5 reasons why I’m not looking back to a golden age of journalism

There’s a feast of enticing TV on tonight: Game of Thrones, the final of Love Island, Harry and Wills talking about their mum on ITV1 – and the final episode of the compelling Ripper Street.

But I’ve already been gripped by a captivating piece of programme-making.

I can’t imagine that the audience for A Day in the Life of the Coventry Evening Telegraph troubled the ratings scorers when it was shown on that city’s cable TV channel back in 1991.

I never worked there. But the 33-minute documentary took me straight back to the newsrooms which were my second homes in the 80s and 90s: in Exeter, Torquay, Swindon and Bath.

They were the scenes of some great times, and had an atmosphere – smells, sounds, sayings and systems – all of their own.

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They also had sales figures and editorial staff numbers that would now be the stuff of utter fantasy.

But would I like to turn the clock back 26 years? I’m not so sure – and here’s why.

1. All those men in white shirts

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Blimey, we were corporate and male, then, weren’t we? I didn’t see a single woman in conference. With the exception of crime reporter Sue Lary, and a shot of a woman in paste-up, it was pretty much wall-to-wall blokes. And men in white-shirt-and-boring-tie combo, in particular. The BBC’s gender gap problems are a woman vicar’s tea party compared with this lot. Thankfully, we’ve moved on in the last two and half decades. And leaving aside the fact that there are now women in editors’ chairs in every part of the country, we’ve also relaxed our dress codes away from that Man at C&A look.

2. All that faff

I don’t know how long that conference would have gone on for, but I suspect it was more than half an hour, tying up half a dozen of those MANagers. And I suspect there was another set-piece meeting later in the day. If they were anything like the ones I took part in, they would have gone into tedious detail and featured intense debate about whether a picture should go on page 17 or 7. And then there’s those production processes. Of course it was desperately sad when long-serving employees lost their jobs, but an awful lot of those jobs involved just carrying pieces of paper or metal around. So one can mourn the loss of a whole vocabulary of titles, production areas and skills, while being grateful for technology that saves both time and money.

3. All those offices

When I started on my first newspaper in Exeter in 1985, the editor was dozens of yards away down a corridor. In his office, mostly with the door closed. Lord knows what he did all day. Little more than 20 years ago, the editor, deputy editor and associate editor of The Bath Chronicle all had their own offices. Managing directors were people you might see once or twice a year, and who wouldn’t know your name. Now, I only know one editor who spends more time in their office than out in the newsroom – and many editors don’t even have an office. They lead from the front and have to eyeball their staff pretty much all the time. Which is as it should be.

4. All those Yellow Pages

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And fax machines. And spikes. And post to open. All that paraphernalia of the pre-internet age, when the only way to track people down was by using a phone or a door knocker. When you could miss a splash if the post was held up, and when investigative research relied on public libraries and the occasional bundle of papers in a hedge. And, of course, when if a story broke at 3pm, you’d have to wait until the next day before you could tell anyone.

5. All those laurels to rest on

There’s a comment from then Telegraph editor Neil Benson that really sticks in my mind.

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Asked whether bad news sells papers, he acknowledges that it might boost his sales a bit.

But he says the paper sells 90,000 copies a day ‘more or less irrespective of what’s in it.’

Oh happy day. Oh happy day when, in a city of 300,000 people, you achieve something close to total penetration, no matter what you did. When you have to beat a radio station or two, and your two regional TV newsrooms, but never have to worry about people-powered news websites, or Twitter, or football clubs cutting you out of the equation altogether.

I’ve argued strongly before that the reporters of today have to work far harder than I ever did, 26, 16 or six years ago.

And I think the discipline of having to cope with a multimedia, transient, hypercritical audience means our journalism is better. I know much of the writing certainly is, having seen some of the tortuous rubbish that passed muster in my youth.

The Good Old Days?

So, while it’s tempting to hark back to those so-called good old days, I’m resisting the urge.

On the surface of it, life in those packed newsrooms producing papers snapped up by entire communities feels like a golden age.

But the joy of journalism can be as real now as it was 26 years ago, with new ways of telling stories, and new platforms to reach audiences undreamed of in 1991.

And there’s certainly never been a greater need for what we do.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shining a light in the dark web to beat the keyboard warriors

For a couple of years, my job involved policing the web.

Not all of it, you understand.

Just the bit named bathchronicle.co.uk – and more specifically, the bits of that site which were written by readers.

In other words, I was forced to operate below the line.

It wasn’t exactly the French Resistance, but at times I felt about as effective as Rene Artois from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

When I gave up that responsibility to a central team of moderators, I didn’t shed too many tears.

It was, in the wise words of my friend Lynne’s mum, much like plaiting fog.

And since then, my forays into life below the line have been few and far between.

One of the few sites where I do regularly scroll through the comments is Hold the Front Page.

Much of the People’s Contribution to HTFP’s content is fairly predictable.

There are frequent – and frequently justified – attacks on the senior management of regional media companies.

Many of them come from people no longer in the industry.

Which means there are also regular ripostes from serving journalists about how out of touch these onetime scribes have become.

And so the rule of ad hominem begins to take over.

There are a few givens about online comments, the best-known being Godwin’s Law – that the longer a comments thread becomes, the more likely either Hitler or the Nazis will be mentioned.

And not in a way demonstrating much of a sense of proportion.

One other certainty of life below the line is that there will be misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misreadings.

For an industry with communication at its core, this is in some ways extraordinary.

But I know it happens.

Because it happened to me this week.

I am *always* flattered _ and often bemused – when HTFP picks up on something in one of my blogs and decides to write about it.

And so it was with my last piece, about Leicester Mercury staff asking to be de-nominated from a national award in protest against the loss of some of the paper’s photographers.

Never in my wildest dreams – or rather nightmares – did I expect anyone reading the piece to interpret it as an attack on those staff. That’s the last thing it was.

But interpret it that way they did.

Or, rather, interpret it that way they did after reading Hold the Front Page’s story.

There was nothing wrong with that story, I hasten to add.

It’s just that few of the commenters on HTFP ventured beyond it. Or even read it in its entirety, I suspect.

Apparently I was aiming my comments at the wrong target. And – to add insult to insult – I was ‘fixated by meaningless baubles’ because I said I enjoyed industry awards ceremonies.

Clearly this is all very minor stuff in the below-the-line scheme of things, and clearly I should grow a pair.

But it was sobering to be reminded just how quickly and readily people can be to leap to instant and personal judgement when behind the anonymity of a keyboard.

Ironically, it came within a week of me discussing media site comments with some students, and making the point that we shouldn’t dismiss all those keyboard warriors as malevolent cowards.

Hidden in among the ‘slow news day?’, ‘why don’t you cover some real news for a change?’ and ‘lazy journalism’ can be some truths which are hard to swallow. Along with some questions we may not have thought of, and some genuine constructive criticism of our work.

I was fascinated to read a piece by a onetime Guardian moderator about his role – one that had been described as the worst in the world.

There was plenty of ammunition for that view in his piece.

But ultimately, there was also hope that online debates can work, and can shed more light than heat, if moderation works well.

And, perhaps, if journalists continue to engage, rather than leave this version of the dark web to argue bitterly amongst itself.

I have always believed in answering intelligent criticism from one’s web audience, and like to think I have changed some minds over the years, as well as countering some negativity.

So I thought long and hard about how to respond to my HTFP critics.

Then I just tried to be clever, saying: “To paraphrase Ian Hislop, if my blog was an attack on the Leicester Mercury’s staff, I’m a banana.”

I wasn’t going to look again at the comments, but I forced myself to.

Although I’ve apparently slipped on a banana skin of my own making, the thread now appears to be petering out.

One person who did read the whole blog was a journalist at the Mercury, who tweeted me to say that he hadn’t interpreted it as an attack on him and his colleagues.

That was good to hear. Hopefully he took the piece for what it was – an exhortation to the incoming editor but more importantly to Trinity Mirror to put the restoration of morale at the top of their priority list.

And that tweet was also evidence of how powerful support and positivity can be in life below the line.

One of my favourite quotes is one that has been – falsely, apparently – attributed to Edmund Burke:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

Whether he said it or not, he clearly wasn’t talking about the web in 1770.

But lighting a positive and supportive candle in the darkness might be something we should all try and do once in a below-the-line while.

I’m going to go on Hold the Front Page to support that nice Paul Wiltshire bloke right now.

Why we all need to shine more lights in dark corners

When I was a health reporter several hundred years ago, I enjoyed getting one over on our local radio station.

I particularly enjoyed having a conversation relayed back to me from my news editor, after a drink he had had with his opposite number at that station.

“He wants to know how you keep getting all these exclusive health stories,” my boss reported. “And why his reporters aren’t getting them.”

Admittedly, our newspaper did have a few more boots on the ground than the BBC at that time.

But the answer was fairly simple.

It was contacts. And it was digging deep into the dark and often dull corners of NHS bureaucracy.

Agendas, minutes and financial reports aren’t the sexiest reading in the world.

But picking out the diamonds in the mire is one of the more satisfying journalistic endeavours.

Particularly, as happened at another paper I worked on, when your request for a comment about an especially shiny diamond is met by a silence and a swear word from the senior hospital manager on the other end of the phone.

My memories of sifting through piles of health organisation paperwork were reignited as I prepared to explain the workings of the NHS to journalism students last week.

I took as a case study the role of then Express and Star reporter Shaun Lintern, who played a significant role in exposing the Stafford Hospital scandal.

He stayed awake into the wee small hours reading NHS board papers – and he regards it as time well spent.

“[The papers] won’t have a story – but they might have a clue to the story. Then you can talk to someone.”

He has spoken with passion and insight both about the role of the local media generally  and about his huge satisfaction in getting justice for the victims of that scandal.

“I came into this industry to make a difference and one of the ways to do that is to stand up for people who have no voice, and some of these families felt that they were getting nowhere with the hospital and I was able to help them. That really was my motivation.”

The chance to really shine a light in dark places and hold power to account may only come a few times in many journalists’ careers.

But it’s that idea of giving a voice to the voiceless that is at the heart of genuine journalistic job satisfaction.

It is with Andrew Norfolk at The Times as he continues to expose the horrors of the Rotherham grooming scandal, and it is with the journalism film of the moment, the now-Oscar-winning Spotlight.

While, as with so much in life, luck and being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference, there is still no substitute for determination and dedication.

That needs the most precious gift an editor can give his or her staff: time.

But it also needs individual journalists to raise their sights and – as Shaun Lintern says – to take responsibility.

“Whatever the problems journalists face, whether it be bullying editors, short-staffed newsrooms or scandalous low pay, it is no excuse for us to abandon our own integrity. Journalists have to take responsibility for what they produce; machine-gunning FOI requests to all your local councils and labelling it an exclusive investigation is not the stuff of Watergate. Neither is ringing a press office and asking only “for a comment” rather than asking an actual question. Preferring to cut, copy and paste a press release rather than taking the time to read the report it is actually based on isn’t journalism either.”