ICE blogs

July 3, 2015

Timely book on the BBC

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 7:09 am

John Mair reviews This new noise: The extraordinary birth and troubled life of the BBC by Charlotte Higgins, Faber/Guardian Books

The BBC is never out of the news; too often it is making it rather than reporting it. This year and next are crunch years for the corporation with licence fee renewal (or not) and royal charter renewal set in the next eighteen months. The BBC could enter 2017 a shadow of its former self cut to the bone by the ultimate government paymasters and its services thrown overboard like so much ballast to make the reduced sums add up. DG Tony Hall and Trust chair Rona Fairhead have a monumental task on their hands to square many circles of finance, regulation, reach and range. Charlotte Higgins’s book is timely as, to declare an interest, so will be my (and Professors Richard Tait and Keeble’s) edited collection, The BBC today: Future uncertain, to be published by Abramis, of Bury St Edmunds, in September.

Higgins is the chief arts writer on the Guardian and was given a ‘sabbatical’ by editor Alan Rusbridger to write a series of long reads (a very welcome Guardian innovation) for the newspaper on the BBC. He asked her to ‘get under the skin’ of the corporation. The result was thousands of words which she has pulled together for this book. It is a good read as you would expect from a seasoned feature writer. I read it in one sitting. Like Jean Seaton’s recent ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ – the official history of the BBC 1974-1987, published by Profile, of London – it is based on themes and people. Like Seaton, it is possibly over-reliant on one major source; Seaton’s was Patricia Hodgson (member of the BBC Trust, 2006-2011, and currently deputy chair of Ofcom) and Higgins’ (Lord) Tony Hall and his mentor, former DG (Lord) John Birt.

They shine through the copy. Silent are the longest and shortest serving director generals of recent times: Mark Thompson and George Entwistle .Silent too is Greg Dyke, the most flamboyant and popular DG of the last thirty years. More’s the pity that Higgins did not seek, or if she tried did not get, their take on this great national institution. The BBC is always up there with the monarchy and the NHS as cornerstones of modern British life but for how much longer?

Did Higgins get ‘down and dirty’ and ‘under the skin’ enough to talk to a sufficient range of programme makers? It is their creative genius that the BBC is all about at the end of the day. Not managers, not politicians, not technology but brilliant programme making. When I was at the BBC as a producer during the 1980s, I met some who were close to genius but too many close to being jobsworth. One value that held them all together was a belief in the quality of their work and in the institution. Many had a love/hate relationship with the corporation. They loved it when it was good to/for them, hated it when not. Creativity is very hard to manage.

Is there, too, in the book much reflection of the views of those called within the BBC ‘The Thought Police of Oxford Circus!’ namely those at the epicentre who try to manage the corporation and is there not enough of the radicals and refuseniks? For half a century, Lime Grove Studios, off the Goldhawk Road in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, provided a home for them and for current affairs. They were the intellectual gladiators of the BBC. They pushed the limits. They were the ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’ in Dennis Thatcher’s words. They caused trouble and got the BBC into hot water with the powerful time after time after time. Programmes on Harold Wilson (Yesterday’s Men, in 1971), Ireland/the IRA (Tonight on INLA, 1979, inter alia), Maggie’s militant tendency (of January 1984), the sinking of the Argentinian light cruiser, the Belgrano, during the Falklands conflict in 1982, and more caused controversy. Quite rightly as this is a basic function of good journalism. The ‘Thought Police’ hated Lime Grove and when John Birt became DG in 1992 he simply smashed the building to bits (it is now social housing) and neutered current affairs by rolling it into the news machine where it still rests. Higgins does not reflect the Lime Grove free spirit much apart from passing references to the original ‘queen’ of Lime Grove, Grace Wyndham Goldie, the legendary head of talks at the BBC.

Did Higgins get ‘under the skin’ enough to tell the tales of the sheer waste of licence fee payers’ money? You can search but you will find little mention of recent BBC causes célèbres: the £100 million (the entire licence fees of the City of Glasgow) wasted on the dream of the Digital Media Initiative, the ‘filling of the boots’ of the BBC ‘officer class’ like Mark Byford, Deputy Director General/head of BBC journalism 2004-2011, with huge pay-offs, sometimes even when they continued to work for the corporation. They led to a public and parliamentary stink. Those two stains rest on the otherwise successful eight year reign of Thompson as DG.

Higgins is simply not good on the negative. She gets seduced by the great and the good and their offices. I hated the ‘I sat in his ornate office in New Broadcasting House/Portcullis House’ trope. Good for colour in a single feature but rather repetitive when used to introduce each individual voice. That said, she did meet a variety of individuals face to face and reported what they said. The best form of original journalism mixing past and present and some analysis. That came out in her original Guardian pieces as it does in the book even if there are too many officers in their office in the cast and not enough privates and lance corporals on the broadcasting front line. She was also seduced by the canon of Radio Four and the BBC arts output. The latter the refuge of the chattering classes and not the average licence payer. Did she actually go and see any programmes being made or broadcast? Shiny floor shows such as Strictly come dancing?

So what of the future? Very very stormy times lie ahead for the BBC. Higgins talks of the ‘enemies at the gate’. The enemies are now firmly inside the citadel. In parliament, there is a growing groundswell which is becoming a cacophony. The motion to decriminalise the evasion of the licence fee went from an early day motion from two ‘Tory Taliban’ backbenchers to official Coalition (and worse Labour Party ) policy in five weeks last year. It has to date cost the BBC £150 million in avoided licence fees. That was a portent of things to come for the corporation. The national press, now nakedly right wing and Tory in 90 per cent of titles, are firmly BBC bashers. Barely a day goes by without the Daily Mail finding a ‘storm over BBC’ story, whether true or false.

Whilst the public continues to consume the BBC in millions across many platforms, many have been seduced away by the Murdoch millions and their expensively bought sports rights. One startling statistic: the income of Sky TV in the UK is now double that of the BBC. How much longer the BBC can continue to collect the ‘worse than the poll tax’ of the licence fee (the words of John Whittingdale, the new secretary of state for culture) is increasingly being open to question. The bets are on this being the last licence fee.

The past offers bad examples. Mark Thompson was shown into a darkened room in 2010 by then-culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and given a ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum on the level of licence fee the government demanded: in effect, a 16 per cent cut in income over the following five years. Thompson was firmly held by his metaphorical ‘short and curlies’ and forced to agree to this over a protracted period of…just six days. Usually these negotiations take two years. Thompson had little alternative but to assent only managing to hold the £500m. over-75’s free licence at bay. That is now firmly back in play. I know about the negotiations. Mark told me over a pint in our local pub.

This time round the ‘negotiations’ could be even shorter with a Conservative government and a secretary of state who, whilst knowledgeable about the BBC, has plenty of right-wing form. Tony Hall and Rona Fairhead are in for a rocky ride. The clouds on their and the corporation’s horizon look very dark indeed.

Higgins has written a good and lucid book about the corporation. One only hopes it does not prove to be an epistle to the end of an era and of the BBC.

John Mair is chair of ICE. He is a former BBC current affairs producer who has now edited fourteen ‘hackademic’ books on media matters,
the majority with Richard Lance Keeble

June 6, 2015

Ethics of political communication under the spotlight

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, conferences — news_editor @ 5:17 pm

In the wake of the recent General Election, the ethics of political communication are to be examined at the Institute of Communication Ethics’ annual conference, on 23 October 2015, at the Frontline Club, London W2.

The conference’s keynoters include Michael Cockerell, presenter of the BBC’s acclaimed Inside the Commons series earlier this year, on how political communication has changed in his four decades in television, and Professor Ivor Gaber, of the University of Sussex, on ‘Social media and the election: Public forum or private echo chamber?’

Titled ‘Fever, fakery and fatigue: Political communication in the 21st century’, the conference is expected to draw professionals, academics, students and media activists from a range of disciplines: journalism, public relations, political communication, media sociology, surveillance studies.

• Abstracts of 200 words for presentations are invited. Please send by 1 July 2015 to Fiona Thompson, ICE Executive Group, at f.thompson287@gmail.com or f.thompson@yorksj.ac.uk.

May 19, 2015

Site leads the way on citizen journalism

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 11:31 am

The-Latest.com is rapidly emerging as an innovative, important citizen journalism website. Not content with carrying regular scoops and original features on national and international issues – often ignored by the mainstream media – it recently joined up with the BBC to produce a documentary on the thousands of men and women who came to Britain from the Caribbean colonies to fight Hitler. In fighting for king and empire: Britain’s Caribbean heroes was screened to acclaim on BBC4 on 13 May as part of a series marking the 70th anniversary of VE Day.

Co-produced by The-Latest’s Marc Wadsworth and Deborah Hobson, the film exposed the colour bar enforced by the British military until political protests forced a change in policy.

The one-hour documentary followed the production of Divided by race, united in war and peace by The-Latest.com, which has been screened by the South African Broadcasting Corporation and at South Africa’s Tri-Continental Film Festival, the Samosa Film Festival in Kenya and recently at the prestigious MipDoc event at Cannes, France. It also forms part of an educational schools project, supported by the Historical Association, that has been well-received by trade unions, students and teachers.

The-Latest.com also boasts a Facebook citizen journalism group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/6539928013/) with more than 3,500 members making it one of the largest independent, English language groups of its kind.

Marc Wadsworth the editor of The-Latest.com, commented: ‘The big growth in support for our website and its Facebook group shows the thirst that exists for “news from the bottom up” citizen journalism. It’s clear the public are cheesed off with the corporate-owned big media that serves the interests of the rich and powerful 1 per cent in Britain’s broken democracy. We are proud to be a strong alternative voice for the marginalised and unheard.’

• See http://the-latest.com/bbc-film-recognise-britains-caribbean-heroes#sthash.0UVxvJIe.dpufn and http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2015/may/11/unsung-heroes-of-the-caribbean-who-fought-for-britain-against-hitler

• The BBC documentary is available for viewing at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05v08b7/fighting-for-king-and-empire-britains-caribbean-heroes

• Organisations interested in screening Divided by race, united in war and peace can contact editor@the-latest.com.

May 7, 2015

On the ethics of celebrity interviewing

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 1:08 pm

The recent interview of the global superstar, Robert Downey Jr, by the Channel 4 News presenter, Krishnan Guru-Murthy – when Downey stormed out in a huff – raises many questions about the ethics of celebrity interviewing. For instance, what is in the public interest? Should journalists agree to restrict their questioning to certain topics? Should they be allowed to dredge up misdemeanours from the past? Here, the former BBC journalist and now communications consultant, Barnie Choudhury, considers the many sides of these complex issues

Walk outing: A confession
Walking out of interviews is nothing new. The best and most famous names have done it. Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, did so on CNN in November 2010. Few of us will forget the Bee Gees walking out after ten minutes of Clive Anderson’s rapier wit on his BBC1 talk show in 1996 with the infamous words: ‘You’re a tosser, pal.’ My favourite, though, is the then-defence secretary, Sir John Nott, who took umbrage in 1987 at being described as ‘a transient, here today, gone tomorrow politician’ by the late Sir Robin Day.

I, too, am a serial offender when it comes to interviewees walking out. Sourav Ganguly, the Indian cricket captain, walked away when I asked why he was always so sulky and rude. It was fitting, really, for he snubbed me at Lords, the home of cricket, in 2002. Then there was the former police minister, John Denham, who walked past me stony-faced after speaking at a National Black Police Association conference in November 2002 in Nottingham. It was memorable only because as I walked with him asking questions to no responses, we came to the exit to find it locked. It was then he unleashed his tirade. ‘You give journalists a bad name. You doorstep us and when we don’t answer you make us look bad. I’ll be speaking to your boss.’ To give him his due, the Leicester East MP did not walk out when he was surrounded by a media scrum in the run-up to the 2001 General Election. But he never did answer the simple question I put to him (‘Mr Vaz, how are you?’) after his return from collapsing during a television interview weeks earlier.

Questions: What is fair?
So what is fair? Downey’s walkout after being probed on his former drug habit and time spent in prison on 22 April 2015 does raise three fundamental questions:
a. Was Guru-Murthy’s line of questioning in the public interest?
b. When does the statute of limitations run out on past crimes and misdemeanours?
c. When is it acceptable to agree questions in advance?

The Information Commissioner’s Office defines public interest as ‘the public good, not what is of interest to the public, and not the private interests of the requester’. If you accept this definition, then the test is fairly clear: offending social mores is clearly not in the public interest. The case of the former Formula 1 racing boss, Max Mosley, was not. He was photographed at a ‘Nazi sex orgy’ and the court quite rightly (in July 2008) decided the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World had invaded his privacy. It was not in the public interest because he did not commit a crime, nor was he in public office where he could influence or be influenced. I make the distinction of public office because recent history shows how a sex scandal can damage the careers those in power. In September 2014, Brooks Newmark, the Conservative Minister for Civil Society, resigned after being found sending explicit photographs of himself to women over the internet.

The public interest test is important because an erosion of ethical values could lead to the introduction of strict privacy laws. The former Daily Mirror editor and now Professor of Journalism at City University London, Roy Greenslade, believes that privacy laws will inhibit journalism and he is probably right.

Dredging up the past: Is a ‘statute of limitations’ needed?
So when is it OK to dredge up the past? In the UK, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) means that with the exception of immigration transgressions, most crimes have a shelf life. Can we argue that after a while, those in the public limelight, who have served time or admit to committing crimes, should be allowed the freedom not to talk about their past? A statute of limitations, if you like. It is unlikely that a journalist will agree when it comes to celebrities, politicians and public officials. Downey obviously did not want to talk about anything except his new film. But some celebrities will. Four years after going to jail, the pop star, George Michael, spoke about his ‘horrific’ time’ there. So it depends on the situation, the relevance and the star. We should never underestimate timing in a celebrity’s life. Stars with fading careers, desperate for publicity will probably answer any question because they need attention and the money. At the same time, those who have cultivated a brand or have more to lose and are more guarded with their comments. What appear to be innocuous questions may lead to a revelation which creates bad headlines. The interview by the BBC broadcaster Simon Mayo with actor Naomi Watts springs to mind. Watts had portrayed the late Princess Diana in a film but for some reason Mayo contends she cut the interview short in September 2013 – and we will never know why.

Journalism works on the principle that reporters ask questions, no matter how uncomfortable, and expect an answer, unless there is a legal reason not to do so. Equally, an interviewee has the right not to answer.

Rules of the game: The PR side
Interviewing today has become a game and you need to follow the rules. I should know, it is my job to protect clients from making a gaffe. I would not allow any client of mine to face a grilling alone and neither would I permit them anywhere near a journalist without a fully prepared strategy, which will include a mock interview. I make sure I know the line of questioning so there are no surprises and then plan for the worst, just in case. I hone the messages to perfect sound bites. Paradoxically, I also acknowledge that the prevalence of spin doctors, media trainers and communications experts make it increasingly difficult to get authentic answers.

Today, politicians and VIPs will have press officers to intervene just in case carefully laid plans are swept aside. If your client messes up, you, the spin doctor, are at fault. Politicians and VIPs will not answer difficult questions. Instead they will have been trained to ‘reframe the question’ to give the message they want to get over. Indeed, politicians and VIPs are afraid to tell unpalatable truths because the consequences could wipe out shares, guarantee ridicule and cost careers. Who can forget the PR disaster that was Tony Hayward, the former Chief Executive of BP? He was the boss during the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 – and who admitted his company were ‘not prepared’ to deal with the fallout. Hayward may have wanted ‘his life back’ but it was an inappropriate comment, especially when people had died and your company was responsible for a major environmental disaster.

No self-respecting journalist will reveal what questions they will be asking. Doing that means only staged answers are given and we may as well return to the early days of television when interviewers asked: ‘Is there anything you’d like to tell the nation Prime Minister?’ Staged or planted questioning is a deception and journalists disrespect their readers and viewers by engaging in that. Why should the public trust journalists ever again if they made such deals? Yet we know it happens. I am told that the pressure to get that scoop, that access, to be in the know, means some journalists will even send the copy, including the headline, to the subject in advance. My fear is that the more journalists give away, the less the public will be able to trust what they read or see.

The responsibility – easily lost amidst the din of the 24/7 news cycle
By his own admission, Sir John Nott’s encounter with Sir Robin Day delayed his eventual slide into obscurity. He took Sir Robin’s comment and made it the title of his memoirs. What is perhaps regrettable is that, according to Nott, Sir Robin felt he had let down his profession when, in fact, he had simply done his job. Indeed, journalists need to remember their profession holds decision-makers to account for reporters are in the privileged position of probing those the public may never get to meet. It is a huge responsibility often lost in the din of the 24/7 hour news cycle, PR and spin.

Notes
• Barnie Choudhury, a former BBC network correspondent, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Council for England, Director of Communications (Interim) at the University of East London, Associate at the National Police College and crisis communications consultant.

April 24, 2015

Eritrea ‘most censored country in world’

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 12:36 pm

Eritrea and North Korea are the most censored countries worldwide, according to a new survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The survey is based on research into the use of tactics ranging from imprisonment and repressive laws to harassment of journalists and restrictions on internet access.

In Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki has crushed independent journalism, producing a media climate so oppressive that even reporters for state-run news outlets live in constant fear of arrest or flee into exile. Eritrea is Africa’s worst jailer of journalists, with at least 23 behind bars - none of them having been tried in court or even charged with a crime. Fewer than 1 per cent of the population goes online, according to UN International Telecommunication Union figures. Eritrea also has the lowest figure globally of cell phone users, with just 5.6 per cent of the population owning one.

In North Korea, where just 9.7 per cent of the population has cell phones, the state has such a tight grip on the news agenda that newsreel was re-edited recently to remove leader Kim Jong Un’s disgraced uncle from the archives after his execution.

Seven of the ten most censored countries – Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China and Myanmar – are also among the top ten worst jailers of journalists worldwide, according to CPJ’s annual prison census. More than half of the journalists imprisoned globally are charged with anti-state crimes, including in China, the world’s worst jailer and the eighth most censored country. Of the 44 journalists imprisoned – the largest figure for China since CPJ began its annual census in 1990 – 29 were held on anti-state charges. Other countries that use the charge to crush critical voices include Saudi Arabia (third most censored), where the ruling monarchy, not satisfied with silencing domestic dissent, teamed up with other governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council to ensure that criticism of leadership in any member state is dealt with severely.

In Ethiopia – number four on CPJ’s most censored list – the threat of imprisonment has contributed to a steep increase in the number of journalist exiles. Amid a crackdown on bloggers and independent publications in 2014, more than 30 journalists were forced to flee. Ethiopia’s 2009 anti-terrorism law, which criminalises any reporting deemed to ‘encourage’ or ‘provide moral support’ to banned groups, has been levied against many of the 17 journalists jailed there. Vietnam (sixth most censored) uses a vague law against ‘abusing democratic freedom’ to jail bloggers, and Myanmar (ninth most censored) relies on its 1923 Official Secrets Act to prevent critical reporting on its military.
In Cuba (tenth most censored), the internet is available to only a small portion of the population, despite outside investment to bring the country online.

The list of most censored countries addresses only those where the government tightly controls the media. In some countries, notably Syria, conditions are extremely dangerous and journalists have been abducted, held captive, and killed, some by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad but also by militant groups such as the Islamic State.

• For full report see https://cpj.org/2015/04/10-most-censored-countries.php.

April 1, 2015

Protest over arms link of new BBC Trust vice-chair

Filed under: Blogroll, News, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 4:25 pm

The appointment of Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems, as vice-chair of the BBC Trust has been strongly opposed by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

Matthew Burnett-Stuart, for CAAT, said: ‘BAE Systems is Europe’s biggest arms company and has armed dictatorships and human rights abusers around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel. Now its chairman, Roger Carr, will be paid £70,610 a year of taxpayers’ money as vice-chairm of the BBC Trust.

‘The BBC is supposed to be run in the public interest. Arms companies don’t care about culture, broadcasting or the public good. All they care about is arms sales and gaining legitimacy while they line their pockets.’ Last year the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, was forced to pull out of speaking at a banquet for arms dealers following a high profile campaign by CAAT.

A protest petition can be accessed at https://www.caat.org.uk/get-involved/act-now/petition/bbc.

November 2, 2014

Celebrating the genius of John Tulloch

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, conferences — news_editor @ 4:44 pm

Richard Lance Keeble paid tribute at the ICE annual conference in London on 24 October 2014 to his University of Lincoln colleague Professor John Tulloch as the ‘quintessential journo: looking closely, witnessing with an ever critical, intelligent eye, curious about everything’

It is a great privilege for me to give a talk today in praise of my late friend and colleague John Tulloch. When I left City University for Lincoln in 2003 I was stepping into the unknown – but how lucky I was to work then alongside John for the last ten years of my full-time academic career. I could not have hoped for a better colleague. He was extremely supportive of my personal interests – such as peace journalism, investigative reporting, literary journalism – and we spent many hours thrashing out ideas late at night in his Lincoln home.

John could be shy and self-effacing in his relations with people. But he had a massive intellect; he was an extraordinary polymath: history, Indian culture, military aircraft, literature, music – from Bach to Bessie Smith and just about everything in between – the media, robots, the arts, politics, travel, second hand bookshops were a few of his obsessions. Just chatting to him was an education in itself. He estimated he had something like 20,000 books crammed into his north London home, university office and the terrace house he rented in Lincoln. But these books did not merely furnish the rooms: John had read them and more to the point he remembered what he had read. John was driven by an extraordinary curiosity about life. He was the quintessential journo: looking closely, witnessing with an ever critical, intelligent eye, curious about everything. I always remember as we went walking through the streets of say New Delhi, Paris or London he appeared to know the histories of every building we passed.

His writings and conference presentations over the years covered a vast range of subjects: peace journalism, Indian newspaper history, press regulation, media coverage of the US ‘war on terror’, the BBC; investigative reporting, literary journalism, journalism education to name but a few. He wrote beautifully: his prose was bubbling with original ideas and wit: he was able to mix subtle theory, even sections of quantitative analysis, with elegant references to some of the many books he had read. Take for instance, his Ethical Space review of Robert Fisk’s The Age of the Warrior, in which the author serenades his cat: John took the opportunity to slip in mention other literary cats – of Keats, Christopher Smart and Dr Johnson for instance, complete with apt quotations, of course.

John could even include the word ‘bullshit’ in an academic essay and make it appear both apt and profound! Indeed, there was a cheeky side to his personality that came out in his writings: while constantly critical of the ‘dumbing down’ of the media he always wanted to celebrate the tabloids for their mischief-making. So he was quick to challenge John Lloyds’ stress on the need for ‘responsible journalism’ writing:

Don’t we need a less solemn vision of journalism that has some space for active mischief-making, and scepticism and suspicion of the motives of the powerful, even if some of that mischief is damaging even to the body politic.

John’s contribution to the 2012 ICE annual conference was so typical of the man. Amidst all the avalanche of media coverage of Leveson, John picked on what he called ‘the witchifying’ of Rebebak Brooks – who might otherwise have been so easily passed over as a Murdoch crony not worth any sympathy or academic attention. So he read carefully from his script:

Last year, Rebekah Brooks positively willed herself to be my subject. She is, as many have seen fit to tell us, hard to resist. Not the Cotswold-living lady who rides retired police horses, or the tabloid editor and compulsive chum of celebrities … But the woman in the middle of the bizarre process that seems to happen regularly, when for a short period, they become a subject of press interest, are objectified and, not to be too dainty about it, monstered.

And he continued:

Apart from the too tempting opportunities for portentous moralising, her case is fascinating for what it can tell us about contemporary media culture, the persistence of class-based attitudes and a sexism so engrained into our public life as to appear ‘natural’, old boy.

Notice the vitality and wit, the subtle shifts of tone and register of John’s prose. How elegantly it mixes subtle theorising, journalese and witty vernacular. All of this crammed into just a few score words.

John was a regular attender at ICE annual conferences, was books reviewer for Ethical Space and he was always there in an email or at the end of the phone line with some wise words of advice for the ICE executive group. Indeed, ethical concerns lay at the heart of all his writing and teaching. Like one of his heroes, George Orwell, he used book reviewing as a way of expounding his theories about life and journalism and everything. So on Anthony Feinstein’s, Journalists under fire, The psychological hazards of covering war: he wrote:

The concept of the journalist as emotionless ‘filter’, devoid of social context, history, ideology jumps up like a claymore mine. Damn such ‘filters’. Surely the appropriate professional filter for journalists about conflicts within which we are enmired is paranoia about authority, empathy for the victims, and anger at the stupidity, historical illiteracy, ambition and greed which brought this to pass. Held together, of course, by a steely effort to construct credible ‘facts’. Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, John Pilger and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad spring to mind.

In his essay, ‘What moral universe are you from? Everyday tragedies and the ethics of press intrusion into grief’ published in Ethical Space, he outlined four essential journalistic ethical approaches:

• Firstly: the journalism is a ‘rough old trade’ argument: journalists are special and should not be subject to ordinary ethical codes. The PCC Code is primarily a public relations exercise, a deal with the political class to buy off political pressures.
• Secondly: the ‘virtuous journalist’ argument. Journalists should be subject to ordinary ethical codes but virtuous behaviour can only be based on the operation of individual conscience.
• Thirdly: the ‘cultural meliorism’ argument. Voluntary codes can ‘improve the culture of journalism’ gradually via training and contracts.
• And finally: the ‘structural determinism’ argument. Codes and conscience will count for little in a newspaper industry run by media combines to maximise profit.

And he concluded: ‘My own prejudice would be to support the virtuous journalist argument but this is only feasible if journalists establish a right to refuse instructions that breach the code.’

Another of John’s heroes was Charles Dickens. And in writing about him in a chapter for a book I edited, The Journalist Imagination, he was able to articulate his profound belief in the cultural and political value of journalism as literature.

One obvious reason for the low status of English journalism has been its perceived lack of creative control by the author compared to the control allegedly associated with the ‘artist’. Arguably one of the malign effects of Romanticism in English culture was to define the ‘true’ artist’s status as not having a patron but a soulful relationship to the audience that precluded writing for anything as vulgar as the market. Certainly, the issues of creative control and his relationship to the mass audience tantalized Dickens.

Ethics also lay at the heart of John’s promotion over many years of journalism and media studies as academic disciplines. As far back as 1996, in the wake of an outburst of Fleet Street and Jeremy Paxman attacks on media studies, he wrote:

Media studies is not a discipline it itself but a field where a number of other disciplines meet – among them history, politics, economy, sociology and law. Far from being ‘incoherent’ in Paxman’s ignorant formulation, this field is a key meeting place to gain an understanding of the forces which shape our lives. Mediawork is strong in all the fashionable transferable skills – teamwork, self-presentation, research, negotiation, communicating with different audiences – that we are asked to value in higher education.

On the Westminster part-time Masters in Journalism Studies, he said: ‘We hope the theory provides a critique of current journalism and a forum for the discussion of ethical and political issues, encouraging students to be aware of the potential consequences of their activity.’

John was very much part of the John Mair/Keeble book factory system which has produced 12 books over recent years. For John, it meant bashing out massively referenced chapters to very short deadlines. Significantly Ian Sinclair, the Morning Star reviewer, always singled out John’s chapters for special praise. And that was not surprising. Whether writing on trust in the media, or the ability of literary journalists such as Gitta Sereny and Gordon Burn to confront evil, or on US and UK newspaper’s coverage of torture and rendition John was always original and insightful. His prose the fruit of years of reading, reflection and pedagogic commitment, lives on to remind us of his genius.

• Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism, joint editor of Ethical Space, and chair of the Orwell Society. He edited with John Tulloch Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution (Peter Lang, New York, 2010) and two volumes of Global Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination (Peter Lang, New York 2012 and 2014).

August 6, 2014

Propaganda, the BBC and Gaza

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, conflict, human rights — news_editor @ 4:00 pm

Richard Lance Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln, takes a critical look at the BBC’s coverage of the current Gaza conflict

All journalism is propaganda, as George Orwell argued. And, paradoxically, those who claim neutrality and objectivity are likely to be the most propagandistic. Let’s take one random sample from the BBC’s coverage of the current Gaza crisis.

On 3 August 2014, it reported: ‘Missing Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin “dead”.’ There was a photograph of the 23-year-old and the accompanying video commentary highlighted Goldin’s ‘apparent kidnapping’ by the Palestinian group Hamas who were blamed for the collapse of the ceasefire (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28627888).

‘Kidnapping’ was the term deliberately used by the Israeli officials in their hyper-slick PR operation (see http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/israelgaza-conflict-the-secret-report-that-helps-israelis-to-hide-facts-9630765.html). Doesn’t this imply that Goldin was an innocent seized by opportunistic criminals rather than a member of one of the world’s most powerful militaries engaged in ‘the premeditated mass murder of civilians’, as described by the Asia Times journalist Pepe Escobar (see http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Others/Escobar.html). Did the BBC really need to mimic the Israeli deceit?

Moreover, the Western corporate media in general parroted the Israeli approach in blaming Hamas for breaching the ceasefire (thus leading to a stepping-up of the bombardment of Gaza and the deaths of many more children) when both sides were involved in the incident. Hamas was clearly responding to yet another attempt by Israeli troops to destroy a tunnel (see http://www.jonathan-cook.net/2014-08-03/how-a-kidnapped-soldier-illustrates-israels-deception/).

The BBC’s fourth paragraph reported: ‘Health officials in Gaza say 30 Palestinians died early on Sunday as Israeli air strikes continued.’ This is the cold, conventional language of militaryspeak that aims to convey the illusion of warfare. But this is no war: this is nothing short of a series of completely illegitimate massacres. There are no photographs of any of those 30 dead Palestinians.

Moreover, as I write (5 August 2014), I see no photographic galleries commemorating the 1,865 Palestinians killed and 9,400 others injured – most of them civilians. In the Western corporate media they are usually not even deemed worthy of being named. In contrast, the BBC report goes on to show an image of Goldin’s understandably grieving family speaking at a press conference after his death was announced. In fact, the whole of the report is framed within a dominant Israeli perspective. Thirteen of the story’s 23 paragraphs highlight the Israeli line: just five that of Hamas. Its denial of taking Goldin captive does not appear until par 10.

And how many homes, hospitals, schools, mosques have been destroyed as Israel’s ‘scorched earth’ policy eats up 44 per cent of Gaza’s territory; how many Gazans are now homeless or jobless, how many have been appallingly traumatised by the constant bombardment and the lack of basic facilities? On these crucial points the BBC’s report is silent.

Excellent photographs by the BBC’s Jon Donnison, in an accompanying feature under the title ‘Faces from Gaza’, are given captions – but no full names of the tragically suffering Gazans are provided: So we read of a ‘young girl and her mother’ sheltering in a UN school, ‘young boys giving victory salutes’ ‘three-year-old injured Aya’, ‘Ahmed’ being treated for burns, ‘Ali’ injured while playing outside his home, ‘a young girl picking fruit juice’, ‘a man in Beit Haroun’. And so on.

Too often, the BBC and the corporate media in its Gaza coverage has ‘balanced’ reports of Israeli bombardment with accounts of the Hamas missile attacks on Israeli – reinforcing the illusion of ‘warfare’. Yet the Israeli response (in which 64 soldiers and just three civilians have died) is totally disproportionate to the threat posed.

Moreover, the mainstream media has largely failed to indicate the massive global opposition to the Israeli action and its seven-year economic siege of Gaza. Go then to sites such as www.counterpunch.org, www.globalresearch.ca; www.wsws.org; www.boilingfrogspost.org; coldtype.net; www.johnpilger.com (supported by the University of Lincoln); www.zerohedge.com; http://peacenews.info/; antiwar.com; www.washingtonsblog.com and see some searching analyses and investigative reports on the conflict and the protests. They can only inspire further protest action against Israel’s criminal military aggression.

August 4, 2014

The slaughter of the innocents 1914-2014

Filed under: Blogroll, News, Headlines, journalism, conflict — news_editor @ 10:26 pm

If war is to be reported ethically it must be shown it in all its brutality including the bodies of dead children and traumatised parents, argues Barry Turner

As the centenary of the Great War is now upon us the attention of the world’s press is drawn to the thousands of monuments to the fallen all over Europe and the rest of the world. Towns and villages across the combatant countries are almost without exception home to a war memorial to an event that is often said to have wiped out a generation. Now these monuments will be the solemn focal points for many pieces to camera over the next few months for local, national and international media.

The war memorials are often embellished with words such as ‘Our Glorious Dead’, ‘Pro Patria Mori’ and similar sentiments in all the languages of the combatants. They often feature heroic figures of soldiers and occasionally scenes of the fighting, as if commemorating those was as important as remembering the millions who died.

Apart from the haunting lists of names of people from the towns and villages that speak out from the stones there is often little sense of the loss or the suffering. One notable exception is the work by Kathe Kollwitz at the Roggevelde War Cemetery in Vladslo, Belgium. This has no inscription and shows no ‘heroic’ soldiers: just two figures in abject despair, the father with his arms crossed, shoulders hunched and the mother in total grief with her head held down. There is no ‘glory’ in the statues, no sense of a gallant falling for King and Country. Peter Kollwitz, Kathe’s son, died in the ‘Kindermord bei Ypern’, a reference to the biblical slaughter of the innocents. The parents received no consolation in it being for ‘Gott und Vaterland’.

We are now seeing the tragedy, captured so moving in the statue, played out on our TV screens every night as parents despair at the deaths of their children in a number of wars across the globe (such as Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya). There are now ethical debates about whether the broadcast media should show dead and injured children being dug out of their ruined homes and laid out forlornly in ramshackle hospitals. This is an absurd echo of the Great War censors themselves who thought it ‘improper’ to show the bodies of British soldiers killed in the fighting.

Our press still glorify war, images of tanks racing across the desert and princes in combat gear sell newspapers and draw audiences. The flag-draped coffins of ‘our glorious dead’ men and women are still paraded around our streets. It is quite remarkable that a century after the start of a war that was to ‘end all wars’ and during a 21st century slaughter of the innocents, in the very land where the biblical one took place, we still discuss the ethics of showing the consequences of war while the corporate media too often celebrate it.

The graphic and repeated images of Gazan children is not only ethical but essential. The images of the dead of flight MH17 and the haunting images of the toys of children killed in that horrible consequence of war need to be shown to us. That is what war is: our media is often too keen to show it in terms of what one side says followed by the other side’s version. War is not about TV interviews on who has a ‘right’ to defend themselves; it is about dead children, despairing parents and destroyed homes. We need to see those images far more than we need to hear politicians and the military justifying what they are doing.

As we enter this prolonged period of remembrance of World War One it is the consequences of that war that need to be reflected upon. In the Middle East just about every modern conflict today is a direct consequence of the imperialism that started the Great War. Our media should pause as it enters its period of mourning for the dead of a century ago to consider that tomorrow the slaughter of the innocents will continue there.

Perhaps if we (and, in particular, our leaders) had reflected more on the images of Kathe Kollwitz as a remembrance of war instead of triumphant monuments to militarism and our ‘glorious dead’ the Great War really would have been the war to end all wars.

Barry Turner is senior lecturer in law at the Lincoln School of Journalism, the University of Lincoln

July 26, 2014

The need for highest standards in brave new world exploding with social media

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 3:53 pm

William Morris reflects on the current state of media ethics on becoming Chairman of the International Communications Forum (ICF)

Few are old enough to remember the heady days before the newspaper revolution when computers replaced hot metal. But having been brought up in and around newspapers as a copy boy, I can remember the smell of the ink and the dirt and the clatter of the little presses and the deafening hum of the big monsters that rolled rivers of newsprint three stories into the air and back down again. For many of us those days are gone. Gone too are the great teams of investigative journalists. The Sunday Times’s ‘Insight’ team was, perhaps, the last of these but even they have long disappeared into the mists.

In those days who were the guardians of ethical journalism? The broadsheet proprietors cared about their reputations. And even the tabloid newspaper owners cared in some measure. Editors in chief took pride in the standards they adhered to. Even subeditors had a conscience, though then as now they could be staggeringly ruthless.

Have things changed? Well yes and no. Men and women of conscience still run some of our newspapers. Men and women of vision and mission still comprise many of our radio and television broadcasters and newspapermen. But the pressures are perhaps greater. For most journalists, spending a week working on a story is a luxury they can only dream of. Was it ever thus? Perhaps they always had to churn out copy but there was, I believe, more space for investigative journalism, if only because proprietors once had deeper pockets and more journalists to share the load.

Many Western papers have less than little time to sub copy anymore because of ever tighter budgets. There are the exceptions such as the Washington Post with its awesomely professional and well-staffed Foreign Desk (I must confess a bias because my daughter works for the Post) but such exceptions are rare.

What then does this mean for ethical journalism? It means that the journalist becomes the guardian of media ethics. It is a world in which we each take our own responsibility for what we do. We no longer have the moral conscience of the sub or the editor to fall back on. The editors themselves – for the most part – are still great women and men of conscience and principle. They still do heroic work shaping the overall vision of their publications. The great names are there. Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief of the London Guardian is a classic current example. But can Rusbridger even begin to read more than a small proportion of the vast quantity of copy the Guardian churns out in its online and print editions? Most modern editors are simply too busy to concern themselves on a day-to-day level with being the conscience of their junior reporters.

So, is xenophobia an issue? Sure it is. Media stories about classic pariah groups, the gypsies, the Romanians, the Arabs, the ‘Islamists’ and so forth, can descend into obscenity so easily and we don’t even notice. One Jewish writer I know wrote a whole opinion piece titled ‘LONDINISTAN’ and does not understand, to this day, that the mere headline (and it was of her choosing) was pejorative. She would be horrified to be called racist and, of course, she is not, just more than a little thoughtless perhaps.

In a similar vein, is desensitisation to violence an issue? Of course. Here in the West we think nothing of broadcasting images of brutality and torture if they are screened past the ‘9 o’clock watershed’, with little consideration given to the fact that many pubescent, vulnerable children are unlikely to head for their beds before midnight. And in the rest of the world things can be worse. The images of blood and violence on television sets in countries such as Israel and Iraq are breeding a generation desensitised to gore to such a degree that it is truly flabbergasting.

Is disinformation an issue? Absolutely. The current Syrian civil war has bred such a flood of intelligence agency feeds, as did the Iraq war little more than a decade ago, that it is near unbelievable. And most, I repeat, most, of these stories are published without serious qualm or question. My late father, a newspaper editor himself, had a maxim: ‘A story without a source is a source of trouble.’ This maxim we still use in our Media Ethics Code. He had a far better one too. It ran: ‘When in doubt, cut it out.’

So where do we go from here? Perhaps the key is that a number of prominent journalists make a public commitment to truth in Gandhiesque fashion. An affirmation that Absolute Truth is their standard. Or is that too extreme? Too fanatical? Undoubtedly we need to do something. If the editors can no longer always be our bellwethers we must find new heroes, new women and men we can point to and say: ‘They believe in fair play.’

Ethical journalism requires standards of vigilance that are unprecedented precisely because we are our own moral guardians and cannot lean on our bosses any longer. We should embrace that challenge with excitement. It heralds a better age. We are no longer children. We must stand up for ourselves. Gandhi once wrote (and I paraphrase slightly): ‘By experience I have found that people rarely become virtuous for virtues’ sake. They become virtuous by necessity. Nor is there anything wrong in becoming good under the pressure of circumstances.’ Raghvan Iyer, Gandhi’s main disciple, added: ‘Human life is an aspiration, a continual striving after perfection, and the ideal must not be lowered because of our weaknesses.’

Exactly! Herein lies a role for organisations like the International Communications Forum. We should extol virtue and excellence where we find it, through every means possible from the razzmatazz of the International Award to the private and personal accolade. And where necessary we should gently and respectfully cajole and criticise, through conferences and seminars if nowhere else. And we should support, nurture and foster media ethics, by doing everything from extolling the merits of media ethics codes to encouraging training in best practice.

Just as physicians and other health care professionals swear a Hippocratic Oath to practise medicine honestly, perhaps the ICF should promote our own oath of journalistic integrity which members of the trade could swear to in an effort to bolster internationally recognised standards of media ethics. After all, the world has changed. In a brave new world exploding with social media, demonstrations are called on Facebook, corruption is exposed in blogs, and reputations are destroyed by Twitter. In an era in which the internet provides an arena in which citizen journalists abound, it is the professional press that must adopt the highest standards of media credibility if they are to have a distinct place of their own, a territory that is truly theirs, in a world peopled with rumour and the viral tweet.

And it is exciting, truly exciting, that that should be the case.

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