The legendary reporter Carl Bernstein stepped out of the film that made him famous to give journalism students in Cardiff an inspiring but simple message – good reporting is ‘the best obtainable version of the truth’.
Bernstein described this as a simple concept – but one which is very hard to execute. For him it is underpinned by the idea that journalism should be for ‘the common good’. He believes the best reporting is almost always done in defiance of management and under cover of darkness (as in the film)!
He was optimistic about the quality of reporting in the USA, but concerned about the context in which it is received. Both in America and in Britain, Bernstein believes that too many people are less and less interested in the best obtainable version of the truth. ‘More and more, they’re looking for information to buttress their previously-held prejudices and beliefs. That’s the biggest challenge we face.’
Julian Assange and Wikileaks came in for criticism for their failure to redact the information they published to protect individuals whose safety might be compromised. And he took a hard line on the fate of Bradley Manning, saying he should have known the consequences of breaking an oath not to divulge secret information. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon papers was prepared to take the consequences and so should Manning.
For those in the audience (like me) who were inspired by Bernstein and Bob Woodward to become investigative journalists, it was an unforgettable experience to sit in the same room and have our faith in the journalistic mission confirmed. It’s to be hoped that young would-be reporters who were there will remember his advice: ‘Be a good listener. Don’t be arrogant. Having a press card doesn’t make us special’.