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

May 6, 2011

Ethics of showing bin Laden - both alive and dead

Filed under: Uncategorized, Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 9:45 am

Barry Turner explores some of the ethical issues surrounding the representation of Osama bin Laden - both dead and alive

Days after the US military killed the most prolific terrorist murderer in history the press is engaging in the usual conjecture and hypothesising that follows all such activity. One of the central questions arising out of the already blooming conspiracy theories is the ethical position regarding showing photographs of the Bin Laden dead, or even in the process of being shot. It makes for interesting ethical debate on what should be shown in the aftermath of violent conflict but as usual misses a very real point regarding ethical portrayal of images in general.

The media has already created Osama the icon using repeated imagery of him in combat fatigues and traditional dress and, in particular, carrying the ultimate icon of terrorism, the AK47 assault rifle. It is this representation that is far more alarming than the sight of a gruesome corpse.

The media have for a long time portrayed bin Laden as a former ‘freedom fighter’ turned bad. If ever there was a misrepresentation of what he was it is this. The Mujahedeen were never freedom fighters. It was never the intention of these fighters to replace the Soviet supported communist government of Afghanistan with freedom and in that respect the US-backed Mujahedeen were nothing more than state-sponsored terrorists, opposing a socialist government’s attempts to modernise a mediaeval and tribal fiefdom. If anything, Al Qaida were nothing more than a privatised version of that campaign.

It has for a long time been clear that the US support for the Mujahedeen was one of the biggest US foreign policy disasters in a long line of alliances with criminal and homicidal despots. So why do our press continue to compare Osama the ‘freedom fighter’ with Osama, public enemy number one?

In recent years bin Laden had become an irrelevance. On numerous occasions the press speculated he was already dead possibly even from natural causes. The inability to operate in a world saturated with surveillance had ironically placed this medieval warlord into a medieval existence where even telephones and the internet were denied him because they would certainly have revealed his location years earlier. This isolation was only relieved by using couriers which eventually led to his being found.

What has the killing achieved then? Yes, it can be argued that if anyone deserved summary justice he must have been close to the top of the list and, yes, it is cathartic for America and many Americans to see ‘justice done’. But there is a down side.

The US were keen to get him ‘buried’ and out of sight as quickly as possible and were greatly aided by his own alleged Muslim faith requiring internment within 24 hours. The US military wanted no shrine so they buried him at sea. This has already failed. The house he was shot in has already had its first tourists and pilgrims turning up and is set to become that very shrine.

The US government has now quite sensibly decided not to show his corpse. Even if they had it is doubtful that these photographs would ever have been enough to convince the conspiracy theorists who already question whether ‘it was actually him’. Showing images of his dead and hideously disfigured corpse are said to have been likely to inflame his supporters into acts of further nihilistic mayhem, as if showing him lovingly caressing the Kalashnikov that became his trademark did not.

This killing has rid the world of a depraved individual, a terrorist for most of his adult life including during the period that the US and the West called him a freedom fighter. The killing has also made him a martyr and the press do not help by their portrayal of him in iconic poses. Before any further consideration of the ethics of showing him dead they should really consider the effects of showing him proudly alive.

- Barry Turner is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Lincoln.

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