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World Communications Day: what it means to be a journalist

May 31, 2019

This Sunday is known as World Communications Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church. It is an opportunity to reflect on many aspects of what communications means in the modern world.

It is also an opportunity for those of us who work in the media to reflect on our roles and the values that guide us.

When Pope John Paul II came to the UK in 1982 he handed a simply typed note to all the journalists covering the trip. It was addressed to “My friends in the communications media”.

It was reprinted on the front cover of UK Press Gazette that week. I cut it out and framed it and it has hung by my desk, wherever I have lived, ever since. This is what he wrote.


Wherever the sounds of transmit are heard, wherever the images you capture are seen, wherever the words you report are read, there is your neighbour. There is a person you must love, someone for whose total well being you must work – and sometimes go without sleep and miss your meals.

You are the instruments through whom that person – and millions of others – enjoys a wider experience and is helped to become a more effective member of the world community, a true neighbour to others.

Your profession, by its very nature, makes you servants, willing servants, of the community. Many of the members of that community will differ from you in political views, in material prospects, in religious conviction or in moral performance.

The message stills hangs on the wall next to my desk

As good communicators, you serve them all the same – with love and with truth: indeed with a love of truth.

As good communicators, you build bridges to unite, not walls to divide. As good communicators, you work out of the conviction that love and service of neighbour are the most important business in your life.

All your concern then will be for the community’s good. You will feed it on the truth. You will enlighten its conscience and serve as its peacemaker.

You will set before the community standards that will keep it stretching for a way of life and a mode of behaviour worthy of its potential, worthy of human dignity.

You will inspire the community, fire its ideals, stimulate its imagination – if necessary taunt it – into getting the best out of itself, the human best.

You will neither yield to any inducement nor bend before any threat which might seek to deflect you from total integrity in your professional service.


I know many people reading that will scoff because they have just read or heard something they disagree with and think my fellow journalists fall far short of those ideals. Before you dismiss it I ask you to bear a few things in mind.

We are only human. In my experience, most journalists do strive to achieve many of those ideals but our human frailty means we often fall short. Our job means our shortcomings, mistakes and errors of judgement are there for all to see and criticise. The scrutiny is constant and intense. We should not be automatically condemned for our failings but instead be encouraged to do better next time.

Many journalists face immense pressures because of what they do. 54 journalists around the world were murdered for doing their job last year. 250 journalists are currently in prison for doing their job. Even those of us who haven’t faced such extreme dangers still live with threats, sometimes physical, sometimes financial. I have been threatened on many occasions by people and firms with deep pockets, seen libel writs with my name on them land on my desk and faced demands to reveal sources for doing no more than telling the truth, truths that some people would rather not be known but which I have believed a greater good dictates should be dragged out into the light.

We are not perfect and know that journalism is not a profession that will ever command widespread respect, at least not until it is gone. But the overwhelming majority of us will never stop seeking the truth, nor forget it is the interests of the communities we serve – our readers and audiences – that come first.

From → Publishing

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