Why a journalism degree is a Swiss Army knife for life

The gowns were hot – and not in a good way, my tie was all over the shop, and there was a lot of clapping to be done.
But it was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of our university graduation day last week.
We swelled with pride to see young people who we’d helped through academic and personal challenges take to the stage with their mortar board-clad heads held high.


But what does the journalism degree they now possess mean?
At a time when every week brings new stories of journalists’ jobs being lost, is that ornate scroll with a £27,000-plus price tag still worth having?
I would say this wouldn’t I, but to me the answer is a resounding yes.
I’m helping some of our third years polish their CVs at the moment, and the process has helped remind me and them just how many skills they will have when they too check out of our care.
Video-shooting and editing, InDesign and Photoshop, writing to deadline, presenting to camera, radio scripting, social media and SEO techniques, and project management will combine with awareness of the law, politics, public relations and the latest industry trends to create a potent cocktail mix of confidence, character and competence.
When journalists move into other sectors they soon realise what valuable and transferable skills they have – even if it’s just the ability to work fast and push the boundaries of tasteful humour.
And it’s the same for journalism students.
We know that more of our graduates are likely to end up working in PR, marketing and social media roles than as traditional journalists.
But their qualification, the crucial soft skills that we have hopefully encouraged in them, and connections they have made on work placements and news days should give them a powerful degree of choice.
Those news days test planning and leadership, stamina and sensitivity, and creativity and judgement.
The day after graduation, I was at the NCTJ’s annual skills conference, hearing from industry figures and discussing how to give our students the best start in life.
I took part in a surprisingly fascinating session on business reporting – a slightly niche area with huge jobs potential.
A senior journalist at the FT talked about how he got into the industry many years ago, and confessed: “I wouldn’t get my job now.”
There was much nodding from all of us.
It underlined to me the comments made by Sky News boss John Ryley at the conference, ridiculing the idea that there was ever a golden era of journalism.
As I have said many times before, today’s journalists are better skilled and harder working than the vast majority of their predecessors.

To me, a journalism degree – provided it is accompanied by a rigorous work placement track record and a positive attitude – is like a Swiss Army knife.
It’s a great toolkit for life.
You never quite know when you’re going to need each bit – but it’s a very useful thing to have in your back pocket.


Why the criminal justice system needs to court media coverage

Margaret Thatcher was in her prime, the internet wasn’t even a gleam in someone’s eye, and there were just four TV channels.

That was life in 1985, when I started my first journalism job.

The world has changed in a million ways since then.

And yet some things stay exactly the same.

Like this country’s courts.

I’ve spent several hours in them with some of our students in the last couple of weeks.

It’s not always the most uplifting experience. We decided the décor in the magistrates court waiting room might have been Miserable Green on some long-forgotten Dulux colour card from the Thatcher era.

The signs on the wall weren’t much younger, or much more attractive.

And within around ten minutes of proceedings getting under way in court one, the word shambles had dropped easily from my lips.

The magistrates came out, we all stood to attention as if they were minor royalty, and a few minutes later, they disappeared again, having presided over the square root of nothing at all.

After around a hour and a half, we emerged with one half-decent story.

But we’d sat through delays, inactivity and an extraordinarily protracted debate over how much one particularly assertive defendant owed in fines.

It reminded me of why – as a frustrated news editor in Bath – I was so regularly exasperated by the ease with which spanners could be thrown in the criminal justice system’s works. I would lose a reporter for an entire day when promising cases were knocked off course by non-appearing witnesses, lost paperwork, or the vagaries of judges’ rotas. Come the revolution, I used to say, wasting press time would be a serious offence.

If you want to see joyless, pointless officialdom in action, this is the place to be. A student from another course who took out a water bottle in one of the many breaks from proceedings was very firmly told this was not on, as such items were classed as potential weapons.

There are attempts to improve efficiency, such as the idea of trial by single justice on the papers where minor guilty pleas are dealt with effectively in private by a lone magistrate.

But – as with proposals that could see the press relegated to watching through a viewing booth – these can end up in conflict with the precious principle of open justice.


And, perhaps more importantly, they will take that justice further away from the public. In Gloucestershire, the court we visited in Cheltenham is now the only magistrates court in the county. In Wiltshire, where I live, there will soon be only one magistrates court outside the separate borough of Swindon.

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The closure of courts doesn’t just put more miles between a population and the place where justice is done in its name; it also makes it even more difficult for journalists to cover the criminal justice system in action.

A recent survey showed how little of that coverage currently goes on.

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There are pockets of great practice – my friend Laura Linham in Somerset, Geoff Bennett in Bristol, and initiatives like Ben Falconer’s live blog of a day at Cheltenham Mags, which became the best-read article on his website that day.

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There is a virtuous circle created when coverage is good. Regular reporters who take the trouble to oil the wheels of diplomacy with security guards, ushers and lawyers generally get treated well.

But the occasional visitor can feel like an inconvenience at best.

Which is a shame. We need light to be shone in the sometimes dark corners of the court system. All human life is there, for a start – with engaging stories at every turn.

But human suffering, misery and despair are also ever-present.

It’s important that we’re reminded of that, and that there is both accountability and transparency in the way the criminal justice system operates.

One glimmer of hope is the BBC’s partnership with local media which will see the appointment of 150 new reporters to cover courts and councils up and down the land.

The gaps in existing coverage were highlighted in a video made by Professor Richard Sambrook, a former BBC news chief who now heads the Cardiff School of Journalism, for the 60th anniversary of BBC Points West.

At the stimulating debate at which it was shown, a councillor from Gloucester bemoaned the lack of press coverage of his authority’s meetings.

I may be wrong, but it seems rare that anyone involved in the legal and criminal justice system expresses such concern over court coverage.

I’d like to see a national week of wall-to-wall court coverage, where reporters pour into magistrates and crown courts up and down the land, writing stories, launching live blogs, challenging officials and the judiciary, and generally shining a light into dusty, fusty corners.

Our second visit to Cheltenham Magistrates was a little more fruitful, with that conveyor belt of cases moving more rapidly.

And later in the week, we were given a virtually VIP welcome at Gloucester Crown Court, where the décor is stately rather than state school circa 1978, and where the ceremony and costume seem to elevate proceedings in the right direction.

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Gloucester Crown Court: Wikimedia Commons

The judge cleared the court, took off his wig and spent a good 20 minutes explaining that morning’s events and answering questions.

It offered a brief glimpse into the possibility of a more open and engaging relationship between courts and the outside world.

There are no votes in doing up our court buildings or in education programmes about the workings of justice.

But turning the arenas where justice is dispensed into places of hope and transparency rather than dark despair might just make a difference.

And the media should be welcomed on board that process.

Main picture caption: Cheltenham Magistrates Court Credit: Jaggery