Let’s hear it from the poor

I’ve spent much of today teaching at the excellent Zheijiang University of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, China.

uni of zhejiang

During students’ questions at the end of one session a young man asked about ‘Top Gear’ and specifically why Jeremy Clarkson and co seemed to make a habit of causing offence. In the discussion that followed we reached the conclusion that TV programmes which seem to consist of rich boys being paid to have fun is (we’re being polite here) likely to alienate the audience.

That conversation came a few days after seeing the BBC Trust Chair, Rona Fairhead, address the Oxford Media Convention. She was inevitably asked a question about her well-known connection to HSBC and answered it with a skill that showed more preparation than was evident in much of the rest of her delivery. It is not, though, the quality of her performance that bothers me but the fact that the person who represents the audience at the BBC’s top table is more at home with bankers and has total earnings that reflect that, rather than having any insight into the lives of the less advantaged.

Actually, let’s get down to it – we are talking about poor people, the sort who are more at home in a Food Bank than in The Ivy.

Who is making sure their voices are heard fairly and that they get to tell their own stories, rather than media types reporting on them as if they were a different order of beings worthy of anthropological study?

I ask this because this week my colleague Professor Diane Kemp will be chairing at BCU the second public debate in the wake of the report from Sir Bob Kerslake into Birmingham City Council and the governance of our wonderful city. This debate (on Friday in the University’s Parkside Lecture Theatre) will focus on child poverty or at least the way children from deprived homes and areas are served and looked after.

What has all this to do, you ask, with a school of media?

Just this: over the years in which I have been lucky enough to be a journalist I have seen the profession become more exclusive. We have never had a great track record on being ethnically diverse in spite of many initiatives on that front. Now we are not only still too white we are also increasingly one-dimensional in class terms. 

At BCU we set great store by the diversity of our wider student body but we cannot escape the fact that in a professionally accredited course like the one Diane and I run, which prepares students for work in newsrooms, we are not hearing and seeing the voices and faces of Britain, let alone Birmingham.

We will go on doing all we can to widen opportunities but in the meantime we are not sitting idly by. We make sure our students are familiar with the first class ‘Reporting Poverty’ resources developed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We stress the need for them, in reporting from their individual news patches, to reflect every element of the community they are covering.

To their credit they rise to that challenge and that’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of them……….but what will happen when they’re out in busy newsrooms. Who will ask ‘why don’t we speak to some people at the sharp end of cuts in services, the recession, benefits bashing tales and the like’?

One of my former students whose persistence has seen her rise in the ranks of a well-known broadcaster told me once that she’d been asked to help broaden the company’s journalistic workforce. In her own words she’d been selected ‘because I’m brown and I’m common’. Sadly in our business that kind of common is all too rare.


Leveson’s Day In The Sun

Lord Leveson’s inquiry is back on track after the Christmas and New Year break and like the unseasonable weather the hearings have brought a burst of Sun. Former editor Kelvin MacKenzie and the current editor, Dominic Mohan, were among six people from the paper giving evidence yesterday.
Kelvin had sensibly used his Daily Mail column to apologise to the judge for earlier comments about his legal prowess in relation to the prosecution of Ken Dodd which we should, perhaps, have taken as a sign of the more mellow post-Sun MacKenzie which he presented (is he now Dagenham Lite?). Either way Kelvin was, as always, a good value turn. Even without the impression of former Prime Minister John Major there was much to savour in his evidence.
It was no surprise that he told the inquiry that as editor his view was that most things should be published and that a story feeling ‘right’ was more of a test for him than certainty about its accuracy. That was the ‘bullish’ (his word) Kelvin we remember. He was equally tough when dismissing broadcaster Anne Diamond as a discredited witness but when Lord Leveson comes to weigh all he’s heard it may well be that it’s another of the former Sun editor’s comments that will take on greater importance.
Kelvin MacKenzie said: ” ‘In the end newspapers are commercial animals. They try and make money. I would be in favour of fines and heavy fines for newspapers that don’t disclose the truth to the Press Complaints Commission,” and he went on: “They were lied to by News International and that was quite wrong and they should pay a commercial penalty for doing that. I think you will discover a commercial constraint – the threat of a financial penalty – will have a straightforward effect on newspapers.
No editor, no managing editor, no proprietor would dream of lying under those circumstances.”
If Lord Leveson’s task is to point a way forward for a new system of press regulation that will be seen as having some clout it might just be that Kelvin MacKenzie has given him a clear signpost to the future.
I think his evidence also raised an issue to which I and other educators of journalists need to give real thought. Asked directly by Lord Leveson about about checking facts before publication, he acknowledged this was important but said: “Both law and journalism are in the uncertainty business,” and added: “There is no absolute truth in any newspaper and there is no absolute truth in any court.” There is truth in what he says but we have to hold to the line that accuracy in reporting is paramount. That presents us with a challenge. Simply ensuring that future journalists know about ethical questions isn’t enough. Yes, we can point them to the countless books on the subject setting media ethics in the context of moral philosophy, but our real job is to ensure they have the knowledge – and more importantly the confidence – to operate  in the real newsrooms with their commercial pressures, tyrannical deadlines and dangerous adrenalin buzz of getting the story fast and first.
We need to talk about Kelvin.