What is an "independent journalist?"

At long last we seem to be getting to the bottom of just why Graham Davis seems to think that he is an "independent journalist." It turns out that he doesn't know the meaning of either word. The Grubby One raised some hackles last week when he delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce in the Trash Ghai smear campaign that preceded the regime's trashing of the draft constitution. Following some whispering by Crosbie Walsh on his blog that Ghai had lost the confidence of the regime because he was seen socialising with its critics, Davis published a lengthy hatchet job on Ghai both on his blog and in the regime daily, the Fiji Sun. Quoting an anonymous friend of Ghai, Davis set about deconstructing where the Kenyan law professor had gotten off the track. From this "friend," Davis concluded that Ghai had bitten off more than he could chew and had been co-opted by pro-democracy forces.
When he arrived in the country – according to this friend – Yash Ghai had a distinctly romantic notion about finally being able to resolve the intractable “Fiji Problem”. Indeed, he apparently came to believe – in the words of this person – that he was “just as big a saviour for the Fijian people as Voreqe Bainimarama”. . . . He seems to have regarded himself as an active peacemaker, someone capable of reconciling the various races and political factions and setting them on the path to a glorious future under his new prescription for a workable democracy.
According to this "friend," Davis continued, "Ghai was stung when he arrived in Fiji to find that far from being universally welcomed, he was pilloried on anti-government blogs as a stooge of the Bainimarama Government and a lap dog of Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum." As a result, quoth Davis, he "consciously set about to correct that assumption by actively courting those elements known to oppose the Government." So when the world renowned constitutional law expert came to Fiji he may have been well-intentioned, but according to Davis Ghai simply fell in with the wrong crowd. "It was a well-meaning but ultimately misguided attempt to be even handed because those anti-government elements were all too keen to exploit the opportunity for their own purposes." Basing such an analysis on a single source -- and an anonymous one at that -- is hardly good journalism. Not identifying the source prevents the reader from assessing its credibility. It could even have been (and likely was) Sayed-Khaiyum, who was a student of Ghai at the University of Hong Kong. Father Kevin Barr called it "very questionable."
Who is this friend and what is his/her political bias?  Is it, by chance, someone we might know? Did Graham also seek the opinion of other good friends of Yash? Graham’s early articles provided a more balanced and independent assessment of the Fiji situation but, more and more, he seems to be falling into the trap of accepting unquestioningly the official interpretation of events. 
Father Barr's use of the word "independent" was doubtless a reference to the description of Davis that accompanied his column in the Sun: "an independent Fijian journalist and part-time consultant for Qorvis Communications." As the latter is the U.S. public relations company under contract to the interim government and is well known for conducting online smear campaigns, the description of "independent journalist" just doesn't fit. The fact that Davis can do nothing but sing the praises of the Bainimarama regime and persists in smearing anyone who questions its policies (including myself) makes his lack of independence apparent enough. Grubby likes to cling to the lie, however, because he has another job hosting a weekly public affairs TV programme in Australia. It might not be very good for his television career if it became known down there that he is actually a propagandist for a foreign government.

Davis was at it again this week, getting a letter pimping the regime published in Rupert Murdoch's national daily, The Australian. At least he rightly concluded that the regime "will be judged on whether it keeps its promise to implement the first genuine democracy in Fiji's history." That brought a letter from myself that was not published in The Australian, as Grubby crowed in an email yesterday. Rajend Naidu down in Sydney noticed, too. "Graham Davis clearly does not qualify as an independent observer," wrote Naidu in a letter published on the New Zealand website Pacific Scoop. "His views are predictable. He is on the regime’s payroll." While we both struck out with getting our letters published in The Australian, former Fiji Sun publisher Russell Hunter hit a home run.
I FIND it incongruous that Graham Davis (Letters, 14/1) bangs on about genuine democracy while suppporting a regime that crushes dissent by using military force, controls the media to an extent the Julia Gillard hardliners wouldn't dare dream about, awards major contracts without tender, keeps ministerial salaries (and just about everything else) secret, has trampled on human rights, and routinely harasses trade unionists and rights activists -- the sad list goes on.
The war of words continued on the Fiji Today blog, on which I was unexpectedly given posting privileges recently. It aggregates most regional discussion on Fiji political issues and provides a forum for discussion that is more moderate than the revolutionaries at Coup 4.5 but is still decidedly anti-regime. It published Naidu's follow-up letter which seconded Hunter's sentiments and tore another strip off Davis. "If the expatriate Australian wants to side with the military dictatorship that [is] his choice," wrote Naidu. "Having made the choice Graham should not go on and on about being an 'independent' journalist. That is being dishonest." Davis, who trolls the blogs assiduously, shot back. "I am an independent journalists [sic.] because I don’t have one employer," he wrote. "I’m a freelancer. So Rajend Naidu completely misunderstands the use of this term." So it appears that the discrepancy boils down to a matter of semantics. To Davis, "independent" means "freelance." To the rest of us, independent means . . . well, independent. As a PhD in journalism, I simply had to weigh in with a bit of theory on this. Don't worry, this won't be too difficult. It's right out of Journalism 101.
The classic book The Elements of Journalism defines independence as “independence from faction” and states that journalists “must maintain an independence from those they cover.” Under this definition, Graham Davis comes nowhere close to qualifying as independent, as he is employed by the Fiji government faction. What he means is that he is a “freelance” journalist because he is not on staff at any journalism organization but instead contracts with different organizations, such as Qorvis Communications and (for now) the Southern Cross Austereo network in Australia.
Having illustrated what "independent" means in a journalistic context, I shall now deal with the other half of the description "independent journalist." What, exactly, is a journalist? Is it anyone who calls themself a journalist? Hardly. Here is what the same excerpt from The Elements of Journalism has to say on the matter.
The question people should ask is not whether someone is called a journalist. The important issue is whether or not this person is doing journalism. Does the work proceed from a respect for an adherence to the principles of truthfulness, an allegiance to citizens and community at large, and informing rather than manipulating -- concepts that set journalism apart from other forms of communication?
The Elements devotes its entire first chapter to the concept of truth, over which you can really tie yourself in knots and about which we don't have time to muse here. Instead let's deal with the other two parts of that definition. By "an allegiance to citizens and community at large," the Elements refers to its second chapter, which discusses a journalist's "social obligation that can actually override their employers’ immediate interests at times." Under this definition, a journalist actually doesn't work for the newspaper or broadcaster that pays them, but instead works on behalf of the public. That is distinctly different from a public relations operative or propagandist, who is always beholden to whoever signs their paycheque. How about "informing rather than manipulating?" That's an easy one. Was Graham Davis comprehensively informing us when he quoted Yash Ghai's anonymous friend, or was he selectively attempting to manipulate public opinion? If he really was a journalist bent on informing us, wouldn't he have bothered to get more than one source for his analysis? Any editor worth a pinch of salt would have spiked such a one-sided hit job in a heartbeat. Apparently that doesn't include Peter Lomas at the Regime Sun. Davis does not qualify as a journalist because he is not out to inform, but instead to manipulate. Islands Business magazine politely described it as a "charade" in a recent editorial.
Davis is hard put to defend his work as a consultant to an overseas public relations outfit engaged by the Fiji government while being a journalist at the same time. Small wonder then that his arguments in defence of juggling two hats and justifying the charade look like the proverbial fig leaf. Such obvious as daylight conflict of interest would scarcely, if ever, have gone unchallenged in the country where this commentator lives and works from. But apparently, as we have known all along, everything is fair game in the Pacific.
Give it up, Graham. We all know you are a propagandist bent on manipulating public opinion. It is an insult to all Fijians for you to continue to claim otherwise. You are hardly an independent journalist, or a journalist at all. You don't even know the meaning of either word.