Friday, 26 February 2010

Helen Boaden, BBC Director of News and Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor-in-chief

Firstly, my apologies for the late entry of this blog, at some four hours after the event. Normally, my retrospectives on the Journalism Week speakers have been delivered directly after the sessions, but in this case various factors conspired to prevent me from timely updating!

So, then, to the jewel in the crown of Leeds Trinity's Journalism Week, where Helen Boaden of the British Broadcasting Corporation joined Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspapers, in a session chaired by Leeds Trinity media lecturer Mike Best. Helen spoke to us passionately about the future of the BBC, by quickly referencing that 'monster in the basement', former Director-General John Birt who for all his unpopularity (both within and without Television Centre, it seems!) dragged the BBC "kicking and screaming into the digital age...securing a massive strategic advantage."
An advantage the Corporation has seemingly not overlooked, as Helen waxed eloquent about the permanetly-staffed and funded hub for user-generated content the BBC employs to retrieve, filter and utilise what is created when the "consumers are newsgatherers."

Referring to specific examples of such content, she mentioned the coverage of the Iranian election protests which because of the nature of both the situation and the nation, had to be conducted entirely by 'citizen journalists' on the scene with cameraphones, laptops , blogs and internet connections. She cautioned about the double-edged nature of such news, explaining that although the material came with a unique and personal viewpoint, and was often direct and exciting, it was clearly slanted heavily in favour of the Iranian political opposition, and was often factually incorrect.
This moved us on to the topic of trust, a thorny issue for both the BBC and the industry as a whole; Helen firmly believed the BBC would remain a "trusted authority" over significant issues such as catastrophic weather or financial meltdowns, and that media consumers would prefer a "big, reliable, trusted brand" over "pert and facile" observations on some new media outlet. Her opinion was that "discerning and curious" consumers would - hopefully - trust the BBC.

Alan's very first topic was that of Rupert Murdoch's 'paywall' concept, that has set the media industry to near-rabid speculation about the future not only of revenue, but of the core concepts of journalism and editorial control themselves. Alan's attitude is very much one of contemplative patience - he refers to the sequestering of desirable content behind paid-for access as a 'hunch', a gamble taken by a man noted for challenging conventional thinking, and succeeding.
This immediately made me wonder if Alan himself is gambling on 'hyperlocal' publishing, by operating Guardian: Leeds, a section of Guardian online dedicated to blogging just within my fair city! Indeed, there is a chance you reached this blog through that fine website, and so is Alan 'inspired' or 'terrified' by the work now being carried out under his name?

Inspired and terrified were the words Alan used when he first encountered William Perrin, the original hyperlocal nonjournalist, to describe how the future of Journalism might be affected.
It was at this point that I realised Alan was covering much of the same ground as his Hugh Cudlipp Memoral Lecture, but the points he was making and the audience receiving it were just as vital today. Going into finer detail, he took us through the concept of crowd-sourcing, when the Guardian was able to cease paying £100,000 to business analysts explaining what Barclays was up to regarding it's 'Tax Gap' - by uploading an acquired Barclays internal memo directly to the internet, and asking readers to interpret the meaning. The relevation was that Barclays were brazenly discussing methods to mislead HM Revenue and Custom over payments, and although the Guardian received what Alan jokingly referred to as a 'pyjama injunction' - when a High Court Judge on duty is hauled from his bed to fire off a gagging super-junction - the document was now held by those legendary internet custodians of truth, Wikileaks.
Budget changes specifically aimed at pursuing tax evasion were soon announced, and Alan was able to describe the direct impact of responsible reporting. However, such responsibilities cannot be shirked and Alan had to wrap up quickly and depart for work halfway through our Q&A.

Instead, Helen Boaden had to face the first query of the day from some obstreperous young man who decided to ask about the sudden news story of the morning about the leaked Strategic Review Plan for the BBC which will see 25% of staff and funding for BBC Online slashed, amongst other cuts. Her response was to immediately question the veracity of leaked documents, especially those not approved or even seen by her, and suspected the Trust themselves were responding with horror! She acknowledged the necessity of the BBC's currently ongoing 'efficiency programme' and said that although the past three years had seen a "glorious expansion" for BBC Online, she stressed the need for an appraisal period where the BBC "stepped back to evaluate what was working". Helen also expected the BBC to focus on "what experiments had worked, and what alternatives the market was offering", referring presumably to her earlier comments about BBC Online attempting to offer an "ambitious" alternative to local news on the web, which was originally rejected by the Trust.

Helen responded well to what was a truly left-field question, as the news had only broken that morning, and her comments made clear sense, as we have discussed in lectures about the overbearing nature of the Corporation's web presence. It will be interesting to see, however, how much of this leaked Review remains to next month, when it is presented to the BBC Executive, and what their official responses will be, when they aren't cornered by a rookie blogger at a presentation!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Tim Singleton, Head of Foreign News at ITN, and Chris Ship, Senior Political Correspondant for ITV News

Today's talk was delivered by two Leeds-educated journalists, and Chris Ship was a 1996 graduate of Leeds Trinity university himself! His colleague was Tim Singleton, Head of Foreign News for ITN, and were present to discuss both politial and foreign correspondance.

The main thrust of their joint lecture was an advert for ITV's upcoming coverage of this year's General Election, but the trailer we were shown was unarguably impressive. It was well-targeted also, as undergraduate students represent the newest generation of voters and at a time when low turnout is crippling the democratic process, it was a wise move.
Moving to his own particular role in the industry, Tim explained how ITN's innovative attitude would be required to cover what could be the most dramatic election since the mid-seventies, with an increasingly likely chance of a 'hung' Parliament being formed by a Conservative party with a desperately small majority. He explained that the second day of the election would result in much political maneuvering and power brokering from the various parties, and that the coverage of this revolutionary activity would require revolutionary efforts from the press.

Continuing on this theme of political reporting, Tim referred to criticisms levelled at all Westminster reporters that there is too much coverage of 'personality' clashing, and not enough 'policy' reporting. Speaking in defence of this choice, Tim painted a realistic picture of good stories originating more from the human conflict than from painful and elaborate procedural jockeying.

Chris continued on this established theme, extending his predictions to a possible - and remarkable - Second General Election that could be held in the autumn, with Cameron as Prime Minister 'bumbling' through the summer with a weak majority, an event not seen in British politics since 1974.
Moving away from grim predictions, Chris described instead an equally fascinating event in the recent past, when Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt launched a surprise coup against Gordon Brown on January 6th. Events began shortly after a rousing Prime Minister's Question Time, and by the 1.30pm bulletin Chris had to report on the uncertain events and all without the assistance of direct superior, Political Editor Tom Bradley. By 6.30pm, Chris was describing how many Cabinet members had rallied to the Prime Minister's support, and labelled the coup a 'brazen' attempt to challenge Brown's leadership. In the space of that day, Chris explained, the entire plot had begun and immediately failed, literally between two ITN bulletins. Such a rapid rate of events makes for very difficult but clearly exciting reporting.

Presenting an alternate view of proceedings at Westminster, Tim warned students that they 'could not overestimate the amount of managed information we receive' from politicians, special advisers and other Whitehall entities. Chris explained how the best information could come from utterly unattributable sources, men and women who would not risk rising careers by formally releasing information - and a picture of the machinations and scheming in the corridors of power is clearly formed, as shadowy figures trade information and plot downfalls, no doubt brandishing the press as some poisoned dagger straight out of some Yes, Minister sketch!

After the talk was concluded, I spoke directly with Tim about foreign news, as we had not had chance to cover it previously - I was curious as to how Tim would contrast domestic political reporting with foreign affairs. He was candid, and admitted that realistically US politicians, for example, have no need to speak with British journalists due to the lack of relevance; he told me ITN have been seeking an interview with President Obama to no avail, and he is not hopeful about their chances. I was forced to agree with him, although my interests lie in both national and international political fields.
He mentioned their foreign news bureaus, and I enquired after the relationship between ITN and the Chinese government in Beijing; Tim explained how certain topics regarding the People's Republic are utterly off-limits, such as the issue of Taiwan, and related to me how an ITN broadcaster was incarcerated for a day by Chinese authorities. This was clearly nothing more than a 'warning gesture' by the Beijing administration, but as I remarked to Tim, Journalism Week has portrayed the riskier side of the media industry that cannot be communicated well in a lecture theatre - and is, after all, the ultimate goal of this remarkable and informative experience.

Gavin McFadyen - Centre for Investigative Journalism

First posted on 23rd February, 2010

Both the significance and the risk of reporting was highlighted in today's enthralling talk by Gavin McFadyen, who amongst his many professorships and research positions is Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, based at City University, London.

This has become the hardest entry I've made on my impromptu blogging tour of Journalism Week, wondering where to begin and what to include. Gavin's talk was an effortless combination of hair-raising stories about uncovering corruption and confronting atrocities, with the nuts and bolts and sheer slogging work of investigative work. For the first time in our brief student careers, we were introduced to the real opponents of journalism - the hydra-headed boards of powerful multinationals who can ruin careers and crash finances, to the shadowy operatives of security services with the weight and power of government behind them, to nameless thugs hired by faceless bureacrats who can rob you of everything - including your life.
These risks are routinely undertaken by the people Gavin works with, and the significance of the stories they produce go light-years beyond the celebrity muck-racking of the Western press - stories such as Stephen Grey's revelations about CIA 'black flights' transporting suspects to undergo 'extraordinary rendition', a euphemism for interrogation up to and including torture, abetted by the British government, that violates UN treaty and international law.

Such names were not familiar to myself and the audience, and Gavin explained the peculiar reluctance of the British media in particular to become involved with Investigative Journalism, deterred it seems by the legal risks and ramifications. This remarkable view really stood out for me, halfway through a week of talks by leading figures in Western and British media - and illustrated perfectly the lonely, vital, dangerous and enthralling task that is Investigative Journalism. Gavin, and the new Bureau he has established at the CIJ work almost as pariahs, funding and conducting their own investigations, then having them released through the few friendly media entities such as The Guardian - unable to publish their own work, as no legal professional will safeguard their work.

Some of Gavin's more memorable phrases are down in bold in my notes, and I'll leave the most significant here - that the work a true Investigative Journalist must do is to Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

Duncan Wood - Yorkshire Television

First posted 22nd February, 2010

We received a very light-hearted talk from Duncan Wood this afternoon, but under the humour was a very helpful and clear-eyed view on practical journalism, its pitfalls and its perks! From the outset, Duncan stressed to us that he still wishes to be known as a Journalist, although he is more famous for presenting the regional news.

Duncan's origins are in stark contrast to the students he was lecturing, as he happily disclosed his lack of O-Levels (remember them?) and A-Levels, and the grudging praise and ready criticisms on his NUJ assessments. Of much interest to students was his statement that although he achieved an impressive 100wpm Shorthand qualification, he has not used it since - disheartening news for the faculty who have so recently re-introduced it!
On a more serious side, he advised us that a foundation of his beliefs is a stubborn determination to get to the bottom of any story, and this is also how he distances himself from other presenters who simply read from autocue, as some students were curious to know.
Continuing with this theme of deep investigation, and under inquiry from his audience, Duncan acknowledged that there is often a knife-edge balance to be held between personal morals and professional ethics, and the cold practicality of finding and reporting the story. Whilst we as students have covered the theoretical application of dry, Journalistic codes of conduct, we have not been trained in the gut instincts of conducting reporting, and of course - how could we?

Finally, he was quizzed on the new challenges facing regional broadcasting. Like many of his contemporaries, Duncan exhibitied a wary enthusiasm for the pilot scheme to be run in the North-East, and stressed to us that the success or failure of this field test will probably influence the entire deployment of independant local media - truly relevant, high impact news for all present.

Bill Thompson - New media commentator

First posted 22nd February, 2010

Handling arguably the most difficult topic on the week's agenda - and possibly on the entire Align Leftmedia industry's agenda - was Bill Thompson, new media commentator. I really enjoyed Bill's presentation, and his attitude of dry but informed cynicism was both refreshing and engaging.

His dissection of Murdoch's new initiative, the controversial 'pay-wall' concept sequestering specific content was succinct and enlightening on a painfully relevant issue in media. In the following Q&A, an informed audience member asked him if the practice was feasible on a small scale, referencing the Whitby Gazette and we discovered that in a small, group-specific environment such as very regional news, paid-for content would be a practical and rewarding business model, but Bill urged constant observation of what is a new and controversial practice. My understanding is that the risk of 'pay-walls' is twofold, both to ensure it is a financially-sound business model but also that it does not place draconian restrictions on news distribution.

Bill took us on a gentle but wide-ranging stroll through the future of journalism, and confirmed the one overriding fact I had in my mind - we can no more predict the future of media than we can next week's lottery numbers! This is such an exciting and unique situation, that is faced by few and far-between industries - where the future of our professional world is in such flux, and that we as journalists will be discussing and indeed influencing how that future turns out.

I tried myself to expand on this concept, but feel I worded my question incorrectly, when I asked if we ran the risk of making 'news out of the news', describing a spiral situation where journalists discuss journalism and its indiscernible nature in some kind of bizarre 'chicken and egg' scenario. Instead of a challenging and professional 'back and forth' debate, Bill assured me no self-respecting journalist would fall into the trap of discussing themselves and their industry, and if I were to try this theory at a party, I'd probably never get laid again.

Thanks, Bill!

Mike McCarthy - Sky News

First posted 22nd February, 2010

The first session of Journalism Week was with Mike McCarthy of Sky News, and was informative, intriguing and amusing. One of the most effective - and poignant - moments for me was when he was discussing the dangers of Conflict Reporting, and how his colleagues never even considered that they might not return. In careful terms, he explained how he - and presumably others - have had to consider plans for, as he put it, their own 'departure'.

At that moment, the true risk of reporting was illuminated for me. Of course, the danger to a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post doesn't really compare to the risk facing a Foreign Correspondent based in some global hotspot - but at the apex of this industry are presumably those jobs, reporting on stories that need to get out - even under fire, under protest, under threat. I've always been fascinated by Conflict Reporting, as true news on the front line (so to speak) and it really drove home for me the importance - and danger - inherent in the profession I've so recently joined.

Mike also discussed reporting on painful and upsetting incidents of domestic news, and as I listened I realised there is equal risk to your mental equilibrium communicating home-grown horror stories, as there is describing artillery fire from a hotel roof in some urban warzone. His recollections of reporting on the Hillsborough tragedy came across 'edited', carefully controlled - and he acknowledged to us all the honest, personal pain he felt as a result of being one of the first journalists on the scene.
As I absorbed this information, a new question rose up to replace the more detached and professional inquiry I had ready. How would you, an experienced reporter advise us - raw recruits in the media world - how to handle the emotional fallout of dissecting the raw side of human nature? What methods exist to shield your sentimentality and soul from regular exposure to the very worst the modern world can offer?

Unfortunately there was no time and, I suspect, no real answer to that question except painful experience and grit persistence.

Sie Verlassen Den Amerikanischen Sektor

First Posted 9th November, 2009

On November 9th, 1989, at a haphazard press conference, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik announced the revocation of the strict border controls that existed between between the nations of Germany, and the cities of Berlin.
That night, the Grentztruppen forces manning the checkpoints along the Berlin Wall* were swamped by hundreds of thousands of Eastern German citizens, demanding passage to the West. Like the superbly-trained Warsaw Pact troops they were, they immediately referred to their superiors for orders - but unsurprisingly, no senior NVA commander wanted to be the man to authorise the shooting of unarmed countrymen, women and children. The checkpoints were thrown open, and the Iron Curtain was breached for the first time in forty-five years.

That night, East met West in an ecstatically celebratory atmosphere. Within a few months, the Wall - the antifaschistischer Schutzwall that represented the edge of the Western World, and the start of the East - was in ruins. Within the year, Germany was reunified and the DDR was in ruins. Within two years, the USSR imploded, and half a century of suspicious co-existence and the spectre of nuclear annihilation was banished. The face of Europe was remade, the hands of the Doomsday Clock were pushed back seven minutes and freedom flowed like a flood across the former republics.

I've been thinking for most of the day what event within my lifetime could possibly compare to such an auspicious occasion. Indeed, there are probably not too many at Leeds Trinity who recall watching with the world as the wall came down - the staff, and a handful of mature students; myself included, who vaguely recalls, on a tiny, grainy screen a mob of very happy people standing on a wall that I equated, in my five-year old mind, with the sea defences of my home town!

I've not progressed too far from that confused young boy. One tries to think of the definitive events of my own, rather brief life, and came up with few equivalents. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty, 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the 2001 Attack on the WTC, the 2007 Attacks on London Transport, me, the transition from Humberside to East Yorkshire, the county where I grew up, in 1996 was highly confusing to a young man just starting senior school.
But can these events arguably have had the same impact on the world? I remember recoiling, mentally and physically, from the events of September 11th - but how has it affected a nation, a world already enmeshed in the struggle against terrorism? England had endured a legacy of senseless attacks from the 'freedom fighters' of Ireland, and in its way that made the bureacratic, concession-laden 1998 Agreement of little public impact. The same can be said of Major's limp into the EEC in 1992, and a world inured to violence has already recovered from the July 2007 attacks on London.

I wonder, with the demise of the super-power and the dismissal of mass extinction at the hands of nuclear war, if we have become a world reduced to regional, theological, economical, tribal squabbling with no comprehension of worldwide events. The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty has barely emerged from the pages of the broadsheets, where it exists more as a stick to beat Government or Opposition - and I wonder what we will read on December 1st, 2009.
Returning to the present, I was looking forward to catching some coverage of the Twentieth Anniversary celebrations on television tonight. I grew up reading le Carré and Deighton, Forsyth and Clancy, and have been fascinated with this front-line of the Cold War for years. Unfortunately, it seems the controllers at the BBC, ITV, Channel's Four and Five, Sky, etc., have different ideas and I can find nothing showcasing that definitive night, twenty years ago.

I will turn, instead, to the Guardian's website, and scour their aggregation of media to feed my interest. Abstractedly, I think of how we've been discussing how people pursue their needs through modern journalism, and how convinced I was that I was satisfied with the rustling, ungovernable size of a broadsheet. Now, I intend to sample a newspaper's website and its multi-platform reporting to appreciate an event.
It's interesting to note how the media has rapidly evolved, and as a result, how my opinion on it has changed accordingly. It seems we can find every angle and perspective on an issue...

It just seems like there are no more serious issues to consider.

* - And the Inner German Border, but the demarcation line had less PR appeal than its more photogenic urban cousin!

The Leeds Eye View

Welcome to Leeds Eye View! This blog is a new extension of the blog I've been writing on the intranet at Leeds Trinity University where I am a Journalism undergraduate. It began as a rather rambling and personal diary-cum-diatribe, but I've decided to become more disciplined about my writing, both to hone my nascent Journalistic skills and to explore the city around me.

I intend this blog to my personal commentary space, focusing mainly on media events but also being a Leeds-centric current affairs and activities journal, as well as being a test-bed for coursework and new skills.

To begin with, I'll transpose the articles I wrote about the speakers at Leeds Trinity's Journalism Week, where we have been lucky enough to enjoy talks from some of the definitive figures in modern media. I look forward to producing the work, and hearing from my readers!