Student - June 12, 2008

Editorial comment: Watchdog

Lack of agreement on a definition of independent journalism is clouding the discussion on the tender for Resource. When the Wageningen UR managers state that they do not want to interfere with the independence of the newspaper, they undoubtedly mean this sincerely. They are referring to the ‘principles of journalism’ according to which the new Resource will be made, in which there is not only ‘objective information’, but also room for debate, criticism, and presenting both sides of an argument.

The managers and their communication advisors believe – and rightly so – that this kind of journalism can be practised with a mandate that gives them the possibility to withhold stories if the interests of the institution are at risk. In their eyes this is not censorship, but common sense.

A former employee of Cereales, Arno Boon, shares this opinion. In an open letter (printed on page 7) he writes that the Resource editors have forgotten that a university newspaper is free ‘in restraint’. According to Boon, the current Resource editorial staff mistakenly sides with the ‘underdog’ and portrays the managers as bogeymen.

However, in their view of independent journalism, both the Wageningen managers and Boon forget one important element: the watchdog function. One of the tasks of a free press is to inform people without power about the activities of people with power. What is the government doing with your tax money, what is your employer going to do with your job, what is the university planning to do with your study? Journalists not only provide information, they also interpret and raise the alarm if something happens that may be to the disadvantage of ‘the man in the street'.

Their job goes beyond merely applying the principles of journalism, such as presenting both sides of an argument. ‘Controlled’ freedom of the press, based on trust and reasonable discussion is not sufficient in this case. What is the use of a watchdog that regularly visits the potential intruder?

Good political journalists do not make friends with government ministers. Good journalists in Wageningen do not make friends with Aalt. They deliberately maintain their distance from management, regard them with distrust, and take the side of the ‘underdog’ if necessary. That is not unreasonable obstinacy, that is true freedom of the press.