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Terence Blacker: These reporters risking their lives deserve respect

Wednesday 27 January 2010 01:00 GMT

As a headline, "Journalist murdered in Mexico" is unlikely to set the pulse racing. Even a subhead reading "Government and police not particularly interested" would have most of us wearily turning to the home page for the latest news from Celebrity Big Brother.

Extraordinarily, we are living in an age in which censorship through murder has become a favoured option of the powerful and the corrupt. It is an easy way to suppress difficult truths partly because, in the developed world, there is a general and growing public indifference to such matters.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the death toll among journalists last year was 70, the highest since records began 30 years ago. The vast majority of deaths were not from war zones but took place in countries which had an apparently respectable democratic infrastructure and were on amiable diplomatic terms with all the right governments.

Even when the international community stirs itself, there is unlikely to be much improvement. A year ago, a United Nations report into human rights in Mexico expressed concern at how many journalists had been killed: between 2004 and 2008, 20 had been murdered, and five more had disappeared. Not one of these crimes had resulted in a prosecution.

Concern was expressed; the Government vowed to do better. In the subsequent year, eight more journalists have been murdered, with one disappearance. Two deaths and a kidnapping – presumed dead – have occurred in the past month.

The victims of these crimes are heroes. Often local journalists, they have been killed exposing drugs gangs, child pornography, police and government corruption, people-trafficking. In spite of being harassed and bullied, they have pursued their investigations. "I was killed for writing too much" read a warning note attached to the dead body of one of them.

Powerful forces are often involved in these cases. When the Mexican writer Lydia Cacho wrote a book exposing organised child abuse and pornography, she was arrested for defamation, and threatened by the police with rape and murder. Only when a telephone conversation between a state governor and someone named in the book emerged was she released. An investigation into the treatment of Cacho, involving a former attorney general, police officers and a government minister, was inexplicably dropped. Cacho was advised to flee the country but has courageously stayed and is still working.

There is a direct connection between the murder of writers and the attitude of those who live in more comfortable countries, who have become bloated with news and cynical towards the media. When Robert Mahoney wrote recently in a blog about the dangers facing journalists around the world, the comments from many of his readers were genuinely shocking.

These people deserved no more sympathy or interest than any other spectator caught in the crossfire, wrote one reader. There are too many journalists around anyway, said another. They knew the risks they were taking.

Only some of this nastiness can be explained by the poisonous air of the blogosphere. There is now a genuine confusion in the minds of many between the tawdry journalistic froth of our own decadent celebrity society and the courageous investigative reporting happening in countries such as Mexico.

It is vain and self-deluding to believe that the killing of writers in other parts of the world has nothing to do with our own lives and attitudes. As Cacho herself has said, "a corrupt political system is only sustained by a corrupt and complicit culture".

Duke picks up some praise for a change

It comes as rather a shock to discover that, after some six decades or so, the Queen's husband has done something socially responsible and useful. On his way from church at Sandringham, the Duke of Edinburgh spotted a discarded plastic coffee cup and its lid lying on the grass. He stopped and then – hold the front page! – he picked it up, presumably depositing it later in a royal litter bin.

There has been excited talk of the "splendid example" that has been set by the Duke and his litter collection. The British have become increasingly slobbish about leaving a trail of trash behind them on pavements, paths or by the side of roads. Nothing expresses our low national esteem more eloquently than this careless disregard for other people and for the way our country looks.

By contrast, the act of picking up someone else's litter – a gesture which in countries like Australia is a matter of course – can be a small vote for decency, the future, for hope. It is nimbyism at its best.

Could the Duke have started something? Probably not. If only Jordan, David Beckham or Simon Cowell could be photographed picking up a sweet wrapper and placing it in a bin, then an exciting new trend could soon be under way.

Our children are being neglected – by the BBC

Another week, another row about the BBC. This one, though, will disappear quickly. It involves that poor relation of British broadcasting, children's TV.

A House of Lords Select Committee has revealed the shocking statistic that, since 2003 (an already low base), spending on the content of television for children has fallen by an amazing 48 per cent. Original local programming has more than halved so that most of the meagre rations offered to children reflects an American culture.

This scandalous neglect of Britain's children was covered in a desultory four paragraphs at the back of a long report on the state of British TV and film.

It no longer pays for the commercial sector to make programmes for children, and talent is drifting out of the sector. The BBC, meanwhile, has been cutting budgets to the bone. As ever, it is the imaginative and adventurous programmes which are dropped first.

Obviously, there should be a tax break to encourage private investment. Clearly, if public broadcasting is to have any meaning at all, the BBC should start treating the stimulation, education and entertainment of young minds as its highest priority.

Why is there not more anger about this lazy, casual betrayal of future generations?

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