with the law. Since in contemporary America anyone with a grievance can get hold of a gun, this is in one way not surprising. Teachers, politicians, concert-goers and schoolchildren have all been slaughtered in recent years. Why should journalists be different?
There is no more intrinsic value to the life of a journalist than there is to that of a street-sweeper, a billionaire, or any other human being. Yet hacks are more useful than most billionaires. The plain task of finding out what is true and making it comprehensible and interesting is an honourable trade. Honest journalism is a vital part of any decent society. Fearless journalism is a sign, and a part of the defences, of any free society.
The trade can be grubby and – perish the thought – self-important but it gives us a warped mirror of our flawed selves and what we all learn from it is more important than the flaws. This is particularly true of local journalism because the local papers write about their readers and not about half-mythical celebrities. They help communities to recognise themselves in their common humanity and, at their best, can help them to come together.
One fact is specially chilling about the murders in Annapolis: before the murderer’s identity was known almost everyone who expressed an opinion, whether on left or right, assumed his motives were political. This was a natural conclusion to jump to in the present polarised climate. President Trump has called journalists “enemies of the people” (and refused to answer questions about the murders); one of his propagandists suggested the shooting was an understandable response to the social shunning of his press secretary. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting the New York police put a guard on the offices of the New York Times.
That turned out, fortunately, to be an overreaction. The real enmity lies not between the press and the people, but the free press (and people) and the powerful. The places where the killing of journalists is a real danger and their imprisonment routine are those ruled by secretive oligarchs: Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Malta, and many others. Compared to the bravery required of our colleagues in those countries the threat of job losses here is trivial. But it is still true that the enemies of democracy are the lovers of darkness and a free press is their enemy everywhere.