ICE blogs

May 21, 2011

Political reporting put simply

Barnie Choudhury reviews So you want to be a political journalist? edited by Sheila Gunn (published by Biteback Publishing; ISBN 978 1 84954 085 8 )

One of the joys of being in Higher Education is having access to all the books being published by people with the finest minds in the world. As someone who is getting to grips with the ‘academic world’ full time I have to admit that I am finding it challenging. You see, I have been a newsman for thirty years. The first lesson I was taught about writing was to K.I.S.S: Keep It Short and Simple. Any story can be summarised in three sentences and the cleverest people can explain their ideas to a child. And this is the debate I am having with fellow academics. For me some books are simply too dense. I guess that says a lot more about me than the author.

So what has this got to do with Sheila Gunn’s So you want to be a political journalist? Well this book is definitely not an academic tome. Rather, it is a collection of reflective essays, with some great learning points buried throughout the various sentences, from well-known political hacks. Gunn is herself a practitioner of journalism and the dark arts of spin; she was once John Major’s spin doctor. But Gunn hits the nail firmly on the head when on page one she tells of the need for aspiring journalists to go into a new village, town or city and come back with ‘a number of good ideas for stories’. This is so obvious to practising journalists but having taught in HE for more than a decade it is a lesson, I still have to drum into my students year in year out.

What Gunn does with her book is to take a student (and those already in the business, if they so wish) by the hand and navigate them through the various aspects of the democratic political processes. The brilliant Guardian commentator Michael White reminisces about his time as a lobby correspondent for the paper. He provides a readable history lesson for the uninterested and uninitiated about how politics and political reporting has changed over the decades. The sedentary lifestyle of reading committee reports, wining and dining political contacts replaced by the frenetic pace of a 24/7 continuous news cycle.

Inside this book are the thoughts of intellectual journalist giants. No, this is not an oxymoron; just spend time reading Peter Riddell’s potted biography and marvel at his achievements. When he tells you how to work with politicians, make notes, inwardly digest and practise the craft. My friend Carolyn Quinn - we were both BBC trainees together - explains how she broke into the business. Adam Holloway, the MP for Gravesham in Kent and former investigative journalist, tells us about his typical week in the Commons. But was he right to stop writing a weekly column and issuing press releases to his local paper because he was miffed by the way another MP and he were treated by the press? Andrew Hawkins’ explanation of reporting opinion polls puts in simple language what few but the best really do. No jargon, no mystery and certainly no trying to write for the academic.

I do have two criticisms of the book. I wanted to hear more from the elite of political reporting. It was as if they kept some of their secrets to themselves or perhaps this is a cunning ploy by Gunn to write a second book? The other fault is that it is aimed at a niche market. This book will not be recommended by those on politics courses or, dare I say, useful to them because it is not analytical enough. And conversely some journalism courses will also wonder about the merits of putting it on their reading lists because they will think it too detailed. But I would argue that this is a must for any wannabe reporter just starting out. Put simply: it is a collection of useful recollections from those who have been there, done it and bought the tee-shirt.

Barnie Choudhury is a former BBC News and Social Affairs Correspondent and a Senior Lecturer in journalism at the University of Lincoln

November 27, 2008

training for journalsits and PR people on coverage of asylum seekers and refugees

For colleagues in the UK: a Norwich-based organisation is offering free media training  on 9 December for journalists, public relations workers and media officers on media coverage of asylum and refugee issues.

As part of the City of Refuge Community programme, the New Writing Partnership will be holding a daylong training event on media coverage of asylum and refugee issues aimed at journalists, public relations workers and media officers on media coverage of asylum and refugee issues.  The training will be delivered by the Exiled Journalists’ Network (EJN).

This training event is free.
Date:  9th of December.
Venue:  The New Writing Partnership, 14 Princes Street, Norwich, NR3 1AE

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