Ten days before my wed­ding, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school and killed sev­en­teen people, six­teen of them very young children.

The media des­cen­ded. I des­cen­ded. I was film­ing an hour or so away and arrived on the scene as shattered par­ents waited for news, and local TV news crews slung their cam­eras, unsure as to whether or not to film. I was sure. Film first, decide later. Our job as tele­vi­sion journ­al­ists was to bear witness.

We won awards for the cov­er­age that day. Not awards given by rel­at­ives or view­ers, but those given by our fel­low tele­vi­sion journ­al­ists. The hos­til­ity of local people, look­ing for someone to curse, was palp­able. The curi­os­ity of every­one else in the coun­try, around the world, unquenchable.

My wife-to-be arrived too. She was a tele­vi­sion journ­al­ist. In the next couple of days she was a reg­u­lar at the police brief­ings. She got to know the Super­in­tend­ent in charge of the scene. He was wor­ried that the fam­il­ies and the com­munity needed space away from news crews and note­pads. She sug­ges­ted that he ask news chiefs to quietly pull back. And so they did.

It wasn’t the kind of thing to take credit for, and she’s never asked for any or received any, and I — clumsy idiot that I am — made it the sub­ject for our first argu­ment of mar­ried life.

And — being, to this day, both clumsy and an idiot — I still think it was the wrong thing to do. I think the only thing that makes our post-modern soci­ety a soci­ety is shar­ing stor­ies and telling stor­ies, be they of tragedy or cel­eb­ra­tion. As John Donne wrote: “Each man’s death dimin­ishes me, for I am involved in man­kind.” And we — journ­al­ists — we are the tolling bell.

But my wife dis­agreed. And she still dis­agrees. And she won the day.

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If you were drown­ing, you might not cel­eb­rate the lack of appet­ite amongst the sharks in the ocean in which were sub­merged. But the Leveson report is out and to read what is left of Britain’s national news­pa­per industry put forth, between the gulps of sea water, there were hearty cheers. Or per­haps they were just bubbles. Still, for­get the media reac­tion, recall what David Cameron said when he announced the inquiry:

[T]here are three pil­lars to this. There is the issue of police cor­rup­tion, there is the issue of what happened at the media, and there are also ques­tions for politi­cians past, present and future.

Let’s say, for the pur­poses of dis­cus­sion, that you had a media out­let which bought inform­a­tion cor­ruptly for enter­tain­ment, whose own­ers and/or exec­ut­ives could provide free polit­ical advert­ising to buy favour or scare off crit­ics, and which traded all of that for com­mer­cial advant­age for other properties…

Any inquiry might be expec­ted to tackle the issues under­ly­ing these rela­tion­ships: the social, tech­no­lo­gical and legal factors that might affect them.

Well Leveson didn’t. And the press, so anxious to put them­selves at the centre of the story, missed the fact that they were not all in the dock together, with the police and the politicians…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Switch on to regulation

This art­icle first appeared in the Press Gaz­ette on 22 July 2004.

Politi­cians fre­quently bemoan the pois­on­ous rela­tion­ship between them­selves and mem­bers of the press. Peter Hain asked at a meet­ing earlier this year what could be done to rebuild rela­tion­ships between journ­al­ists and the gov­ern­ment. There is an answer, and it’s one that will stick in the throat of every print journ­al­ist. It’s regulation.

What is really pois­on­ing polit­ical life? Surely it is the kind of ran­cid edit­or­ial dished out daily by the likes of the Daily Mail on one side and the holier-than-thou hec­tor­ing of The Guard­ian on the other. Broad­cast journ­al­ists are used to get­ting a can­ing — espe­cially at the Beeb. Part of the BBC’s self-imposed, post-Hutton pen­ance is the estab­lish­ment of a sem­in­ary dis­pens­ing truth, justice and the cor­por­a­tion way to every journ­al­ist who takes the licence fee-funded shil­ling. But broad­cast journ­al­ism remains the qual­ity bench­mark and standard-setter for all journ­al­ism in the UK.

The cock­tail of edit­or­ial opin­ion and news served up in our privately owned press is unknown in broad­cast­ing. Take the Mur­doch empire. The unreg­u­lated Tre­vor Kavanagh is an out-and-out ideo­logue, albeit a bril­liant one. Adam Boulton on the reg­u­lated Sky News is an insight­ful and author­it­at­ive analyst.

The reason for the dif­fer­ence is, I would argue, reg­u­la­tion. Reg­u­la­tion that insists on accur­acy, fair­ness and, cru­cially, impartiality.

The new pro­gramme code pro­posed by Ofcom devotes a whole sec­tion to impar­ti­al­ity and the code in its entirety is 35 pages. The Edit­ors’ code of prac­tice, that under­pins the work of the Press Com­plaints Com­mis­sion, is not much longer than this article.

Impar­ti­al­ity doesn’t merit a men­tion and the PCC admin­is­ters the kind of knock-kneed dis­cip­line that tabloid leader-writers routinely blame for the decline of the fam­ily and the col­lapse in moral stand­ards.
So does reg­u­la­tion pro­duce cringe­ing journ­al­ism? Take Boulton again. He’s hardly neutered by the oblig­a­tions of fair­ness and impar­ti­al­ity. And Ofcom’s pro­posed rules for the inde­pend­ent sec­tor are light indeed when you con­sider the BBC’s policy. Its rules on impar­ti­al­ity and accur­acy only begin at page 35 of its pro­du­cer guidelines, and you have to get to page 51 before you move on to the chapter on fair­ness and straight dealing.

And yet Marr, Mar­dell, Trev­elyan et al emerge from this reg­u­lat­ory yoke to pro­duce enga­ging reports.
I hate rules — some­thing about the journ­al­istic psyche makes me believe they don’t apply to me. But all my work­ing life I’ve laboured under the pre­cepts of impar­ti­al­ity and fair­ness and they’ve never, yes never, got in the way of my journ­al­ism or that of my col­leagues. What reg­u­lat­ing does is set out the play­ing field. And that has set the tone for polit­ical report­ing in Brit­ish broad­cast­ing for more than half a cen­tury. That tone, even in its most pop­u­list incarn­a­tion on ITV News, never stoops to pat­ron­ise or rant. Instead it offers ser­i­ous engage­ment with ser­i­ous pub­lic issues, because we — the broad­casters — are obliged to be fair.

Fair does not mean ano­dyne. Impar­ti­al­ity does not mean a 15-second sound­bite for every shade of polit­ical opin­ion. Nor does the tide of com­plaint, bile and whinge­ing from polit­ical parties and their press people
mean that broad­casters’ inter­pret­a­tions of impar­ti­al­ity are cheer­fully accep­ted. But it does mean we have a broad­cast­ing cul­ture where fair­ness is the assumed start­ing point for journ­al­ism and a genu­inely inde­pend­ent watch­dog to guard it.

The threat now is from so-called “light-touch” reg­u­la­tion. You hear it from the people at Ofcom in its multi-million pound palace of dead broad­cast technology.

The people at Fox News know all about this. They’ve been cen­sured for breach­ing the part of the code that asks for “respect for the truth”.

Fox News presenter John Gib­son was ticked off by Ofcom for a diatribe against the BBC that made, in the words of the judge­ment, “false state­ments” for which Mr Gib­son was “unable to provide any sub­stan­tial evid­ence”. Such is the light­ness of touch, that the judge­ment is the punishment.

No on-air apo­logy, no sus­pen­sion of licence, just a rep­rim­and. Gib­son respon­ded by mock­ing the Ofcom “bur­eau­crats” and our reg­u­lat­ory sys­tem whilst throw­ing in a few more digs at the Beeb. Ofcom’s pro­posal of labelling Fox News “Made in the USA” will hardly set Roger Ailes and his cohorts aquiver.

The fash­ion­able argu­ment is diversity — that people can choose their opin­ions to match their ring­tones. Tina Brown writ­ing about Fox News — again — laments that its “bril­liant bel­li­ger­ence and for­mid­able TV skills are not matched enough with reportorial testoster­one and cre­ativ­ity else­where”. Try Al Jaz­eera, Tina.

News is import­ant not because it’s a con­sumer product but because it informs cit­izens. As the BBC is remind­ing every­one in its cam­paign for charter renewal, there is an ideal of pub­lic ser­vice and as broad­cast journ­al­ists, thank good­ness, we’re actu­ally meant to act like there is.

If reg­u­la­tion is to con­tinue to prop up the pub­lic ser­vice val­ues that dis­tin­guish Brit­ish broad­cast journ­al­ism it might be that tougher, and smarter, ways of inter­ven­ing need to be devised.

Per­haps Ofcom needs to “encour­ager les autres”. When Kur­d­ish TV sta­tion Med-TV breached the pro­gramme code in the 1990s the ITC issued formal warn­ings, a £90,000 fine, and finally stripped it of its licence to broad­cast. Maybe now Ofcom is regret­ting let­ting Fox News off the hook for its shock-jock war coverage.

When Ofcom’s pre­de­cessors com­mis­sioned the most recent study of broad­cast news that prob­ably lurks behind some of the recent pro­pos­als, they went straight to a man who’d spent almost his entire career in, you prob­ably guessed, print journ­al­ism. Former Fin­an­cial Times man Ian Har­greaves found that the pub­lic over­whelm­ingly sup­por­ted reg­u­la­tion on impar­ti­al­ity and accur­acy and wanted it extended.

And what did he recom­mend? That reg­u­lat­ors should “loosen up” impar­ti­al­ity rules on some broad­casters. So at a time when polit­ical journ­al­ism in print has become a kind of organ­ized lob­by­ing, and where tele­vi­sion retains its cred­ib­il­ity pre­cisely because it is reg­u­lated, we’re see­ing not an exten­sion of the rules that pre­serve that cred­ib­il­ity to news­pa­pers but instead a weak­en­ing of the pil­lars that sup­port the nation’s most trus­ted media.

The gov­ern­ment knows it needs to do some­thing about the way t com­mu­nic­ates. The Phyl­lis report was an acknow­ledge­ment of that. But will it pos­sibly make the leap of ima­gin­a­tion required to recog­nise that to restore the prob­ity of polit­ical journ­al­ism it is neces­sary to rein­force the bound­ar­ies for it? No one is
hold­ing a breath.

The irony is that many politi­cians are not in favour of reg­u­la­tion. They prefer accom­mod­a­tion — with pro­pri­et­ors, with interest groups, with favoured indi­vidu­als who can be trus­ted mouth­pieces. And broad­cast journ­al­ism is good at call­ing to account, bad at accommodation.

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The New Yorker has an inter­est­ing piece about the inven­tion of polit­ical con­sultancy.

It sprang imme­di­ately to mind when I read this quote from Mitt Rom­ney, in a tran­script of a secretly recor­ded video at a fund-raiser:

I have a very good team of extraordin­ar­ily exper­i­enced, highly suc­cess­ful con­sult­ants, a couple of people in par­tic­u­lar who have done races around the world. I didn’t real­ize it. These guys in the US–the Karl Rove equivalents–they do races all over the world: in Armenia, in Africa, in Israel. I mean, they work for Bibi Net­an­yahu in his race. So they do these races and they see which ads work, and which pro­cesses work best, and we have ideas about what we do over the course of the cam­paign. I’d tell them to you, but I’d have to shoot you…

Inter­est­ing to see which pro­cesses will work best after this.

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