Trump, Johnson and the Barrow thugs: When journalists are threatened, the blame goes right to the top

It’s nearly 3,500 miles from Washington DC to Barrow in Cumbria.

And they’re very, very different places.

But, for one journalist in the industrial town famed for its nuclear submarine production, there’s a clear line between her community and the White House.

For there in the Oval Office, sits a man who daily seeks to undermine trust in objective and responsible reporting.

A man for whom truth is a fluid, malleable concept, and who has at every turn attacked any media organisation which dares to even mildly hold him to account.

Trump makes it his business to whip up hatred of journalists, to encourage his voters to treat all reporting, any reporting, with at best suspicion, at worst contempt.

Slightly closer to Cumbria, in Britain’s own version of the Oval Office, Trump’s equally eccentrically-coiffured mate Boris Johnson is now pursuing a very similar path.

Neither Trump nor Johnson have cast doubt on the reporting of Amy Fenton of the Mail in Barrow.

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They haven’t directly whipped up the crowds of protesters who have demonstrated outside the Mail’s offices.

And – devoted Twitter user though he might be, Trump hasn’t been posting evil social media messages about Amy and her family.

But I do think we can draw an arc from Trump’s cynical undermining of honest reporting to the horrendous agony now being suffered by Amy.

This is a professional reporter who has been forced to move out of her house purely because of her dedication to chronicling the truth on her patch – and her publication’s refusal to break the law.

The Mail is under fire for not writing the sort of story that bigots want to read.

Talking of bigots, Boris Johnson clearly has form in encouraging really nasty behaviour. Leaving aside his willingness to supply information which would have helped his mate Darius Guppy get a journalist beaten up, his comments likening women wearing the burka to letterboxes  have been blamed for fuelling racist attacks.

His Downing Street regime has been ramping up – to use one of its favourite phrases – a war on challenging and investigative journalism.

Whether it’s the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the BBC, Good Morning Britain, Channel 4 News, or the brilliant Jen Williams of the Manchester Evening News, Johnson’s press office has been willing to sweep aside convention to launch lengthy but flawed rebuttals, and to personally target individual reporters.

All of this has come to a dangerous head with the Dominic Cummings affair, where the Number 10 press office chose not to respond to requests for a comment for weeks on end, and then attempted to grab the moral high ground over the very limited areas of the storytelling where speculation had got the better of the facts.

That wasn’t their finest or most transparent hour.

But on Monday, Cummings had the chance to give his account of events, direct to the British people, unfiltered by the media.

Those British people were not, by and large, impressed, with 71 per cent of them concluding he had broken the lockdown rules.

Let me just repeat that. After hearing directly from the horse’s mouth, rather than from the media, most people came to the conclusion that Cummings had behaved wrongly, and more than half decided he should leave his job.

And yet on Wednesday, his alleged boss went specifically out of his way to labour the claim that much of the reporting had been false. Two days after Cummings had set out his case, Johnson was still trying to undermine reporting from five days before, still trying to shoot the messenger.

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On the one hand, it was like some ham-fisted attempt to rewrite that Two Ronnies sketch where the contestant answers the question before last.

The comments came as Johnson appeared before the Commons liaison committee in a performance that could quite easily be portrayed as comedic.

But, leaving aside the fact that these are matters of life and death, Johnson’s media strategy is also far from a laughing matter.

It is straight out of the Trump playbook: a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters so that the public feel that no reporting can truly be trusted.

Nothing gives Johnson and Co greater pleasure than hearing the public say: ‘I don’t know who to believe.’

For them, that’s job done. That’s earth thrown in the face of scrutiny, compromising clear vision and thought.

It becomes, as Paul Lewis of the Guardian has described it, government-endorsed trolling, and it’s a slippery slope that leads us to the rather more savage version conducted by thugs in Barrow.

However much some of us despise this country’s leadership, we take our moral tone from the top.

If the word in Downing Street is that it’s ok to attack journalists for telling the truth, we shouldn’t be surprised if on the streets of Barrow, that message is taken literally.

 

Be busy and be positive: how journalism students can best survive this crisis

This time last year, the first of our third years had found themselves jobs.

They’d all pretty much completed placements, emerging from their work experience in newsrooms, broadcasting studios and PR offices with renewed confidence and focus.

They were tying up the loose ends of their studies, cracking on with final year project features, surviving the odd wobble, and getting us to review their CVs and career plans.

We were laying our own plans, for one of the best weeks of the year: a final news week, culminating in a One Show-style TV programme, online magazine, and podcast, followed by a gloriously emotional end-of-course celebration.

It felt good. We’d brought them as far as we could, and we were sending them into a world where we had confidence they’d be able to stand on their own two feet.

Things look very different 12 months on.

Our latest final year students will be graduating into an economic recession the likes of which most of us have never seen before. Placements suddenly ceased just before Easter, and some final year projects have had to be hastily redesigned as face-to-face interviewing became largely impossible.

There has been no lack of support for that unlucky cohort: we’re doing regular video personal tutor calls and advice workshops, and we’re lining up plenty of industry guests via Zoom.

But it’s not quite the same.

Our final news week will, we hope, still offer our students the chance to showcase their journalistic skills and instincts, but it won’t quite have the same magic. And that end-of-week, end-of-year, end-of-course, celebration will be a virtual one, where my mission is to recreate that very special and heady cocktail of mixed emotions on Zoom.

And then what?

I always tell students they have life membership of the Paul Wiltshire Support Service. We’re there to advise on job applications, office wobbles, and careers crossroads for as long as graduates need our help.

And this year, that after-care will be needed like never before.

So, what advice is there for those third years – and for all our students at the moment?

The biggest danger is to put yourself into some kind of deep freeze, to go into summer hibernation.

The real world is so difficult – particularly if your travel plans are also on hold, if you’re worried about family members, or if you’re apart from a girlfriend or boyfriend – that hiding under the duvet for the rest of the year seems like a decent plan.

My mantra has been to encourage all our students to cast off those duvets, and to be as creative and productive as they can for the next few months – at least.

SO:

  • Write – blog about life in lockdown, review stuff you care (or don’t care) about, and find news stories about the impact of our new ways of living in your area.
  • Create – make video shorts, launch podcasts, and produce radio shows.
  • Consume – read, watch, and listen to journalism. The more you read, the better your writing should become.
  • Keep your skills fresh – get that shorthand speed, really get to grips with those InDesign short cuts, master that video-editing technique. Even, and I know it’s a cliche, learn a new language.
  • Network – keep in gentle touch with people you’ve met on placements or news days, interviewed for features, or heard from as guest speakers. Tell them what you’re up to, send them links to blogs and videos. Take an interest in them and their work.

That might involve offering some work or time for free for the moment: it’s not something we’d normally recommend, but these are indeed unprecedented times.

I’ve asked Twitter and Facebook to help with some advice, too, so here goes…

 

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In short, then, be busy, and be positive.

When someone asks What did you do in the lockdown?, you need to have stories to tell.

As always in job interviews, you need those little stories that, just as in the best features, can be employed to tell bigger stories.

This crisis will change the media industry, and not always in a good way. Offices are likely to shut and products will close.

But there will be jobs again.

More than ever, the need for people who can tell stories clearly, and who can connect and communicate, is crucial, and it will be in future. That’s certainly true in public sector PR, but it will be true in many other media fields, too.

When an employer looks for someone to join their team, you can be pretty sure of some of the qualities on their wish list: emotional intelligence, resilience, creativity, determination, resourcefulness – and a sense of humour.

Those are the attributes I’m encouraging our students to show now. These are the muscles that need their own daily exercise regime. They also happen to be the qualities that all of us need to get through this madness.

We don’t know what the future holds, and it’s not healthy to dwell too much on the long-range forecast at the moment.

None of us knows what that awful – and increasingly inaccurate – phrase ‘the foreseeable future’ means.

But one day, one week, one month at a time, we keep going.

And one day, it will be better. 

Winning the journalism trust battle: one day, one story, one person at a time

“You never know when you may need a professional journalist.”

On the face of it, it’s a slightly strange phrase. Plumber, yes. Chiropractor, perhaps. But journalist?

And yet those words from Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford in defence of journalism and its hugely important public service role are among the most striking I’ve read in these last very unsettling couple of months.

And they hint at an unfortunate truth which I think is at the heart of the angst being felt by a lot of the journalists I know at the moment.

Most people have never met a journalist: never been interviewed by one, never heard one speak in real life, never seen one face to face.

And it’s that face to face element that’s never been so important – and yet also never been so difficult.

Every day seems to bring a different editor expressing absolutely justified and absolutely heartfelt concern at the abuse directed at his or her staff online – on Twitter, Facebook, or below the line on stories.

One that caught my eye was a tweet from Jenni Phillips, who is currently leading the herculean online efforts of Gloucestershire Live, and who questioned whether some of her site’s critics would say to her staff’s faces what they’re happy to say from behind a keyboard.

Traffic to her site – and virtually every news site up and down the country – has soared during the coronavirus crisis, mirroring the surge in audience for traditional TV bulletins.

But appreciation of those sites’ efforts doesn’t appear to have shot up in the same way.

Here’s Jenni again (and again, and again):

One of the stories Gloucestershire Live has taken some stick for is its report of some leaked figures for virus cases in the county .

I can understand the basis for some of the criticism – that the hotspots around Cheltenham merely reflect population density, rather than proximity to the town’s world-famous racecourse, where the festival went ahead as other countries began tentative steps towards lockdown.

But there’s a legitimate debate to be had – one that now involves serious figures such as former government chief scientist Sir David King and renowned academic Anand Menon.

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More worrying still is a situation my friends at Plymouth Live found themselves in.

They picked up on an appeal from Paignton Zoo for financial help from the public, amid fears that the future of some of the attraction’s animals could be threatened unless it could find new sources of funding.

When Plymouth Live reported this, the zoo effectively accused the site of making the story up – in comments that have now been withdrawn.

Up the M5, Bristol Live is also feeling the pain.

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The Daily Express hasn’t exactly helped itself in the past, but it was shocking to see just how ready serious people were to believe – wrongly – that it had used a pre-lockdown picture of a busy sea front to illustrate abuse of the government’s essential travel and social distancing rules.

There’s always a debate about the extent to which the country takes its moral lead from its corridors of power – one that has been played out over Boris Johnson’s flurry of inappropriate comments down the years, especially that one about letterboxes.

But I do wonder if some PR teams have felt emboldened by the double whammy of lengthy rebuttals from Downing Street in the face of critical stories from the FT and Sunday Times – and that extraordinary last line in Number 10’s response to the Guardian’s story on SAGE membership.

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As an aside, the tactic seemed to be to focus on convenient details which might be easy to challenge in the hope that the credibility of the whole enterprise would be massively dented.

And, from the government’s point of view, it seems to be working.

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Trust in its message seems to be holding up, as trust in journalists stays rooted towards the bottom of the league table.

Or trust in ‘the media’.

You know, that great, monolithic entity, where everyone is the same – from the dodgiest phone hacker to the most ethical and detail-driven science editor?

This, from so-called comedian Frankie Boyle, wasn’t helpful, as Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson pointed out.

There is slightly better news in a more recent study, for the authoritative Reuters Insitute for the Study of Journalism.

It’s not surprising that broadcasters came off much better in this survey – as they always tend to.

They have two advantages: the audience can see and/or hear the journalist, and can see and/or hear that people are actually saying the things they’ve been quoted as saying.

And when you have Ofcom breathing down your neck, as well as huge public expectations, the stakes are suitably high.

Some of my students and I had a fantastic Q&A session on Zoom with a regional TV bulletin director this week, in which she told us: “The pressure to get it right is incredible.”

I was also really struck by a key part of an interview with one of the heroes of this crisis, the BBC’s medical correspondent Fergus Walsh, who said he ‘agonises over every sentence’ in his pieces.

The efforts that all the Jennis and their teams up and down the country are putting in aren’t just in the face of mindless abuse and cynical confected challenge.

If you work for a commercial news organisation, you’re also battling with a financial crisis that has felt almost existential at times, as advertising collapses.

That’s not to say there aren’t signs of hope, as editor Polly Curtis was keen to home in on during an otherwise massively sobering session organised by the ‘slow news’ site Tortoise on the future of journalism last week.

And the brilliant journalism keeps on coming.

At a local level, Jenni’s weekly threads of Gloucestershire Live’s best stories are a constant joy.

The work up and down the country is celebrated on a regular basis by the marvellous industry partnership Behind Local News, as in this uplifting piece.

And on TV, Fergus’s work, and that of many others – from the sensitive interviewing of Charlie Stayt to the forensic analysis of Lewis Goodall and the beautiful wordsmithery of Alan Little and Fergal Keane – take us on a much-needed emotional and intellectual rollercoaster every day.

There have been some splendid defences of journalism, from Simon Jenkins and Mark Austin, for example.

But there still seems to be a disconnect between our industry and the people it seeks to serve, as my fellow journalism lecturer Paul Bradshaw has pointed out.

At times, a kind of Falklands mentality seems to be in the ascendance.

The journalists are the naysayers, the critics, the pullers of threads, the destroyers.

I think we all accept that this is an utterly unprecedented crisis, and one which politicians are trying their best to deal with, working around the clock and having to think through thousands of different projects, policies, solutions and scenarios.

But there are still legitimate questions to be asked, on behalf of all of us.

Hugh Pym doesn’t put Matt Hancock under pressure over PPE for the fun of it. He does it because he and his colleagues are inundated with heartfelt pleas for help from frontline health and care workers.

As always, Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall puts it best.

Significantly, the first question from a member of the public this week was about when the lockdown would end and she could hug her grandchildren. The sort of line of questioning journalists had been criticised for.

Yes, journalists should – and do – accentuate the positive.

But there are politicians at the heart of this battle who allowed decisions to be made on their party’s watch in the last ten years which are now coming home to roost. Decisions (or lack of them) on social care, on local government funding, on pandemic planning, on immigration policy planning, on NHS spending – and on Brexit.

They cannot suddenly pretend those decisions don’t have real consequences in the here and now, and they deserve to be reminded of them. If not now, when, and all that.

Some of them treated politics as a game. They now know it most agonisingly and tragically isn’t.

The danger is that people no longer recognise the truth when it’s right in front of them.

Instead of believing trusted news outlets with – in some cases – hundreds of years behind them, they choose to give credence to made-up stories about ICU nurse deaths and dead vaccine pioneers.

There’s been a spate of slightly cheesy TV adverts by many big brands, stressing the ‘we’re all in this together’ theme and promising to stick with us all on this difficult journey.

One of the best – yes, a little cheesy, but also hugely heart-warming – has been the BBC’s trailer featuring big names such as Huw Edwards and Sophie Raworth.

The risk is that not all journalists and media outlets will be there for that journey, and that some might not emerge on the other side.

In future, Thalidomide scandals may go uncovered, Windrush cynical cover-ups unreported, Rotherham abuse negligence uninvestigated and Stafford Hospital horrors swept under the dirty lino.

In future, more politicians may be able to outrageously rewrite their own pathetic personal history on the hoof in the way that Donald Trump has astonishingly attempted to do in the last few days.

In one sense, it’s never been more difficult for journalists to meet their public, to prove their humanity and honesty face to face.

But perhaps the technology that is now allowing us to do journalism could also be a way of saving that journalism.

I wonder whether there isn’t an opportunity to put our faces in front of more people than we could ever dream of doing in the old world.

As I was writing this, this morning, James Mitchinson posted a link to exactly the sort of thing I had in mind: a wonderful video made by his staff appealing for people to take out subscriptions to the Yorkshire Post or its sister titles.

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The message – from journalists in bedrooms, dining rooms and kitchens across Yorkshire – is exactly the right one: we’re human, we’re going through what you’re going through, we care, and we’re doing the best job we can.

Tortoise has shown a model – perhaps a privileged, slightly middle class elite one – of engagement with an audience, of inviting the people into your newsroom and your thought processes.

It’s the kind of lifting of the curtain that fuels enterprises from Hearken to Behind Local News.

So, could we lay on Zoom sessions for our readers and web users?

We might end up preaching to the converted and we’ll perhaps never have the conversations we wish we could have with the most cowardly of our trolls.

But as long as journalists can be depersonalised, as long as they can be lumped into one amorphous, grey, faceless mass, journalism will suffer.

And that means democracy and society suffer.

It’s easy for me to come up with wise words and ideal world solutions because I’m not having to deal with the kind of abuse that Jenni and thousands of others are subjected to every week.

My final thought is this, though.

The temptation is to put up the barricades and withdraw into our steel-lined bunkers.

But we have to show our faces and stare, charm and brazen our critics out.

No one else is going to make the argument for journalism for us.

We have to keep making it all over again, one day at a time, one story at a time, and one person at a time.

The future of home working: what gets journalists out of bed when the desk is just a few feet away?

The garden’s looking nice today, washed by much-needed rain. The washing’s on, I’ve made my hard-working uni student daughter a drink, and I’ve distracted myself a bit on YouTube.

 

My dining room table now doubles as my office, as well as the venue for virtual pub quizzes, Zoom drinks and family Facebook Messenger video catch-ups.

As I write this, I’m consciously pushing my back into the dining room chair to adopt a better posture.

The move to home working happened pretty quickly. One of my colleagues left his glasses in our office – but luckily I was able to post them to him. I didn’t think to put my office chair in the boot of my car – I just overwatered my massive pot plant, locked the door and hoped for the best.

But one of my friends who news-edits a daily paper and website did – and it wasn’t just the chair. His monitor and keyboard went too.

A question now playing on the minds of almost every journalist I know is whether my friend’s chair – and thousands of others like it – will ever return to their original homes.

Most non-broadcast news organisations have been completely #wfh for around a month now – and there’s increasingly plenty of radio and TV people now operating in the same way.

It’s not the same, clearly.

Anyone’s who’s ever been responsible for district office reporters will know the tricky choreography of keeping in contact with staff that you can’t just chat over the desk to. Minor requests can suddenly seem like a big deal, misunderstandings creep in, and a them and us mentality can take hold in the absence of making-the-world-go-round natural office chat.

Those virtual team chats can be disjointed and superficial if we’re not careful.

And yet, there are upsides. Another friend, working for another daily publication, is loving the fact that his commute is now measured in seconds rather than hours.

And I don’t think I’m going all ridiculously and naively hearts and flowers when I say that, with the right effort, video chats can be just as warm, bonding and satisfying as some face-to-face exchanges. Perhaps it’s because you’re consciously setting aside time for them. I certainly don’t feel any less connected with colleagues and – more importantly – my students. Video personal tutor catch-ups are for the most part a complete joy, and I’ve never yet clicked the phone icon to close a call without feeling better about life.

One of the most heartfelt but ultimately meaningless phrases we now use is ‘when this is all over’, or ‘when we get back to normal.’

It’s crystal clear we’re not going to be able to flick a switch and return immediately to the old world. It’s going to be messy, it’s going to be long – and it’s going to be painful.

Press Gazette today reports that 2,000 media jobs have already been affected by the coronavirus crisis, with advertising income in tatters, and huge segments of journalistic life closed down.

The jobs that have been cut, the publications that have been suspended, and the staff that have been furloughed will not simply bounce back in three months’ time.

I’ve often said that – from a loss of titles and coverage point of view, the public never know what they’ve got till it’s gone.

But it’s equally true that, from the point of view of managing a business, you can only really judge how vital some things are when you have to live without them.

I’ve long been concerned at the erosion of newspaper offices, and was initially alarmed at the acceleration of closures in some parts of the south west.

There’s something hugely special about newsrooms, particularly those in quaint buildings at the heart of town or city centres.

There’s also something magical that you can’t put a financial figure on about the craik, the camaraderie and the creativity that comes from forcing journalists into the same room.

Journalism is a team game – and I’ve always thought it’s played best when you’re literally standing (or sitting) shoulder to shoulder with your team-mates.

But in a once-in-a-century earthquake like this, can we afford all that bricks and mortar?

I’ve been intrigued by the work of a business called Fathm, which helps newsrooms adapt to what it calls distributed working.

The argument is that, done correctly, having your workforce operating semi-independently from home can boost both creativity and audience engagement, and perhaps get people closer to their communities and readers.

In an uncertain world, one of the few things of which we can be absolutely sure is that life is never going to be the same again.

The industry – and not just the media, but the PR sector, too – will be looking for ways of saving money.

As always, I’d rather those ways involved buildings than people.

This is the acceleration of a sea change in the way journalism is organised.

It’s important that the captains are looking in the right places for ways to ensure that the things that get journalists out of bed in the mornings are still there when that bed is a matter of yards from the office rather than miles.

To continue my messy mix of maritime metaphors, we must make sure that the babies of camaraderie, community and creativity aren’t thrown out with the bathwater of any move to greater home working.

Journalism has become a matter of life and death

It’s the biggest story any journalist is likely to cover in their lifetime.

You are quite literally writing words which will be part of history.

That’s a huge responsibility. But it also ought to be exciting and exhilarating.

And yet, and yet.

This is also likely to be the most traumatic set of events any of us will ever face, the biggest emotional rollercoaster of our professional lives.

One moment, there’s the warm glow of reflecting the best of your community, the next the horror of covering a family’s raw anger and anguish at the lonely death of a loved one snatched away far too soon.

In our wider lives, there’s the comfort of bonds with family, friends and workmates that have suddenly taken on a new and very real importance, be they ever so virtual. But also the terror of losing them to this silent, invisible killer.

And all this against the grim backdrop of an industry going into financial freefall.

The contradictions are all around us.

Never has there been a greater appetite for journalists’ work. But never has it been harder for the industry to fund that work. Let’s not even use the word monetise.

Never have politicians and senior medical experts been more available, and theoretically accountable, to the media. But rarely have some of the answers to journalists’ questions been so unenlightening, so unhelpfully scripted, so full of empty language. As an aside, those medical advisers are – as many have said – increasingly being used as human shields by politicians who have run out of excuses in the face of a crisis that is simply beyond them. Only Rishi Sunak has appeared up to the once-in-a-lifetime challenge of coronavirus, and – not the first time in recent years – I have longed for the backbone and heft of serious folk like Blair, Brown and Major.

As the wheels begin to fall off the government’s response to this crisis to end all crises, and as all our lives shrink, relationships change and new paradoxes emerge. I haven’t seen a student or a colleague face to face for more than a fortnight. But in many ways I feel more connected – and more emotionally attached – to my university second family than ever.

How, then, will we square these many circles?

As far as the virus itself goes, we clearly have to stick to the rules, but more importantly look for reasons to be cheerful every day – and take our new lives one day at a time.

For parts of the media industry, living from one day to the next has become the only way forward.

There are few media companies which haven’t had to take rapid and dramatic action in the face of this grim reaper.

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My fellow journalism lecturer Paul Foster has outlined some of the tensions in a well-worded Twitter thread.

Advertising has been decimated because of customers’ unwillingness to have their brands appearing alongside coronavirus stories, and because so many businesses are closed.

The core readers of many regional print products are under effective house arrest – shielding, self-isolating, or suffering in a far worse way.

I was explaining all this to my dad last night.

But he assured me that he was still popping down to the shop each morning to pick up the Plymouth Herald.

“It keeps us up to date with it all,” he said.

We have to hope that this unprecedented crisis has whetted more appetites for impartial, incisive and informative news.

As our NCTJ industry adviser and BBC regional head Stephanie Marshall says, people are searching for answers, for someone to trust.

Which brings us to those press conferences.

As Alistair Campbell so wisely wrote last night, they have suddenly become a frustrating ritual, with ministers failing to deliver the straight talking we need.

Across the country, and across the world, we’re all having to find new ways to work together. On a very modest scale, I and lecturers at other unis are now swapping some of our online teaching materials and webinars in a way we might never have dreamed of a few weeks ago.

Laura Kuenssberg, Beth Rigby, Robert Peston and their fellow correspondents need to unite in the same spirit.

 

They need to stick to one, simple, question that can’t easily be evaded – and keep on passing that baton between themselves, listening to the previous answer and thinking out of their videocam boxes.

We’ve had two weeks of largely supportive press coverage, with a co-operative opposition giving the Government the benefit of the doubt.

As the deaths mount up, but the number of tests don’t, that honeymoon period is over.

Today’s front pages make difficult reading, as Boris Johnson no doubt anticipated as he posted his slightly desperate video last night.

The Government needs to explain what exactly its exit strategy is.

With an opposition that is leaderless, and a Parliament that isn’t sitting, there is only one part of our society that can get those answers.

If journalism is to survive, it must prove its worth now – and keep proving it.

In the future, jobs will depend on how the media held power to account at this moment in history.

For the moment, lives depend on it, too.

 

 

 

This virus has brought out the best and the worst in us. And the journalism has been firmly in the first of those

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Many decades on from the moment when Lenin came up with those wise words, they’re proving their truth all over again.

For journalists, this is the biggest story we will ever cover. Ever.

That ought to be exhilarating.

But the competing, conflicted, crippling emotions oscillating around our heads tell a different story: literally.

The media have been accused of sensationalising the coronavirus outbreak.

Words almost fail me here. Just as, over the last week or so, they’ve almost failed most journalists as we get to grips with the sheer, unimaginable, unprecedented scale of this crisis to end all crises.

I was struck by the brilliant Evan Davis on Radio 4’s PM saying he was ‘speechless’ after one of the Boris and the Boffins announcements earlier this week.

We’ve all run out of words which are up to the task of describing what’s happening around us.

It’s impossible to sensationalise this story. In fact, in many ways, journalists have been doing the opposite.

They’ve been accentuating the positive, putting out responsible public information, and asking sensible questions that need to be asked.

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Whether it’s the BBC laying on extra health and education content , the intensive coverage of those press conferences that a friend of mine calls the Gin O’Clock hour, or the search for uplifting stories, the media has stepped up to the mark.

My favourite sector of that media has done it again today, with 60 regional daily titles united in providing the same message: We are there with you.

Such is the spirit of national unity,  it’s even possible to agree with Piers Morgan.

It doesn’t matter that the message of #ThereWithYou is a little on the generic side.

What matters is the warmth, community spirit and teamwork behind an initiative that – like the majority of news coverage now – has been coordinated from kitchen tables and spare bedrooms.

It’s to be hoped that pennies are now dropping across the country, as viewing figures for news programmes soar, web figures go through the roof and paywalls are dropped.

That there is a role for the regional media, fuelled by those thousands of staff who have turned their homes into mini-newsrooms.

And that there is a role – an essential, truly life-saving one – for the BBC.

This nightmare – one that is only just beginning, as some of the terrifying footage coming out of Italy shows – is taking us on the ultimate emotional rollercoaster.

But for every mindless troll, supermarket loo roll hoarder, or irresponsible nightclub owner, there are plenty more good neighbours, online organisers – and simple heroes: whether they work in the NHS, education, transport, the police or somewhere in the food chain.

For our students, it’s been a horrible challenge, particularly for third years whose opportunity to share wonderfully special moments at the end of their course has been cruelly put on indefinite hold, and whose second home campus has become a ghost town.

There are no genuine silver linings here, particularly as we face the grim reality that the journey to truly normal life could be measured in years, rather than weeks, whatever the Prime Minister might have shot from the hip yesterday afternoon.

But I have never felt prouder to be part of our university community, and never felt more part of an extended family of staff and students who care deeply about each other.

We may be doing it in strange corners of our homes, but we are looking out for each other like never before, using technology that will stand us in good stead for the future, whatever that is.

My last face to face meeting was with a student who I’ve spent a lot of time working with outside teaching sessions, and who comes from the same home city as me.

Yesterday, I got an email from her offering to get food for my elderly parents once she was home with her own family. I had something in my eye, I can tell you.

I’ve also felt emotional about that media coverage.

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The empty newsroom pix, the fascinating home office shots, and the stories of generosity and community spirit: they’ve all touched me.

So my pride extends from our departmental family, through our university community, to all the journalists trying to make sense of this madness.

 

Those trying to provide what this excellent piece calls ‘a calm guide’, those putting the glass half-empty critics back in their box by showing the truth can be complicated, and the sports writers having to push creativity to new limits.

I’m lucky in that I have a loving family around me, we have a garden, we have a full fridge and freezer, and I can work from home. I count my blessings on a regular basis.

That process also involves gratitude for the BBC and the rest of the media, particularly the regional media.

This virus has brought out the best and the worst in us.

The journalism – trusted, impartial, constructive – has been firmly in that first category. 

Why the BBC’s worth fighting for

It’s an organisation that shapes my day.

After a quick check of my emails, the BBC News app is the first one I open on my phone as I have my breakfast.

Once in the car, much of my 75-minute journey is to the accompaniment of Radio 2, Radio 4 and Radio Gloucestershire.

When I get to work, the bbc.co.uk/news tab is always open on my laptop.

I aim to time my re-entry into my car to coincide with the start of PM on Radio 4 – an absolute treasure trove of fascinating interviews and packages, with the brilliant Evan Davis at the helm.

Once home, Points West is usually on, and after an evening that’s quite likely to be punctuated by the iPlayer, the end of the 10 O’Clock News is normally my cue to hit the sack.

I can’t imagine life without the BBC.

But that prospect isn’t entirely beyond the realms of possibility any more.

It’s clear that the current government has the Beeb in its sights, just as it does any institution capable of clear-minded independent thought and scrutiny.

That Sunday Times splash with those immortal words ‘we will whack it’ may have reflected an extreme interpretation of actual official policy.

But both the previous Culture Secretary and the new one have made it clear the BBC’s funding future is far from certain.

To be fair to current post-holder Oliver Dowden, his first speech on the issue was far more reasonable than the contradictory nonsense spouted by Baroness Morgan a few weeks ago as she hopelessly tried to compare the BBC to Netflix. Rightly, she was rubbished by commentators and sketch-writers.

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Her comments came as Britain was battered by a succession of storms and floods, causing the sort of chaos and uncertainty that BBC local radio was put on this earth to tackle.

As always, the staff of radio stations across England put in extra shifts, ripped up schedules, took their programmes on the road and generally did their best to bind their fragile communities back together again.

And they did it even though some of them – like BBC Hereford and Worcester’s Nicola Goodwin – had been flooded themselves.

A couple of weeks’ later came a fresh reminder of the incredible role that such stations play, when BBC Cornwall raised the alarm after a regular caller hadn’t rung in for a few days.  Sadly Clara from Bude had died – but her body would have laid undiscovered for far longer had it not been for newsreader Jo Twist missing her regular weekend chats.

That woman was 69, and the BBC is the first to admit that its audience isn’t getting any younger.

The argument given a run out by Baroness Morgan centres on the idea that there are millions of younger people who at the moment barely use the BBC’s services, but who may pay the same TV licence as those who watch it all day long.

As veteran journalist Michael Crick points out eloquently in an interesting episode of the Media Show there are plenty of services that we have to pay for whether we use them or not.

You don’t get a council tax discount just because you don’t have any kids currently being educated in your local schools, just as you still pay the full whack if you’re at the other end of the age spectrum and not at present in need of expensive social care.

There are telling parallels between the BBC and that other world-famous, pride-inducing, British institution.

In the past, there have been efforts to hive off significant parts of the NHS’s hospital work either to private operators or to specialist treatment centres.

The logical conclusion of this trend would be for acute hospitals to just treat emergency cases, free of the tedium of hip replacements and cataract ops.

But those hospitals need the expertise provided by those other departments, and the sheer economies of scale that come with a multifaceted enterprise.

Just like the NHS, the BBC works as a whole, as an organisation woven into our culture and values with service at its heart.

Break it up, and everything and everyone suffers.

And it’s important to judge the BBC as that huge, sprawling but amazing entity.

It’s far from perfect, but we can be far too quick to jump to ridiculous conclusions about bias on the basis of social media snapshots that are overwhelmingly cock-up rather than conspiracy.

Very much not jumping to ridiculous conclusions, I am sure, is a new and timely book co-edited by my friend and University of Gloucestershire colleague Tom Bradshaw.

Is the BBC in Peril? contains articles by some of the finest broadcasters, critics, academic and thinkers on the subject of a much-loved institution at a crossroads.

It’s being launched on March 17 as the debate over whether the licence fee which has sustained the BBC for so many decades should be given a new lease of life – or replaced with a subscription model.

I’m looking forward to reading it – particularly if there are innovative solutions that preserve that crucial wraparound service for new generations.

The truth is the BBC provides incredible value for money.

It’s very easy to find fault with aspects of what it does, not least because it does so much, but also because it strives for something which few of us can ever agree on: the truth.

If we were starting from scratch, we may not create the BBC we have today.

But the BBC we have is a precious jewel – and one which is worth fighting for.