ICE blogs

December 4, 2012

News media ’should be handed back to the people’

Marc Wadsworth, of the citizen journalism website The-Latest.com, in responding to the Leveson report into press ethics, advocates public funding for alternative news media to ensure ‘plurality’

Let’s be clear what’s at play with the Leveson report into British press standards just published and the row over whether or not a new truly independent media watchdog should have legal powers to deal with bad journalism.

It would be reassuring to believe that Prime Minister David Cameron’s rejection of this in favour of tougher self-regulation by newspapers is about him defending a free press. But, in the wake of the appalling phone hacking of murdered school girl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World that prompted the inquiry, what Cameron and his right-wing Conservative cheerleaders are about is protecting the commercial interests of billionaire press barons, like Murdoch, whose organisations back him and his Tory party.

So, tackling the stranglehold of the corporate ownership of the British press should be central to the debate. Ex-national newspapers journalist Marc Wadsworth, who is also a broadcaster, set up The-Latest as a citizen journalism website in 2006 precisely to help give voice to the unheard. Wadsworth passionately believes the news media should be handed back to the people whose interest they are supposed to serve and said so publicly when he spoke at Lincoln University in November.

But the ownership issue merits just eight short paragraphs in the 2,000-page Leveson Inquiry report into the culture, practice and ethics of the press. The-Latest would like to see public funding for alternative news media to ensure ‘plurality’. Celebrity and scandal-obsessed big media need genuine competition. But The-Latest are opposed to any new law that smacks of government regulation of the press because this could be used to gag social media online and investigative journalism.

At the moment, the Conservatives are supported by nine national newspapers: The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Express, Daily Star, Sunday Express, Sun, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Financial Times (most of the time). The opposition Labour Party and Lib-Dems are backed by six: The Independent, Independent on Sunday, Guardian, Observer, Mirror and Daily Mirror. The low-circulation Morning Star is the only genuinely socialist national newspaper.

Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Leveson says current watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), has failed and must be replaced. Newspapers should not be allowed ‘to mark their own homework’. The PCC has a terrible record for upholding complaints and putting right press inaccuracies. Journalists themselves, like the Guardian’s Nick Davies whose brave and often lonely campaign to expose phone hacking, and the law courts has had to do the watchdog’s job for it. But legal action is for the rich.

The-Latest agrees the PCC is both discredited and useless and has set out our recommendation for a better press in the Media and Riots report accepted as evidence by Leveson, who has recommended:

- a new self-regulation body, independent of serving editors, government and business.

He found:
- no widespread corruption of police by the press found;
- politicians and press have been too close;
- press behaviour, at times, has been ‘outrageous’;
- on the controversial issue of regulation, Leveson says an independent watchdog for the press should be established. It should take an active role in promoting high standards, including having the power to investigate serious breaches and sanction newspapers.

The new body should be backed by legislation designed to assess whether it is doing its job properly. The new law would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press.

An arbitration system should be created through which people who say they have been victims of the press can seek redress without having to go through the courts. Newspapers that refuse to join the new body could face direct regulation by broadcast media watchdog, Ofcom.

The body should be independent of current journalists, the government and commercial concerns, and not include any serving editors, government members or MPs. It should consider encouraging the press to be as transparent as possible in relation to sources for its stories, if the information is in the public domain.

A whistle-blowing hotline should be established for journalists who feel under pressure to do unethical things. This falls short of the National Union of Journalists’ demand that a ‘conscience clause’ should be written into the contracts of journalists allowing them to refuse to use unethical methods or practices.

On the crucial question of plurality and media ownership, Leveson says: ‘The particular public policy goals of ensuring that citizens are informed and preventing too much influence in any one pair of hands over the political process are most directly served by concentrating on plurality in news and current affairs. This focus should be kept under review.’

It continues: ‘Online publication should be included in any market assessment for consideration of plurality. Ofcom and the government should work, with the industry, on the measurement framework, in order to achieve as great a measure of consensus as is possible on the theory of how media plurality should be measured before the measuring system is deployed, with all the likely commercial tensions that will emerge.

‘The levels of influence that would give rise to concerns in relation to plurality must be lower, and probably considerably lower, than the levels of concentration that would give rise to competition concerns.’

Diversity among journalists, so that newsrooms properly reflect black people, women and the working class, is a vital part of making the news media more representative. The BBC has not changed much since its Director General Greg Dyke described it as ‘hideously white’. The-Latest will be watching and commenting all of the issues raised by Leveson and others we have mentioned.

September 25, 2012

Correction

Filed under: Uncategorized, Blogroll, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, new books — news_editor @ 9:54 pm

To The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair (Arima, second edition, 2012)

Page 50 should read:

Whom do the tabloids represent? Let’s hear from Paul McMullan, former News of the World deputy features editor. He told Leveson: ‘Circulation defines what is the public interest. I see no distinction between what the public is interested in and the public interest.’ [Note: In the original version, this quotation was wrongly attributed to Neville Thurlbeck for which we apologise].

McMullan added that the readers ‘are clever enough to make a decision whether or not they want to put their hand in their pocket and bring out a pound and buy it’.

And he hadn’t finished: ‘I think the public are clever enough to be the judge and jury of what goes on in the newspapers and they don’t need an external judge and a jury to decide what should and shouldn’t be published, because if they had any distaste for it, they would stop buying it.’

Journalism is the first very rough draft of history. But it needs to be very accurate all the same. We mucked up this time and send our apologies to Neville Thurlbeck. Do buy the book or order for your library. It is a cracking read.

September 18, 2012

Privacy and profit

Financial gain not ethics or law determine the extent to which privacy is respected in the press, writes Barry Turner, Senior Lecturer in Media Law, Lincoln School of Journalism

The latest royal scandal serves to demonstrate the failings of the law to protect the privacy of individuals from a voracious and prurient press. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on a private holiday in a remote chateau have been embarrassed by a series of photographs showing the Duchess semi-naked and in intimate contact with her husband.

This intrusion took place in France, a country with a strongly defined privacy law and it is inevitable that the royal couple will succeed in the legal action they have taken against the magazine involved. Since this is not an ethical issue and the law is so well defined what then is the problem?

The law of 17 July 1970 and Civ. 10 June 1987 give a person a right to legal action where an unauthorised photograph has been taken on private property and even in a public place if the photograph shows them in a ridiculous or embarrassing situation. Under Articles 1382 and 1383 of the Code Civil a person’s private life is protected and the law on press freedom of 29 July 1881 prevents information about the private life of an individual being published even where that information is true.

All in all this looks like a comprehensive set of privacy laws, codified into statute that gives a thorough protection to the individual’s privacy, a set of laws admired by many lawyers in the UK who represent celebrities and canvass for similar legal restraints here. So what went wrong?

It has long been recognised by the press that whether or not the law is broken is a commercial decision rather than a moral one. And it is not the fear of sanction that decides whether or not a photograph is published but calculation as to profit. In Cassell and Co. Ltd v. Broome [1972] 1 All ER 801 the court awarded £15,000 in compensation and £25,000 in exemplary damages against the defendant who had defamed the claimant by making false statements about his war record. The court took the view that this defamation was not only deliberate but had been calculated to increase sales of the book in which the defamation had appeared.

In English civil law damages are meant to compensate an injured party and are not normally to be equated with financial penalties such as fines. Where, however, a defendant had calculated the profit to be made from his law breaking and had directed his mind to material advantages it was justifiable to increase the threshold of the damages to include damages intended to punish the behaviour.

The French courts also recognise the concept of exemplary damages and in Les époux X v. La société Fountaine Pajot; La société AGF-IART, devenue la société Allianz IART; No 1090 du 1 décembre 2010 (09-13.303) the Cour de cassation reaffirmed that punitive damages were not contrary to public policy if they were proportionate to the damage caused. Clearly this intrusion into the private lives of the royal couple, like all of the prurient interest in the royal family, was driven by profit and there is hardly any doubt that topless photographs of a future Queen are worth a fortune both now and in the future when eventually Prince William becomes monarch.

There is little doubt that press intrusion of this kind is distasteful and arguments about public interest are ridiculous. With the French law so tightly defined there is also little doubt that this intrusion will result in the magazine Closer being successfully sued. But will that act as a deterrent to further intrusions? Almost certainly not.

The decision to publish this type of photograph is a commercial one and the possible, even inevitable penalties determine publication. French courts determine the penalty on the severity of the intrusion and in spite of the disgust shown by the Duke and Duchess, the Palace and many of the public this is not an intrusion of the worst kind, such as the paparazzi photographs of Princess Diana dying in a car in Paris. As sordid as this type of prying might be, the financial penalty will be proportionate to that.

In Paris 24 March, 1965 JIP 1965. II 14305 a couple who posed scantily dressed in front of a famous monument were held to have contributed to their misadventure of being displayed in France Dimanche in such an embarrassing situation and as a result the damages, which had been low anyway, were reduced by 75 per cent. It is likely that the editor of Closer had this in mind when making the decision to publish. Should the Duchess have a right to go topless on a private holiday ? Of course. Should she give consideration to the presence of photographers ? Well, it goes with the job.

One possible remedy that the French lawyers should probably seek is to hand the intellectual property in the photographs to the royal couple. Under the law of 17 July 1970 they have a right to the ownership of them. This will prevent any further profiteering by the celebrity press and ironically the protection that copyright law will convey far outweighs any privacy protection that even the French codified system could offer.

The timing of this legal action could not be more awkward. The findings of the Leveson Inquiry are now imminent and most commentators believe that the press will face stringent regulation as a result. Advocates of privacy legislation in Britain will point enthusiastically to French law as an example to follow. Even if Leveson’s report does not specifically ask for the adoption of such a law the pressure from this case and the recommendations of the report will go a long way to precipitating one.

August 11, 2012

Failures in reporting August 2011 riots highlighted

Serious failings by the mainstream media in their coverage of the August 2011 riots are highlighted in a major new report. It argues that the ‘unbalanced’ and ‘unhelpful’ coverage began with the shooting of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old black man, by police in Tottenham.

‘In first reports of Duggan’s death, police stated that he was involved in a shoot-out with them, a statement that was later proved not to be true yet was reported as fact by news media.’

According to the report, the single most important reason for the spread of the disorder was the perception, relayed by television as well as social media, that in some areas the police had lost control of the streets. Social and broadcast media then helped the riots to spread.

The report stems from the ‘Media and the Riots’ conference organised by the Citizen Journalism Educational Trust and The-Latest.Com (the UK’s first dedicated citizen journalism website) on 26 November 2011.

It comments: ‘Conference participants felt that the apparent motivation of young people to target and loot shops and brands such as JD Sports, Foot Locker, Currys, Comet and PC World during the riots was strongly influenced by print and broadcast media. However, they also felt that this issue could not be adequately looked at without examination of the way in which the creative media industry, through films, music and video games, often glorified a criminal, gang or gangster-related lifestyle that some disadvantaged young people, including black males, then aspired to achieve.’

Marc Wadsworth, journalist, editor of The-Latest.com and lecturer at City University, told the conference that most journalists covering the riots had no connection with Tottenham and as such did not know where to find authoritative voices: ‘They just fell back on lazy journalism, which was to rely on what the police was feeding them, what politicians were telling them and therefore not being the unbiased reporters they should be.’

The report also suggests that the Reading the Riots study, led by the Guardian and the London School of Economics, in analysing 2.57m tweets on Twitter sent around the riots, was ‘a model of good practice in looking for evidence about the use of social media and involvement in the riots, rather than relying on assertions’.

It identifies five action areas through which different actors - young people, citizens in affected areas, activists, journalists, professional journalism bodies, citizen journalists, educators - might use ‘the media’ to challenge the stigmatising of young people and affected communities and promote previously marginalised voices.

- hold the media to account;
- engage with journalists;
- communicate with decision-makers;
- promote citizen journalism;
- ensure wider access to journalism.

In a forward to the report, Professor Roy Greenslade, media commentator on the Guardian, welcomes its encouragement of citizen journalism. He continues: ‘But “big media”, at least at the moment, continues to hold sway over the national conversation. If it wishes to enhance democracy then it must ask itself whether it has become too remote from the public by creating a media class, a class apart from its audience.’

- Media and the riots: A call for action, £15 (organisations and companies); £5 (individuals); £3.50 (unwaged). Details from www.thelatest.com

August 2, 2012

‘Drone journalism’ focus for workshop

‘Drone journalism’ is coming to the UK, in perhaps the first event of its kind in Europe (the US is already ahead on this one, with the creation of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, led by Matt Waite.)

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) will host a workshop on 22 October to examine the use of drone aircraft in newsgathering and to make recommendations for policy and best practices. The event is co-sponsored by the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford.
Advances in aviation and electronic control systems are now allowing drone aircraft/UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to move from military to civilian applications and they have potential uses and benefits for newsgathering by providing aerial platforms for photography and videography. Because of their relatively small size, they are portable and can easily be moved to locations were reporting needs to take place.
Drones will alter aerial newsgathering, which is now done primarily via helicopter and light aircraft, by reducing the cost of operations, making them available to a larger number of news organizations, and increasing the uses of aerial platforms in different types of reporting. Potential uses include traffic observation, crowd observation (events, demonstrations, and civil disorders), observing events and activities in areas where land-based access is restricted, and in both sports and entertainment production.

The development of drone technology and the increasing desire for its use in civilian contexts creates a variety of policy, regulatory, and ethical challenges. This workshop is designed to document the issues and formulate recommendations regarding their deployment in the UK, Europe, and globally and thus influence future policy debates. Policy issues include aviation law, flight regulation, and privacy concerns.

The event is being organised by Prof. Robert G. Picard, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, David Goldberg, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford, and Daniel Bennett, War Studies Department, Kings College London.

- See http://meejalaw.com/2012/08/01/new-event-22-october-reuters-institute-for-the-study-of-journalism-workshop-on-use-of-drones-in-news-gathering-and-event-coverage/

-Contact: tel: +44 (0)1865 611 080; email: reuters.institute@politics.ox.ac.uk

April 18, 2012

When freedom of speech is perverse

Filed under: Uncategorized, Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 10:00 am

Media law expert Barry Turner argues that the trial of the mass murderer in Norway shows ‘freedom of speech gone mad’

The British press unsurprisingly gave a good deal of attention this week to the trial of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. Some newspapers carried features on the Norwegian criminal justice system ranging from coverage of the five star hotel prisons to the ‘tradition’ of allowing defendants their say in court. Some of this coverage appeared in the form of a panegyric praising Norway for its humanistic approach describing ‘meeting hatred with love’ and rejecting retribution.

Retribution may be anachronistic and as the Norwegians might say will not help - but giving Breivik a say is freedom of speech gone mad.

Breivik opened his statement with a preposterous denouncing of the courts. Refusal to recognise the authority of courts has frequently been an expression of megalomania and delusion and a precursor to grandstanding. Breivik has made it clear from the outset that he intends to use the court as a platform for expressing his perverse beliefs.

While the British press have expressed some degree of anxiety that inevitably Breivik will cause great distress to the survivors and relatives of his victims there is still an expression of admiration for the Norwegian humanist criminal justice system. It is an admiration that is misplaced.

Freedom of speech is, and always has been a qualified right, indeed unbridled freedom of speech is a violation of human rights not an upholding of them. When Orwell defined freedom of expression as the right to be told things we did not want to hear he was talking of the responsibility to listen to unpleasant facts that in the public interest we need to discuss. Breivik’s pronouncements and behaviour in court do not fall into that category; neither does this latitude to have his say form part of any legitimate defence.

Breivik murdered 77 people to satisfy his own personal and perverse fantasies. The murder of innocent people including children is never justified even in the name of the most profound political belief. Breivik as a mass murder killed for pleasure not ideology. By giving him the opportunity to spout his vicious prejudices we are not acting in anyone’s interest but his.

We do not need to have Breivik’s fantasies played out in front of us especially since his killing spree could be an inspiration to others with his racist world view. Our newspapers should act with restraint and yes, even censor the opinions of a psychopathic mass murderer, not give them a platform for disseminating hatred.

Freedom of expression is a precious thing and must be protected even against its own expansion. Breivik has written a 1,500 page ‘manifesto’ of his disgusting self indulgent fantasies. He will no doubt use the enormous latitude of the Norwegian legal system to preach this hatred for many days to come. Our media must not give him a voice, nothing he has to say has any value in any concept of freedom of expression and we are not better informed for listening to his justification for an appalling act of savagery.

Barry Turner teaches media law at the University of Lincoln

March 26, 2012

The emperor’s new clothes: Traditions in academia - who’s fooling whom?

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 2:05 pm

Barnie Choudhury examines the idea that traditional research and writing in academia are unsuitable in journalism teaching and practice today. He suggests that academics hide behind difficult language because they are not sure of what they are trying to say - and that, in many instances, academics over-complicate simple ideas to appear clever. He argues that in order to re-connect with a new generation of practitioner-academics, orhackademics’, academia needs to change

Introduction:

A while ago I asked a publisher to have a look at a book that I was writing. It was called: The Top Line: The Inside Secrets of a Broadcast Journalist. It never claimed to be an academic piece of work. It was nothing more than a series of recollections, of triumphs past and subsequent learning points for wannabe journalists. In my book I explained how I started, what I thought news was; I gave tips on how to find stories, how to interview people, how to carry out investigations, how to perform on radio and television - and an assortment of lessons I had learned in a career spanning three decades.

In each chapter colleagues from the industry, such as the BBC’s Allan Little or ITV’s Bill Neeley gave their thoughts on succeeding in the industry. In other words, it was a ‘how to’ book, a useful and readable companion for sixth formers, college students and undergraduates. I know this because I asked students past and present to read some chapters and offer me feedback. Without exception they all liked it…but. What I didn’t know is that publishers are so scared of going out on a limb that they ask for ‘peer review’. Like Roman Emperors their decision is final. In my case the words were fairly damning:

He’s [Barnie’s] been known to disagree with one or two of the more cerebral types in the Association for Journalism Education, an episode he probably wears as a badge of honour!

When I wrote my offending blog,[1] for the AJE, a colleague drew a sharp breath and said: ‘You’ve done it now!’ I didn’t take any notice and I still hold out hope that they are wrong and I am right: that we can have a diversity of opinion and still be respectful, professional and friendly.

I must admit to laughing aloud to two points in that one sentence. The first insult is that the AJE has ‘cerebral types’; and the second, equally damning, that I should wear my disagreement ‘as a badge of honour’. My contention is that I have yet to meet anyone in the AJE who describes himself or herself as ‘cerebral’. And when I have disagreements, I just think life’s too short. Move on.

But herein lies a first problem of what I will call ‘old academic thinking’. Why do these people hide behind anonymity? It’s probably because they are afraid. Afraid that their comments will come back to haunt them or they will be judged one day by the ones they’re reviewing. They should not be afraid. We just need to remember it’s business and not personal. In this case my peers just did not like my idea or my style of writing. I have survived far worse. My suggestion is that don’t write anything that you would not say to your peer’s face. I have no problem with someone saying my work is valueless or pointless or egotistical - but look me in the eye and say that and let’s discuss as grown up adults. It’s quite simple really.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we need to uphold standards. I think we need to have criteria. But I also think we need to have flexibility, diversity and intellectual difference of opinions in all forms of writing. George Orwell’s seminal essay ‘Politics and the English language’[2] sums up what I’m trying to say. He says of writing:

It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Unfortunately, I feel we have begun to imitate what some of us consider is ‘academic’ writing. My view is that in doing so we have slipped into a vat of foolish thoughts. And that is my starting point. Writing with clarity and simplicity are not weaknesses; they are strengths.

Writing

My contention is that if we can’t get the writing right, how on earth can we get anything else right? In my view any writing, other than a polemic or an editorial perhaps, needs be fair, accurate, impartial, balanced and have context. So let us assume my argument starts with the words:

Academic writing today is gobbledegook

No right-minded-thinking, self-respecting-conference-organiser, peer reviewer or publisher will entertain the idea. It is far too bald and bold a statement. Without any qualification or context, it is completely idiotic. What the assertion should say is that:

Some academic writing today is gobbledegook

And then to prove my thesis I need to show you examples that I have found, evaluated and challenged with intelligent rigour and argument. I had some beautiful examples but it would be unfair to publish them. Unfair because there’s no right of reply; unfair because it may be that I am the one at fault for not understanding something others find simple because they have been trained to do so. But, being a journalist, I did take the liberty of sending one offending abstract to seven eminent professors. Of those who responded, two dismissed it and ‘wouldn’t give it house room’, while another did translate it for me and said of the abstract:

It made me smile. So many buzz phrases in one place! It is quite easy to understand if, like me, you have been studying cultural studies for 30 years!!

And that’s the problem. I have been a journalist for 30 years and a hacakademic for much, much less. For that reason, before I make informed comment, I like to research what I am about to pontificate about. So I hit Google Scholar and typed in the word: ‘journalism’. I could have taken my pick of those who research, teach and pontificate about journalism. And remember these were just the abstracts.

In one academic paper from an AJE member, I counted 50 words in the first sentence and in a later sentence there were 69 words. I did a quick calculation and realised that on average each sentence contained 30 words and at least one sub-clause and/or one semi-colon. And that’s just on the first page which I could down load for free. Like the boy out of the Emperor’s New Clothes, I find myself rather bemused. We ought to be able to write sentences which have no more than an average 21 words per sentence. What I find terrifying is that this is an eminent, world renowned professor and so one of our great thinkers. And like the boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, I need to ask: Do we really, should we really, entertain reams of paper whose words we have to read again and again to understand their meaning?

I am just hoping my dissertation tutor doesn’t expect me to write in dense, incomprehensible English. I am hoping that he will understand that I have tried to follow Orwell’s advice in avoiding the two bad habits of, in his case, political writing:

The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.

I would suggest that anyone who hasn’t read Orwell’s essay should give it a try. He says it all.

Audience

Carl Freedman continues this theme. In the abstract to his paper Writing, ideology, and politics“[3]: he wrote: “To teach writing is, at least in part, to teach thinking. In particular it is to advance, even if implicitly, a series of propositions on the relations that govern thought, language, and the “real” world.’To do that, I argue that we must start with our audience. Who will benefit from our knowledge? And do we need to write it in such dense, often incomprehensible language, which requires a dictionary in one hand and a thesaurus in another? No matter who that audience is, we must explain things with simple clarity but not in a patronising way. I argue that we can do this without ‘dumbing down’. We can use our past skills and transfer them to our current profession. And surely, we need to seek out knowledge that is new, interesting and true, rather than regurgitated.

The argument for ‘academic language’

Some academics argue that the audience for an academic paper are, well, er, academics. That’s axiomatic. They then press their case by saying that is why there is a need for ‘academic language’. They say it is necessary shorthand, just as journalists use shorthand and/or jargon in any newsroom. And they also point out that academic papers should not have to explain every theory or have a ‘new readers start here’ section. In short, academic papers should have a degree of assumed knowledge. I have much sympathy with these views. But my argument is not about that. It is based on one fundamental point: say what you mean, mean what you say. I can cope with theories but don’t obfuscate or hide behind a blizzard of meaningless words for the sake of appearing clever or having to play the academic game.

Other academics have argued that academic papers are ‘meant to be hard work’ and are ‘not meant to be journalistic’. One academic put it like this: “Learning French, if you are English isn’t easy, so why does everyone assume that academic writing should be easy?” I can understand the logic in their argument; you have to work at acquiring a new skill and ‘learning academic’ is a subject which needs to be mastered. Where I disagree is that academic papers, first and foremost, are meant to impart knowledge. And acquiring knowledge doesn’t have to be difficult. Professor Brian Cox makes science understandable. So why can’t we make the theoretical models and latest journalism research just as accessible.

The big difference between journalism and academic is often nuance. Quite rightly journalist cut out what they consider to be unnecessary words. In doing so, the ‘on this hand’ and ‘on the other’ are often missed out. How often have we read about medical ‘breakthroughs’ and how often have scientists had to issue an extra press release to say the story was not completely accurate. The beauty of an academic paper is that researchers have the space to be nuanced. But I argue, even then, they can be nuanced in an accessible way, in their own voice.

Journalism and sources:

My view is that journalists should be the best researchers. In investigative journalism do we not echo the academic researcher? We find something which interests us. We try to find out everything about it. We look for something which hasn’t been discovered. We then use all our skills, tried and tested means, to get our answers. We write it up. We make some recommendations and conclusions. We then publish.

Tell me how that is different from anything we do as academics? We provide, for instance, a thesis; literature review; methodology; chapters focusing on primary data analysis; conclusion; dissemination.

But the thing I have failed to understand so far is how we have become so reliant on what other people have said before us. I get it’s about history and context. But articles I’ve read suggest lots of history and context and little new research - academia’s version of ‘churnalism’, if you will. I suspect we are afraid to be pioneers, the discoverer of something truly new, in case we are knocked down and criticised. We are afraid to fail and so we play it safe.

For my MRes I have interviewed the good and the great. What they say is worth hearing and adds to the sum of our knowledge. As a journalist it means a lot. As an academic, I am told top names carry very little weight. Instead, my understanding is that, greater weight will be put on theories and what previous academics have said. Surely that’s the wrong way around - we need to examine the balance of research endeavour versus regurgitating what is already out there. The research question for me is: what new knowledge have I gained?

Parting of the ways:

Because if we don’t then, like all revolutions, there will be a disagreement and a parting of the ways. Donal McIntyre is an excellent investigative journalist. But recently he has had little luck in getting the programmes he wants commissioned. So he has taken it on himself to strike deals with movie houses and distributors to show the films he has made.

Similarly this will happen and is happening in academia. The book I want to write, in my own way, in my own style, in my own voice will be published. I won’t get rich on it but students past and present, who have read chapters, suggest there is a market: here are some of their comments:

Students won’t buy - and are sick of buying - an academic book that they don’t understand. They need to see that the lessons they’re being taught work, and have been learnt by those in the industry. My one regret is that this book wasn’t available before I came to university!

If only I had been bought a copy of this book when I was in the first year then I think my understanding would have been much greater. Not only is it easy to read but the examples are examples of events which are not only recent but are notable, everyone knows about these events. This really separates it from academic texts which use examples of events from the back of beyond.

If it was published, I would suggest giving it to students taking this course before they even start! I would loved to have had it by my side when making and planning stories as I would have gone through the book and ticked off the points made and make sure I was making my piece to the best it could be!

Some academics have argued that it is we, educators, who should tell students what they need to know and students should not dictate to us. But for me knowledge has always been a two-way process. We only have to read Investigative journalism: Dead or alive? (Arima, Bury St Edmunds 2011), edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair, to see how three University of Lincoln undergraduate students held an audience at Coventry University spellbound with new investigative techniques.

The danger is that the internet has made it so easy to publish. There’s nothing to stop anyone setting up a website for like-minded academics, is there? And the safety net they need to ensure is that they move with the times and don’t accept that what was once acceptable remains acceptable without being updated for today’s audiences.

A new hope:

Let me conclude by saying I am hopeful. As one of the professors who replied to my query about what one abstract meant said in their reply:

I also like to hear or read about actual research into what actually happened, and I like a logical argument based upon evidence.

You can’t say that more clearly or fairly.

Notes:

[1] http://www.dandavies23.com/blowback/2011/04/13/we-dont-need-to-dumb-down-but-we-do-need-to-k-i-s-s/ accessed 2nd January 2012
[2] ‘Politics and the English language’ by George Orwell. Available online at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79p/, accesses on 3 January 2012
[3] See http://www.jstor.org/pss/377118 accessed 2nd January 2012

Note on the contributor:

Barnie Choudhury is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Lincoln. He’s a former award-winning BBC Correspondent and currently runs his own media production company. Barnie is a Lay Advisor for the Department of Health’s Equality and Diversity Council, sits on the boards of several charities and is the Chairman of AWAAZ, a mental health charity for South Asian communities in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire.

February 11, 2012

Children’s rights: Media responsibilities

Mike Jempson reports on a conference which will call on journalists to do more to acknowledge the rights and needs of young people

As the Leveson Inquiry evidence sessions continue, a conference at Bath Spa University will delve into another of the thorny issues that divides practitioners and pundits - the impact of media representations of young people.

One of the submissions to Leveson compiled by the Youth Media Agency and MediaWise, brought together 56 youth and media organisations to urge greater recognition among journalists and the regulators of the rights and needs of young people. Childhood and the media: Images, rights and responsibilities at Bath Spa University on Friday, 20 April, will examine some of these issues in more detail.

Representatives from Facebook and Google will explain their approaches to online safety, and the Press Complaints Commission, the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel and the Anti-Bullying Alliance will debate their contrasting roles in tackling the way young people are addressed and portrayed.

Other speakers include Elisabeth Ribbans, Managing Editor of the Guardian and Jim Gamble, former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.

In the afternoon an attempt will be made to devise a multi-disciplinary module for social care and journalism courses, and there will also be sessions for young people, teachers and broadcasters.

Conference organiser is David Niven, a former chair of the British Association of Social Workers, who has worked as child protection officer and has a longstanding interest in the complexities of media impact on behaviour and social attitudes. He commented:

‘If we want to effect change we need to engage with the media, but I dislike the way young people are demonised, patronised or marginalised by the media. They need to be included more if we want them to be more responsible as adults.

‘Print, broadcast and online media provide our most important educational influence. They are a window onto the world for perhaps 95 per cent of us. I have witnessed the influence of the media on children and families, for good and ill.’

He warned: ‘Now we have the new challenges of social media on which young people spend huge amounts of time, consume an enormous amount of information, and put themselves at risks which are not fully appreciated. For example, the internet makes it easier for contact to be re-established between abusive parents and children who have been removed from their care.’

Niven still supported the recommendations of Elizabeth Lawson QC, then Chair of the Family Law Bar Association, following the Child Exploitation and the Media Forum he organised with PressWise (now MediaWise) in March 1997. She called for the training of social workers and journalists to include better understanding of each other’s roles and limitations.

‘Not enough has been done to bridge that gap of ignorance and distrust over the last 25 year,’ Niven stressed. ‘We are creating a space in Bath for practitioners, trainers and academics from both sides of the fence to get together. One lasting legacy would be a common module that can really make a difference for the future.’

The event is the fourth in a series of conferences organised by Bath Spa School of Education in association with DNA, most of which have focused on social care issues. They are linked to the development of a 120 credit Certificate of Education in Integrated Child Protection Studies being pioneered at the university.

- Childhood and the media: Images, rights and responsibilities, Friday, 20 April, 2011, Michael Tippett Centre, Bath Spa University, Newton St Loe, Bath BA2 9BN. To book places visit www.dnivenassociates.co.uk and pay via PayPal or send the address for invoices to info@dnivenassociates.co.uk.

January 30, 2012

Mass protests defeat internet blacklist bills

Barry Turner reports on a rare victory for people power in the US over internet censorship

On 18 January 2012, a seldom-seen phenomenon occurred in politics: the politicians listened to the people. Members of the United States Congress abandoned support from two bills on copyright that would have severely restricted the use of the internet as a news media platform.

The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protection of Intellectual Property Act were abandoned by many of their former supporters including one of the co-sponsors of the legislation. SOPA and PIPA, as they have become known, are bills purporting to protect intellectual property rights. It seems that few actually believe that this is their real purpose and that strict control of the content of the internet or even blatant censorship are the main motives for introducing laws which would so clearly infringe free expression.

The effect of these laws would have been to place responsibility for policing internet content on the website owners making copyright infringement a crime of guilty until proven innocent. This unconstitutional move has been defeated by those the bills were aimed at in an unusual demonstration of democracy in action.

Some sites, such as Wikipedia, Reddit, Boing Boing, Craigslist and others, completely shut down for the day. Millions of Americans were encouraged to contact their representatives and the effect was quite extraordinary. The day before the blackout, there were 80 on-the-record supporters and 31 opponents in all of Congress. The day after, there were 101 opponents and only 65 supporters - and that number continued to grow.

These two bills are far from dead and will be returned to Congress after amendments. This is not just an American free expression issue. Were these two bills to become law in America they will affect the whole world. Foreign violators of a SOPA-style law promulgated in the US would not be safe from its effects because they do not live there. Those with interests in America would be under threat as would anyone alleged to have breached the criminal elements of these bills, with extradition and trial a real threat.

All those who believe in free speech should resist the use of back door legislation like SOPA and PIPA; American voters, via the internet, frightened their representatives into backing away from this undemocratic legislation. Let’s hope that this becomes a worldwide tactic.

November 1, 2011

Hackgate and its implications

Tim Crook reports on the annual conference of the Institute of Communication Ethics

The Institute of Communications Ethics held its annual conference on Friday, 28 October, in London and explored Hackgate and its implications. The papers presented at the Foreign Press Association in the Commonwealth Club reflected the consternation and divided opinions that the scandal has generated within British journalism and the academy.

The discussion coincides with the judicial and public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including its unlawful behaviour headed by the English Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Leveson set up under the 2005 Inquiries Act. According to the Independent, there are now around 200 police detectives engaged in enquiries into alleged press illegality at News International’s News of the World and elsewhere, the work of private detectives, and alleged payments by journalists to police officers.

I was happy to attend an event that I thought more intelligently and effectively explored the key issues in a way that the Leveson enquiry may be unlikely to achieve. I gave a paper entitled ‘Infantilising the Feral Beast: The criminalisation of the bad boys and girls of popular journalism: Hackgate’s boomerang’ and was happily accompanied by three students from Goldsmiths as well as the researcher, Justin Schlosberg, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths working within the Leverhulme Media Research Centre.

Justin presented a compelling paper indicating that British television news had marginalised the representation of the awkward questions being raised about the death of the weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly and the Hutton Enquiry ‘inquest’ verdict that he had died as a result of suicide. This level of textual, qualitative and quantitative research enables us to question shibboleths and preconceived notions about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ journalism.

As I mentioned to my Goldsmiths’ colleagues, conferences of this kind take our opinions and knowledge outside our own comfort zones to be tested by other perspectives as well as being the chance to air our own research and opinions.

The scandal has shaken me over the last few months. Although I had heard the allegations and acknowledged the ‘industrial gossip’ over the years, I had naively and, I accept, stupidly assumed that the new generation of showbusiness/celebrity ‘masters and mistresses of the universe’ in the 1990s through to at least 2007 obtained their ‘intrusive’ stories by persuading friends, associates and employees of the great, the good and the ugly to confidentially whistleblow; however lowly the ‘lowest common denominator’ of subject.

I have an essentially shy and embarrassed anticipation and assumption about asking personal questions and although having been a journalist for several decades, I have never had that ability to whisper and plumb intimate secrets with such apparent panache and success.

Well now it seems some or much of that ’success’ and journalistic pizazz was no more than grubby snooping of targets’ mobile messaging, and possible phone and computer tapping. And other ‘great’ stories may have been obtained by metaphorically passing brown envelopes stuffed with cash to serving police officers. How absurdly pathetic.

It is not even ‘hard’ work’. Journalism for me has hardly been glamorous. Any significant stories I have ever unearthed, if they could ever be described as ’significant’ came about by endless grind and slogging, eyes straining through swirls of microfiche, and pages of documents in badly lit surroundings, working well into the early hours of the morning, waiting forlornly for people to meet me in cold, dreary and banal places, waiting for telephone calls and emails that were never replied to. Most of the work was boring and attended to by anxiety. The adrenaline and rush were so rare, I find it hard to recall any.

And as the mythology is stripped from the high octane, on the edge realm of Hackgate sleaze sleuthing, we are getting a sad and ridiculous picture of some stoned journalists with addiction problems and inadequate personalities, promoted and paid way beyond their talent zone, some snorting cocaine and dropping ‘E’s to keep up with the fringes of celebrocrats who probably had much less talent than they had.

And so the Wizard of Oz is a bald, little man struggling to control levers and the puffing of dry ice behind an illusory light and sound show. We have an almost allegorical myth of the Hackgate Wizard keeping a ledger of mobile phone numbers, pin codes, computer ISP numbers, and an armoury of Trojan computer viruses, and digital video and sound recording software in the warehousing of sneaking and snooping across the highs and lows of human success, failure, and tragedy. Just how typical, widespread and real this myth actually was is a matter for police and judicial enquiry. This degree of journalistic vice, although exceptional, risks being unfortunately misrepresented as the general.

Equally absurd about the Hackgate phenomenon is the vista of the sins of the past visiting and punishing the innocent of the present. Far from being properly condemned as the impulsive vandalism, cynical business move, and destructive censorship by a foreign press baron, Rupert Murdoch’s shutting down of the News of the World was fast hand clapped by Britain’s liberal intelligentsia. The Foreign Secretary William Hague said ’sad, but necessary’ in a live two way from Benghazi. And so George Orwell’s 1946 observation:

It is Sunday afternoon preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World.

is now consigned to an obscure and forgotten footnote of popular cultural history.

In reflecting on the brilliant and fascinating papers given at the conference I have been left wondering whether we might have a choice between modernism as antithetical to censorship and a celebration of the anti-social and the art of the scoundrel and the rascal…and postmodernism: the nihilistic indifference to freedom and a collage of the past to mask the present.

The morning keynote address was provided by Professor Brian Cathcart of Kingston University - also accompanied by a cheerful brood of his students - in which he explored the methodology and modus operandi of developing a professional individual responsibility for journalists through source trailing.

Professor Cathcart is part of the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign and very much an intelligent critic, along with the Media Standards Trust, of journalistic irresponsibility. ‘Hacked Off’, and in particular the Guardian journalist Nick Davies and the solicitor Mark Lewis, ably and courageously fought to challenge the denials, obfuscations and false-consciousness of the country’s media and political establishment who had hoped that the 2006-2007 enquiry, prosecution and conviction of one journalist and one private detective was all that was needed and representative in terms of discretionary policing.

In my opinion Professor Cathcart and his associates cannot be blamed for the problems of boomerang, disproportionate political and legal reaction to this scandal. They must be praised for iconoclastic campaigning, investigative journalism and outstanding legal advocacy.

We cannot forget, as he took an opportunity of reminding us in the afternoon, that Hackgate is not just about super-rich indulgent celebrities having their silly private lives tittled and tattled about. The events include the unlawful interception and manipulation of a child abduction and murder victim, Milly Dowler, the victims of modern day terrorism in London and possibly New York City, and the potential interference and obstruction of a murder enquiry into a man slaughtered in a pub car park in Sydenham whose body was left with an axe embedded in his skull.

Dr. Damien Carney, Principal Lecturer in the School of Law at Portsmouth Business School, constructively discussed methods of improving media accountability through regulation. He emphasised the importance and advantage of actively involving the National Union of Journalists and balancing regulation with media freedom and rights scrutiny and protection.

Sean Dodson, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Leeds Metropolitan University, presented an impressive analysis of the need to develop a relevant and effective self-regulatory code for journalists on the internet. He made some compelling references to codes agreed by US media institutions that seem to be much more progressive and alert to the new world of contemporary multimedia journalistic practice.

He also reminded us that there are many aspects of US journalistic and online culture with much higher and stringent standards of integrity. UK journalists should read the code of ethics for The New York Times and National Public Radio to discover how the US tradition of establishing and maintaining trust between journalists and audience has a longer and more effective trail.

John Mair, chair of ICE, passionately articulated a compelling charge against those responsible for ‘Hackgate’ and a tribute to the warriors shaking News International to its foundations. Rupert Murdoch’s operation as a media magnate between the 20th and 21st centuries, like that of his predecessor press barons, leaves a nasty and ambiguous legacy. Business success and profits have sustained ailing national titles and expanded broadcasting satellite employment and provision.

But the very brakes that a strong trade union presence in mentoring and ethical regulation could have provided were long destroyed and dismantled when he divided and ruled the NUJ chapels of his Fleet Street assets in the middle 1980s to skedaddle to his notorious industrial theme park in Wapping.

Professor John Tulloch, of Lincoln University, was a veritable high and cream tea mid-morning. Lovingly pressing his fingers against anthologies of Charles Dickens’ journalism, John revealed that hacks and coppers have been ‘at it’ from the very beginnings of mass media newspaper publication and modern policing that the creator of Chuzzlewit, Little Nell, Uriah Heap, and Oliver Twist actually campaigned for in the early 19th century.

Professor Tulloch was a cultural and intellectual treat, academic and scholarly nectar, and gave us a little flavour of the riches that undergraduate and postgraduate students at Lincoln must have on a more regular basis.

As he self-effacingly referred to his research as ‘work in progress’ and extemporised with precise and entertaining academic prose Dickens’ role as journalist, magazine editor, and his apparent happy financial investment in Metropolitan Police story provision, he left us with a compassionate entreaty for the tolerance of the journalistic rascal and scoundrel through the ages.

Healthy sandwiches, mineral water, orange juice, coffee and biscuits for lunch were followed by Richard Peppiatt, former reporter for the Daily Star. Richard could have been type-cast as the repentant tabloid hack, but in fact he contributed strongly to the debate with intelligent analysis in the Baudrillard frame of simulacra and his realisation that those working within a tabloid newsroom need greater insight and awareness of the difference between ‘journalism’ and ’story telling’. Both are creative enterprises, but the former needs ethics and responsibility.

Richard is no stranger to Goldsmiths. On his last visit there, he ‘confessed’ to infiltrating the first days of teaching in the history department of the Princess Beatrice as part of his reporting duties for a national ‘newspaper’ covering the country and the world with two or three foot sloggers.

His presentation indicated considerable potential as an academic lecturer. If it is within his personal ambition, I certainly think he deserves a fair run of intelligent journalism at the BBC or a Guardian style media institution.

Jackie Newton, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, and Dr. Sallyanne Duncan, Lecturer in Journalism and Media Ethics at the University of Strathclyde, revealed brilliant research into journalistic use of social media and the relationship between journalists and the bereaved. This is just the kind of information needed at the Leveson inquiry.

They have quietly and professionally explored and researched the practices of regional journalists, who of course, make up the majority of British journalistic publication, and who do not appear to be properly represented at Leveson. What they discovered, and I apologise for simplifying or not comprehensively reflecting the complexity of their study, is that:

1) the bereaved need journalists and appreciate their interest; particularly when most of their suffering is caused by the criminal justice system and not the media;

2) overblown construction and expectation of ‘privacy’ for the bereaved should not result in any self-censorial journalistic avoidance of the bereaved;

3) there is an active contestation and debate about the ethics of using material from social media sites without the permission of bereaved families even though they appear to be public spaces, when in fact they are perceived by many relatives of ‘victims’ to belong to Habermasian ‘intimate space’.

Dr Eamonn O’Neill, Programme Director of the MSc in Investigative Journalism at the University of Strathclyde, explored the complexities of challenging the rule of law when pursuing a public interest that can be supported and confirmed as ‘a greater good’.

It requires professional discipline, strong and supportive editorial and legal supervision, and something I have been advising colleagues and students for many years: the need to protect sources and confidential information through digital safeguarding, counter-surveillance techniques and putting controversial material in a protective shield beyond the British legal jurisdiction.

Dr. O’Neill spoke with authority and referenced some of his own case histories working ‘undercover’ (though in one case he used his own name: it seems nobody bothered to Google him!) exposing a miscarriage of justice and meeting a renegade MI5 agent abroad for the purposes of journalism.

Digital finger-printing can, of course, work both ways. It seems his blog is regularly visited by somebody at the Home Office and he is tempted to increase the boredom level of his postings in anticipation of the apparent surveillance.

David Baines and Joel Stein, of Newcastle University, presented more detailed qualitative and quantitative research into the potential problematical relationship between a regional business daily and the Northern Rock, then a major employer, investor and political and social institution.

As I found when presenting a broadcast business programme many years ago, there was not a lot of scope for ideological questioning of the fruits of capitalism, high profit and short-term banking practices. David and Joel’s exploration of ‘myth-making on the business pages’ reminded everyone that the world’s financial crisis has powerful and compelling dimensions in the local and regional frame of journalism.

The final, and I think, most powerful presentation of the day came from Professor Tim Luckhurst of the University of Kent. He warned convincingly that Leveson and the wider crisis of journalism standards, ethics and illegality risked missing the target and ignoring the prize.

Expensive and invaluable public interest journalism needs a new business model. The present one is failing. What does a nihilistic endgame attack on News International achieve? The Times is kept alive by the Sun. The success of the News of the World and others like it cross-pollinate across the media industry that is dying from new media, the fiduciary drainage of media legal and compliance settlements and many other climate change dimensions in economies of scale and social and media consumption.

‘Don’t imagine,’ said Professor Luckhurst, ‘that the readers of the Daily Star are not perfectly aware of what they are buying and reading. I speak as somebody who went from comprehensive school to Cambridge University and would not for one minute wish to patronise the kind of people who know what is real news and entertaining story telling.’

The debate acknowledged the risk of moral entrepreneurs giving ‘Hackgate’ an importance that was disproportionate to the problems it revealed. A reference was made to the weapons of mass destruction scandal and the Chilcot enquiry. Surely more important? Points and arguments were robustly and respectfully made and then the delightful, award-winning Professor Richard Keeble, continually grabbing my copy of the last edition of the News of the World to highlight the quotation from his beloved George Orwell, got everyone in a circle, distinguished professors included, to reflect on why did Hackgate happen and what is the solution?

Never being one to avoid getting in a last word or two, I piped up: ‘Ego, fear and ambition’ and left it to the other half circle to suggest some reforms and amelioration.
Solutions that do not cut journalism below the knees, as one of my colleagues once graphically described it, are difficult to find. But if there was a consensus emerging, I thought it was the empowerment of the individual journalist’s ‘conscience clause’ in regulation and employment contracts, long campaigned for by the NUJ. It is a low cost and non-punitive popularist option. It has the advantage of confronting the oppression of aggressive and unethical media managements demanding ‘rat-like cunning’ with the ends justifying a doubtful means culture. The battle zone would be employment tribunals.

- The conference was superbly organised by Fiona Thompson and twittered as #ICE2011

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