Bill Hagerty on the Press

Why telling the truth can be a lethal business for reporters
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The Independent Online

It's a hard-knock life, being a journalist. Even the most successful and well-rewarded here in Britain must occasionally lie awake at night, anxious about sliding circulation, or worrying whether to holiday in Mauritius or Barbados, or concerned that they won't be able to get a table at The Ivy for dinner Friday fortnight.

It's a hard-knock life, being a journalist. Even the most successful and well-rewarded here in Britain must occasionally lie awake at night, anxious about sliding circulation, or worrying whether to holiday in Mauritius or Barbados, or concerned that they won't be able to get a table at The Ivy for dinner Friday fortnight.

Elsewhere, it's even grimmer. Mikhail Komissar, controller of the international information group Interfax - a big player in providing news from the emerging markets of Europe and Asia - last week revealed that he has hired 24-hour protection, dispatched his student daughter overseas and altered the structure of his company to protect it from takeover by assassination. Komissar is from Russia, where 11 journalists died in contract-style killings within four years of Vladimir Putin becoming president in December 1999.

Last year was an especially bad one for the trade in terms of violent deaths. The Committee to Project Journalists reports that 56 were killed while carrying out their work during 2004, the worst statistic of any year in a decade that saw 337 such deaths. The CPJ report shows that the majority of these were not casualties of war. Most - 72 per cent of the total - were murdered, "often in direct reprisal for their reporting".

So you can't blame Mikhail Komissar for being ultra-careful. He claims that 10 of Interfax's journalists have been killed since the company was founded in 1989. "This is a difficult place to establish a media organisation," he said, with what in the circumstances is considerable understatement.

Iraq was, of course, where the highest concentration of journalists died last year, a total of 23. Russia wasn't even the country where it was most dangerous for reporters to hang out a sign proclaiming, "Investigations a speciality" - that honour belongs to the Philippines. But Russia is the closest to home and the one with a generally accepted regime. Even if Putin is reviled by many over his hard line in Chechnya, while others - mainly Arsenal supporters - disapprove of the way zillionaire Roman Abramovich has bought success for Chelsea, Russia is, as near-totalitarian states go, almost respectable.

Paul Klebnikov's family don't think so, however. If you recall, this 41-year-old American of Russian descent became editor of Forbes Russia when it was launched in April last year and immediately ruffled feathers by publishing a list of the country's 100 wealthiest people - Moscow has 33 billionaires, more than any other city in the world. He also launched investigations focused on Russian business and organised crime and ethnic and political tensions, and hoped to help train Russian reporters and spread freedom of expression in the country.

He didn't get the chance. On 9 July he was murdered, shot at least nine times from a passing car as he left his Moscow office around 10pm. Despite the arrest of two separate groups of Chechen men, no one has been brought to trial. After the second batch of arrests, Oleg Panfilov, the cynical director of a Moscow-based press freedom group, Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said that the authorities were pursuing a "far-fetched Chechen trail". Mind how you go, Oleg.

Klebnikov's family later called on reporters worldwide to launch an investigation into the murder. But although obituaries appeared at the time of his death in some British newspapers, including this one, the story has now gone cold.

Last Friday Forbes editor-in-chief Steve Forbes launched a new edition of the business magazine in Poland, a country, his journalists will be happy to note, that doesn't figure on the CPJ's top-of-the-chops hit list. Like most of us, they can reflect that journalism isn't such a bad life really.

Harry's press office leads by example

Let's face it, shoddy behaviour from someone charged with such great responsibility is totally unacceptable. No, not Prince Harry, witless though his Nazi escapade was: I'm referring to whichever of his press advisers leaked what was an exclusive Sun quote to a rival newspaper.

This breach in PR protocol apparently left Sun editor Rebekah Wade incandescent with rage. I'm not surprised - her paper had behaved properly in approaching the Clarence House press secretary Paddy Harverson prior to publishing the picture of "Harry the Nazi". Harverson reacted true to form, arguing that the pictures of Harry wearing a Swastika armband breached his privacy. So, then, would pictures of him throttling a cat if taken in private, but surely Harverson can rearrange "Public", "In", "Interest" and "The" into a phrase that sums up such a situation.

After a deal was struck - the Sun agreeing not to syndicate the picture if it obtained a quote from the Prince - someone at Clarence House blew the gaff. I wasn't surprised when I learned about that, either. Just a few weeks ago I castigated Harverson and his staff when a detachment of Mozambique marines harassed a News of the World team on Harry-watch off the island of Bazaruto.

Then I observed that Clarence House was seeking to use the privacy clause in the PCC code like a bludgeon on the press. Now they're at it again. With a background in journalism, especially in the rarefied atmosphere of the Financial Times, Harverson should take pause.

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