With the Roman Catholic Church led by an increasingly sad-looking coalition of bully boys and mummy's boys in a seeming retreat from the higher standards of morality and ethical behaviour that was held out as a promise of the Second Vatican Council, Dr Andrew Kania today takes up his pen on the issue of journalistic ethics and morality. The current Leveson Inquiry being conducted in London into the culture, practice and ethics in journalism and its relationship with politics and other centres of power provides the backdrop for this essay in which Dr Kania takes a look back at an earlier historical example where journalism fell down: the reporting of The Holodomor — the Ukrainian Genocide that occurred 80 years ago. This essay might be a jumping off point for discussion of journalistic ethics, the declining standards in institutional morality, the current scandals in the Vatican coming via Vatikleaks, and much more. It even ties in with the present conversation on our forum on the future capacity of institutionalised religion to be setting the moral compass for society.
Things That Matter (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2499)
One of the most well-known journalists of the 20th Century, Malcolm Muggeridge [1903-1990], suffered a deep personal crisis while working in Moscow as a correspondent for The Manchester Guardian. In 1932, Muggeridge then only 29, decided to travel from Russia to Ukraine to investigate the rumours of a great famine occurring in a nation known to be 'the breadbasket of Europe'.
The Soviet Government had denied reports of millions of people starving to death, but Muggeridge, acutely aware of Stalin's ability for dis-information, secretly left Moscow, journeying through Ukraine to the renowned fertile Steppes. What Muggeridge witnessed was horrific; one of the greatest acts of genocide in human history. Seven million people were to perish in one year as a direct result of an artificial famine, sculptured in order to break the spirit of Ukraine's agrarian society and culture. The Famine, known in Ukrainian as The Holodomor, was only to become part of Muggeridge's nightmare. Smuggling out his correspondences to Britain, by using a false identity, and through diplomatic briefcases, Muggeridge contended with pro-Stalinist journalists, politicians and media moghuls in the West who sought to deny that any Famine was actually occurring. One of these individuals was Walter Duranty [1884-1957], the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist of The New York Times. Today Duranty is widely condemned for having created and perpetuated the lie to the world, that The Holodomor was a myth. At the time of The Holodomor, Muggeridge's rival, the Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, publically supported Muggeridge's account of The Holodomor, rebuffing, Duranty's dis-information. In a 13th of June, 1933 letter to The New York Times Jones wrote:
"My first evidence was gathered from foreign observers. Since Mr. Duranty introduces consuls into the discussion, a thing I am loath to do, for they are official representatives of their countries and should not be quoted, may I say that I discussed the Russian situation with between twenty and thirty consuls and diplomatic representatives of various nations and that their evidence supported my point of view. But they are not allowed to express their views in the press, and therefore remain silent. Journalists, on the other hand, are allowed to write, but the censorship has turned them into masters of euphemism and understatement. Hence they give 'famine' the polite name of 'food shortage' and 'starving to death' is softened down to read as 'widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition'. Consuls are not so reticent in private conversation."
So during a time in which historians now calculate that 25,000 people died of State-planned starvation each day in Ukraine — people, very well-respected people, lied in order to placate and uphold a cruel dictator.
Muggeridge would recount many years later, in an interview with Marco Carynnyk, that:
"The conspiracy of silence was largely successful. I'll tell you another thing that's more difficult to convey, but it impressed me enormously. It was on a Sunday in Kiev, and I went into the church there for the Orthodox mass. I could understand very little of it, but there was some spirit in it that I have never come across before or after. Human beings at the end of their tether were saying to God: 'We come to You, we're in trouble, nobody but You can help us.' Their faces were quite radiant because of this tremendous sense they had. As no man would help them, no government, there was nowhere that they could turn. And they turned to their Creator. Wherever I went it was the same thing."
So what was the eventual fallout? The West would continue to ignore The Holodomor – choosing to accept, Duranty's word, as well as that of famous authors and socialists George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and George Orwell, that the Soviet Union was a utopia in progress; and reports of millions of Ukrainian deaths, were merely anti-Communist propaganda. The untruths propounded by the likes of Shaw, Wells and Duranty had cut away at the reputations of Muggeridge and Jones; but more than anything, they had assisted in the death sentences of innocent men, women and children; for the world just refused to believe. Muggeridge would return to England, but not before he had described Duranty, as "the greatest liar I have met in journalism"; an assessment that most scholars of journalism today would perceive to be quite near, if not, on the mark. (To this day, strong calls are made to revoke Duranty's Pulitizer Prize). A puzzled George Orwell would later write in 1945, condemning those whom he categorized as "English Russophiles": "[I]t was considered equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in the Ukraine. And if this was true before the war, the intellectual atmosphere is certainly no better now." Orwell's Animal Farm would allegorize The Holodomor.
The impact of The Holodomor would ripple on. Muggeridge would become an agnostic, only in his later years regaining his faith in God; and becoming a well-known Catholic apologist. Gareth Jones, would be banned from the Soviet Union in 1933, for having told too often, too many uncomfortable truths. He would be murdered at the age of 29, at the hands of NKVD agents, not in Ukraine, nor in Russia, but in China. On August the 26th, 1935, the British newspaper, The Evening Standard would quote Lloyd George's eulogy of the young Welsh journalist:
"That part of the world is a cauldron of conflicting intrigue and one or other interests concerned probably knew that Mr Gareth Jones knew too much of what was going on... He had a passion for finding out what was happening in foreign lands wherever there was trouble, and in pursuit of his investigations he shrank from no risk... I had always been afraid that he would take one risk too many. Nothing escaped his observation, and he allowed no obstacle to turn from his course when he thought that there was some fact, which he could obtain. He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered."
Paragraph 2494 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is explicit about the importance of the media in disseminating information so as to enhance the public consciousness:
"The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity: The proper exercise of this right demands that the content of the communication be true and — within the limits set by justice and charity — complete. Further, it should be communicated honestly and properly. This means that in the gathering and in the publication of news, the moral law and the legitimate rights and dignity of man should be upheld."
Moreover, following from this opening, the Catechism continues on to highlight the role, and the moral responsibility required of the journalist:
"By the very nature of their profession, journalists have an obligation to serve the truth and not offend against charity in disseminating information." [Par. 2497]
At the core of any democratic society, is the freedom of the media; Lord Justice Leveson has said as much in the Inquiry that bears his name. However in contemporary times we have witnessed media barons being hauled into court — and newspapers subsequently having to close down. At the same time we have governments seeking to silence journalists who have revealed 'classified information'. The role of the journalist is critical; for without them, much that we know daily as 'truth', the perspectives of the world around us — merely cease to exist. How else do we, living in our homes, know what is occurring not only in our locale — but in our nation, and in other nations?
Yet with such great power comes greater responsibility. It is the moral integrity of the journalist that must take precedence over any other singular motivation — for when lies are repeated often, they too frequently become the 'truth'; and a public consciousness formed by such 'truths', is a society unknowingly reclining under the Sword of Damocles. Journalists should give their talents and perhaps their lives also, to highlight to the world — things that matter, issues of moral gravity; rousing the collective moral consciousness from its stupor. When they do this, they elevate their profession, to a sublime vocation, a calling not dictated by sales, and winning headlines — but by the promulgation of truth, and with it the preservation of the dignity of the human person.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania, submitted to Catholica on 29 May 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012Dr Andrew Thomas Kania