What a clash with Mrs Angry reminded me about journalism

I spoke to Mrs Angry last week.

She was the owner of a business inadvertently caught up in a minor chemical alert which brought a bit of excitement to the newsroom where I was working.

I’d never spoken to her before, and probably – perhaps hopefully – never will again.

But she had a clear view of me.

“I don’t want you to write anything. You’ll just twist the truth.”

Leaving aside the fact that she was asking me NOT to tell the truth by leaving out key information, I was slightly taken aback, even after more than 30 years of this kind of exchange.

Elsewhere in the week, I met some very, very nice people – and told their inspiring stories.

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That word met is important, I think.

Getting more and more eyeballs on our journalism is clearly crucial.

But doing more eyeball-to-eyeball journalism is also key to restoring trust and to ensuring that the bonds between us and our audience are two-way, supportive and strong.

We have more information about our readers than ever before. We can track their eccentric, sometimes frustrating journeys across our websites, their reactions to our social media, their locations, and their daily habits. And, theoretically, they have more ways to contact us than ever before.

I say theoretically because, for a member of the public with a story – or heaven preserve us, a death notice – actually making your way into an actual news outlet office can feel akin to navigating the Crystal Maze.

We have virtual relationships with the people we serve and, as a Twitter addict, I firmly believe we can do great things on social media.

As I have said before, I am also a big fan of initiatives such as Behind Local News, which as well as explaining the way the regional media works, also celebrates the vibrancy of the long read, the sheer joy of working in a newsroom, and battles with ignorant politicians.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that we probably look our audience in the whites of their eyes less than we have ever done.

The really meaningful social interaction, the development of truly rich relationships, takes place face to face.

That’s why I’m left a bit cold by the revival – principally by Guardian writer Owen Jones – of the debate over diversity and media bias in our newsrooms.

There have been plenty of tremendous ripostes – not least from the wonderful Jen Williams of the Manchester Evening News.

And I also liked the response from two of my friends in that newsroom in which I was working last week.

There is something in what Owen says in that we do need more people with disabilities, more older people, and more people from ethnic minorities in our newsrooms.

But I’ve never seen greater dedication to giving a voice to the voiceless in those newsrooms. This, by my friend Michael Yong for Bristol Live, charting the deaths of the hidden homeless, is hugely encouraging.

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No, to me, the real divide is between journalism that looks out and gets out and journalism that looks in and stays in.

It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It matters who you’re talking to, and how many eyeballs you’re notching up. And I don’t just mean on Chartbeat.

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Has media freedom just been driven off a Cliff?

It was a clash between two great British institutions, both with decades of entertainment history behind them, both with massive fan bases, and both with their fair share of detractors.

But it was Sir Cliff Richard who ended up with his best-known song ringing in his ears yesterday after a landmark victory over the BBC which appears to have created a new red line for media coverage of police investigations.

It’s not often that the first half of the 10 O’Clock News turns into a live media law lecture.

And it’s a shame that one of the most interesting and significant developments in media law for several years ended up happening while our lecture theatres are empty.

But there is plenty of material to keep people like me busy – plus plenty to talk about in the autumn.

And this isn’t some arcane, academic, ivory-tower discussion point.

The judgement of Mr Justice Mann raises ethical and practical issues that could affect the way every single journalist in this country operates.

His ruling that people being investigated by the police have a reasonable expectation of privacy is in some ways no surprise after other cases in recent years – such as Hannon – have moved the law in this direction.

But it has understandably unleashed a serious backlash of concern – from the BBC itself, from highly experienced journalists, from media organisations and from specialist lawyers.

The judge’s conclusion that the BBC’s public interest argument could only be supported as far as coverage of an anonymised investigation – and not as far as identifying the celebrity target – is said to be a chilling restriction on media freedom and a green light for police obstructiveness or even abuse.

As usual, the Sun summed up its objections beautifully – even if the shotgunning of any more into one word offends my eye.

But is it correct?

The example of serial predator TV presenter Stuart Hall is rightly used in arguments against the sort of legal ban on naming suspects who have not yet been charged which Mr Justice Mann now seems to have created. Women came forward to strengthen the police case after he had been named at the arrest stage by the media.

Mr Justice Mann disregarded the notion that there was any ‘shaking of the tree’ merit in naming Sir Cliff.

And for every Stuart Hall there is a Christopher Jefferies – someone whose life was ruined by outrageous media coverage of an arrest that the courts agreed could have prevented justice being done.

Some red herrings have also been thrown into the debate: I saw a very experienced media lawyer suggesting the latest ruling would stop legitimate coverage of investigations into abuse by teachers – as if that unique pre-charge identification ban in Section 13 of the 2011 Education Act was all a dream. And there was concern on yesterday’s excellent Media Show that police appeals to find named and dangerous suspects could expose titles to legal risks – despite the long-standing reassurance burnt onto the eyeballs of all NCTJ exam-takers from the 1982 Attorney-General, and the key principle of qualified privilege.

One impact of the Leveson Inquiry has been the gradual closing of doors to the media by police forces, a process which has been all the more frustrating in an era of social media.

I can see this isn’t going to help, and my former colleague Tom Rawstorne makes a good point.

 

I still have mixed feelings about the BBC’s actions.

I welcome its championing of the cause of media freedom, and to see an organisation often accused of being over-cautious and bound up in regulation and compliance paranoia with its head above the parapet in this way is perhaps refreshing.

But I can’t rid myself of the suspicion that had the Beeb not been quite so bull-at-a-gate, we may not find ourselves in this situation.

To be fair to the BBC, the judge was clear that any coverage which identified Sir Cliff would have been a breach of privacy.

But there’s no doubt that helicopter, that live and intrusive footage, that short timeframe for a comment, and particularly that appallingly tactless Scoop of the Year submission added dangerously unnecessary fuel to the fire.

There are those such as former BBC executive Roger Mosey and former BBC chairman Lord Patten who argue the BBC should resist any temptation to appeal.

I disagree.

As I said before, part of me thinks the BBC has got us into this mess. And so it should do all it can to get us out.

These are incredibly difficult issues to wrestle with, and I’m very conscious of that saying that ‘hard cases make bad law.’

I’d very much like a second judicial opinion on this.

How can we attract more young people to journalism?

I’m on tour in a month’s time.

The list on the back of my tour merchandising t-shirt wouldn’t be all that long: Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, Stroud – and Bristol again.

But it’s a chance to look up old friends and to strengthen links with newsrooms and other media employers around our region.

I know that in one of those newsrooms I will run into one of our most recent graduates.

It’ll be lovely to see her.

It would be equally lovely to think that I might bump into more of our finest former students.

But the appetite of young people for life in a regional newsroom isn’t always all that it might be.

The anecdotal evidence has been there for some time – and in previous jobs I spent a fair bit of time trying to come up with new ways to sell vacancies on small titles to what felt like a diminishing pool of interested talent.

But in May, I saw the first concrete reference to the problem – in an authoritative report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which highlighted the recruitment  headaches faced by regional newsrooms.

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And there was a hint at another cause, too….

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Journalism was always a job where mission and vocation teamed with mischief and camaraderie trumped financial reward and the desire for work-life balance.

But maybe that uneasy pact has come unstuck as a new generation either wants more from its working life – or has developed a greater ability to see the new clothes of some media firms’ top digital emperors.

My colleagues and I work day in, day out, to inspire our students to think of journalism as an amazing privilege. But we rely on our industry friends to help turn the flickering flame into the fire in the belly.

That recruitment issue has emerged again with the revelation that the filling of the remaining vacancies for the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter scheme has virtually ground to a halt.

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Once again, money has been advanced as a sticking point – although in the early stages of the scheme, the quality of applicants was said to be incredibly high.

The difficulty of finding the right person for the important job of holding power to account across the country has been tellingly shown in the debacle of the LDR for Harrogate.

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A writer with a public track record of being a thorn in the flesh of his local council, with clear axes to grind, was appointed to a role where BBC-style balance and impartiality were key. What could possibly go wrong?

I agree that the £22,000-a-year salary for the LDR jobs is far from generous.

But from my understanding of the situation, the roles offer a degree of autonomy – a reporting right to roam, if you like – that traditional newsroom jobs increasingly lack.

So if we’re struggling to fill these jobs, the image problem of the regional media is a very real one.

I’ve watched with a glow of pride as one of the titles in my home county, the Salisbury Journal, has flown a flag for honest, hard-working, supportive reporting in extraordinarily difficult circumstances with its coverage of the two poisoning incidents on its doorstep.

Much of that coverage has involved its now head of news, Rebecca Hudson, who has been rightly praised for her dedication, determination, and defence of her home patch.

Aside from some very healthy web figures, there haven’t been many silver linings for the 23-year-old and her tiny team.

But the saga has had one positive impact: for the time being, at least, it’s kept her in journalism.

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We can’t have – and wouldn’t want – Russian-backed murder conspiracies paralysing communities in every news patch of this land.

So for the sake of a healthy democracy, the industry needs to be honest about why we’re not recruiting more Rebeccas – and why the ones we have are so easily tempted to leave.

Could Gareth Southgate teach crisis-hit councils a thing or two about media relations?

If people are doing an impossible job, is it possible to hold them to account?

I’ve always seen the regional media’s role as that of a critical friend to their community’s leaders.

As I’ve said before, although journalists and politicians may feel they can get along without each other very well, the people they serve need them both.

Getting the balance between criticism and friendship right is hugely difficult.

But not quite as difficult as trying to square the circles involved in running local government services at a time of unprecedented financial challenge.

One of the many tragedies of Brexit is its destructive dominance of the bandwidth of the national media – and of Westminster and Whitehall.

Time, effort and expertise are being wasted on a deliberate, conscious act of national self-harm at a time when the fabric of our society is already under attack from biological and demographic forces which can only be tackled with stability and unity.

The Government has pledged to apply a giant sticking plaster to the NHS without any convincing commitment to solving the increasingly huge elephant in the emergency room that is the UK’s social care crisis.

Any local authority that runs adult social care services is in trouble.

A Guardian journalist who has done more than most to talk to real people in real places to inform his writing, John Harris argues that the crisis of diminishing Whitehall support for local government is now destroying communities. And he’s right.

He says the destruction of council services which are a lifeline for the most vulnerable people in society has been underreported. And if he’s talking about the national media – consumed by refracting their own light on Brexit – he might also be right.

But the links in John’s report point to work across the regional media which is attempting to shine bright lights into these dark areas, day in, day out.

They find themselves trying to hold to account people who are losing control, people doing an unenviable job, with hands tied by a government that is the latest to fail to find an honest and constructive answer to the challenge of an ageing population.

Honest and constructive.

There was undoubtedly a lack of honesty and constructive thinking when Theresa May launched plans to shake up social care funding just over a year ago, with a much-needed debate reduced to election name-calling which set back progress both on funding – and on the alleged unfairness of the current system.

It’s the sort of issue that to my mind was made for the emerging – and very welcome – process of constructive journalism.

It’s a principle championed by Mark Rice-Oxley, special projects editor at The Guardian, who spoke inspiringly at this week’s Newsrewired conference.

But there can also be a perceived lack of honesty at a local level, too, that may dissuade journalists from taking that constructive approach.

I’ve always thought it smacks of whining desperation when organisations such as the News Media Association protest at BBC expansion, or the withdrawal of public notice advertising – or the so-called Town Hall Pravdas.

And I don’t think the sacking of one of the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporters in Yorkshire amounts to sinister censorship – as far as I can see, his previous axe-grinding should have ruled him out of the running for the job. Even if he was, as has been suggested, the only person to apply.

But I do understand the frustration of journalists attempting to hold elected power to account – never mind find empathy for the need to save money – when councils gloss over problems in their own news communications.

In a city I know well, there is anger among local journalists at the local council’s attempts to put a brave face on overrunning flood defence works.

The Exeter Express and Echo and the Devon Live website recently highlighted the annoyance of traders at the city’s landmark quay over the work by the Environment Agency which has missed its deadline by around 18 months.

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Cue the next edition of Exeter Citizen, the city council’s free newspaper for local council taxpayers.

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Local reporters have claimed the picture of busy activity may well be up to five years old.

I don’t know. But I do know that it all builds suspicion and resentment – the polar opposites of that honesty and constructive thinking.

A report out today highlights the increasing importance of social media strategies in local government communications. Councils need to have their own voice – and some, like Doncaster Council – are outstanding at it.

 

But that Local Government Association report also recognises the need for openness and transparency.

The best public organisations know that letting the light in, supporting the disinfectant of scrutiny, can only improve performance.

There’s a clue in that inspired Doncaster Council tweet.

We’re all disappointed this morning that our dreams of seeing England in a World Cup final have been dashed.

We can see some problems that need to be solved.

But we can also see a group of honest folk working hard to solve them – and to connect with a real world of worry, confusion and occasional hope.

That doesn’t happen by accident.

It’s the result of honesty, openness and constructive thinking on the part of both reporter and reported.

There are councils which could take a leaf out of Sir Gareth of Waistcoat’s pitchside notebook.

It’s our duty to speak up when tragedy strikes our worldwide journalism family

It’s 3,555 miles from here to Annapolis in Maryland.

I was barely aware of its existence before last week, and I’d certainly never heard of the Capital-Gazette newspaper.

And yet on Friday morning, I ate my breakfast through tears.

Tears for five members of the world journalism family (yes, we do count our commercial colleagues as family members) gunned down as they worked in their office.

And tears for their workmates who, while mourning their loss and coping with their own post-traumatic stress, moved to a nearby garage and carried on putting out the paper.

When you spend your day writing about new shop openings or product recalls, journalism may not feel like a dangerous profession.

The fact that – across the world – 110 journalists have been killed in the last 18 months is one that can perhaps be easily dismissed.

And yet, there won’t be a single journalist in this country who hasn’t been subjected to online abuse of one kind or another.

Some of it might be laughable, like this minor abuse I received recently.

That came after I defended Leeds Live reporter Stephanie Finnegan over her coverage of Tommy Robinson’s brush with the contempt of court laws – coverage which led to horrific trolling online which was absolutely no laughing matter.

Talking of contempt of court, because it’s not a British case, I can say that the man arrested for the Maryland atrocity seemed to have targeted the Capital-Gazette because of its coverage of a court case he was involved in.

That sort of resentment is the kind that anyone who has sat on the press bench of a court will have experienced.

I can still remember plotting my escape through a window when a family group descended on our office to complain about our treatment of one of their number.

The relative free-for-all of the comments sections on most news websites and the still underpoliced world of social media has enabled 24/7, arms-length, largely anonymous, abuse of journalists to flourish.

If you’re a crime reporter, like my Twitter friend Carl Eve, it’s a nasty fact of life.

In fact, we’re not alone in having to put up with such personal abuse. A few minutes on Trip Advisor would be all that’s needed to find examples of allegedly truculent reception staff or clueless waiters highlighted for all the world to see.

But such references aren’t usually accompanied by threats.

And – important though those hospitality roles are, no one putting in a shift at their local hotel or bar would claim to be defending key bulwarks of democracy.

When you factor in the wider political dimension – whether it be Donald Trump calling reporters the enemy of the people or the expansion of the power of dictators such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Viktor Orban – it’s easier to argue that there is a sinister, insidious, continuum of abuse. One that starts with online taunts and ends in newsroom bloodbaths.

As social media firms, lawmakers and law enforcers struggle to keep up – nationally and internationally – what can we do?

There’s no doubt that managers need to be more proactive in supporting their staff.

When I was a news editor, I used to regularly climb on to my high horse in defence of our reporters.

I was prepared to let accusations of lazy journalism go most of the time. But there was an occasion when that last word became journalists. That was a red line, and I forced an apology after pointing out that I had just worked a 55-hour week, including, along with all my staff, a 13-hour day.

But we can’t leave it all to whatever’s left of management. We all need to put aside parochialism and complacency to take a greater interest in the work of organisations such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

It’s a point well made by the great Eddie Mair – one of the country’s most effective interviewers – as he announced his move from the BBC yesterday.

And there are more ideas here on standing shoulder to shoulder with our US friends, and on improving coverage of tragedy.

But I also commend to you this lovely idea from a reporter at another American newspaper.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it seems more relevant and certainly more poignant now than ever.

So let’s all find time today – on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments section – to literally put in a good word for a colleague.

And by colleague, I mean any journalist, anywhere, trying to do the best job they can.

Why learning lessons from weather presenters might mean a brighter future for journalism

It’s at times like these that the British public’s adoration of weather presenters goes into overdrive.

Whether it’s Matt Taylor in shorts, Carol Kirkwood sharing London’s luscious landscapes with us or Dan Downs delivering the forecast in his best Devonian accent, we can’t get enough of our meteorological maestros.

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Photo: BBC

It helps that they’re giving us unremittingly good news at the moment.

But it’s not just that. These folk are friends dropping in.

And while criticising the Met Office and its various upstart rivals can sometimes be as much of a national sport as commenting on the elements to strangers, I’d wager the trust levels enjoyed by Carol and Co are as high as those pollen levels.

And there just might be a lesson for journalism there: one which points to a slightly sunnier future.

Granted, weather presenters never have to pick their way through the moral minefields of impartiality and balance as political grenades are thrown from all sides.

But as this thoughtful analysis from the American Press Institute points out, they can be past masters at getting an audience on their side.

They convey complex information in an engaging way, they help their community reject rumour and sensationalism, and they make great use of data and visual storytelling.

I have access to all kinds of forecasts via apps, the radio, news websites and information screens.

But if I really need to know, there is only one voice that I really trust.

If Ian Fergusson on BBC Points West says it’s going to be tricky on wintry roads, I start looking up train timetables. If he says the weekend’s going to be lovely, I put out the garden furniture cushions.

It’s partly because he keeps his powder as dry as the earth in my wife’s parched pots. He is the North Pole of cool, calm consideration to the Equator of the Express’s relentless search for new hyperventilating headline hyperbole.I realise I’m mixing my meteorological metaphors here.

It’s partly because he’s usually spot-on. If there’s doubt, he says there’s doubt.

And it’s partly because, after seeing him in my living room night after night for many years, I feel I know him.

It’s that sense of engagement, that connection, and certainly that trust which has to be at the heart of journalism’s relationship with its consumers.

It’s an incredibly difficult process, but I do believe we’re making baby steps in the right direction.

It’s encouraging to see a news website that’s hoovering up some of the most talented journalists around, Huffington Post, moving its operations to Birmingham for a week.

It might be a temporary, token gesture. But, with the idea of an open newsroom, it’s a very visible sign of a desire for two important things. First of all, it’s eyeball-to-eyeball journalism, which is always the best sort. And secondly, it’s an invitation for people to see behind the curtain, to explore, understand and perhaps challenge the thought processes behind newsgathering and story priorities in a digital age.

Editor-in-chief Polly Curtis says – rightly – that it’s all about rebuilding trust.

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I spoke at rather too much length about all this in a recent public lecture, and it always gladdens my heart to see journalists publicly talking about the way newsrooms work.

Particularly when it is done with a degree of style, as it was by Cornwall Live head of content Jeff Reines a few days ago, with a piece headlined It’s not a Slow News Day just because you don’t like this story.

He illustrated his piece with a digital short emphatically making the point that he and his colleagues are round-the-clock busy, thank you very much – and that the content which attracts the most ‘is this a story?’ abuse is usually the content which sends Chartbeat soaring.

There are also some fantastic thoughts in this round-up from the American Trusting News project, especially about techniques for encouraging your audience to share important stories.

And as someone who worships the ground that the author of Start With Why, Simon Sinek, walks upon, I was massively heartened by a section urging newsrooms to tell their readers why they do what they do.

His central – and utterly incisive – point is that organisations with a clear mission which rises above the financial and which inspires their staff are the ones which succeed. It’s the Why, not the What or even the Who, that really matters.

So explaining how newsrooms see their role and why individual journalists get out of bed in the morning, and anticipating public objections to some coverage has to be the way forward.

It’s why the recently-launched Behind Local News website is such a constant joy.

The latest contribution there is from Portsmouth News editor Mark Waldron on covering tragedy on the doorstep. That idea of trust seeps from every pore and every paragraph, with a bereaved dad rewarding a News reporter with an exclusive interview because of the sensitivity of his coverage.

The role of that same title in standing up for its community was also highlighted by one of Mark’s predecessors, Mike Gilson, in a piece for Hold the Front Page on the Gosport Memorial Hospital scandal.

I liked the way that Mike used a very simple word to describe the relationship between the best of the regional media and the people it serves: bond.

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That’s what we should be striving for.

It’s what most of us already – perhaps unwittingly – have with those familiar faces on our TV screens.

So we might start by checking out the weather.

Enjoy the sun.

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.