I spent a curious, but lively morning at News International today. The organisation hosted a one day conference for many state school students on behalf of the Young Journalists’ Academy, encouraging them to consider entering the trade. I was asked to be on the opening panel discussion entitled “Why Be A Journalist?” So I started with some sarcastic suggestions from the wags I know on Twitter:
- Because your parents couldn’t stomach the thought of you being a banker.(@doctorcdf)
Because there’s worse ways to earn no money. (@EleanorPe)
Esteem, respect and love from the public.(@tonyglover11)
For the money, the fame, the short working hours, the kind bosses, the bonuses and the unwavering respect of a nation. (@JW_Ten14)
So you can learn how to manipulate your love of playground gossip & be paid to publish it. (@AliciaHills)
Because if you join a corrupt empire you can dictate to politicians and be above the law. (@98Apples)
And this one from the editor of Spear’s Magazine: Because there’s the truth and because people want to hide it from you. (@joshspero)
The decision of News International to host is interesting. An organization, trying to rebuild its reputation after the industrial disaster of Hackgate. And it was a fun and lively discussion. I certainly didn’t hold back from challenging the callous arrogance of some journalists towards the public, giving examples of bad journalism. Eg. The treatment of Rochelle Holness’s murder. But I cited plenty of examples of great work (eg. Liz McKean’s original investigation into Jimmy Savile for Newsnight) and made my usual defence of the civic value of honest investigation in the public interest, the importance of holding the powerful to account, exposing wrong doing etc. And the great fun of being in the front row at the first draft of history and all that.
On the panel was The Sun‘s star TV critic Ally Ross and Guto Harri — who joined the BBC at the same time as me as a graduate News trainee and spent several years as a Westminster reporter before crossing the line to work for Mayor Boris Johnson and now Head of Communications for News International. Poacher turned game keeper turned gamekeeper for a very powerful poacher, I guess. Both had great stories of the fun, privileges and challenges of a career in journalism. (“You can be a complete tosser sometimes, but you are more interesting than an accountant or a banker,” said Harri.) Ross, revealed that he had written an angry letter to The Sun as a teenager about some example of their reprehensible misreporting. But later, as he started his career found The Sun treated him far better than The Guardian which had snubbed him very badly. And his loyalty to the tabloid had been established every since.
Ross was charming and made a lively defence of those Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster headlines. He cited with pride that he’d been stalked by a member of the EastEnders cast for saying he was short, and threatened by the head of BBC Drama. “I became a journalist to provoke, to write honest things, to be funny. But I have to work within libel law.” Ross also pointed out, as many journalists already have, that pretty much everything that outraged us about hackgate was already illegal; and that the important MPs’ expenses scandal was only broken because of the illegal acquisition of the stolen information by payment.
However he did give an example of his content being censored for libel that could reasonably be said to be in rather dubious taste. It was a joke about sexual harrassment and whether the woman was good looking or not. He also cited Rod Liddle, who got The Spectator into trouble for breaching a court order not that long ago, as the best columnist there is (discuss), and most controversially Ross said the suicide of teacher Lucy Meadows was about her debts, and not linked, as a coroner had claimed, to the strongly worded columns of writers such as Richard Littlejohn about Meadows’ transgender status.
I am a bit perturbed about what the young would be journalists in the audience would take away from all that. Over the course of the day there seemed to be some agendas being pushed. It’s been suggested to me that a 100% pro-Leveson voice was lacking on my panel lineup. I noticed in the official Twitter feed from the event at least one speaker was saying this: “The real monopoly in this country is not Murdoch, it’s the BBC”. A legitimate discussion point, but I don’t know if it was challenged. But as an insight into the range of opinions about recent scandals, and the political positions by different organisations, the event was illuminating.
Guto Harri made perhaps the most helpful comment of the morning panel discussion. Referring to the public school and Oxbridge background of many figures in public life he urged the audience in reporting on and interviewing the powerful, whether in politics or business, to develop their own confidence and stand their ground. “Don’t be intimidated by people who’ve been trained to be confident.” On that we can all agree.