The bravery of the young reporter telling the inconvenient truths

I find new journalism heroes on a more or less weekly basis.

There are some I share with hundreds of thousands of other fans, such as Woodward and Bernstein, Ben Bradlee and the Boston Globe Spotlight team.

There are others closer to home – the fantastic Andrew Norfolk from The Times, the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, Shaun Lintern of the Health Service Journal and the ever wonderful Jen Williams of the Manchester Evening News, to name but a very small few.

This week I even added veteran TV presenter Richard Madeley to the list after his refusal to put up with speak-your-weight-machine answers from a slippery Defence Secretary.

But a new hero has emerged this week in the shape of a young reporter from Yorkshire.

The bravery – and yes, what she did, and continues to do, requires courage – of Stephanie Finnegan particularly gladdens my heart because it was also fuelled by a confident knowledge of media law.

Rightly, the people who taught her that media law at Sunderland University are incredibly proud of the way in which she has cut a swathe of calm, knowledgeable common sense through the ludicrous, misguided conspiracy theoryfest surrounding Tommy Robinson.

 

In an age of trending topics, Google analytics and an increasing reliance on search, an awful lot of journalism is about telling people what they want to know. And that’s exactly as it should be.

But sometimes, the very best journalism tells people what they don’t want to know.

It’s not just Stephanie and her boss, Matt Millington from LeedsLive, who have been explaining some inconvenient truths to people with closed minds.

There’s been some good work on spelling out the crucial importance of this country’s contempt of court legislation by the fantastic Secret Barrister  and David Banks.

But it’s Stephanie who has done the legwork here, sitting in court, using her legal knowledge to challenge and explain, defending the media on radio – and having to put up with some shocking abuse and personal comments.

It’s not the sort of activity that wins awards, and to some people, it makes her look like the head girl sticking to the boring rules.

To me it makes her a bit of a hero.

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A VERY long read: how do we rebuild trust between media and audience?

This is the full text of a public lecture I gave at the University of Gloucestershire last night.

Good evening everyone.

I’ve never given a public lecture before.

I teach our fantastic students virtually every day – but I’ve never had an audience with what we might call civilians in it until now.

But you look like a lovely crowd, so I’m going to give it a go.

I should warn you that I do some of my best thinking while I’m out running.

And I’ve used some of my most recent runs to put together these words.

So you ought to know what you’re letting yourself in for: this lecture is about five miles long.

To put that another way, if you’re here for the embroidery evening class, get out while you still can, before we lock the doors.

I’ve been a journalist for 33 years now.

When I started work at the Western Times and Gazette in Exeter, it was still using hot metal – that’s a printing technique, by the way, not the latest thrash music craze.

I had a patch that I visited on a Friday morning, telling my contacts that if anyone asked I’d seen them in the afternoon – by which time I was halfway to Aberystwyth in Wales where my girlfriend, now my wife, was still a student.

There was no way my newsdesk – or anyone else – could get hold of me, and my trusty battered typewriter was back in the office. So I didn’t write a word for a whole day.

On days when I was actually in the office, time passed so slowly that we used to fight to answer the phone when it occasionally rang.

If I was covering mid Devon today – three and a bit decades on – I would be responsible for a steady supply of stories for the very excellent Devon Live website, filing while on the road for a digital-first operation where page view targets dominate newsroom behaviour more or less 24/7. I’d be expected to come up with edited video to complement my stories and to play my part in meaningful social interaction with my audience via social media and that website. I would be a very visible, accountable, contactable figure. There would be little chance of me disappearing off the radar for an hour, never mind a whole day.

That’s the world that we strive to prepare our students for – and it’s a world away from my days of going awol in the Devon countryside.

But some things haven’t changed in that time.

The idea of the media disregarding, ignoring or stretching the truth isn’t a new one.

The idea of people – from PRs to politicians – trying to pull the wool over the media’s eyes isn’t new.

And the idea of a media which is biased – even prejudiced – certainly isn’t new.

Whether it’s the Hitler Diaries, Freddie Starr eating my hamster, the so-called Truth over Hillsborough or a young Boris Johnson’s so-called revelations about the EU outlawing bendy bananas, there has always been material that subverts the truth in the media.

So I have to admit I’m not wild about the term fake news.

What I would agree is that there have never been more ways for those who want to play fast and loose with the truth to do just that. I am tired of people lazily laying all of society’s ills at the doors of social media but Twitter and Facebook clearly offer a vehicle which can allow lies and half-truths to take hold.

Facebook is now desperately rebuilding its algorithms and expanding its moderation system to counter allegations that it rewards much-shared, viral lies at the expense of the more boring truth.

Its rapidly-moving landscape makes it easier for people like Trump and Johnson to use what I believe is called the dead cat technique: throwing another headline-grabbing statement in the faces of journalists to blur the picture, cast more doubt and cover their own mucky tracks.

And we do perhaps live in more fragmented times, with fewer shared experiences – we don’t watch the same TV any more, or go to the same pubs, the same supermarkets, the same churches.

When you come across statistics like only 14 per cent of Republicans believe the American media is fair, and that 50 per cent of people consume what they call mainstream news fewer than once a week, it’s easy to talk ourselves into a crisis about the integrity of our news.

But research also shows that people consume far more reliable news than false news – and that social media users, far from being in a filter bubble, are actually exposed to more contrary viewpoints than the Twitter and Facebook refuseniks.

People who talk the most about fake news have the biggest vested interest in inflating that threat, and there is no doubt that The White House would have dismissed Watergate as fake news had it happened today.

It’s worth saying that Trump’s attacks on what his people now call the opposition media are as nothing compared to the brutality meted out to journalists in Putin’s Russia, in Turkey, in Cambodia – where a journalist I know has just resigned rather than be censored by the state, in Turkmenistan, and in Saudi Arabia.

As the impressive journalism expert Emily Bell wrote recently, when fragile democracies fall, it is often journalists who are the first dominoes to be pushed.

More than 2,500 journalists have been killed across the world since 1990 – and not all in unpronounceable former Soviet states.

The killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb incident in the holiday destination of Malta – as she investigated corruption at the heart of that island’s government last year – is proof of that.

So attacks on media freedom don’t only happen many thousands of miles away.

We like to think we’ve taught the world how to do democracy and transparency.

And yet let’s have a guess where the UK is on the latest world media freedom list – ask….

We’re top ten, surely, aren’t we? We’d be on the podium if there was an Olympic Games for a free press.

Not quite. We’re 40th. Out of 180

I could cheerfully – although actually it’s pretty depressing – talk for another 45 minutes or so on the changes some MPs want to make to the Data Protection Act going through Parliament to force media organisations not signed up to the right regulator to pay the legal costs of people who sue them.

It’s an affront to hard-hitting journalism, not surprisingly backed by MPs whose own misdemeanours have been exposed by journalists.

Luckily, that threat has receded for the moment.

But there is still the Investigatory Powers Act, described as the most extreme surveillance legislation in British history, and the threat of an extension to the Official Secrets Act.

It’s entirely understandable that there should be concern over press behaviour.

The recent Kerslake Report into the Manchester Arena bombing painted a disturbing picture of harassment, intrusion and tactlessness by some journalists.

Some of that behaviour may have come from foreign media representatives – but not all of it. That is a stain on my profession.

What is reassuring to me, though, is that the local paper, the Manchester Evening News, emerged with its reputation enhanced by the tragedy that almost broke its city a year ago.

I say almost broke, because the sensitivity of the coverage and then editor Rob Irvine’s overwhelming desire to heal wounds and bring his community together helped Manchester pull off a resilient recovery that has inspired people all over the world.

There was nothing but praise for the MEN and its staff in that hard-hitting report.

That’s why regional journalism will always be the journalism that’s closest to my heart. It’s the world I was part of for 30 years and still feel emotionally connected to.

At its best, that world reflects real communities, sharing in their joys and woes, acting as a cheerleader, a champion and a critical friend.

And there is an accountability in that world that in its own way is far more potent than any law or regulator.

This is whites of your eyes journalism: the knowledge that if you walk down your local high street you will bump into people you’ve written about, and – hopefully – the confidence that you can look those people in the eye and justify every word.

And that sort of eyeball to eyeball contact absolutely has to be at the heart of journalism.

I’m happy that my students here are sick of hearing from me that the real stories aren’t found in the centrally-heated, curtains-drawn fug of classrooms and newsrooms – they’re out there in the real world.

But here’s the problem. The journalists of today don’t breathe that fresh air and talk to those real people quite as much as they used to.

There’s less time to grease the wheels, to meet people face to face, even to introduce yourself when you move to a new area.

The very last thing I want this lecture to be is a lookback through rose-tinted spectacles at some golden age of journalism. It. Did. Not. Exist. But when I was a news editor, I used to join my reporters at weekly drop-in sessions in coffee shops, pubs and community centres, where people could talk to us about stories, and issues – and about the paper and website. It didn’t always make for easy listening, but looking my audience in the eye and hearing what they had to say was like putting on an oxygen mask.

It let daylight into our week – and provided all kinds of unexpected insights. One woman told me she bought The Bath Chronicle less frequently these days because her kids had grown up and she didn’t need to make so many papier mache models for school projects. And there was I thinking people bought it for the award-winning journalism.

The trouble is, she isn’t the only person no longer buying her local paper. And, more importantly, she and her friends aren’t the only people no longer using that paper and its website to advertise their businesses, cars, jobs and events.

Like most of the vital services in this country, journalism is underresourced.

Historic complacency and greed, huge demographic changes and a technological revolution have combined to break the traditional model of funding journalism.

Simply relying on the whims of print version buyers and increasingly desperate deals with equally fickle advertisers while at the same time having to keep an army of shareholders happy doesn’t work.

The company I know best, the one formerly known as Trinity Mirror and now one of the biggest players in the media market, is full of brilliant people.

It’s just changed its name to Reach. Not because it wants to be a lasting tribute to the great music of S Club. But because reach is what it supplies – a spread of audience across the country, millions upon millions of them, helped by the takeover of the Express and Star national newspapers and their websites.

But they – and their biggest rivals, Johnson and Newsquest, both of which have even more desperate structural issues – have made wave after wave of cuts. At one point last year, a regional journalist was losing their job every working day. Dozens of my friends have lost their jobs – sometimes willingly, sometimes not – in recent years, while hundreds of titles have closed.

For most of my working life, editors have had to be ready to make cuts. Traditionally, there’s always been someone in their back pocket for the next time the grim reaper comes around. The reaper is still coming round – but this time those back pockets are empty: there’s no meat left to cut and we’re down to the bare bones.

One of the great ironies of all this – and a key argument in the mainstream industry’s armoury – is that statistically there are more eyeballs on the content produced by today’s journalists than at any time in history. But is that reach – getting millions of page views from around the world, including the huge numbers of fans in south east Asia who read The Liverpool Echo’s football coverage in the wee small hours – as effective and useful as penetration? Are we serving real communities? Or are we simply skimming the surface of shotgun marriage communities of our own making?

All of these questions – and many, many more along similar lines – all lead back to one, inescapable, overarching dilemma: How do we fund journalism?

Let me ask you a question. Put your hand up if you’ve bought a newspaper in the last week. You lot keep your hands up – it’ll keep the circulation (that’s the blood, not the paper’s) going, there’s about another couple of miles of this lecture to go. Now anyone who pays for an online subscription to a news site – such as the Times paywall, or something like the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

Ok: one more piece of audience participation. Who pays for Netflix or Spotify or some other on-demand or streaming service?

A challenge for what is sometimes called the legacy media has been that the consumers of their print products, the ones which made the real money, are dying off, and not being replaced by new readers. Hand in hand with that, new revenue from digital operations hasn’t come close to replacing the loss of print advertising and circulation income.

Recent job losses at Buzzfeed and International Business Times have shown that new media operations cannot completely rely on the vagaries of online advertising.

I have two children – one 19, one 24. They’ve never bought a newspaper in their life, and never paid for news. But they pay for both Netflix and Spotify (significantly in that case to avoid advertising). Can we keep future generations on board with a similar model of content which is tailored to their needs?

This existential crisis facing the media hasn’t escaped the notice of the Government. Our new shiny Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has announced a review of the sustainability of the industry called the Cairncross Review.

It will look at innovative new ways of supporting high quality journalism and it has some good people on board, although not a single frontline working journalist.

But for various reasons – not least its inability to come up with a single shred of common sense on Brexit – I don’t think we should hold out too much hope for the Government’s magic wands and silver bullets.

Before I look at some possible solutions, I want to stress that great journalism still happens – and on a daily basis.

And the definition of what makes great journalism has to be a wide and flexible one.

I would urge you to follow a new Twitter account called Behind Local News, which has been set up by the major regional media firms to celebrate the best work of their staff, and to explain some of the decision-making that goes on in their newsrooms.

It’s a fascinating resource, and one that provides evidence of the commitment of local journalists to make sense of the world around them.

My friends working for Reach here in Gloucestershire have incredibly tough web targets to meet but continue to break great stories, cover breaking news such as the recent fires in the centre of Gloucester well, and mark moments in history such as the anniversary of the 2007 floods with thoughtful, well-written journalism.

They – and colleagues up and down the country, in Bristol, in Birmingham and in Manchester, where the best reporter in the regional media today, Jennifer Williams, works – strive to make the important interesting, while surfing on waves of trending topics so that the page view targets that stalk them from dawn to dusk can be met.

Stories on issues from homelessness to hospitals have shown that it is possible to hit that sweet spot, of content which achieves web targets and begins to make a difference, that changes mindsets and eventually changes policy; that – perhaps most importantly of all – sends journalists home with a feeling of a job well done.

That’s important. I remember a chat with one of the best journalists in this part of the world a few years ago. The year before, she had won an award. Twelve months on, she hadn’t tried to keep her crown, had not entered the awards at all. She told me: “I can’t think of anything that I’ve written that I’m proud of.”

Journalists – good ones, at least – want their daily workload diet to be a mix of fast food and slow-cooked home fare. We cannot survive on microwaved news, on the reheating of other people’s material that gets more tasteless and less nutritious with every new ping.

I’m a massive fan of a business adviser called Simon Sinek. One of his books is Start With Why – looking at the overwhelming importance of businesses and their employees knowing why they do what they do. In recent times, too many journalists have felt that the reasons why they came into the profession could no longer be squared with their companies’ visions. In other words, their whys were very different to their employers’ whys.

So, what are we going to do about all this?

To me, the solutions begin at a local level.

For all that suspicions have grown about the veracity and motivation of large sections of the media, it is at that local level that, theoretically, the greatest trust exists.

If we believe a very recent survey by YouGov for the industry, 74 per cent of people trust their local newspaper or news website – compared to 22 per cent who trusted social media.

I’m not sure those figures are hugely precise – the survey also found that only 43 per cent of people trusted search engines.

But if vital relationships are to be rebuilt, it’s going to be face to face, eyeball to eyeball.

This week is Local Newspaper Week, and tomorrow – as luck would have it – is Trusted News Day, when I very much hope that that hashtag will be seriously trending.

The sort of transparency that is emerging through initiatives such as Behind Local News will be underlined tomorrow as editors and their teams use social media and their own websites to talk you through their days, discuss the importance of verified, fact-checked news, and generally invite you behind the magic curtain.

It’s a crucial process which I hope will show that journalists are real human beings, trying to do a tricky job in difficult circumstances.

One danger is what people will see in those newsrooms may look nothing like the world they see on their high street, in their shopping centre, or at their school gates.

Despite some great efforts by organisations such as the National Council for the Training of Journalists, our newsrooms remain stubbornly middle-class and white.

This won’t be the first time I mention the Grenfell Tower disaster, but the disconnect between journalists and residents was painful there.

All too often, people who live on what might be called the wrong side of the tracks only ever see coverage of their areas and their friends in stories about police raids, anti-social behaviour or court cases. As the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan said in a public lecture far better than this one recently, journalists need to ‘Speak for and with the poor, rather than to or at them’.

Despite the job losses and the financial crisis, there are newsrooms – some not a million miles from here – whose email inboxes remain unswollen when jobs are on offer.

I am massively proud of the higher education we provide here, but it’s not for everyone, and the apprenticeship route into journalism has to be strengthened.

But the building of trust, and the growth of that sense of recognition between media and community is far, far wider than questions of diversity.

The reason TV reporters achieve higher trust ratings than their print or online colleagues isn’t just that they might work for a respected brand such as the BBC.

It’s that – particularly perhaps at a regional level, where ratings for shows such as Points West and Midlands Today remain incredibly healthy – we let them into our homes, see their faces and hear their voices on a daily basis.

Today’s print and online journalists – especially regional ones – are more accessible than ever before. People know their email addresses and Twitter handles. But they don’t necessarily know them. And so any interaction can be impersonal, confrontational and dismissive.

There is no substitute for the trust and accountability that develops when you’re a reporter living and working in your own community. When your children go to the schools whose exam results you write about, use the leisure facilities that need improving and cross the roads that are accident blackspots. When people know you as a real, rounded, fully sentient human being.

Some of my friends at Gloucestershire Live fall into that category, which means they also have a store of local knowledge – about the background to stories and the spelling of village names, for instance – that can be invaluable.

But not every newsroom is so lucky. And the turnover of staff doesn’t help.

I’ve always said that one of the great ironies of local news life is that people who initially know nothing about an area end up writing for people who know everything about it.

Plus that grim reaper ain’t going anywhere. Editors live in constant fear of the next round of cuts they will be asked to make.  Whichever traditional regional media firm you work for, there are two things that are constant: change and cutbacks.

So we need new organisations to reach the parts that Reach can’t, or certainly won’t in the future.

To scratch some of the itches of public service journalism, to shake things up, and to fully embrace the slogan that life is local.

Bristol is a good place to see what the future might look like.

Again, it’s worth saying that the city is served by some of the best journalists I know: excellent BBC reporters such as Matthew Hill, Andy Howard, Scott Ellis and the amazing Fiona Lamdin; people at ITV Westcountry such as Rob Murphy; the award-winning crew at Heart; and the team at Bristol Live/Post led by the most thoughtful editor I have ever known, Mike Norton, and including the hardest-working reporter I’ve ever known, Michael Yong.

But playing an increasingly interesting, influential and exciting role are new – or newish – players.

My friend Richard Coulter set up the hyperlocal publication Filton Voice in his part of Bristol after taking redundancy from the Post in 2011. Last year, he and his commercial partner launched their 16th title and they also now coordinate a network of writers, PR people, social media specialists and marketing experts which complements their grassroots journalism.

He and his titles cover stories that Bristol Live never will – the detailed, parish pump stuff that’s packed full of people’s names.

And their success is mirrored around the country, with new start-ups in Devon – on Dartmoor and in the town of Honiton – thriving as independent news providers.

Even more exciting is Bristol Cable, one of whose founders came to one of our news days recently. This is news by the people for the people: a co-operative of 1,850 members who fund and shape a hard-hitting, challenging news agenda which regularly unearths scandals and holds the city council and other key bodies to account. The only shareholders who need pleasing here are those who have made a conscious decision to fund news. The only invest that matters is the one in the phrase investigative journalism.

At a national level, the Guardian and Observer offer a similar model. The titles now have 800,000 financial supporters of some kind – four times as many as a year ago.

The Guardian and the Observer have addressed the question of how we fund journalism head-on. They’re lucky perhaps in that they have a liberal, relatively well-off readership who believe in public service journalism. But they’ve found that asking readers to put their money where their mouths are is a route out of financial carnage and a vital way to build trust. Unusually, the company now gets more income from print sales and subscriptions and donations than it does from advertising.

One other interesting aspect of the Guardian’s world view is a commitment – in the right circumstances – to collaborative, constructive journalism.

It has worked with international titles on massive, far-reaching stories such as the Panama Papers and Cambridge Analytica.

But it has also shown willing to get under the skin of this country, with the brilliant Jon Harris’s odyssey around Brexit Britain, challenging many of the comfortable assumptions of his own liberal elite readers.

And there are examples elsewhere: I particularly like the German news website Zeit Online’s idea of getting 1,200 people with opposing views together in pairs to discuss their differences on issues from refugees to Russia.

And in Holland, really interesting things are happening at a news website called De Correspondent, which is funded by 56,000 co-operative members who help provide crowdsourcing expertise to its journalists. De Correspondent’s philosophy is that ‘100 physician readers know more than one health care reporter.’

One thing the media is pretty rubbish at, by the way, is dealing with the great, overwhelming, issues of our time. One of the tests of what makes a compelling, front-page-worthy, story is how many people does this affect? There isn’t one of us who won’t be affected by climate change, but that doesn’t mean it makes the front pages much.

The Guardian’s rivals have also found ways to make readers pay. The Times and Sunday Times are beginning to see real success with their paywall, interestingly choosing to abandon any pretension to providing a 24/7, rolling news website and instead producing editions online which celebrate great writing rather than digital bells and whistles, but also bringing added value in the form of access to special events and cut-price tickets.

If you have the right audience, or the right product, such as specialist insight of the sort the FT and Economist can serve up, charging for online content can work well.

The answer to that who funds journalism question is relatively straightforward for them.

And there remain niche print products that manage to be both bastions of investigative journalism and financially successful – Private Eye being by far the best example.

But I don’t see paywalls or going niche being the long-term solution for the traditional regional media.

I fear they – at least in their current form – are destined for continued decline, with that grim reaper never all that far away.

More papers will close – or go weekly, more websites will merge, and more jobs will be lost.

But the businesses behind them will carry on.

As the famous Times editor Harold Evans said, the challenge is not to stay in business, but to stay in journalism.

The solutions have to start with local action, but there is room for national and international help, too.

The traditional media industry spends a lot of time and effort – rightly mostly – in getting cross with Google and Facebook for creaming off its best content and then selling advertising on the back of it.

But Google is becoming journalism’s friend, with a range of schemes to fund reporting, and its brilliant Newslab initiative, which came to this uni a few months ago to explain the latest digital journalism techniques.

We now need Facebook to step up to the plate. Former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale is pressing it to put money into the BBC’s excellent Local Democracy Reporter scheme. This has paid for 150 new reporters – including one here in Gloucestershire – to cover councils and NHS bodies for both the Beeb and regional news titles. The idea is that cash from Facebook would enable the scheme to be extended to the woefully underreported courts of this country.

This wouldn’t just be about finding the untold stories which research by my onetime colleague Phil Chamberlain at the University of the West of England has shown are going begging each week. It would also be about shining a light in the dark corners of a justice system which is increasingly – follow the Secret Barrister on Twitter if you don’t already do so – broken, and increasingly failing the most vulnerable members of society.

The bottom line to any discussion about the bottom line is that there has never been a greater need for decent journalism in this country, let alone in this world.

That’s the sort of journalism that challenges authority, that unpicks complicated issues to explain and to expose lies, and which fulfils that noble objective of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

I was at an event where onetime Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke last year, and he said we needed to view journalism as like an emergency service.

And as the British-turned-American comedian Jon Stewart has said, if we don’t find a way to pay for journalism, we will all pay for it.

There are things that all of us can do.

One lovely idea came from a journalist working for a very small title in America. She tweeted that she regularly goes onto other news website comments sections to praise good reporting by journalists she has never met.

I use the Guardian website an awful lot but have never yet succumbed to one of the ever-present pleas for financial help. But I do make sure I buy it at least once a week, and the Observer on a Sunday – even if I have read quite a lot of the content online already.

We can be slightly more forensic in choosing who we read: has that writer got a proper Twitter bio, are they regulated by IPSO or Impress? And every click we make helps shape future editorial decision-making.

One of my favourite quotes is this one: Ask readers what they want, and they’ll say vegetables. Look away, and they’ll be eating candy. By that I think we mean the Mail Online sidebar of shame.

I promised I’d return to the subject of Grenfell Tower.

In just under a month’s time, it will be the first anniversary of that unspeakable tragedy.

It’s a horror that has asked very painful questions of many organisations, public, private and voluntary. But some of the most uncomfortable wake-up calls were for the media.

Not just in the disconnect with the victims exposed by the on-the-spot coverage, but in the way in which the capital’s media sleptwalked through concerns being raised by residents.

There were signs for journalists with real contacts and connections – that heart-breaking blog warning of the devastation that was to come.

But not a single journalist saw the writing on that wall, and not a single resident felt it was worth trying to get their story told.

No one was talking to the residents of North Kensington, and no one analysing the decisions being taken in those residents’ names.

There’s a whole new question – along the lines of the candy and the vegetables – of whether stories on high rise cladding would have gained traction online.

But such potentially tedious stuff represents the building blocks of good investigative journalism. It took a while for Windrush, for Stafford Hospital, for Cambridge Analytica and the Rotherham sex abuse ring stories to cut through. But cut through they eventually did, and they proved journalism can make a difference, can provide a voice for the voiceless.

Grenfell was an appalling missed opportunity for journalism.

It is perhaps the most poignant example of the way in which the vital cords that ought to bind the media to its audience have become not just frayed, but in some cases severed altogether.

Whether it’s through more truly local news sites or through ownership or subscription models that bring the audience into the fold, or through new duopoly funding for better public service journalism that reinvents our image, that relationship needs to be rebuilt.

That to me would perhaps be one of the best tributes of all to 71 people who didn’t need to die just over a year ago.

So is it the Biased Broadcasting Corporation?

When I was a news editor, I was accused of being a Tory, a Labour supporter, a Lib Dem, and a Green.

And I was happy with that, particularly around election time.

My rule of thumb has always been that if everyone thinks you’re biased, you’re probably doing a reasonable job.

Of course it’s impossible for journalists to be 100 per cent impartial. Each of us is shaped by experiences, upbringing, and prejudices – and each of us is looking for an engaging or unusual angle.

As Peter Stewart and Ray Alexander say in their book Broadcast Journalism:

“Complete impartiality is like perfection; an ideal for which many will strive but none will wholly attain.”

But that shouldn’t stop us trying. Especially if we’re the BBC, one of this country’s most trusted institutions, and bound by Ofcom and its own guidelines to have impartiality written as the lettering in its own very British stick of rock.

Each new decade has brought fresh assaults on the Beeb and its claims of complete political neutrality – from the Falklands to weapons of mass destruction and from the Middle East to Ulster.

Right now the clamour has reached a new peak. And this time, it’s not traditional Tories bemoaning the long-haired liberalism of the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation. Nor is it Canary Corbynistas sweeping the BBC into their mainstream media dustbin.

This is the centre-left – from media commentators to frontline campaigners, and all of them people for whom I have a reasonable amount of time. They accuse the corporation of institutional prejudice against a body of thought which once unassailably dominated political thinking: the case for Britain remaining in the EU.

The accusation is consistent: that the BBC is failing to hold the Government and Brexiteers to account on the biggest political issue for at least a generation, that it is indulging ministers’ cake-and-eat-it fantasies and that it is giving disproportionate air time to unelected rent-a-gobs such as Nigel Farage.

There has been little in the way of high profile response from BBC leaders, other than an interview with UK news editor Richard Burgess.

One former senior manager, Richard Sambrook, now head of the Cardiff University School of Journalism, has waded in, saying it is indefensible for individual editors to be targeted.

Newspaper columnist Gary Bainbridge also made some very telling points about the BBC’s alleged lack of interest in pro-Remain protests.

And there was this persuasive remark by educationalist Sam Freedman.

Another newspaper writer, Chris Deerin, has written a passionate defence of the BBC’s impartiality, arguing that its critics are playing into the hands of those who would wish to muzzle its journalism.

Appropriately enough, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The result of the EU referendum two years ago was a massive wake-up call for the BBC, as it was for many elements of British journalism. I can still remember a young reporter posting a shocked – but in its own way, frightening – comment on Facebook on June 24, 2016: ‘I don’t know a single person who voted Leave.’

I know there has been huge soul-searching – over the idea that mainstream journalism was complacently out of touch with its audience, but also over a very different worry: that false balance allowed lies on buses to hold sway.

It is perhaps illuminating to think that it took a German journalist to ask Theresa May the most pertinent question about Brexit: Is it worth it? Needless to say she didn’t answer it.

So, I think individual reporters and producers may at times be conflicted in their thinking. How do they ask the questions that the audience wants answering when that audience is itself so divided, so confused?

But it’s a big leap from that to the concept of an organisation of 21,000 people being institutionally and consciously biased.

There’s a reason the BBC is so cherished.

It does a range of things that virtually no other broadcaster in the world is capable of doing. And it mostly does them very well, with a dedication to the pursuit of truth largely unmatched on these shores.

By all means challenge individual programme-making decisions to keep it on its toes.

But let’s not waste time – ours or the BBC’s – on conspiracy theories. 

 

 

Journalism and The Theory of Everything

He didn’t write it about journalism.

But some words which accompany many of the tributes to Professor Stephen Hawking today show that his genius wasn’t confined to quantum physics.

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It’s a great lesson for life. And a pretty good mission statement for journalists.

Look up at the stars and not down at your feet:

I’ve always believed in glass half-full journalism. That’s not to dodge difficult stories, to shy away from controversy or to be afraid of rocking the boat. To misquote the Bible – and I’ve been teaching the laws on blasphemy today – there is a time to be awkward, and a time to tell hard truths.

But I very much like the idea of Cornwall Live editor Jacqui Merrington to appoint a Happiness Reporter, with Hannah Maltwood’s mission to find life-affirming content.

And that Hawking mantra also says to me – as I feel free to wilfully re-interpret the great man’s thoughts – that a journalistic life is best lived out there in the fresh air.

It was lovely to see a commitment from Sky to send more reporters out into the country to talk to more real people about what it rightly calls ‘fractured Britain.’ The headline says it all.

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Journalism needs to be outward-looking, to immerse itself in communities and to ensure that the thoughts of interesting people are reflected in coverage. It needs to create new dishes, not reheat old ones.

Try to make sense of what you see:

Helping to make sense of a world that can seem troubling and complicated should be at the very heart of any journalist’s mission. It’s not just about providing a combination of lights and mirrors to reflect what’s going on in our communities. It’s also about providing incisive, helpful and trusted analysis useful to a time-poor audience which rises above the formulaic and the cut and paste.

There has rightly been huge praise for the way in which the Salisbury Journal broke the story which has dominated the national headlines for the last ten days. It’s incredibly heartwarming to see local journalists pursuing new lines, working contacts and writing responsibly in such extraordinary circumstances.

I’m spending most of this week back at the typeface, working as a reporter at The Bath Chronicle. Yesterday I covered my first council meeting for a few years, and I also met the new Trinity Mirror/BBC Local Democracy scheme reporter who will be covering the city, Stephen Sumner.

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As I have said before, the scheme is a wonderful one. I got five stories in a couple of hours yesterday afternoon and picked up a promising follow-up to chase tomorrow.

I also badgered the committee clerk to find me a table to rest my laptop on: evidence perhaps that we need to send more reporters into these corridors of power to ensure the public accountability muscles don’t descend into atrophy.

Be curious:

One of the most important journalistic mantras of all – and certainly one which the team in Salisbury need no reminder of.

I’m having a great time back on my stamping ground in Bath, meeting old friends, digging up stories and reacquainting myself with the sheer joy of telling interesting people’s stories. But it’s also been a real pleasure to see my temporary colleagues breaking stories which have involved keeping their eyes open and their brains in gear.

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Wonder about what makes the universe exists: 

I’m pushing my luck now. But the day I stop being fascinated by what makes the world go round is the day I give up and tend my garden. And I don’t like gardening.

That sense of wonder remains an essential part of a journalist’s toolkit, though.

We should never lose our capacity to be amazed and inspired by the extraordinary things that ordinary people do.

Cynicism is a corrosive thing. It’s important to have a healthy sense of suspicion, to question the motivation of people in authority from time to time. But thinking the worst of everyone and everything damages us all.

So, thank you Professor Hawking. Thank you not just for your scientific breakthroughs, but also for your wisdom on life in general. And for your sense of fun.

We need more of that in journalism too.

 

Go small, AND go home: the future of regional journalism

It doesn’t take much to make me feel guilty.

And so I’ve been feeling guilty about Facebook.

I’ve neglected it recently, a bit like I’ve neglected this blog.

And I’m not the only one. Whether because – like me – people have been spending more time on other social media such as Twitter and Instagram, whether there aren’t enough young users coming through, or whether we’ve just lost interest in vicarious enjoyment of our friends’ and relatives’ social lives, we’re spending less time with Mark Zuckerberg’s creation.

The wonderful BBC media editor Amol Rajan has written some really incisive analysis on what could be the beginning of the end of Facebook’s overwhelming dominance of so much of our lives.

My lack of engagement with Facebook means I’ve probably seen fewer news stories than I otherwise would have, although it’s all part of a pretty complicated picture.

Mr Zuckerberg actually wants people to spend less time on his platform, so that their experience is one of quality rather than quantity. And loosening ties with news providers by tinkering with Facebook’s algorithms is one way to do just that, he has decided.

For much of the regional media, and for significant swathes of the rest of the industry, Facebook has become akin to a drug, with some websites relying on it for up to 70 per cent of their traffic.

When Facebook decides to change tack, when it decides that journalism is more trouble than it’s worth, that doesn’t just move the goalposts: it changes the game entirely.

The social media giant says it wants the workings of its algorithms to protect local news and information.

But that hasn’t stopped the latest spasm of cuts at my old employers Trinity Mirror, where 49 jobs are under threat.

More of my friends will lose their jobs in the next few weeks, while others will have to work in offices with far more empty seats. And the website of my beloved Bath Chronicle is being dismantled.

I have been very, very careful to avoid public criticism of the leadership of firms such as Trinity Mirror. There are senior managers such as David Higgerson for whom I have massive respect, particularly for their willingness to engage with their critics. And I need to preserve good relations so that the door is always open to my students for visits and work placements.

But it’s tempting to conclude that a line has been crossed here in terms of commitment to quality journalism and community involvement.

And I need convincing of the merits of merging websites at a time when those Facebook changes will reduce the number of people coming to your stories via social.

For the sake of my students, and for the sake of my friends still doing the very best they can in newsrooms across the west of England, I have to view my glass as half-full. And I still do.

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But it makes me more certain than ever that the shareholder model for the news media is, if not broken, definitely on the mechanic’s ramp.

There will certainly be a lot of people looking under the bonnet at Trinity Mirror after it moved to buy the Express and Star titles, a decision that will see more journalists looking for new jobs in the next year.

The media organisations of the future will either have to be small, locally-focussed and locally-owned – or catering for a high end niche market prepared to pay for specialist information and insights. In both cases, they will be serving a real community, or community of interest, providing a unique service.

The Guardian doesn’t fall neatly into either of those camps, and its subscription/donation model may work only because of its specific demograph of left-leaning people with a bit of money to spare.  But the success of that model shows the potency of turning your audience into your champions and supporters.

On the subject of paywalls, they’re not some kind of panacea for all our media crisis troubles, by the way. Unless you’re bringing an awful lot of added value, you won’t succeed.

There’s a sense in which less has to be more. Either you focus on a smaller geographical area, or a smaller, more specialist area of interest.

That point was underlined at our alumni day on Friday, when some of the greatest optimism for the future came from the deputy editor of a tiny Welsh weekly, and a designer working on niche magazines.

 

They were on a panel with reporters from Sky and a news agency, and PR professionals from big name sports clubs and from a forward-thinking agency.

All loved their jobs. All seemed in control of their destinies. All exuded confidence and wisdom beyond their years. I hadn’t taught any of them, but I was immensely proud.

Above all, they gave me huge comfort and reassurance that studying journalism is a damn good thing to do.

For months, I have looked at a lot of our third year students and thought: I’d give you a job now if I had one.

There is no shortage of talented young people ready for work in the media industry if only we can find the right business models.

I don’t have a lot of hope that Theresa May’s inquiry into the sustainability of the local and national media is going to come to much.  It’s classic long-grass stuff, both to delay the painful decisions hanging over from Leveson and to postpone any stance-taking on the regulation of Facebook and Google.

But we do need some radical thinking, which ought to involve everyone from the NCTJ to those new media companies, and to build on the success of some hyperlocal publications as well as co-operatives where the audience is also the owner such as The Bristol Cable.

It would be splendid if a way could be found to persuade our friends at Facebook to put some money into an extension of the BBC-funded Local Democracy Scheme so that its work in covering local and regional corridors of power could be expanded into the courts.

Decisions on which media should be given public notice advertising should be made on the basis of their commitment to continued and comprehensive coverage of local government.

There are no easy answers to any of this: if there were, we’d have found them by now.

But we are approaching a perfect storm in which an industry spreads its resources ever more thinly across huge, arbitrarily-drawn, artificial coverage areas while the communities that matter to most of us get smaller and more self-regarding by the day.

 

Politicians and the press: why we need to be each others’ critical friends

I used to speak to my paper’s local MP two or three times a week.

At one point, he said something which I found both reassuring and terrifying in equal measure.

“You know what I think about this, Paul. I’m happy for you to make up a quote and attribute it to me.”

The relationship between regional journalists and the politicians that serve their area is a delicate and complicated one.

Both are theoretically working for the common good, with a mission to celebrate and champion their communities.

Like all senior figures in the public sector, MPs will say something like: “We just expect you to be fair. If I’ve/we’ve got something wrong, we know you’ll hold us to account for it.”

Like all senior figures in the public sector, they don’t always mean it.

And God knows leading a public sector organisation today is nightmarishly challenging – and getting worse by the day. It’s not a barrel of laughs being an MP, either: your life is no longer your own, the hours are relentless, and your waistline and heart must feel under continuous attack.

The reason I could square the role of quote-writer to the political party veteran with my conscience was that I remembered far livelier conversations – often around election time, and occasionally involving stroppy silences that lasted several weeks.

I also recall being ambushed by that politician and a neighbouring MP from a different party on live TV. Both accused my paper of being biased. The fact that the allegations of bias directly contradicted each other gave me great pleasure. As always, if everyone thinks you’ve got it in for them you’re probably doing a pretty good job.

But despite that TV encounter, and despite those periodic spats, our relationship never descended into downright abuse.

Our paper was never described as ‘journalism with crayons’ or ‘shoddy’ – terms used by Teeside MP Emma Lewell-Buck and her husband Simon Buck in attacks on the Shields Gazette over its coverage of a boundary shake-up.

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I wonder how some of our past political disagreements would have played out on Twitter.

I was intrigued to see one of my home city of Plymouth’s MPs criticising the Herald over its coverage of both defence cuts and the cleanliness of the local hospital.

When I first read Johnny Mercer’s comments, I was tempted to put him in the same category as the Lewell-Bucks.

But I know he’s an interesting, intelligent, thoughtful character. And maybe there is slightly more nuance to his criticism. He’s certainly not critical of all journalism.

Having said that, I was glad to see reporters, former reporters and journalists on other Trinity Mirror titles defending the Herald’s corner.

Herald crime reporter Carl Eve wasn’t taking any nonsense about political bias in the regional media. Nor was he prepared to accept that the Herald has a glass half-empty approach to local life.

At least Mr Mercer is engaging in the debate.

That’s more that can be said for Sheffield MP Jared O’Hara who has vanished without trace after taking a period of sick leave in the face of criticism of some comments he made in the past.

There’s been some good coverage by the Yorkshire Post on all this, including some nice doorstepping of his office, which seems to have triggered his sudden decision to return to work.

As one of the commentators in a Twitter thread on the Mercer vs Herald debate acknowledges, MPs and the media should be each others’ watchdogs.

I like to think both are critical friends, honestly holding the other to account in good faith, and in pursuit of similar goals.

I made it a principle never to be friends with a politician on Facebook. But I don’t subscribe to the view that the only noble position for a journalist to hold is one of constant and suspicious attrition.

The best journalists and politicians realise that, even if they don’t always feel they need each other, their communities require both.

A New Year’s resolution: let’s make sure we share good news reporting in 2018

As presentations go, it was a pretty rubbish one.
When I first started giving talks about how to write, long before that became my job, I put together some slides containing advice and tips.
I was particularly keen on one of them.
It just featured one word: READ.
I went on to elaborate: you will only improve your writing by reading more of other people’s.
And I urged my audience – whether students, would-be village correspondents or radio station newsroom volunteers – to put any sensitivities and snobbishness aside.
“Some of the greatest writing in the English language today is in The Sun,” was a line I regularly used.
Sometimes I’d go further. “If Shakespeare was alive today, he’d be writing headlines for The Sun,” I once claimed.
So let’s get this clear: I have always been a fan of the way in which our most popular newspapers make words work. The way they paint pictures, encapsulate ideas and wage war on waffle.
Great journalism can be found in The Sun and the Mail, along with very welcome investment in good writing, of that there is no doubt.
And there are good people writing for both titles. I know and am very fond of some of them.
I say that not just because it’s true but also because there have been some fascinating debates on Twitter in the last few days about whether it’s possible to be both a decent human being and a writer for the tabloids. One was started by Thea de Gallier
with another by Sophie Brown.

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I hate the world view the Sun and Mail espouse, the political hang-ups they cling to, the misleading stereotypes they encourage and the division and negativity that characterise so much of their coverage.
But I’d never discourage one of my students from working for them.
I’d make sure they went into the application process with their eyes open. But also that they had the courage to keep their mouth open, too, if what they were being asked to do challenged their conscience. Call me woefully naïve, but I can’t believe there are organisations that cannot be reformed from within.
You only have to look at the way in which sports journalists on The Times refused to accept their paper’s sidelining of the Hillsborough inquest verdict, and ensured that the second edition was changed to reflect such landmark news.
And here’s one final thought, the basis for a New Year’s resolution for all of us.

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It stems from a tweet in one of those threads from journalist Jessica Bateman, and a cracking blog from a man who has felt himself under fire from both the Mail and the Sun. John Sutherland is a senior police officer in London and was understandably riled by The Sun’s critical coverage of what it regarded as failures in the war on crime. He also happens to suffer from depression, and has for some time been on anti-depressants – or ‘happy pills’ as The Mail’s recent inane splash headline called them.  Both stories to him illustrate a media default setting of carping from the sidelines, of seeing darkness rather than candles.

Tearing down is easy. It’s a little more difficult to build things up

I like to think that my own Twitter thread already reflects the glass half-full outlook recommended by both Jessica and John.

Rather than just railing against news coverage that disgusts us, we need to praise and celebrate the good stuff. Particularly if that good stuff is on occasions rolling its sleeves up and floating enlightened solutions to problems.
If we want a different, more positive and constructive, sort of journalism, it starts with us.