IT’S a question I’m almost always confronted with these days whenever invited to talk about journalism.

Come to think of it, having spent the best part of four decades in this profession, I can’t remember a time when I’ve been asked the same question more often.

Last month, while guest speaking at the Future News Worldwide conference held at Holyrood, that question inevitably came up again: Does journalism need to be neutral?

The questioner was a young journalist – one of a 100 or so of the world’s most talented, motivated and passionate aspiring reporters, photographers and editors, who for the past few years have been brought together by the British Council and leading media organisations for two days, during which they share experiences about their professional development.

They come to Edinburgh from more than 50 countries in total, far and wide from China to Zimbabwe, Colombia to Croatia and beyond. When brought together, their collective presence provides a remarkable and insightful snapshot of those whose responsibility it will be to carry the baton of journalism into tomorrow.

In finally responding to the questioner and audience at large I gave the answer I always give.

“No, I don’t think journalism needs to be neutral,” I told them. “I don’t think journalism can be neutral.”

A hearty round of impromptu applause followed, much to my pleasure and some surprise. Perhaps it’s that I wasn’t expecting such a partisan endorsement from those so young, idealistic and fresh from journalism school lectures on the importance of accuracy, fairness and balance.

Very quickly, though, in the discussion that followed, I realised here before me were future representatives of my profession who had already and wisely seen the writing on the wall.

Most were canny to the threat posed by “fake news”, and beyond their tender years showed a sharp awareness of the challenges and intimidation of a kind not witnessed for decades faced by the media.

That they came from myriad nations where attitudes to journalism vary widely only added to their sense of purpose that right here and now, we stand before an existential global threat to the idea of freedom of the press.

Almost to a person they understood that the quaint and luxurious notion of balance doesn’t cut it when surrounded by hate-mongering, systematic disinformation and cynical manipulation of data.

For them there is now no escaping the burning need for what has sometimes been dubbed “adversarial journalism”; the kind of fearless, probing media typified by the US-based online news site The Intercept or closer to home here in Scotland The Ferret. This is the journalism so many of those young editorial hopefuls I met last month look towards, and who am I to disagree?

Some years ago, long before the current threat to press freedom, much was made about what was dubbed the so-called “journalism of attachment”, a phrase first coined by the genre’s unofficial founder Martin Bell, the former BBC correspondent. It was back in the 1990s, during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, that Bell made the case for a journalism that “cares as well as knows”.

Journalists, said Bell, had a new “moral obligation” to distinguish between “good” and “evil” in conflict zones, and if necessary, to take sides. In other words, it was fine to become emotionally “attached” and nothing to be professionally afraid of.

Such thinking was not uncontroversial, with many warning that by emphasising attachment over neutrality, emotionalism over objectivity, there were dangers that the reporter would shift into the role of activist or campaigner rather than a one-step-removed dispassionate recorder of fact and truth.

Personally, I’ve often thought such fears were overblown and that there is another way of looking at this. The reporter who makes clear that he or she finds South African apartheid or the methods used by the Israeli occupation forces in the Gaza Strip to be unacceptable and abhorrent is doing nothing more than their job.

While a “journalism of attachment” may in the 1990s have seemed new at the time, such attitudes have often provided the motivating factor behind some of the best-ever journalism.

Think of Claud Cockburn’s dispatches from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, John Pilger and Wilfred Burchett’s coverage of the Vietnam conflict or the South African newspaper editor and anti-apartheid activist Donald Woods, and you will understand what I mean.

Today there are still great news organisations calling out the lies for what they are. In the United States The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN still report President Donald Trump’s lies as lies. They know that this is not the time to offer balance against the disinformation coming out of the White House.

The National: Donald Trump

Right now balance will not help journalists build the bulwark against those hell-bent in spewing out “alternative facts”.

Today’s journalism simply can’t sit placidly and accommodate such dangerous gibberish. It must confront and face down this sinister language and the behaviour that goes with it. It must do so in an adversarial way, especially when such lying comes from the top and is normalised.

Writing recently in The New European newspaper, the veteran BBC correspondent Gavin Esler says that faced with relentless campaigns of disinformation and messages of hate, journalists have to rethink entirely the very basis of what they do and how they do it.

For years as a journalist I’ve personally lost count of the times individuals have rolled their eyes and given me contemptuous looks on hearing that I was “one of those people”.

As a journalist, I like many colleagues was regarded as being about as worthy as something you would scrape off the sole of your shoe. In some instances such responses, I freely admit, were only a result of our own making by some within the profession.

But now is not the time to discount the true need and value of journalism’s real role. No, I don’t think journalism does not need to be neutral, but it does need to be fearless in questioning the corruption of power and authority that threatens the underdog.

Perhaps by being more adversarial towards those malign forces that currently stalk the world today, journalism can win back the respect and support it deserves. The young journalists I met in Edinburgh recently, I’m pleased to say, certainly think so.