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About A Week: Citizen Journalists Can Change The World

Peter Hinchliffe, who edits Open Writing and is also a citizen reporter working for OhmyNews International, a Web-based newspaper based in Seoul, South Korea, is convinced that good journalism can help to make the world a better place.

Britain's new Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a solemn promise to his nation when he took office.

A few minutes after being invited to form a government by Queen Elizabeth II he stood outside his official London residence, 10, Downing Street, and declared: "I will try my utmost."

Mr Brown's pledge was the Latin motto -- usque conabor -- of the high school where he was educated in Kirkcaldy, a small industrial town on the northern shore of Scotland's Firth of Forth.

Latin school mottos tend to be inspirational beacons lighting the way to hard work, team spirit, public spiritedness and good behaviour. Examples are non sibi sed omnibus (not for oneself but for all) and lumen accipe et imperti (take the light and pass it on).

Few doubt the sincerity of Mr. Brown's promise. He is a serious man, eager to tackle the toughest job his country can offer. The son of a Church of Scotland minister, he has often said that his parents were his moral compass and the inspiration for his career in public service.

But how many people in their 50s are still driven and motivated by a Latin school motto?

Not me. At the age of 12 I rebelled against my school motto, scorning its message.

I was educated at Dewsbury Wheelwright Grammar School for Boys. There was a separate grammar school for girls in the Yorkshire mill town where I grew up.

The Wheelwright's motto was res non verba -- deeds not words. It would be hard, if not impossible, to come up with a Latin phrase that was less motivational and applicable to a lad who, already at the age of 12, had decided he wanted to become a newspaper journalist.

I was addicted to words. I read my local weekly newspaper, The Reporter, longing soon to write its reports. I read the News Chronicle, the Sunday Observer, Punch magazine, The New Yorker...

And eventually I became a journalist, working for big city newspapers in England, the United States and Africa.

I earned a living from words. Words come before deeds. Words are vital. They are the fuel powering civilisation.

From the individual acorns that are words, mighty oak trees can grow. Twenty-five years ago I was a TV critic for a Yorkshire evening newspaper. I commented on a deeply moving BBC2 play, Going Gently. Its stark setting stays in the memory -- a hospital cancer ward.

Two men, played by Fulton Mackay, an actor better known for throwing his weight around as a prison officer in a sitcom, Porridge, and comedian Norman Wisdom, were in adjoining beds. Both were desperately lonely, one a widower, the other accepting that his family had no affection for him.

The pair were shown being wheeled down a grey-green hospital corridor, having undergone exploratory surgery.

A surgeon intoned: "Both terminal, sister. Seven or eight weeks."

It was as though the men had become less than human. Mere cyphers. Objects that would occupy beds for a little while, then be gone. The play was an angry shout, a demand for better treatment for the terminally ill.

In writing about Going Gently I pointed out that the hospice movement, then in its infancy, had shown that people can be helped to live with dignity to the very last moment of their lives.

"Many will find it hard to believe," I wrote, "but hospice patients have found their final weeks have been the happiest and most meaningful of their lives."

"Regrettably there are not enough hospices to meet the demand. Every town of our size should have facilities for this specialised form of care. We have the know-how and the nursing talent. What is needed is cash."

A couple of days after those words appeared in the newspaper I received a phone call from a Mr. David Stocks.

"Let's do it," he said. "Let's raise the money."

Mr. Stocks did it. He formed a committee, raised hundreds of thousands of pounds, and a hospice was built.

And one journalist was left with the lasting satisfaction of knowing that a few of his sentences had resulted in proper comfort and care for hundreds of people in direst need.

As I was saying ... journalistic words are important. For most of my life those words have been produced by full-time professional journalists.

Now, in this electronic age, contributions from citizen reporters are welcomed. There's the opportunity for different viewpoints, new insights, fresh ideas.

Citizen reporting is exciting and worthwhile, one of the greatest "inventions'' of the Internet age. (And I am proud to say that it was a British man who invented the Net).

Citizen reporters can help to change the world for the better.

And you can take my word for that.


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