Jon Benjamin's speech on investigative journalism

British High Commissioner to Ghana, Jon Benjamin, delivered the following speech during an investigative journalism workshop in Accra.

Jon Benjamin

I am delighted to have been asked to speak here today. I hope my invitation is also testament to the British High Commission’s commitment to work with Ghana to tackle corruption, specifically through our DFID programming.

I’m a particularly pleased to be here as I am such a huge fan of Anas. Last a week a photo appeared of Anas and myself at our wonderful Queen’s Birthday Party to celebrate the 90th birthday of our Queen. Some unkind person on Twitter then commented that I should adopt Anas’ practice of wearing a beaded mask, arguing that if I permanently covered my face I would be doing the whole world a favour. I’m still trying to think of the best reply to that.

In responding to your invitation today, I am not here to preach about the wrongs of corruption. As you may have guessed, I am no preacher – and I know that my dear friend Bishop Obinim would agree with that. So, don’t worry – this is not another sermon about ‘soli’ though you shouldn’t be surprised if I do mention it in a few minutes.

More importantly, though, I expect that all of you here are of the common opinion that corruption should have no place in a modern, democratic Ghana, nor in the UK or anywhere else. You don’t need me to tell you that.

So, instead, I will speak about the important role of investigative journalists and the contribution that they make in maintaining a free but accountable society.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Investigative journalists have both a duty and a responsibility;

Their duty is to defend free speech, inform citizens, encourage deliberation on public policy and serve the public interest. These duties will sometimes require that journalists reveal criminal activity, investigate abuses of power and expose wrong-doing. That is the nature of the work. And that work makes them an essential part of a democratic, open society. They embody the need to hold accountable those who govern and spend the people’s money; those who abuse and mistreat others; and those who knowingly think they can get away with breaking the law with impunity.

But in doing that, investigate journalists must also be responsible. It is their role to seek and report the truth as completely and independently as possible to support the open administration of justice and government.

But we know that it is not always easy to uphold these virtues. Acting as an independent voice for the public, journalists should not be intimidated by power or influenced by special interests, advertisers or news sources. The independence of journalism must not be compromised by conflicts of interest.

For all journalists, accountability is fundamental. You must be ready to explain to the public the reasons for your investigations. You must be ready to respond to complaints and to explain how and why a story was investigated. But foremost, you must be ready to quickly correct any errors. It is equally as vital that you provide the opportunity for individuals or organisations to respond to the results of your investigations.

Radio is of course still the single most important medium in Ghana. It was radio that was the catalyst for one of Ghana’s best loved investigative journalists, Komla Dumor, who was so much admired in the UK too.

Through his tenacious journalism and compelling storytelling, Komla worked tirelessly to bring a more nuanced African narrative to the world. Komla transformed the coverage of Africa and brought a depth of understanding and courage to his work. His infectious charm and charisma ensured his unique style was both friendly and professional at all times. These are professional standards that all upcoming young journalists should aspire to. Komla often referenced ‘patience and perseverance’ as two of the most important professional values.

Komla understood viscerally that a free press plays a key role in sustaining and monitoring a healthy democracy, as well as in contributing to greater accountability, good government, and economic development. According to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press index, only 14 percent of the world’s citizens live in countries that enjoy a completely free press. In the rest of the world, governments as well as non-state actors at least to some extent control the viewpoints that reach citizens and, worse still, sometimes brutally repress alternative independent voices who aim to promote accountability, good governance, and economic development.

Anas’ recent documentary, ‘Ghana: In the Eyes of God’, is an example of how a free press can contribute to greater accountability. Anas and many more like him – including many who are here tonight - should be encouraged to pursue each story they hear about; chase each strand of information they receive; and investigate those thoroughly to provide a detailed account for the wider public audience. An open, democratic society, a free society needs more Anas-style journalists – more journalists like you - demonstrating courage and resilience to unearth the truth and deliver an accurate story so that those paid from the public purse can be held to account.

In recent times, Ghana has produced two shining lights in Komla and Anas - both of whom are very different in style - but both equally as effective. Whilst Anas is fast becoming the icon for investigative reporting in Africa, we should not forget that Komla himself was the lead crusader into the corruption scandal at the Social Security and National Insurance Trust in the early 2000s. Anas recently told me what a great personal friend Komla had been for him, often working hand in hand in their complementary roles as broadcast and undercover journalists.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We recognise that many journalists work under tough conditions and are paid poorly in a highly competitive and crowded media market which tends to push salaries down. That can in turn inadvertently lead them to neglect their own professional values and affect their ability to remain neutral.

Good journalism based on the professional values that Anas and Komla have embodied, are, however, crucial for the future. And you here today are the future of journalism in Ghana. We hope that as Ghana continues its own development journey, it can provide a stable and dynamic media environment for this new generation of journalists, with a new sense of ethics and standards.

With this in mind, we do hope that Ghana can one day become a ‘soli’ free environment. Journalists should accept that a story is either intrinsically newsworthy or it isn’t: a story doesn’t become newsworthy, when it otherwise wouldn’t be, just because someone has paid for it. That isn’t journalism, it’s advertising. I hope I’ve made a contribution here to push this debate forward. It’s complex. I know some journalists hate me for even raising the subject. I also know that journalists need, and deserve, to make a proper living. But accepting ‘soli’ is not the answer.

I do know what one part of the answer is though: strongly urging the owners and management of Ghana’s many media houses to pay their journalists a decent living wage. We hope they hear the call.

‘Soli’ is not alone in threatening the credibility of Ghanaian journalism. There are other disturbing traits in the media here which strike a neutral outside observer and real friend of Ghana like me as troubling.

Why, for example, are uncritical media platforms provided to just a few religious figures, so-called and self-appointed ‘men of God’, to exploit their congregations for money?

And why are readers exposed to graphic images of recently dead bodies, published without care for their privacy or the grief of their families? These phenomena are not acceptable journalism.

Those are just a few examples of bad habits. And we may see more bad habits in the next six months until the elections. Bad habits die hard. You are the new generation of journalists; ready and prepared to begin new traits with pride, passion and gusto. You have a duty; you are responsible; you are accountable. I encourage you all never to lose sight of those values.

Thank you very much for your time.

Published 29 April 2016