Peter Preston (1938-2018)

Peter Preston

by Andrew Finkel, for independent journalism in Turkey

If you try opening from an internet server in Turkey you are asking for a world of grief. The country’s Ministry for of Transport, Maritime and Communications in its wisdom has banned through arbitrary fiat access to the popular encyclopedia because two or three of the over 49 million articles suggest that the Turkish government was guilty of smuggling assistance to Islamic radicals in Syria. On the other hand, if you add a zero ( to the address line in the menu bar, you manage to bypass the whole proscriptive apparatus of the state.

Peter Preston would not have been surprised.

“There is always a hole in the wall of oppression,” he told an audience in Istanbul in 2015, a gentler age in Turkey when the government was only trying to ban Twitter. Peter had come as the guest of P24 to deliver its annual Mehmet Ali Birand Memorial Lecture on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. Though not hale and hearty – he continued to suffer the effects of a childhood bout with polio—he thought nothing of making the journey. We in Turkey pride ourselves as being perfect hosts but Peter outdid us by being the perfect guest. His commitment to telling truth to power and his commitment to supporting  those trying to do the same was as much a part of his personality as his gentle manner, his sense of humour and his lack of airs.

Like an elder round the campfire (in this case a podium in Istanbul’s glorious eighteenth century Swedish Consulate) Peter told the story from his days as editor of the Guardian fighting the Thatcher government’s ultimately fruitless efforts more than 30 years ago, to ban Spycatcher – an insider’s tale of MI6. He did not underestimate the ability of governments- then and now-  to stifle discussion of things they did not want to hear. He simply believed they would not succeed.

However, he was alert to the damage caused along the way. The reason, he told us why “the clamour of creative voices should never be stilled, was because of the waste such efforts created “the waste of talent, the waste of passion, the waste of aspiration.”

After a career of trying to prevent that waste, Peter Preston laid down his pen. His final column for the Observer, printed last New Year’s Eve was an admonition to his own profession to be worthy of the trust they claimed. While most think of him as the radical young editor who transformed The Guardian during his 20 years at its helm to 1995, many who consult this website remember him for his work with the Guardian Foundation and his commitment to providing support for those elsewhere, struggling to set their own national press free.

It is in tribute to that support that we reprint the lecture he delivered to that Istanbul audience. It looks to the past and it peers into the future. It is brutally realistic yet also full of hope.

Lecture ‘Worldwide News Freedom in a Digital Age‘ by Peter Preston, Istanbul, 3 May 2015

Journalism is changing and renewing“, an inspiring text by Peter Preston honouring investigative journalism which manages to survive against all odds.

Peter Preston with journalists and press freedom activists from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Montengro, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey, at the seminar on investigative journalism he organised at the Guardian within the SEE Media Observatory project in September 2015