The only way is ethics – even in India

There was something of an irony about spending a morning in Chennai exploring the issue of journalistic ethics with students at Anna University and then to learn after the session that Rebekha Brooks had been charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Every teacher has an element of the show pony and being able to drop that piece of fresh information into the workshop would have been a good moment – if only to underline the irony of a UK journalist talking to students anywhere about ethics at a time when the behavior of our profession is under close public scrutiny.
As it was, while phone hacking, Leveson, the Murdochs et al played a part in the discussion, they remained just one element of a presentation designed to look at ethics from a practical point of view. What I wanted the students to think about was how we can practice ethical journalism day by day in busy newsrooms. How do ethics fare in a world where competition is fierce and the ‘if we don’t do it they will’ argument is a strong one?  Then there’s the explosion of news sources – viewers’ footage shot on a mobile phone, Twitter messages from the scene of an incident, blogs posted by those caught up in news events.
We need look no further than ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ for an example of how some basic principles of professionalism – like ensuing you’re interviewing a real person – could have given the lie to that apparently authentic take on the Arab Spring. Then there was the ‘user generated’ picture of the Polar Bear on an English beach used by an ITV regional newsroom – until they learned it was a cow. A few simple checks – and a dose of journalistic cynicism – might have prevented that embarrassment and stopped an untruth getting on air. (Interestingly, the students who saw the picture all immediately identified it as a Polar Bear.)
You might begin to see that what I believe we should consider is that ethical behavior and professional practice go hand in hand. The Leveson inquiry was created in the wake of the scandal of journalists employed by a Murdoch newspaper hacking mobile telephones to get information, only a tiny part of which could be deemed to be in the public interest. Leave aside the fact that hacking is illegal – it is poor journalism. That’s not just my view but the one Rupert Murdoch himself set out at the inquiry. It was, he said, lazy. For lazy, I contend, read ‘unprofessional’.
Since there is nothing more stomach turning than a journalist pontificating about the behavior of other journalists, let me offer a confession. One example of unethical behavior I shared with the students was from my own work. As I explained, I didn’t set out to paint a false picture of an event but by allowing my need to hurry to override my normal professional approach, that is what I did. In the global scheme of things it was a small error but one which had a disproportionate impact on a family. Since for them – and their circle – it damaged the reputation of my newspaper and, by association, of journalists, I regret it deeply even many years later.
There is an important task for us as educators of aspiring journalists. We need to explore with them what they see as the factors that might prevent them ‘doing the right thing’ and we need to offer them strategies to build their confidence when the pressure is on. They need a thorough understanding of law and regulation, including those laws involving electronic communication that we perhaps haven’t seen in the past as directly relevant.  They need help, too, to develop a clear understanding of the public interest and some personal skills to help them through difficult decisions.

Please Lord Levenson help us grow up

So Rupert Mudoch has got through the first day of his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry – albeit a shortened session and so far the most shocking thing we’ve learned is that he’s really called Keith.

Perhaps it was the big build up (who didn’t love Evgeny Lebedev’s Tweet looking forward to Rupert ‘bringing down the Government’?) but the session seemed a little flat, particularly given the firework crackle of son James’s testimony yesterday. That left the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt having to defend himself to MPs this lunchtime and cost his special advisor Adam Smith his job.There is, of course, still the second day of Mr. Murdoch’s evidence to come and this extraordinary story still has plenty of scope for twists and turns to surprise us. So far what began as ‘one rogue reporter’ hacking telephones has grown into a beast that has cost the jobs of senior journalists, like Rebeka Brooks, senior police officers and now a political advisor. I’m not betting yet against a political figure joining that list

What Rupert gave us was more low key, though an equally assured performance. He sought to dismiss suggestions that he and his media empire exercise undue influence over our politicians. He’d liked Tony Blair, thought Gordon Brown was unhinged when he declared war on the Murdoch media but had , he said, never asked a Prime Minister for anything. Then as the astute Robert Jay, Counsel for the Inquiry, pointed out he would never have been so cackhanded as to be that blunt in his approach.

Even though there was nothing to cause immediate fright to any politician, there was nothing in phase one of his testimony that dismissed the sense that there was an unhealthy closeness between our elected representatives and the media – Rupert’s and beyond. We have seen an unsavoury element of political life being peeled like an onion. First, the Daily Telegraph e-mail promising support to David Cameron and pledging not to be just a fairweather friend (The PM may be reflecting on that in the light of some of the paper’s post-Budget coverage); then James Murdoch revealed how many times he had met Mr. Cameron for dinner or breakfast and how things were discussed in passing, and then today Murdoch senior, even as he told us the perception of his influence over politicians irritated him, revealed how he liked meeting political leaders.

It would be naieve to believe that people like Rupert Murdoch don’t expect access to senior political figures but the extent to which it happens will surprise many voters. After the MPs’ expenses scandal none of us expects too much of them, but the idea that they may be scurrying around after media owners and editors for endorsement is at best unedifying and at worst a betrayal of the relationship between us ordinary folk and those we elect to serve us. 

There is an important role here for the Lord Justice Leveson. He has to come up with recommendations for the future regulation of the press. Regulations clear and strong enough to prevent – or punish – illegal activity such as ‘phone hacking but which also preserve the ability of journalists to hold public figures to account and expose wrongdoing and hypocrisy. After the evidence of the last few days it is also clear those regulations need to be built on a new, much more mature relationship between the media and our political leaders. We need a strong, independent media free to keep us informed so we can make well-grounded decisions at election times and we need politicians brave enough to move away from the apron strings of nanny press baron to leave us to make those judgements even if they may not like the outcome. Let’s all be grown ups!


Not hacked off yet

Little did I realise when I was first asked to comment in our regional media on the News International ‘phone hacking allegations that I would still be at it all these months later. More to the point, it struck me after my most recent appearance on BBC WM last night that there is, so far, no end in sight and it’s possible ‘we ain’t seen nothin’ yet’. 
I was there (at very short notice as it happens) to make a brief comment on the resignation of James Murdoch as BSkyB chairman. In his statement announcing the move, Murdoch said: “As attention continues to be paid to past events at News International, I am determined that the interests of BSkyB should not be undermined by matters outside the scope of this company.” He went on: “I am aware that my role as Chairman could become a lightning rod for BSkyB and I believe that my resignation will help to ensure that there is no false conflation with events at a separate organisation.”

Surely that misses the point. Isn’t the reason for his resignation the very fact that there has been ‘conflation with events at a separate organisation’? This is a man widely regarded as having done a good job with BSkyB but so tainted by what went on at ‘a separate organisation’ that he cannot continue. Just having been involved with News International and the old News of the World is enough to raise question over someone’s fitness to chair the broadcaster – and being called Murdoch just helps to pile up the doubts. 

From the outset the Murdochs don’t seem to have played this with their usual surefooted aplomb. First they insisted ‘hackgate’ was the misdemeanour of one rogue journalist (a view the police, let’s not forget, seemed to be happy to go along with at the time) then they were forced to close the News of the World in an attempt to draw a line under the affair. When that failed, James was forced to leave his post as chair of News International in another diversionary move that clearly hasn’t worked (hence yesterday’s decision). 

Who is going to buy the idea that cutting off the lightning rod is going to stop the bolt striking the building. And why should a sideways shuffle prevent one bit of the Murdoch empire taking a hit for the actions of ‘a separate organisation’ when that organisation’s behaviour has damaged the reputation of a whole profession. 
This scandal – and the ensuing Leveson Inquiry  – has already led to high-profile resignations in News International and in the Metropolitan Police. In the next phase of hearings Lord Leveson will turn his attention to the relationship between the press and politicians. Where, as my old gran used to say, will it all end?

Dealing with the devil

It may just have been one of those coincidences but just after the Leveson Inquiry heard from Kate and Gerry McCann I was listening to the Media Show on BBC Radio 4, including an interview with former News of the World Features Editor Jules Stenson who was bemoaning what was happening.

His argument was that witnesses at the inquiry had made statements which had gone unchallenged. Tabloid newspapers, he said, had been ‘smeared’ with ‘no right of reply’. Having heard the two hour testimony of the McCanns it was hard not to laugh but there is a more serious point here. Journalists – and as Stenson rightly pointed out only 16 of the NoW’s staff of more than 200 are the subject of the police investigation into hacking – are concerned that when Lord Leveson’s job is done they will face an over-restrictive regulatory regime. That is a legitimate concern but it must not be allowed to cloud the central issue – something has to be done to curb media excesses.

This whole thing was triggered by revelations about ‘phone hacking but it isn’t that activity, which is illegal in any case, that we need to focus on. The law can deal with anyone found guilty of hacking but regulation needs to be tightened to deal with all the other instances in which some newspapers and some of their journalists act in unacceptable ways.

Kate and Gerry McCann gave us an insight into what it’s like being at the centre of a media storm.
Yes, they needed publicity to help in the search for their daughter; yes media attention on Madeleine’s disappearance was legitimate but none of that justifies what followed – the invasion of every aspect of the McCann’s life.

During my ‘media expert’ appearance in ITV Central’s report on the McCanns’ evidence one of the men in a vox pop recorded in their village said the couple had been given more publicity over Maddy’s disappearance than other families in the same position. His view was that they’d been treated pretty fairly. I can’t sympathise with that view anymore than I can spare a tear for those poor old smeared tabloid hacks in Jules Stenson’s view of events.

In his evidence Steve Coogan said he had never entered ‘a Faustian pact’ with the media as some celebrities choose to do. The McCann’s were given no choice about ‘having a relationship’ with the media but they must have felt very much as if they were dealing with the devil.

NoW – miss you more than you could know

Found myself on BBC WM shortly before James Murdoch’s latest appearance before the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport committee. So as he prepared for another session of questions about what he did or didn’t know about phone hacking I was being asked if I missed the News of the World.

It was a question to which I hadn’t given much (if any) thought since the paper closed until WM called to set up the interview. That lack of consideration might immediately suggest the NoW’s passing had left me unmoved but on reflection  – go on, ask yourself the same question – I was left with the inescapable feeling that without it around something important was missing.

I don’t mean there was a gap next to the Sunday morning marmalade pot, largely because I can’t remember the last time I bought the News of the World (no, not even ‘just for the football’) but on two levels the hole left by its demise has not been filled. First there’s the matter of sales. The Mail on Sunday may have just reported an increase in circulation and the other tabloids – Sunday Mirror, People, and Daily Star on Sunday – may also have seen some benefit in the short term but overall there are fewer people reading Sunday papers. For the missing million – for that’s about what the number is – nothing has replaced the ‘Screws’.

More importantly, I think, is the investigative reporting deficit. I know much of it was tacky – I don’t much care in what language Max Mosley likes his bottom spanked – but it did have a track record of exposing wrongdoing that needed to be exposed. You need look no further than the case of the Pakistani cricketers fixing case to see that. None of this excuses what seems to have been a culture of overstepping the bounds of acceptable behaviour but it does raise an important issue as Lord Leveson sets out on his inquiry into the role of the police and the press in ‘hackgate’.

What he finds and whatever shape the regulation of the press takes in the future it is imperative that nothing is done to further hamper journalists’ legitimate pursuit of stories that are genuinely in the public interest. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about but in The Times today Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, reflects on the decrease in cases in which someone is seeking a privacy order to prevent publication of a story. “Possibly it is because newspapers, post phone hacking, have been rather careful in not engaging in controversial stories,” he says. Of course there are other reasons but we don’t need an over-cautions press. We especially don’t need it when elsewhere today Lord Patten is reported in the Guardian as saying’ the BBC is unable to conduct investigations into some of the most important stories of the day – including phone hacking – if they could be construed as having a political bias.’

I think I might be missing the NoW just a little more today.

Living la vida local

While staff at BBC Local Radio stations wait anxiously to learn just who’ll escape the axe and for whom the ominous whistle of its approach will become the sickening thud of its impact, the BBC is calling in a consultant to advise it on the task.

Don’t get me wrong. I have some sympathy with an approach that looks for help in deciding the best way to make savings given that savings must be made. It’s just that the timing seems off, to say the least, and in staff relations and PR terms the decision is inexplicable. I am reminded of former Deputy Director General Alan Protheroe, who told a meeting of news editors at one particularly troubled time for the Corporation that while Auntie had always had the ability to shoot herself in the foot her aim was creeping higher!

These days my only connection with the BBC is as a licence payer so it is in that capacity that I’m left wondering why you bring in John Myers after you’ve announced what Delivering Quality First will mean to local output rather than enlisting his experience earlier in the process? To be fair again (old Beeb habits die hard) David Holdsworth, Controller of English Regions and the man at the top of the BBC Local Radio tree, makes the point that unlike other services there is little or no room for overhead cuts in local radio because it has to maintain 40-odd station premises. The upshot of that is that the true impact of the budget cut is greater for staff and output.

On Radio 4’s Feedback, said Controller found himself being questioned by a listener. It cannot have been coincidence that the listener was from Shropshire, where Holdworth’s BBC career began. David spoke with sincerity about how proud he was that the station was highly valued by its audience but there was at this point a chasm between his view of the service and that of the listener. David referred (more than once from memory) to BBC Local Radio’s important journalism. The listener made the point thast the station was about so much more.

Like David I am proud of having been a founding part of that station (and to have made some contribution to others) but I return to the point of my previous blog that the BBC management long ago lost sight of what made its stations special. The standardisation of the last few years opened the way for the cuts now taking place.

I couldn’t help but smile to learn that my former Shropshire colleague is turning to Myers, who was cutting his radio teeth at BBC Carlisle in my early reporting days there. He’s come a long way since then but I know he hasn’t forgotten Lamb Bank – the epitome of local broadcasting – and the listeners’ reaction when it didn’t appear. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that that early lesson might prompt him to urge a loosening of the central straitjacket when he delivers his findings.

Too much ‘BBC’ not enough local

Thirty-odd years ago, as a newcomer  to BBC Local Radio my first station manager told me that during a dull moment in a meeting with colleagues from round the country he had tried to work out what they all had in common. In the end the only thing he could come up with was that they were all ugly!
He told me, too, of his surprise that having been appointed to run the station – BBC Radio Carlisle  as was – nobody told him what he was expected to do. He was simply left to get on with it. 
Those stories have come to mind in the last week following the news of cuts to local output as part of the Delivering Quality First exercise.  I know friends and former colleagues at BBC stations have been hurt by the announcement but looking back to my old boss’s comments, I’m left with a feeling that the service whose loss is being lamented now had already been sold down the river.
Before I’m accused of wallowing in rose tinted nostalgia, let me be clear that I am well aware that changes had to be made and that ‘just getting on with it’ was no way to manage anything and certainly not a service paid for by licence payers’ money.  I don’t want to be seen, either, as unsympathetic to those facing the cuts. The five stations in the West Midlands region, for example, will lose more than 40 staff between them. Some people will opt for voluntary redundancy but while managers grapple with the job of deciding who’ll go and who’ll stay those stations won’t be pleasant places to work.
The fact is, though, that the scrapping of  locally produced and presented output at non-peak listening times is the inevitable next step in a story which has seen a steady dilution of the localness that made stations unique and won them a place in the lives of the people they served, especially in non-metropolitan England.
Once, each station had its own distinct characteristics. From the ‘Lamb Bank’ service for Cumbrian farmers to presenters whose huge followings were a mystery to listeners from forty miles away the accent (and some of those were ultra-local, too) was on what worked where the station was. As the number of stations grew with expansion through the 1980s that idea of lots of small, different versions of the BBC clearly made London-based executives uncomfortable.
The distinctive logos – Stoke’s radio wave shaped as a potteries bottle kiln, Norfolk’s wherry and Lincolnshire’s tulip – disappeared and were replaced with a corporate look for the Local Radio brand. There was Operation Bullseye to identify the target listener.  Knowing who’s listening so you can give them what they want makes sense if you are creating a countrywide brand but individual stations rooted in their communities, meeting and listening to their audience do the job just as well if you want the emphasis to be on ‘Local’ rather than ‘BBC’.  Stations were also obliged to play their part in campaigns and segments of programming which ran across the network. Yes, there was freedom to produce local material as part of these strands but the pass had been sold and the principle of unique local output was lost.
Through all this one strength of BBC Local Radio has remained unchanged, and it’s here that cuts to its output may yet cause the Corporation to rue its decision in the future. Over the years stations have found and nurtured people who have gone on to make their names in many areas of the BBC’s activity, including into senior management. Let’s hope that DQF hasn’t cut off an important source of talent and a route to the top for anyone aspiring to it – whether or not they’re ugly.

Musings from Mumbai

Day four of my Indian adventure and the Broadcast News Production workshops at the British Council offices in Delhi and Mumbai are going well. There were more than a dozen at Monday’s session in Delhi, including a couple of fearsomely bright high school girls and a couple of working TV journalists.

In Mumbai there were 29 students – all from media-related courses – at the morning session. Judging by their questions, contributions and responses they were fully engaged with the workshop and the feedback they’ve given to British Council staff bears that out. The workshop covers a number of elelements but each of these could have been the subject of longer discussions. Topics raised in questions covered news priorities, the use of ‘real people’ in news pieces and some important areas of ethics.

The afternoon session was made up mostly of professional journalists – newspapers, radio, TVtv, web tv and

Musings from Mumbai

Day 4 of my Indian adventure and a few moments ‘down time’ to get some thoughts on line. The media production workshops at the British Council offices in Delhi and Mumbai have gone well. A mixed group in Delhi, including a couple of working journalists, and two very bright school girls so it was an interesting session. Questions ranged from news priorities to some important areas of ethics.
In Mumbai there were 29 media students at the morning session, again very bright and interested. The workshops cover a range of topics around production but we could have spent ages on each element. I’m not sure what the students get out of this – apart from an insight into a UK lecturer’s teaching style – but I’m learning lots.
That was certainly the case in the afternoon when the ‘audience’ was mainly media professionals – TV, online, web TV, radio and print all represented. There are, I learned, great challenges facing anyone working as a reporter here. Commercial pressures and editors’ partiality all came up during our discussions. The way competition distorts news priorities is another issue, not to mention the over use of the ‘Breaking News’ or ‘Just In’ tags on quite ordinary stories. Does that diminish the impact of this tool when you have a really bif news break? 
In terms of the range of news channels on offer to viewers here, India knocks UK output into a cocked hat but I get the real sense that this is a place where the news media have raced ahead with 24 hour news without the benefit of a long history of TV news. I don’t mean that in any patronising way but rather to make the point that UK journalists have the benefit of clear conventions on reporting in a number of areas, not least impartiality.
The sessions were filmed by the British Council in Mumbai so an edited version wi

Go east young man

Well maybe not so young but I am going East, flying out on Saturday for my fourth trip to India in the last 13 months. I’ll be running some broadcast news production workshops in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. I’m really looking forward to it, largely because India is such an interesting place in terms of media and journalism… well as all the other things that make it such a fascinating country.

It’s a nation where the print media is strong and papers like The Hindu  have added extra editions in the last year. There are countless television stations and lots of speculation that the Government will allow radio stations to carry news. Mobile ‘phone penetration is good but growth in PC ownership is slow. All that means India has the opportunity to ‘manage’ the growth of electronic media in a way that didn’t happen in the west where the explosion online swept away circulation. How the future pans out in India will be well worth watching even if it may be too late for us to mlearn from it!

The other delight is the way young journalists and journalism students at places like the Asian College of Journalism, Anna University (Chennai) and Christ University (Bangalore) see their  role in the world’s biggest democracy.

I’m looking forward to working with more of them in the next week or so