Journalism training post-Leveson

June 4, 2013, University of Westminster

Opening remarks by Paul Charman, BA Journalism Course Director at the London College of Communication.

The question of training very much depends on what the new regulatory landscape will look like. At the moment it is very much a Tale of two charters – one put forward by the industry and currently being considered by the Privy Council or the three-party version put together in late night sessions in the Commons with representatives of Hacked Off. We may want to discuss the differences, but one thing is for certain – the lawyers will have to retrain, perhaps more so than the journalists.

Whichever is charter is adopted, no one doubts that there will be stronger enforcement and a keener necessity for journalists to abide by what is likely to be a revamped PCC Code of Practice if they are to avoid expensive arbitration costs, which will certainly be a penalty incorporated in the government charter. Arbitration costs under the government’s charter proposals could cost as much as £2,000, simply for getting a name wrong.

Perhaps controversially it is broadly my view that what we have at the moment has worked well both in training and in practice. Let’s remind ourselves of what is already in place – some of the fiercest libel laws in the world, contempt of court, breach of confidence, a new law of privacy via Europe, as well the PCC Code of Conduct. This is what forms and should continue to inform the syllabus of our legal and ethical training at the LCC.

Meanwhile we must equally remind ourselves what prompted Leveson – alleged illegal activity by News Int. – phone-hacking and bribery of police and government officials on an industrial scale.

But these were criminal acts which not only prompted the closure of one of our oldest newspapers, the NoW, but has left 60 employees past and present facing the threat of prison.

It is interesting to compare the misdeeds of the press with those of the banking industry. RBS didn’t close, no one has been charged and regulation is yet to come into force.

My point is that no amount of training could have influenced the decisions of those employees to break the law under pressure to keep their jobs. I say to keep their jobs because all the evidence suggests that anyone who was not prepared to do what appears to have become standard office practice knew they would be out.

This was recently confirmed in a television interview with the hugely experienced Crime Reporter Jeff Edwards who told how he had turned down a job at NoW because he was instructed to phone-hack, which demonstrates Burke’s point that: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

Which brings me to my second point about training. And that is the primacy of teaching and fostering a personal sense of professional integrity in individual journalists. We have to make young trainees aware of the need to maintain standards regardless of commercial corporate pressure or from whatever quarter.

In terms of general legal and ethical training, libel, contempt, privacy and the code still hold good.

However I have observed that Leveson has encouraged an overcautious attitude towards journalistic practices, both in the trainees’ mind and in the industry.

In a recent Privacy and Ethics Exam with our undergraduates, a worrying number utterly forgot the public interest defence to justify subterfuge in order to investigate a dodgy company.

And Peter Wright, former editor of the Mail on Sunday, giving evidence in support of the industry’s Charter to a Commons Select Committee recently admitted that one effect of Leveson was that “he would have thought hard” before pursuing an investigation such as the MP Expenses scandal if it recurred.
And writing in the June edition of the British Journalism Review, media barrister Charlie Potter warns “the proposal for arbitration by the new regulatory body may be costly for a national and regional press industry in financial difficulty, by encouraging a raft of vexatious, try-on claims with no merit”.

Already there are worrying developments in the regions. The editor of Hull Daily Mail, Neil Hodgkinson, spoke recently of a new “claims and complaints culture” being pursued by readers encouraged by the televised disgrace of the press during the Leveson hearings

“Convicted violent offenders are trying to sue from prison arguing about the negativity of the coverage of their trials. And people simply photographed arriving at court now complain that their ‘human rights’ have been abused”, he said.

So it’s important to take stock of the negative impact of Leveson, not only on the young but on the general authority of journalists and the press which I think has been substantially undermined

Therefore I believe it is equally vital in our training that we understand journalism not just in terms of practice but from the point of view of its wider social responsibility through our Contextual Studies programme as a necessary function of democracy, stressing the right to freedom of expression, the freedom of the press, the right to report, investigate, expose and hold to account.

We must reinforce this to help rebuild the authority of the press. We must do this to arm the young against commercial pressure – not just from bullying news desks demanding unethical behavior from easily intimidated new recruits but to make the trainees equally aware of the difference between news and corporate public relations. The emergence of ‘brand journalism’ is a worrying development which to my mind devalues the word journalism.

So the moral case for journalism needs to be remade again and again. I see this as fundamental both in training and in the wider public debate if we are to continue to have a free, ethical, and most importantly a socially effective press that people can trust and respect.


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Snow Fall fall-out

I make no apologies for my admiration of Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a detailed interactive, multimedia documentary put together by The New York Times; others agree and it has won a Webby award and a Pulitzer prize.

Every student who aspires to work as a story-teller in an increasingly technical and digital industry should look at Snow Fall and learn from the way in which so many different forms of content have been brought together to create a cohesive and compelling narrative.

The complexity of the feature has been underlined by the Grey Lady herself, as they have boasted about how Snow Fall took hundreds of hours of work involving journalists, editors and coders to produce its seamless presentation.

As usual though, this hubris about how difficult it was to produce Snow Fall is, however, damaging to journalism – and seemed to be designed to create new barriers to entry for people wanting to produce digital stories, in the same way as access to a printing press stopped most people producing their own newspapers in the past.

The NYT‘s message was implicit: “If you want to produce a blog, fine, you can use the simple tools available, but if you want to be on the same level as us, you’re going to have to invest heavily in coding to produce something like Snow Fall.”

As ever in digital media though, nothing is impossible, as a small outfit called Scroll Kit showed, they already had a web design toolkit which allowed them to replicate Snow Fall “in an hour”, and they released a video showing how they did so.

“The NYT spent hundreads of hours hand-coding ‘Snow Fall.’ We made a replica in an hour.” – Cody Brown, Scroll Kit

The response from The New York Times has been nothing if not predictable – they sent in the lawyers, and as Techcrunch reports, Scroll Kit are holding out against them – for now.

This is not, however, a fight over copyright, this is a far more worrying attack on the democratisation of journalism.

Having lost the fight to keep publishing out of the hands of the masses thanks to the internet, now once again the media bullies are circling the wagons to protect their new toys and the loser will be quality journalism.

Instead of trying to re-create the publishing monoliths of the past in digital form, companies like The New York Times should be embracing innovators like Scroll Kit and working with them so that all journalists have access to the tools of digital journalism, not just the self-appointed elite.

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Why journalists need tech

The University of Texas conducted an interesting experiment recently, bringing journalism students and students of computer science together to create journalism-related apps and get them into the iPhone App store.

It reminds me a bit of the Hack Day activities that we used to run at Sky, where different people from around the business would be brought together to devise and build new products. They were always a lot of fun and unleashed a lot of creativity.

Key quote in the piece from the judge from the Texas Tribune: “A successful applicant to our organization cannot survive on writing alone. He must at least be able to collaborate with technologists — be they app developers, data journalists or programmers.”

And another from the associate director of the journalism school involved: “Journalists and computer scientists are carrying similar tool boxes these days so we’re trying to learn each other’s language,”

Tech skills – or at the very least the ability to collaborate with people who have those skills – are fast becoming core requirements for a career in journalism.

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BBC betas interactive video

The BBC has posted what it calls a beta in interactive video which explores the fall-out from the Deepwater-Horizon oil distaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The video has hotspots and triggers throughout which you can click on to explore more information in the form of video and info-graphics associated with the main narrative.

It’s an interesting attempt but sadly it fails on a number of levels:

  • The triggers are obtrusive and clunky;
  • You cannot turn the interactivity on and off;
  • You cannot control the supplementary videos, apart from closing them;
  • The audio triggers are totally unnecessary and break up the narrative, adding to the clunkiness;
  • You cannot bookmark/personalise content, or mark it for later viewing;
  • It took EIGHT people to produce it;
  • It’s made in Flash so is already obsolete.

On top of this there were prototyping projects being run by the BBC ten years ago using MPEG4 which were far better than this and allowed personalisation, but which never seemed to go any further.

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The accuracy of breaking news

A new post on the Poynter Institute‘s site examines the way in which the mainstream media are still making mistakes during their coverage of major breaking news stories (in the light of the Boston Marathon bombings), and how social media is moving in to fact-check the journalists who really should know better.

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News is bad for you – Discuss

A new piece in The Guardian argues that news is bad for your health. The good news is that it’s only the bite-size daily news that is a problem, not longer form in-depth journalism. So that’s alright then.

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Where are news audiences taking journalism

Interesting lecture posted on YouTube by the Reynolds Journalism Institute featuring Tom Rosenthal, the executive director of the American Press Institute. The title of the lecture was “Where are news audiences taking journalism? Myths, mission and what people almost always get wrong.”

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