They also can who stand and teach…..

I’ve always been irritated by that old saying about those who can and those who teach. It seems like a smug and wholly false assumption about what teaching is all about.

To help disprove the lazy thinking behind it, I wanted to mention that with the support of a number of working journalists my BCU colleague Diane Kemp and I have just launched an e-book on inclusive journalism.

So, apart from a shameless plug – ‘Everybody In’ is available free from Leanpub at https://leanpub.com/everybodyinbook – why do I mention this on a site about journalism, news, teaching the subject and so on?

In short it’s because the book from its conception to publication was an example of something close to my heart – using practical journalism as a basis of research and to examine theoretical thinking. In this case the book blends thinking around issues of difference (protected characteristics if you prefer). The journalists who have been so wonderfully supportive of the project then reflect on their personal and professional experiences of one of those areas before we offer practical suggestions on how genuinely inclusive approaches to reporting can be embedded in our news coverage. (Really you should just read it).

Furthermore the business of publishing in this way – while it may not meet the conventional rigour of peer assessed books, chapters, papers etc – would appear to be an excellent way for practitioners – journalists, producers, PR specialists and so on – to showcase their work. ‘Everybody In’ has the backing of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council’s industry members. In a letter to BJTC accredited courses they – the BBC, ITN, ITV News, Reuters and AP – say: “We believe that ‘Everybody In’ is a great resource to inform, stimulate, and educate. It provides a real insight into some of the issues that journalists will face every day. We hope you will use the e-book as a basis for discussion and debate”. Now there’s an endorsement of practice and theory in harmony.

The BJTC is supporting further publications with a similar approach and a conversation has already begun with practice colleagues in our own school about how they should be encouraged to publish themselves. One of our colleagues, Paul Bradshaw who is widely acknowledged as a leading practitioner and thinker in the whole area of online and data journalism, already has a number of e-books to his name.

This then could be a valuable route for practitioners to highlight their work and for students in other institutions to benefit from practical expertise and thinking currently available in one place only. It also highlights the way universities like BCU and courses such as those in Birmingham School of Media have a close working relationship with professional practitioners.

Dare I suggest in closing that with the Teaching Excellence Framework now looming large in the thinking of universities, now might be an ideal time to explore this idea.

Time to get serious over Trump’s terror reporting claims

 

Dear President Trump,

I read with interest your claim that terrorist acts in Europe are going unreported. My interest is born out of two facts, firstly that I am writing this in Birmingham and secondly that I am a journalist. Before you dismiss me on the basis of that second point, let me explain.

I am sure that as an avowed anglophile you will have heard of Birmingham. You may recall that Steve Emerson, an American who described himself as ‘a terrorism expert’ claimed last year on Fox News that “there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in.”

He was wrong, of course, and Fox News broadcast an apology to Birmingham and its people. In fact, once we had got over the immediate shock that such an inaccurate claim could be broadcast, most of us were just amused by Mr Emerson’s alleged expertise and Fox’s folly in giving him airtime.

More seriously, you are probably also aware that Birmingham is not untouched by terrorism. In November 1974 bombs in two pubs in the city killed 21 people and injured 182 others. They had been planted by Irish Republicans.

On a more personal level I was working in London in the early 1990s when Irish terrorists were planting explosive devices on an almost daily basis, targeting underground trains, railway stations and more besides.

I probably don’t need to tell you about the long, sad history of IRA activity, now thankfully behind us, as you are well aware that at the time funds were being raised in cities like Boston and your own New York, which it was widely accepted were funding acts of violence. Indeed, you may recall that in November 1995 you met the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams at a fundraising event in the Essex House Hotel in Manhattan. That was before the Provisional IRA broke its 17-month ceasefire by detonating a truck bomb in Canary Wharf in London. Fortunately it killed only two people but it did cause £150 million of damage.

You are right that no journalist wants to report terrorist activity. Telling stories of human misery is never a welcome task. But journalists do report attacks – whoever carries them out – in great detail. That’s true in Britain and across Europe. We will never reach the stage you suggested when you said ‘It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported.’

I respect your right not to like the news media and I am sure your view of a ‘very dishonest press’ is a sincerely held view but I have to record my own equally sincere belief that you are wrong.

Let me take just one more minute of your time to offer another reminder. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 40 of the 69 journalists killed in the course of their work in 2015 died at the hands of Islamic terrorists.

That’s serious stuff and it brings me to my final point. I mentioned that many people here were amused by Steve Emerson (as a Twitter user you’d have loved some of the reaction) but you are the President of the United States and we cannot afford your claims, like his, to lead people treating you as a joke.

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Now here’s an ‘alternative fact’ – or, at least, an uncomfortable one

Amid the Trump administration’s idea of ‘alternative facts’ there is one truth that we may find hard to swallow but that we have to face up to.  Journalists cannot escape their part in creating the feelings of disillusion and alienation from ‘the elite’ that made Trump such an attractive candidate to many voters.

Personally I am proud to number myself a small part of the group that Trump brands as ‘among the most dishonest people in the world’ but my pride in being a journalist doesn’t blind me to the profession’s failings. And, for anyone feeling a little smug that this is happening over there, I have a single word of warning – Brexit.

Of course the 45th President of the USA and his press secretary Sean Spicer – as well as ‘top Trump aide’ Kellyanne Conway – cannot be allowed to discredit proper reporting by simply branding it as inaccurate or untruthful. They must not be allowed to undermine the business of the President being held to account by claiming that all those who question Trump are working out “an obsession… to delegitimise this president” as White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus would have us believe.

The simple truth is, though, that those voters who agree with Trump that the news media are part of the elite that exists in the swamp he is determined to drain, will accept the Spicer/Conway ‘alternative facts’ and willingly believe the reporting of the attendance at the inauguration – and more besides –  has been manipulated.

So how did we arrive in this mess? The painful fact is that we have not as journalists done enough to ensure that our reporting has reflected all the voices in society. We have tried to show our understanding of – and improve our reporting around – some of the more obvious fault lines such as ethnicity and gender but I know from journalists’ contributions to an e-book on inclusive reporting that I am editing with my BCU colleague Diane Kemp that even in those areas we are not doing enough. Then there is the whole area of how we fail to give a platform to people from what are politely called ‘disadvantaged areas’. That’s a failure made worse by the fact that newsrooms rarely employ journalists with backgrounds which include direct experience of those areas.

Even more uncomfortably we need to be better at reflecting views which we might find alien to our broadly liberal tastes – and not just on phone-ins where they can be cast as Mr or Mrs Angry.

What is much less clear is how we rebuild trust so that we can go on holding power to account without it sneering at us and using its Twitter feed to bypass us and take the ‘alternative facts’ directly to the people.

Here’s a suggestion for one step in the right direction. News organisations should ensure they hire journalists from the widest range of backgrounds and experiences. While The proportion of privately educated journalists had risen since 1986 from 49% to 54%. More than half of those with degrees had been to Oxbridge” (as Lee Elliott Major, chief exec of the Sutton Trust points out in the forthcoming book) it’s not surprising that our news coverage fails to reflect all corners of society.

 

 

 

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Come off it Paul – you’ve still got a seat in the sun

Sometimes you just have to laugh. Laugh, that is, not because you’ve seen a really amusing happening or been told a great joke – but laugh because you’ve been left speechless by something so outrageous a wry chuckle is the only response that comes anywhere near being adequate.

Normally I wouldn’t trouble you with such a thought but in the last two weeks I’ve found myself lost for words by two news stories touching on a really important area that I feel deeply about so – having had that initial laughter – I’m going to have a bit of a rant.

First came ‘veteran radio presenter ‘ Paul Gambaccini claiming the BBC is the ‘worst employer in the world’ because of its treatment of fellow ‘veteran’ Tony Blackburn. Gambo felt the need to condemn the BBC Director General Lord Hall for failing to back his ‘stars’ in the wake of a post Jimmy Saville ‘witch hunt’. Lord Hall, he said valued high culture above popular programmes.

I am not about to nominate Tony Hall and the BBC for any kind of accolade as a great place to work and I have no doubt he’s probably happier at Glyndebourne than Glastonbury but Gambaccini’s bluster is in danger of masking a much more important truth. First of all Gambaccini, far from being fired, is taking over Blackburn’s spot as the presenter of radio 2’s ‘Pick of the Pops’ show.

Yes, the 67-year-old Oxford-educated Mr. G is being given a plum new role. If Lord Hall should stand accused of anything at this point it’s failing to use the opportunity of Blackburn’s departure to offer an opportunity to new talent. Did anyone at the BBC pause to look for a new presenter – maybe a woman, someone non-white and definitely from a background a bit closer to that of the majority of the audience (dare I say licence fee payers).

Then along came The Sun with the headline ‘Auntie is anti-white: Applicant’s anger over BBC telly jobs just for minorities’ (You see, sometimes you just have to laugh). It was over a front-page story which reported how the BBC had been ‘blasted for rejecting work applicants because they are white’ – and all because it had advertised two scriptwriting jobs open to people from ethnic minority backgrounds. To put that in context, by the way, we are talking about two junior roles paying £25,000.

The Sun goes on to reveal that the BBC is running four training schemes specifically for people from minority backgrounds. Over the years the Corporation has taken some stick (and rightly so) about its lack of diversity and its poor record on opportunities for people from a range of minority groups so it seems perfectly proper that it is doing a little to redress that problem. The Sun quoted one angry job hunter branding the schemes as ‘racial discrimination and just wrong’.

I wonder how he imagines people from ethnic minorities have felt for decades? Maybe he should ask one or two who feel they’ve been overlooked for the ‘Pick of the Pops’ gig and a rare chance to work for the world’s worst employer.

Sex? Lie back and think of democracy

So our Culture Secretary is the latest politician to find his affairs in the spotlight – oddly because of a lack of press intrusion into what some might argue is his private life.

A number of newspapers – the People, Sun, Mail on Sunday and The Independent (whatever happened to that one?) were aware that John Whittingdale was having a relationship with a woman he met on line and who he later discovered was a ‘sex worker’.  Her occupation came to light, it appears, when someone tried to interest the tabloids in a story about his private life.

None of the newspapers ran the story as they did not feel it was in the public interest. That decision has been defended by at least one former editor who’s now a media academic and commentator and who believes they were right that there was no genuine story.

The other view is that the papers were running scared of the man who was then chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee in the wake of the, then, recently concluded Leveson inquiry. He did not have the power he now holds as Culture Secretary to determine the shape of press regulation but not getting in his face may have seemed like a wise decision.

The question of what constitutes the public interest is always tricky (try running some examples past a group of journalism students if you want an idea of how thorny the discussions can get) – but the issue here is surely that this is another example of the erosion of trust.

Coming off the back of the saga of David Cameron’s financial affairs we hardly needed reminding that a large number of people are ready to believe our politicians are capable of anything when it comes to looking after their own interests. But the fact that a significant number of people are questioning the newspapers’ motives in not running the Whittingdale story is a clear indication that the level trust in our press and media is also extremely low.

Why is there public interest, as is currently being argued in the sex lives of a couple of celebrities in an admittedly open marriage and not in the sex life of a Member of Parliament elected, at least in part, for his judgment?  It may be that when we are able to publish the details of the celebs a public interest will become clear – but in the meantime it’s hard to see how John Whittingdale’s story was so different from those of other public figures whose foibles have been the stuff of published stories.

I have to admit I’m not much interested in anyone’s sex life and generally believe that what we get up to in our bedrooms – and other people’s – is our own business and not anyone else’s but there is a real concern which arises from this story.  If our perception is that our politicians need to be under constant scrutiny who will we trust to carry that out? Lack of trust in our political leaders may be something we’ve all learned to live with – but not having media we can trust leaves a lacuna in democracy.

…..and now the weather

I’ve been looking at the Hexham Courant today. Not, perhaps, your regular reading nor, I must admit, mine although there was a time when I lived and worked in Northumberland that it was my weekly newspaper of choice.

Back in those days I learned what a British winter is really like. I recall with some embarrassment even now the day when, in my first winter there, I decided to go for a walk after a heavy snowfall just to enjoy the way the landscape had taken on the look of a newly-iced Christmas cake.  I made it about four or five meters from my front gate before disappearing up to my armpits in a drift. When a few years later my son’s February birthdate approached I confess to being torn between wanting the road to be clear so I could drive my wife to hospital and wanting to be snowed in so I would be in the ideal place to report her being airlifted down the hill or taken to the delivery room in the cab of a snow blower.

Why, I suspect you are asking, drag all this up now so many years later? It’s simply that it has struck me that while (with the exception of the Cumbria floods) news pages and bulletins have been ripe with stories about our mild winter, that type of reporting just adds to the sense that we report what’s going on in the whole country from the perspective of a small part of it.

So,  The Guardian can declare: “December temperatures in London have been warmer than July’”, while the Standard tells us: “Skaters at attractions across the capital, including Hampton Court Palace and the Natural History Museum, have had to dodge puddles as temperatures in excess of 12C wreak havoc for festive revellers.” Meanwhile this week’s ‘Courant’ reports how while the sun shone for the Greenhead village Farmers’ Market “the snow lying everywhere was a seasonal decorative bonus.” Meanwhile at Hexham Racecourse “The blizzarding snow at the weekend forced the abandonment of the inaugural charity mud run, Mission Imp-Possible.

I’m not suggesting for a second that these events warrant wider coverage but I do wonder if as journalists we always stop to think about the bigger picture when we think we are reporting on Britain. I’m reminded of how in financial news we had to take on board that branding a rise in interest rates (remember those?) as ‘bad news’ only reflected the issue from a borrower’s point of view while for millions of savers the reverse was true. If we could take that lesson board then we can do the same when it comes to our national preoccupation with the weather.

Finally, not wanting to sour the festive season with a curmudgeonly anti-metropolitan post, I should add that back in those days up near Hadrian’s Wall, lack of understanding of weather stories stretched as far north as my Newcastle-upon-Tyne news desk. More than once I took a call along the lines of “Alston’s cut off by snow drifts. Can you go there and do a story about what it’s like?”

So, whatever, the weather – Happy Christmas.

 

 

Finding a home for stories of rough sleepers

Bear with me while I relate two unconnected but similar incidents. A few months ago I was chatting with a friend at his garden gate. We were approached by a young man who was living rough under a nearby bridge. He wanted to know if we had seen any suspicious behaviour and in a surreal exchange told it was his job to keep the police informed. He left us with a cheery wave as he had similar work to do as he moved on.  Two days later his body was pulled from the river.

More recently I was visiting the place where I grew up and walking through an underpass came across a man who was obviously living there. I gave him money, he mumbled his thanks and I walked away. With a matter of days his body was found at that spot and his death is now the subject of a murder inquiry.

Why, you might well ask, do I write about this (except perhaps as a warning to rough sleepers to avoid any eye contact or conversation) as I pass them by?  I’ve been asking myself why these two men that I met for only a few fleeting minutes are lodged in my head and why they spring to mind each time – and there are too many times – I see a rough sleeper in Birmingham as I walk into work from New Street Station.

I think the answer is that as a journalist I wonder how we portray men (and women) like these. For a start how do we refer to them? The terms homeless, rough sleeper and beggar each have their own connotations. More importantly do we reflect their stories at all? Yes we talk about the number of rough sleepers, yes we talk about the problem of homelessness but do we really give our audiences any real insight into what being on the streets means for an individual.

Of course, every homeless person is as different from every other as each is from you or me but allowing some individuals to speak would make that point eloquently and present homeless people as opposed to ‘the homeless’.

As a teacher of young people trying to make their way in broadcast news I am keen that they should appreciate the diversity of the places and the people they will report on. I’m also aware of the risks that could be involved in inexperienced reporters shoving a microphone in the face of someone living rough.

There are many good examples of sensitive reporting around people who are disadvantaged and I want my students to learn from them. I’m also keen that they get to bring some journalistic skill to bear in bringing the stories of homeless people to a wider audience before those people become the subjects of a new strain of reality TV of the ‘Benefits Street’, ‘Life on the Dole’ type.

Counting the cost of Lord Hall’s schoolboy slip

Before Tony Hall, the BBC Director General was a Lord, and just ran radio and TV news I worked for him. I don’t remember if we ever met – and if we did I don’t expect for a moment that he’d have registered it – but I do recall that a colleague at the time was a talented cartoonist whose depiction of Hall was as a schoolboy. He had a blazer with perfect piping and the kind of face that would sit well on that lad who’d always done his homework and just wanted the teachers to know he’d like even more.

At the time I thought it was a little harsh but after the latest announcements over the licence fee I owe the cartoonist an apology as the caricature seems to fit the character.

What can have possessed his Lordship to have agreed to the BBC not only taking on the cost of free TV licences for the over 75s but also to assume responsibility for the policy from 2020? Only five years ago the then DG, Mark Thompson, and BBC Chair, Sir Michael Lyons, emphatically rejected the whole idea. They didn’t just say no, they threatened to resign and they said such a move constituted a ‘red line’ that they would not cross. Lord Hall’s diet clearly has less fibre in it than his predecessor’s. He told the Today programme on Radio 4 “When I was confronted with this policy a week ago my bottom line was if I can use this as an opportunity to get back for the BBC things I think are really important for the BBC …….. and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Nobody can criticise a DG for doing all he can to preserve the BBC’s income but that isn’t what he’s done. Fair enough, the overall deal includes the phasing in of the cost of ‘free’ licences, Government approval for the licence fee to rise in line with inflation, the end of ring fencing of £150 million for the roll out of Broadband and a commitment to closing the loophole that means the BBC gets nothing from the millions of people who access its services wholly online. But – this is a big ‘but’ it’s still adds up to a cut of 10 to 12 per cent in the Corporation’s revenue.

Maybe he sees that as a price worth paying for the concessions he’s gained but this debate isn’t, or shouldn’t be just about the BBC’s finances. This deal irreparably damaged the BBC’s independence. Most of us tolerate the TV licence because it’s a flat charge with rich and poor paying the same and rich and poor over 75s getting the same free deal. The new deal, though means, that flat tax is being used to pay for a Government welfare benefit normally funded by progressive taxation, you know, where those who have more are supposed to pay more. Tony Hall and the Chancellor in their behind closed doors negotiations have ended that. In agreeing to take on ultimately the whole policy of free licences for the elderly Hall is further shackling the BBC to performing a role that should be the Government’s.

Working with international students here as well as in India and China I’ve often found myself having to explain that the BBC is not Britain’s ‘state broadcaster’ in the way that other countries understand that concept. I have carefully stated that while the licence fee is a tax the BBC remains independent and I’ve praised the way it has stoutly defended that independence on occasions. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that anymore and I find myself siding with media commentator Steve Hewlett when he ruefully suggests that what we need now is ‘an independent public service broadcaster with a well-funded news operation to keep an eye on the BBC’

This could turn out to be a very significant schoolboy howler indeed.

Still running up that hill?

I had the strange experience last night of being one of only two men at a gathering of more than 60 people. Strange, that is, for me, although as it became clear, for most of the people present the idea of being the only representative of your gender in a group – particularly of professional or senior people – was just how it is.

What’s all this got to do with news and journalism you may ask? I’ll come to that in a bit but first it might help to explain what the female rich occasion was. The event at Birmingham City University was called ‘Levelling the playing field: new initiatives in women’s equality’. It was part of the university’s efforts to be given membership of Athena Swan, the organisation set up to ‘encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research’. That initial focus on STEMM subjects has been broadened now to cover the full range of academic areas.

More importantly ‘Levelling’ was a chance to learn more about the embryonic Women’s Equality Party and its Birmingham Regional rep, Katy Wareham-Morris, was one of the panellists. She was alongside two BCU Professors, Maxine Lintern and Sue Rivers (only 19% of the Professoriate is female). It was a wide-ranging discussion which pointed up the continuing need for a change in deep-rooted attitudes to ensure women are fully equal – ‘Able’, in the words of Sue Rivers, ‘to be exactly what they want to be.’

Others more appropriate than I can expand on the issues and questions thrown up and examined during the thoroughly worthwhile 90 minutes. I was struck, though, that while attitudes to gay people have transformed in my adult life time and we’ve made progress in combating racism women still struggle for full equality. We’re not talking, remember, about another minority group here but half of the human race. So, what role, I wondered, have people like me – journalists and media types – played in preventing change happening and what might we need to do in future.

I’ve never had much (if any) time for those who rush to blame ‘the media’ for everything from indolence and under achievement to Islamists and over eating. In this case, however, I have some questions raised not least by the coverage of the thoughtless remarks of Sir Tim Hunt and the response to them. We are giving news space to discussing whether he has been harshly treated (hang on, he resigned) and whether those who’ve criticised him should apologise. There have been reference to a ‘media/social media witch hunt’ (actually the Distractingly Sexy Twitter stream was wonderfully funny) and we’ve had sympathetic interview with his wife talking of how they sat together on the sofa and wept as they considered what was happening.

I’m in no way suggesting there shouldn’t be proper balance in our reporting of this story – though if his ‘joke’ had been at the expense of black or gay scientists there would be no debate about whether he has been ‘hung out to dry’. All I want to do is pose the question of what coverage of this story would have been like in news outlets run by and for women? In such a world would we ever have seen the coining of the term Feminazi? Would we be expected to read features on how the new face of feminism wears striking red lipstick while she totters around on four inch heels?

These are just questions but if we are to get the shift in culture that the ‘Levelling the playing field’ panellists wanted – and which has happened in other areas of life and social attitudes – those questions need to be asked. So alongside the Women’s Equality Party what about a news outlet dedicated to the same ends?

Let’s give Mr Whittingdale a little licence

Much has been made of the impact on the BBC of  the new man in charge of the Department of Culture Media and Sport. John Whittingdale is on record as saying the BBC Licence Fee is ‘worse than the poll tax’ and that the current £145.50 charge is unsustainable.

But before fans of Auntie fashion their wax dolls of the new Secretary of State and sharpen their pins as they read headlines about the future of the Corporation’s funding being in doubt, perhaps a pause is required.

Sure, he’s no fan of the licence fee but while his language may be slightly more colourful his position is really no different from his predecessor’s. In fact it’s probably exactly in line with that of all his cabinet colleagues from David Cameron down and it will come as no surprise to the BBC whose senior figures will have been thinking on the same lines as they look ahead.

Whittingdale’s remark about the licence being unsustainable also made it clear he’s talking long-term – in other words no change in the forthcoming review of the BBC’s charter so no change ‘til the next Charter period in 2026.  While his appointment may have been seen as a shot across the bows of the Beeb he is no hothead. Having served as chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee for a decade he is certainly knowledgeable about his new portfolio – and that’s more than might be said about some of his new colleagues.

While the present BBC funding system seems safe for now, though, there is one aspect of the BBC that Whittingdale is likely to be robust about as Charter renewal gets underway and that’s the governance of the Corporation. The new Secretary of State believes the BBC Trust, which is currently responsible for policing the BBC, is too close to the organisation and should be abolished. He wants more rigorous oversight, including financial accountability to the National Audi Office, and we could see the setting up of a new body to oversee public service broadcasting.

That in turn raises some interesting questions about whether Ofcom might be split so its broadcasting responsibilities are separated from its telecoms function and the future of  Channel  4. At present it’s publicly owned but funded by advertising but it could be privatised.

There is one other aspect of Mr. Whittingdale’s appointment that should not go unremarked. While he wants ‘the most rigorous independent scrutiny,’ for the BBC he is a supporter of self-regulation for the print media through the Independent Press Standards Organisation. Surely we couldn’t have one rule for one group and another for the rest……not when we are all in this together.