Should journalists be armed?

18:58, Oct 31 2014
Martin van Beynen
Press columnist Martin van Beynen.

Today I want to deal with the vexed and topical issue of whether journalists should be armed.

As you know journalists have traditionally gone about their job unarmed except of course for their pens.

This has been fine as long as journalists were required to cover a country where they were held in no more than just a little contempt.

But that is no longer the case. Journalists are increasingly under vicious attack from all directions.

Criticism of journalists is becoming more and more vociferous and disrespectful. People seem to have no qualms about posting insulting remarks on news websites or sending offensive and anonymous emails to reporters just doing their jobs.

With so many rogues, frauds and thugs about, journalists are daily confronted by rude remarks, insults and threatening behaviour. Subjects of reportage are often intoxicated with their sense of entitlement and their legal fighting funds.

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Journalists continually face the stalling and obfuscation tactics of communications officers and public relations executives.

On any day a journalist might open their email to face yet another day without an answer to a simple question. Some threats are less obvious but just as damaging.

The internet has undermined the very lifeblood of the media industry. Advertisers have deserted the trusty print media for other advertising vehicles and endangered the very living, meagre that it is, that journalists and their families depend on.

Some lessons therefore need to be taught.

There was a time when the pen was mightier than the sword, when journalists were treated with a small measure of forbearance. But that New Zealand has gone.

Journalists should not have to tolerate starting each day with the threat of legal action or going out on the street to a barrage of insults and ill feeling.

We can lament this New Zealand of the past all we like but the time has come for journalists to pack some heat. As former journalism minister Judith Collins said if you can't be liked or respected at least you can be feared.

Journalists appreciate bearing arms will prompt a storm of public outrage and concern. Well journalists are used to it.

Opponents of arming journalists will bring out the old chestnut that journalists can't be trusted to exercise restraint and good judgment.

They will say that journalists bearing weapons will cause a spike in journalists abusing their position and inevitably result in more scoops, exposures and wrecked lives. Reputations, careers and livelihoods will be lost, critics will say.

They will also complain that the subjects of journalists' stories will scale up their own weapons, like even more expensive lawyers, precipitating an arms race and a general climate of more aggression and nastiness.

While these arguments are understandable they are also easily defeated.

Journalists are continually under fire from critics and commentators but are used to acting in a professional and even- handed manner. Reporters are also bound by a strict code of conduct which is rigorously enforced by penalties including enforced shouts at the local watering hole or ridicule in the office. As we know, journalism is self policing.

As for subjects gearing up in response to journalists bearing arms, believe me, that has already happened. Journalists would only be catching up.

It will also be said that incidents causing danger to journalists usually happen without warning and do not give the journalist the luxury of drawing their weapon. This is not a good argument for not arming journalists. Most journalists will never use their weapon but they need it there for that one incident where they are abused or disrespected.

One day and we all hope it won't happen, journalists will face an act of mass vilification from rampaging members of the public.

We don't want a repeat of the response to the phone hacking incidents in the United Kingdom where journalists were under sustained attack.

These acts need to nipped in the bud, before the feelings of more journalists can be hurt or lost.

Journalists spend their working lives holding people to account.

They act as curbs on power and work hard to protect the innocent from being ripped off. They are the inky line between institutional anarchy and openness and transparency. By being armed, they can do their job with more security both for themselves and the citizenry. All I can say to the opponents of this sensible and much needed move is this. Make my day, punk.

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