What the referendum tells us about journalism

I suspect Friday passed in a volley of swearing for many of us. And maybe on both sides of the EU debate, for different reasons.

I love the description of Sunday Times personal finance columnist Ian Cowie, who said his home was like the expletive-laden start of Four Weddings and a Funeral on the morning after the referendum night before.

A young reporter who like me is fascinated by politics spent most of the day in a similar frame of mind, if his posts on Facebook and Twitter were to be believed.

But then, after many hours of reporting on the extraordinary scenes of June 23 and 24, he posted this on Facebook, which gladdened my heart:  “What a historic day to be reporting on, as a self-confessed political junkie, this was a day I’ll never forget.”

And it was. And still it goes on, day after incredible day.

I made the point a few times while talking to would-be students and their parents at our uni open day on Saturday: what a great time to be reporting on politics in this country.

It is an opportunity and a privilege to be covering such a once-in-a-lifetime political earthquake.

But there’s something else that it is. It’s also a responsibility.

Last week, Western Mail chief reporter Martin Shipton warned that political coverage was in danger of getting lost amid lifestyle journalism with more than half an eye on demanding web audience targets.

To slightly paraphrase him, it came down to burgers vs burghers (that’s councillors to anyone not born in the 18th century).

I think the difficult truth is that journalists are having to do both. And that means they’re not necessarily able to do either particularly well.

Certainly, there is precious little time for proactive, off-diary story-hunting and standing-up, let alone analysis.

We are back to a problem that was at the centre of most of the heart-to-hearts I have had with reporters over the last two to three years: the need to get out more.

As I have suggested above, I have played a full part in the social media echo chamber in recent weeks, railing against the world to people of a similar mindset, educational background and age.

But an agonised comment from one of that young reporter’s colleagues struck a real – and in its own way, achingly sad – chord with me.

“I don’t know anyone who voted Leave,” she said. And she won’t be alone in experiencing that bewilderment in Medialand.

I take my hat off to a couple of my Facebook friends – both journalists – who, despite voting Remain, have sent wise warning shots across the bows of their colleagues.

They had real stories from the Brexit front line of thoughtful contacts with personal experience of employment unfairness firmly linked to immigration from Europe.

They were tales from a world that too few journalists inhabit.

So part of that responsibility I highlighted earlier is that editors, digital editors, executive editors, heads of web, news editors – all of them – need to find ways of reporters meeting more real people, more different people, more new people.

Otherwise, as I have commented before, we’re producing news with the windows shut, the central heating on full blast, and the curtains drawn.

One of the things becoming increasingly clear is that the Remain case wasn’t made in any ways that resonated with those who feel completely bypassed by prosperity.

Many Leavers felt that they had literally nothing to lose. And many others who may have approached their decision with more thought reacted to the contempt and criticism of their views by digging their heels in still further.

The fact that so many people voted for a scenario which will punish the most vulnerable members of our society more than ever before highlights other aspects of the responsibility borne by journalists.

I’m not just talking about the way in which the post-truth politics of lies over NHS investment and fudging over immigration was allowed to hold sway.

Let’s also consider how the most far-reaching decision about our country in two generations was taken on the basis of vacuous catchphrases rather than well-informed analysis and judgement.

As Observer columnist Peter Preston said yesterday, only 22 per cent of people admitted to really understanding what they were voting on.

A friend of mine challenged her mum as to why she had voted Leave, to be told: “I was looking for new saucepans the other day, and I couldn’t see any made in Britain.”

In Ebbw Vale, in an area of Wales with virtually zero immigration and drowning in EU investment, they voted out.

One Remain supporter there told the Observer: “There was only one word people had on their mind: immigration. They didn’t look at the facts at all.”

Although there are clear correlations in places such as Corby and Boston, the facts don’t always support a link between levels of immigration and Brexit backing. In some places, dark xenophobia lurks not far from the surface.

We had an avalanche of information.

But too much writing was partisan, and too many of the TV debates were too antagonistic.

In the end too much of all of it simply intensified the effect of the echo chamber, rather than being really useful or engaging. What was lacking was some storytelling.

And then there’s the final and most disheartening aspect of all.

A family friend in his early 20s, one with whom I have had many an interesting and grown-up conversation, didn’t vote. Neither did the rest of his family.

He said he didn’t see that the result would affect him. And also – that heartbreaking refrain – why would his single vote make any difference? I could have wept.

Another young friend failed to organise a postal vote in time.

For a few milliseconds I had some sympathy with whichever old Tory it was who wanted to stop the registration deadline being extended when last-minute applications crashed the gov.uk site.

He had said that if the vote was that unimportant to people, they shouldn’t be rewarded for their administrative fecklessness – or words to that effect.

My fear is that, for all the anguished Facebook posts about privileged baby boomers destroying the futures of teenagers and 20somethings, not enough of that age group actually bothered to vote.

As Ben Page of Ipsos Mori said yesterday: “If under-34s had voted in the same volume as the over-65s, the result would have been different.”

That overall 72 per cent turnout was relatively high – higher than any national poll since 1992. But there had been real hopes we could have achieved an 80 per cent-plus figure.

The girlfriend of the guy who hadn’t voted told me she thought voting in this one should have been compulsory. I’m not sure I want to see people locked up or fined for not voting, but it’s an interesting thought.

For now, I’m left with a nagging suspicion that if more young people had overcome their lack of engagement, laziness or lack of organisation, we might be in a very different place today.

The laziness and lack of organisation may be an endemic problem too tricky for any of us to solve.

But that lack of engagement…..

This referendum was effectively determined by the decisions of older people getting their news and insights from The Sun and Express, but also by the indifference of too many younger people whose world view is shaped by Snapchat and Instagram.

Getting a new generation to feel they can really make a difference in a political system dominated by men in suits is one of the biggest challenges of our time.

It’s one that multimedia news organisations and their journalists ought to relish.











Should we ban the naming of police suspects?

I’m collecting moral dilemmas at the moment.

Yesterday, I emailed a number of friendly editors to ask them to keep me updated on the ethical questions that disturb their sleep in the digital age.

At a time when the NCTJ is stressing the crucial importance of ethics, with a specific test on the cards, I am preparing to teach a new module focussed on the ethical dimensions of journalism.

I have a feeling that the fault lines between what might once have been regarded as commercial and editorial may provide a rich seam of material.

But the balance between the competing rights of freedom of expression and privacy will also yield plenty of talking points.

And for the last few days, the case of singer Sir Cliff Richard has raised one of the biggest dilemmas of them all.

I thought it was grimly fascinating that the Crown Prosecution Service revealed it would not be recommending charges against Sir Cliff on the very day that a man arrested – but at that stage not yet charged – over the killing of MP Jo Cox was being widely identified.

Sir Cliff is rightly furious at his treatment at the hands of South Yorkshire Police and the BBC, which broadcast footage of a raid on his home on live TV.

The case has echoes of the nightmare faced by DJ Paul Gambaccini, who was effectively hung out to dry for 18 months by both the police and the BBC, this time in the role of his employer.

But Sir Cliff was not even arrested.

National policing guidelines and the Leveson Report have been clear that only in extremely exceptional circumstances should the names of people who have been arrested but not yet charged be released.

But there is no legislation to underpin this, other than the defamation risk that accompanies stories about arrested people who never end up in court.

There is strong support from some libel lawyers for the idea – floated by Sir Cliff again in the last few days – of a legal ban on the identification of suspects who have not yet been charged.

And a 2014 civil law case gave some hope to another of Sir Cliff’s arguments – that revealing details of a police investigation at such an early stage could be seen as a breach of his privacy.

And yet, and yet.

While Sir Cliff is an innocent victim in this awful saga, other high profile celebrities have been less so.

There is no doubt that the pre-charge naming of entertainer Stuart Hall was instrumental in bringing forward key witnesses for the police to use in the eventual successful prosecution.

The simple knowledge that other people may have suffered in their own silences can be a powerful motivator in persuading sex abuse victims to finally speak up.

Which is why the NSPCC believes there should always be a public interest get-out clause allowing police to name suspects who have yet to be charged.

And there is also that freedom of speech argument.

The pressure group Index on Censorship has been vocal on this subject, saying that while anonymity may be appropriate, “sweeping powers for secrecy should not be the norm.”

I have to say that, for once, I don’t know what the answer is here.

I can see the persuasive power of suspect identification.

But I can also see how incredibly difficult it will be for Sir Cliff and Paul Gambaccini to pick up their normal lives.

One thing I am sure of, though, is this.

It was insensitive beyond belief for the BBC to enter its coverage of that police raid for the Royal Television Society awards Scoop of the Year category.

I’m very glad it didn’t win.

I don’t think this was either the BBC’s or journalism’s finest hour.

But finding a way to square the circle of protecting the innocent while helping to nail the guilty would be.








How journalists can help make our national debate a little kinder

“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
I can’t get that phrase out of my head.
Not that I want to.
They are, of course, the words of MP Jo Cox.
Someone I don’t think I’d even heard of until last Thursday afternoon.
But someone for whom I’ve been moved to tears time and time again since a moment of unspeakable horror on an ordinary street in West Yorkshire.
I have read thousands of words reflecting on her killing over the last few days.
Many were by people that I could barely hold a candle to in terms of compelling, analytical and incisive prose – such as Jonathan Freedland and Marina Hyde.
There have been other high profile – and controversial pieces – such as those by Alex Massie in the Spectator, Iain Martin and Kate Spicer.
There was wisdom in all of them, particularly Massie’s.
And there have been fantastic tributes to Jo, one of the first from her fellow Syria campaigner, Tory MP Andrew Mitchell.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Others have come from reporters who knew her as a hard-working and passionately committed MP.
Someone, as Rachel Johnson pointed out yesterday with a guilty conscience, who was busy helping constituents with their real problems as she, Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof indulged in name-calling and histrionics on the River Thames. Jo’s brilliantly articulate husband Brendan and their kids got caught in the crossfire, though, as they took to a dinghy to support the Remain cause.
Those reporters’ tributes have been heartfelt and glowing. Journalists from regional papers such as the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post joined broadcasters such as the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg in painting a picture of a warm, genuinely lovely woman.

It’s been said many times before in many different circumstances: what a shame it is that we never get to read our obits, the messages on our funeral flowers and the eulogies in our memory.
I wonder how many of those journalists ever said those sort of beautiful things to Jo’s face.
And I wonder how many of them had insisted that the vast majority of politicians were public-spirited masochists in the months and years leading up to Jo’s tragic death.
It’s a point made excellently by Michael Deacon in the Times, but one which needs making more often.

It’s not just our industry. I also wonder how many of Jo’s constituents ever gave her the right level of credit for the tireless problem-solving she did on their behalf. It was lovely to see #ThankYourMP taking off within hours of her death.

But, if we are – as so many commentators and politicians have urged – to reject the politics of hate, the media must play its part.
For more than two decades, as a news editor, I went looking for division and discord.
Find someone to condemn someone else they may not know saying things they haven’t heard about – and bingo! Rows have broken out, wars of words have erupted, battle lines have been drawn – and front pages have been filled.
And that other thing we do. When someone genuinely changes their mind.
Suddenly it’s an embarrassing u-turn, or a humiliating climbdown.

Why do we denigrate the results of good listening, or honest reflection?
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
I wrote a couple of months ago about the media’s unhelpful role in the EU debate.
To be fair, I now get slightly frustrated with people who say they haven’t got enough information on which to decide the right way to vote on Thursday (it’s In by the way…).
You could have wallowed in TV debates, BBC explainers and newspaper polemics around the clock if you needed information, guidance and opinion.
But the point I made then – about media coverage being similar to fracking in the way it exploits minor fissures of disagreement to generate the hot gas of controversy – still stands.
Journalism is a finely-judged mixture of public-spirited citizenship and cynical suspicion.
Somehow that world view has got out of kilter.
In among the whipping-up of bitter rows and fierce condemnation, there was a question that I’m glad that in my more reflective moments I occasionally also used to ask.
‘How will this story help?’
Help in greater understanding, greater justice, greater knowledge, greater happiness, greater truth?
It’s one that perhaps all of us journalists need to ask a little more often if our tributes to Jo Cox are to really mean something.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”




My Absolutely Fabulous guide to getting the best out of PR people

Just over two years ago, we all worked together in the newspaper industry.

Now, none of our fourstrong gang who will be meeting for a regular meal and catch-up next month is employed by the regional media.

I’m the odd one out in that I’m not involved in either media relations or the creation of online marketing content.

When I did some incredibly useful crowdsourcing for this blog, I counted no fewer than 25 of my Facebook friends who had made the transition from journalism to PR since I’d first known them.

There are now said to be nearly 20,000 more people in the PR industry than there are working journalists – a situation that worries my fellow journalism lecturer, Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade.

Since Leveson and various other watershed moments, it has been harder than ever for reporters to talk directly to police officers, council officials, business managers – and even politicians.

So you can look on this supposedly growing army of spin doctors as everything from a threat to democracy to a necessary evil to an opportunity.

So, I asked my friends in PR – in-house and agency: How can journalists get the best out of you?

Before launching into those tips, here’s the reason I used the word supposedly just a few moments ago.

This was one of the quotes I got from a former colleague: “We’re quite aware today’s newsrooms afford little time and have limited resources. Join the club! In most cases in-house PRs are a one-man band working across a massive range of projects and topics. We share your frustrations, probably more than you realise!”

So, there you go. We’re all in it together.

Here’s the best advice that my PR pals can provide:

  • Get your queries in as early as you can. Be clear and precise, and give a reasonable deadline. Provide as much information as possible. Remember the PR person may struggle to get hold of the right contact, particularly in sectors such as the police.
  • Don’t always rely on emails: “It can take more time than email, but a phone call and politely inquiring nature makes me more inclined to seek out that extra something.”
  • Remember the person on the other end of your email or call doesn’t work for you – even if they’re employed by the public sector and you’re a taxpayer: “The PR person is not employed to serve you/the media; he or she is employed to serve the organisation they represent.”
  • Check facts, and make sure you’ve got the right end of the stick: “Press offices which routinely handle complex matters, such as mine, have no problem with taking the time to ensure a reporter properly understands either the subject or the response. We know reporters have to be jacks and masters of all trades and subjects, from finance to human nature, from science to high art.”   And: “Most PRs are keen to take the time to explain the background and help you understand what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s worth it, you’ll be more informed and your article a whole lot more accurate and informative.”
  • Answer email queries, and give feedback if a well-pitched story isn’t going to work. And tell PR folk if that story that was life-or-death a few hours ago has now been spiked.
  • Don’t patronise – or try to kid a kidder. Most PR people have been journalists in another life, doing what you’re now trying to do.
  • Play the long game: “Be patient – if you push for a quick story to fill a gap on a slow day when the PR’s asked you to hold off for something better soon, don’t expect to be given the exclusive the next week.” And: “Bide your time. The best stories are often years in the making.”

The most important set of advice – by a country mile, and in line with all the best journalistic contact-making – is to build relationships.

“Invest time to get out from behind your desk to meet PR people. Probe them about all their clients, not just the ones they want to pitch to you, often you will find an angle and nugget between you when you least expect it.”

And be polite. Both of these quotes come from the public sector PR world:

  • “In terms of getting the best out of me – or making me go the extra mile for you – my one tip would be politeness. If you’re rude, condescending or obstructive in handing over information then my back is up straightaway and I’m less likely to hurry.”
  • “Don’t waste time being bullish. There’s a difference between holding people to account and demanding answers because of who you are. It’s worth remembering you’re trying to extract information and it’s likely you’ll have more luck with a polite inquiring manner than a head-down plough-on manner.”

Trust is key, as it is with all the best journalistic relationships.

“Above all build trust – trust allows us to talk more openly, it builds loyalty, it establishes a partnership through which we both get what we want or need for our respective audiences.”

As one of my closest ex-colleagues said, like Joni Mitchell, most PR folk have looked at life from both sides.

Another added: “As a “poacher turned gamekeeper,” journos and PRs work best when they touch base with each other frequently, and form strong relationships.”

These are, after all, people who might just be able to get you out of trouble when the content cupboard is looking bare.

“Don’t take the attitude that the PR person is a nuisance who is trying to peddle a non-story. If you spend time getting to know your PR contacts, you’ll realise which ones have the genuine news stories, which ones can get you a quote for a story quickly, and which ones are the best contacts.”

And there’s the thing. I’ve called them PR people because – believe it or not – they really are people, with full lives. They have clients, children, parents, groups, friends – and most still have a slightly frustrated nose for news.

  • “Yes, PRs are after your column inches and have something to promote, but they can give you good stories on slow news days. They usually have a great network too, go for a coffee with them, get to know them, work with them not against them.”
  • “Remember that most PR people have a life outside work. They may be more useful to you in a different guise.”

I think you’re getting the message.

I’ll leave the last word to someone who was once my deputy on a daily paper newsdesk. She was then, and remains now, a great source of wisdom.

“As a journalist, never assume that the PR has no experience of what you want. A good PR has generally learnt, as a journalist, about the pitfalls of bad PR. We’ve learnt to do our job from others’ mistakes. We want to get out a good story – it’s in our best interests. We do want to work with you, we do want to build relationships, we do want to build trust. We want journalists to challenge, to demand. I don’t believe PR is there to spoon-feed – that’s lazy on both sides. We are there to work WITH journalists not for them. Build a good relationship and the stories will evolve.”




Top tips if you’ve got a journalism work trial

So, your CV has sparkled, and you’ve got yourself a work trial day – and an interview at the end of it.

Your mum’s already probably given you one crucial piece of advice.

With huge apologies to our new graduate Curtis (he’s the man in the picture), don’t underestimate the importance of looking sharp – and that includes those shoes.

But what else do you need to know as you prepare for a testing day – in both senses – in a newsroom?

Most employers looking for trainee journalists will now insist on a work trial day – and it makes sense for both sides.

Quite obviously, it gives managers a useful insight into the attitudes, character, and skills of a would-be employee.

But it also allows jobhunters to work out whether an employer is all they’re cracked up to be.

So, here are my top tips for making the most of a journalism work trial day:

  • be smart, like your mum says. If you’re a bloke, that doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a tie, but it might mean wearing a suit. At least if you’ve got a tie, you can take it off if you find yourself overdressed. You’ll find it difficult to go in the other sartorial direction.
  • be on time: plan your journey and give yourself plenty of time for train delays, roadworks, accidents etc. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam, at least tweet a picture to the newsdesk.
  • do your research: find out who’s going to be interviewing you, and make sure you remember their name and what they look like.
  • do your research again: read the website, and ideally any printed products. Be up to date and ready to talk about the latest stories, live blogs, videos etc. Know the area.
  • bring a story of your own: even if it’s just a decent and original FoI request idea
  • follow orders: if you’re asked to write 300 words, don’t write 150 or 600. Listen to the brief. Ask intelligent questions and make suggestions. Actually, ask stupid questions too, if it stops you getting the wrong end of the stick.
  • make your intros sing: today is about making a really great first impression. That’s why you got the shoe polish out. Well, polish that intro, too. That way, you’ll put your possible future bosses at ease rather than on edge when they click on your copy.
  • make the tea: it’s a horrible cliché, but like all good ones, it’s rooted in truth. Offering to make a drink shows your potential new colleagues that you’re a team player.
  • talk to people: equally important in showing your ability to get on. You can bet your bottom dollar that the people interviewing you will have taken soundings from their workmates while you were making that tea.
  • use the phone: phone rather than email. And make sure you sound brilliant.
  • cope: or at least, look like you’re coping. One of the most important qualities of the 21st century journalist is the ability to multitask as priorities change.

And when you get to that interview stage?

  • smarten yourself up – it’ll be at the end of an exhausting day
  • prepare for the obvious standard questions
  • be honest if you’ve decided the job really isn’t for you
  • get feedback – ask how you’ve done, and whether they have any concerns about gaps in your knowledge or experience.

Above all, try to be a walking, talking definition of my favourite journalistic quality, confident humility.

And good luck.


No shame in crying: why journalists should show some emotion

I had a moment in my car this morning.

I had just parked up when a very familiar voice stopped me in my tracks.

It was that of one of the most dignified, resilient, patient and public-spirited people I have ever come across.

One whose family’s life was turned completely upside-down 20 years ago, when I was news editor of The Bath Chronicle.

I – like all journalists who ever meet them – am in awe of Steve Hall and his wife Pat.

Today police have revealed a new ray of hope in their battle to find the killer of the Halls’ daughter Melanie, who was last seen in a Bath nightclub in June 1996.

Over 18 years, my colleagues and I at the Chronicle covered every twist and turn of the Hall family’s agony, including arrests, the discovery of her remains by the M5 in Gloucestershire, and her desperately moving funeral in Bath Abbey.

Melanie pic canva

Picture montage: The Bath Chronicle

Reporters such as Imogen Sellers, Wendy Best, Samantha Walker and Siobhan Stayt were regular visitors to the couple’s home near Bradford on Avon.

And Steve threw himself into supporting the community that was supporting him, chairing Bath City Football Club, and teaching art classes.

I had known today’s news was coming after talking to the Chron reporter covering the story a few days ago.

But the sound of Steve’s voice – quietly dignified as always, but wearier – and the pictures of Pat left me fighting back the tears this morning.

I sat in my car for some time before I could get out.

The Chronicle’s Tim MacFarlan says it was a privilege to interview Pat and Steve for today’s coverage.

And he’s right.

The best parts of journalism are a privilege.

Being allowed into people’s lives at their most emotionally vulnerable times is an immense honour.

I hope that over the last two decades, the Chronicle, the BBC, the Western Daily Press, ITV, the Wiltshire Times, and other news outlets have repaid that honour by treating the Hall family with care and sensitivity.

I am certain that I am by no means the first journalist to be tangibly moved by their courage and determination, and by the articulacy they have shown in the face of such pain.

I’m currently reading The Ethical Journalist by the great Tony Harcup, who tells the story of BBC reporter Barbara Plett, who informed listeners she had cried at the frailty of the PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 2004.

Then BBC governors ruled that seasoned journalist Plett had broken impartiality rules by letting her emotions get the better of her.

Luckily, wiser heads seemed to have prevailed last year when another BBC reporter, Graham Satchell, was visibly moved as he ended a live report from Paris in the wake of the terror attacks on that city.

There have been odd occasions when I have seen reporters get too close to stories, and lose the sense of proportion that is needed for objective coverage.

But actually some of the best journalism comes from emotional involvement.

I’m sure I won’t be the only journalist with a lump in my throat as interviews with Pat and Steve Hall are played out today.

And there’s no shame in that.






Power to the (young) people: working with millennials

I live with two, am responsible for educating several dozen, and spent the last two years mentoring around 20 at any one time.

So getting the best out of millennials is a subject very close to my heart.

That M-word is a strange and amorphous one – with various definitions.

But any organisation which either employs or in some other way develops people in their late teens and 20s needs to take a long, hard look at itself.

And it has to ensure that it is taking that group’s particular needs and characteristics pretty seriously.

There might be no better way of starting that process than with this cracking piece by another one of my favourite leadership gurus, Mark C Crowley.

I wouldn’t want to steal his thunder – you need to read the whole thing.  But he identifies three key characteristics of millennials: a reluctance to let work-related stress affect their lives, an expectation of constant coaching and development, and a highly-developed awareness of the alternative opportunities open to them.

In the context of the journalism industry, these are all highly instructive points.

Our newsrooms are packed with 20somethings setting out on their careers.

And in many ways it is them who are teaching older workers some valuable lessons.

They’re not prepared to burn out in the hope of some long-game career reward.

They’re not prepared to do mindless tasks that don’t tick the boxes of achievement and the warm glow of satisfaction.

They expect to be challenged to keep learning new and useful skills.

And they won’t hang around if they’re not happy.

The good news is that – treated right – this young workforce can galvanise businesses with energy, ideas and fresh perspectives.

What’s happening is that they are forcing employers to raise their game.

Which ought to be a very good thing indeed.