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Governments Do Want the Public to Know, and Understand

Governments Do Want the Public to Know, and Understand

Remarks by the Secretary General of NATO, Lord Robertson, at the London Press Club’s Annual Awards Luncheon, Claridge Hotel, Monday, 29 April 2002.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by adding my congratulations to today's award winners. While I have never been a journalist, I am well aware of what the job demands, and not much seems easy -- from dodging bullets in war zones, to finding some whiff of substance in the careful ambiguity of a political speech. In fact, I’m sure many of you prefer the bullets to the speeches.

But I am here today, as Prime Minister Blair was last year, because politics, global or national, and the press cannot be separated. The population wants to know what is being done by government in their name, and they turn to the media to find out. You may not believe this, but Governments do want the public to know, and understand, what is being done, and relies on you to pass on the information.

But of course our agenda and your agenda is not always the same - on bad days they seem diametrically opposed. After all the daily grind and complexity of government can seem pretty grey, and there is nothing to sell papers like a juicy political scandal, except perhaps daily updates on David Beckham’s foot.

So the challenge for me and others is to make what we do worth reporting, but I would also argue it's something of a mutual challenge, to make what matters interesting.

Certainly when I was Secretary of Defence, unless we were at war, I faced quite a communications challenge, explaining obscure procurement purchases and arcane military reforms, but after a few years in Brussels, I realise the communications challenge for a Secretary General of NATO is more difficult by an order of magnitude.

The reason's clear: much of what NATO does, day in and day out, is not seen as "media-friendly".

But it certainly matters. In simple terms, NATO is playing a key role in transforming Europe. The spread of peace and democracy across Europe is not an accident, nor an historical inevitability. It requires daily political decisions and political engagement to succeed.

And we're certainly busy, planning an enlarged NATO with new members, a new relationship with Russia, turning old enemies into new friends, and working on new defence capabilities that can meet the new threats like terrorism.

This kind of thing makes a direct contribution to the security of the UK, indeed it's fundamental, but it is not obviously media-friendly. Much of this work is done step by step, in a multitude of meetings, but pictures of meetings of middle-aged men in suits shaking hands don’t sell papers. Success can best be measured by steady peace, achieved at a steady pace but no journalist makes their career or wins many awards by covering the crises that didn’t happen. So the first challenge, for you and me, is to convey what is important but not immediate.

A second challenge is to report success and long-term effort. Of course, when bombs are falling it's easy to attract the world’s press. But when the fighting stops and the peacekeepers move in, press interest dies, and the final success of the mission too often goes under, or even, unreported.The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is a perfect example. Just last year, when the tensions there threatened to spiral out of control, there were plenty of headlines, and when NATO deployed a British-commanded force there were plenty of gloomy predictions. But the international community's intervention worked, and because it did thousands of people didn't die, and hundreds of thousands didn't become refugees. A civil war, which at one stage looked almost certain, was prevented, things are steadily getting better, and we still have 700 soldiers there helping to keep it getting better.

In Southern Serbia pre-emptive diplomacy, largely by NATO, also prevented a nasty little civil conflict that could have destabilised the new democracy growing in Serbia. Incidentally, just 3 years after fighting each other, that new government is also looking to join NATO's Partnership for Peace.

That is another success story but little covered, and so ordinary people often don’t know. I believe that the public deserves to know and, equally to the point for circulation managers, they want to know. They want to know about the successes, just as they need to know about the failures - or as is usually the case, the story that is a bit of both, and doesn't end neatly or quickly.

My challenge at NATO is to help the media finish the story to cover security issues from bullet to ballot box, from crisis to peace conference and beyond. But I believe that this is a challenge for the media as well. To trust that the public is not just interested in doom, but also success, the important as well as the immediate. To have confidence that their readers will take the time to understand not just what is happening, but why.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I think September 11 has not just changed the security landscape but the media one as well, and I sense some journalists also feel this. The Daily Mirror revamp is surely recognition something has, or ought to change, although I doubt I'll be getting any favours from John Pilger in the near future.Like you I suspect I have also been struck by Onora O'Neil's fascinating Reith lectures on the theme of trust - something we all need from the public. It poses some tough questions for my side of the fence, but also yours. She says in lecture 1, "Unless we take an account of the good news of trustworthiness as well as the bad news of untrustworthiness, we won't know whether we have a crisis of trust or only a culture of suspicion. In my view it isn't surprising that if we persist in viewing good news as no news at all, we end up viewing no news at all as good news."

Incidentally I also note that this week the Professor focuses on the role of the media, and if the preview material is anything to go by it could be uncomfortable listening for you - so I will be listening with interest!

So to my mind, both NATO and the press have our work cut out. Our job, at NATO, is to make what we do interesting to you, to earn your trust and your attention. Your challenge is to take the time to follow what we do, from beginning to end, and to use what you find, good as well as bad. I believe that's the only way to accomplish what must be our common goal: to ensure that the public gets all the information it needs not just David Beckham’s metatarsal, but all the news that's fit to print.

But let me end on a positive note. NATO is about enhancing stability, and in all the countries I visit there is a very clear connection between good, by which I mean fair, journalism and good government, and hence stability. The reverse also applies. So what you do is vital, you are part of the glue that holds societies together. Good journalism is good for society, not just for entertainment or newspapers' profit margins, and so I again offer sincere congratulations to all today's winners - the lasting result of your efforts is a lot more than just tomorrow's fish and chip wrappers.

Thank you.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).