The need for fearless, independent journalism more real than ever
The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) this month hosted the launch of the George F D Palmer Internship for Financial Journalism Trust, established by Hazel Shore in memory of her late husband, George Palmer, who as editor of the Financial Mail for 16 years from the early 1960s is acknowledged as having set the standards for financial journalism in South Africa.
On this occasion, IRR writer Gabriel Crouse was awarded the inaugural George F D Palmer Trust internship.
The critical importance of fearless and independent journalism in sustaining freedom and democracy was the overriding theme of speeches at the launch by Hazel Shore and trustees Judge Robert Nugent and veteran journalist and former editor Raymond Louw.
The following is Hazel Shore’s commencement address at the launch of the Trust at the IRR on 6 February 2019.
Words have meaning, and consequences
Mr Raymond Louw needs no introduction. Like George Palmer, he is a courageous legend in his own lifetime. No one is more qualified than he to speak to the importance of a free press to sustain democracy and the increasing need these days for fearless, ethical journalists to keep society informed. Both men inspire us as we plod along in uncertain times.
So I will try to convey something of who George Palmer was as a man and journalist, and why we’ve established this Trust.
South Africa’s – and the Trust’s – own Barney Mthombothi’s erudite piece on attacks on the press a couple of week ago ends with a stern warning: ‘Words have consequences’.
The late diplomat, Senator from New York and Harvard professor of sociology, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, famously said in the 70s: ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.’
More recently, Robert Mueller, the US Special Prosecutor investigating foreign interference in the 2016 elections, had this to say: ‘You can be smart, aggressive, articulate, indeed persuasive, but if you are not honest, your reputation will suffer, and, once lost, a good reputation can never be regained.’
Wise words, especially for these days.
Palmer would have agreed wholeheartedly. He understood innately that words have ‘meanings’. He understood, with Barney, that words have ‘consequences’. And he understood that a reputation – personal or professional – built on honesty and objective reporting was not an option, but obligatory.
George worked at journalism almost every waking hour up to shortly before he took ill, just weeks before his 93rd birthday – not necessarily writing, but reading widely … books, reports, newspapers – researching, studying, staying abreast of global markets and interest rate flows to ensure his weekly college lectures were stimulating and current. In his view, it’s what real journalists do.
When writing, he rarely needed editing. He structured the story in his head before putting words on paper. He wrote most easily longhand with a pencil – yes, one of those yellow wood things with an eraser at one end he didn’t need!
Another of his fundamental beliefs was that truth-in-reporting is provisional, never finite. As the late Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post said: ‘Journalism is just the first rough draft of history.’
George knew, too, that what gets published is only a snapshot of the facts at a particular point in time. Over time, different facts emerge that may alter a story. Whatever the case, writing to the facts as one knows them with due sense of balance is what he saw at the craft of journalism.
George understood, too, that journalism takes patience. Often double and triple fact-checking. It could require doing battle with one’s editor if the editor’s concern was about economic or political fallout. Or, as an editor oneself, doing battle for one’s troops with management.
‘Remember this,’ George would counsel, ‘you can only engage when secure in your facts.’
On the other hand, those working with and for him were forewarned. As an exceptional editor, and a perfectionist, it was inevitable that sooner or later someone would get a dressing down – and rightly so – for sloppy copy. Judge (Robert) Nugent – our respected chairperson – has described how he was once a victim of George’s icy, articulate and eviscerating tongue. What I can say is that Rob soon chose to retire from journalism and presciently chose to read law. In Rob’s case, clearly the correct choice.
Palmer also rather relished taking on sacred cows. He had a libel demand for millions of rand from a big business figure specially framed and hung it on his FM office wall to show what he thought of intimidation at law.
But above all, George’s considerable editing and wordsmith skills notwithstanding, he was a fierce defender of such journalistic characteristics as curiosity, healthy scepticism, integrity, objective standards and even-handedness.
He demanded his writers examine all sides of an argument – from left to right – from which to take their bearings. He would fire summarily any of his staff if he discovered they had benefited from inside information or been ‘bought’ by executives.
So, not surprisingly, he was equally vigilant against those who attempted to pervert these principles by twisting information to fit a desired outcome, a seemingly seductive option in an era of instant news in search of a scoop, and its flipside, fake news.
It may feel good to expose the shenanigans of politicians or business titans. But it sure won’t make you popular! George’s view was that if popularity and/or fortune are your goals, print journalism is probably not for you.
Neither was he overly impressed with dining at the tables of the mighty.
As an editor, Palmer had one overriding mantra: never use two words when one will do.
Easier said than done. But because words have meaning and consequences, using the precise word is what he aimed for. And because Palmer had an extensive vocabulary, he was able to wield his blue pencil with alacrity … and effect!
Like those who started out on the FM under George, I, too, was a casualty of his blue pencil.
When we met some 34 years ago, I thought I wrote pretty decently. Not according to Palmer! Way too many adjectives, way too many words and at times an absence of adequate scepticism. One could call it bias!
Where I scored big, and took revenge, was on a tennis court. However much it irked, he knew he could never take a game off me … though he never stopped trying. But he had it over me in downhill skiing, certainly in style and elegance.
But I digress. When it came to editing, I rationalized that Palmer was only doing to me what his mentor John Marvin had done to him in transforming him from an economist into a financial journalist … sort of like having to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown as a rite of passage for PhD candidates.
Of course, I could’ve strangled him on occasion. The marriage survived, indeed well, and, much as I hated to admit it, I became a more disciplined writer and editor of business publications.
Did Palmer in his really very private life ever pay effusive praise? Hmm … yes and no. Like art, compliments are in the eye of the beholder. No, there were no ‘high fives’. The best I got in his warm, modulated British accent, with a big wide smile that lit up his face, was a cryptic: ‘Good piece’. His head would then veer back into whatever he was working on.
But such remarks hit home … I was over the moon!
So, in closing, to Gabriel (Crouse), future interns and aspiring young journalists, I say: one day you’ll look back with gratitude to the editor who made you rewrite, again and again, and thank him or her for taking the time to teach you your craft.
Palmer did just that. He spoke to the truth, and did so loudly. He also spoke truth to power.
I hope the George Frederick Douglas Palmer Trust’s first intern, Gabriel Crouse, and all our interns to follow, will do the same.
Journalists face a daunting future in which the need for fearless, independent minds is more real than ever, because so are the threats to its existence. Which is why the Trust was founded, inspired by a marvellous man of letters and probity.
Issued by the IRR, 13 February 2019