BBC BLOGS - The Editors

Moral panic?

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 13:50 UK time, Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The media's panic over knife crime isn't going away. Maybe there's a good reason.

Man holding knifeThe latest figures make it clear that the number of young men carrying and using knives is increasing sharply. Clearly there's something to be concerned about; it's not just the media's hyperbole nor does it seem like a self-correcting, short term aberration in the statistics.

But for journalists, that's only the start of it. There are other questions.

How should news organisations report the real surge in knife crime? How much does tone and prominence distort the real picture? Is some coverage self-fulfilling prophecy? Does it spread fear and anxiety way beyond the rational?

Because the truth still remains that most of us are very, very, very unlikely to be a victim of knife crime. Most young men don't carry knives; most young people are not components of what some politicians are calling the 'broken society'.

Actually, I think most of us citizens know this; we're more likely to base our understanding of the world on our own experiences of it rather than on what we read in free papers on the bus to and from work. What we do need, though, as citizens is a press that helps our civic discourse - the debates and arguments we have about problems and what needs to be done to solve them.

When I explored this in a recent edition of BBC R4's Analysis, I found a clear gap between the press we need as citizens and the press we get, driven by editors' intuition, impact and high octane attention grabbing.

It's clear that the current spate of knife crime - the reasons why young men carry knives and occasionally use them - has complex causes and will need complex solutions.

Think about it for a moment: the only explanation for the sudden rise in carrying knives is that young men who didn't use to carry them do so now. The least likely reason for that is that they have become 'evil'. The most likely is that some set of 'nudges' have persuaded otherwise balanced, law-abiding young men that it's OK to arm themselves.


The brainchild of two behavioural economists in Chicago - Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein - and an idea that's pretty trendy right now with some politicians.

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Crudely, 'nudges' are the tiny influences on our behaviour that we might not notice at the time but which make us act differently, usually to fit in with others around us: eat better, drink less or, in the case of the lavatories at Schipol airport... well, read about that for yourself.

Nudges, however, are morally neutral. And may explain why a young man who feels 1% more afraid or 5% more in need of being one-of-the-crowd changes his behaviour 100% from being unarmed to armed.

A proper public discourse to find ways of reversing this trend would be subtle and nuanced - it would think broadly about causes and possible solutions. And we know, from experiments like Today's Citizens Juries back in 2005, that if ordinary citizens are given the time and space, they have exactly the kind of subtle and nuanced discussions that we need.

But it's a debate that's inhibited, prevented even, by the tendency to polarise or simplify. According to your taste in newspapers, you learn that politicians' plans are "half-baked" or "not tough enough" or the work of a "softie softie"...and anyway, everyone knows "there's one choice - prison".

The real challenge to our media - and our press in particular - is not whether they can avoid misrepresenting or distorting knife crime: it's part of the purpose of our media to draw things to our attention, however crudely.

It's whether it is capable of reporting it in a way that helps us citizens really think hard about possible solutions; or whether it makes us feel the problem is insoluble.

Providing context

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 16:02 UK time, Friday, 30 May 2008

A man walks into a pub. "Hey, I've just not been mugged," he says.
"That's amazing, " a bloke at the bar says as he puts his pint down. "I didn't strangle my wife today."
"You two are weird," said a third bloke. He was a journalist.

Youths in hooded tops (generic)Reading the papers this week, you'd be forgiven for thinking there is carnage on our streets - partly because one newspaper said exactly that.

The truth is, there isn't carnage on our streets and very few of us are victims of or witnesses to crime more than once or twice in our lives - even fewer are victims of serious crime.

In any rational description of the world, our risk of dying in, say, a knife attack or a serious assault ranks way behind our risk of dying in a road accident or from the effects of cigarettes or alcohol. And if you happen not to be a city dweller and are over 25, your chances of being shot or stabbed are vanishingly small: your chances of being attacked or killed by a stranger, approaching nil.

Except, we don't learn about the world from a rational description. We learn about it, for the most part, from "news" - and crime is news precisely because it is both shocking and uncommon. Except, of course, when it seems to confirm our society is sick and broken. Then, the more common and apparently true-to-type the gruesome violence can be made to seem, the better.

One of journalism's great father figures, American commentator, media critic and diplomatist Walter Lippmann, struggled nearly 90 years ago with this paradox. On the one hand, news is the way we learn about the world; on the other hand, you would be mad to rely on it to learn about the world.

"All the reporters in the world working all the hours of the day could not witness all the happenings in the world," he wrote. So, a thing becomes becomes "news" only when it is a "manifestation" at one of the places journalism has "watchers stationed" - the police station, the courts, the crime scene.

So how to put the deaths of Amar Aslam or of Jimmy Mizen or of any of the other 20 teenage victims of violence so far this year into context? They are terrible, sad events and we all have great sympathy for the boys' families. But beyond the personal tragedies that they represent, they tell us nothing about teenagers, gangs, knives or crime. Most of all, they tell us nothing about how concerned or fearful we should be for ourselves and our own families.

KnivesThree years ago, a Home Office survey found that 4% of 10-to-17-year-olds had carried a knife at some time in the previous 12 months: or to put it another way, 96% had not. This month, in Operation Blunt2, the Metropolitan Police seized 193 weapons in more than 4,000 searches: or to put it another way, 95% of those stopped were not carrying knives.

Or try this question. In England and Wales, were you more or less likely to be murdered last year than five years ago? Were you more or less likely to be stabbed last year than five years ago? Bludgeoned to death? Strangled? You'll have guessed the answer to each - according to official statistics (pdf file) - is less likely. There were 734 murder victims in England and Wales last year - almost 10% down on the 805 murdered in 2001-2002 and about 5% below the average for 2001-2006.

Is there another, better way of reporting crime that doesn't risk distorting what we think we know about our world? Take the trial at the Old Bailey of the two young men and two youths charged with the murder of 14-year-old Martin Dinnegan.

What are the alternatives to covering the trial as the news story that it is? Not covering it at all? Holding back details of the evidence? Pointing out repeatedly that most 14-year-old boys don't get stabbed? Using a chart within the story to show how deaths by stabbing and beating are falling not rising?

Maybe part of the answer is for us all - journalists and audiences - to understand that "news" is what it is: a semi-ritualised set of snapshots of a small sector of our common lives. No more, no less.

Maybe journalists should resist the temptation to make links where none exist: are we really in a "battle to fix broken Britain" as the Sun's banner for each report of teen violence claims? And maybe audiences have a job to do, too: to understand the limitations of "news" that Walter Lippmann wrote about all those years ago. And to realise it's the unusual that's weird, not the everyday.

The story is dead

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 11:17 UK time, Friday, 2 May 2008

Another week, another book about journalism.

This one - Can We Trust The Media? by Professor Adrian Monck of London's City University.

Anyone interested in British journalism should read it - not because it gives the right answers to its title: it doesn't. But because it asks the right questions. And at least it's been written by someone who's actually worked in a newsroom.

Prof Monck's purpose is unambiguous: "What I aim to do in this book is burst the trust balloon. I want to question just why it is we want to trust the media and lay out why that will never be possible."

Two things: one, he portrays the BBC's promotion of trust to value number one as an act of choice, not the (welcome) inevitability it is for a publicly funded broadcaster. Two (for different reasons and by a different route) he's joined me in diagnosing 'the story' as the malignancy in journalism's sick body.

Journalists want to be trusted, broadly in inverse proportion to the trust in which surveys say they're actually held. But there's a missing proposition in the question normally asked. Trusted to do what? Portray the world as it really is? Not possible - any account of the world can only ever be a subset of all the facts. Trust resides in the journalist's motivation in selecting the facts he/she does and in the realisation of that motivation.

Prof Monck tells us that "trust is not important. Not being trusted never lost anyone a reader or a viewer". And, he adds, it's journalism's job to aggregate facts and "get the entertainment values right". This may well be a description of the current state of journalism: but it's not much of an aspiration for the institution of journalism that - still - plays the defining role in the public sphere.

And it's simply not tenable for a publicly (and more or less universally) funded broadcaster like the BBC to accept Prof Monck's lowest common denominator description without some aspirational pushback. Nor is it possible for the BBC to be in the same game as the commercial press which can, say, choose its facts to suit its readers.

Even if it wanted it - and it doesn't - the BBC can't choose to make its way in the world by mimicking the exhausting diurnal anger of the Mail ('woe that the 1950s are gone') or the hand-wringing of the Guardian/Independent ('woe that global warming/capitalism is taking us to hell in an organic hand-basket').

But the really big thing in Can We Trust The Media? is this: journalism itself isn't the problem. The problem is journalism's fetish - 'the story'. And so it's no bad thing that 'the story' is dead... or dying.

That's an awkward paradox. 'The story' - in the sense that journalists mean it rather than the broader idea of narrative - is the source of all that's great in journalism and all that's vile in it.

On the credit side, you can go from Russell of the Crimea through Hersh of My Lai, Woodstein of Watergate to Peston of Northern Rock. In all of these, 'the story' has been the only way journalism could happen. The only way of handling the information asymmetry, the inevitability that power has information and journalists (on behalf of citizens) have to spanner it out, chunk by chunk.

On the debit side, all those things that make journalists seem untrustworthy. Why this story and not that? Why these facts and not those? The lure of the unusual, the rogue (and unreliable) data? Sensationalism, half-truths, self-fulfilling prophecies.

'The story' can easily become the journalist's way of evading responsibility. 'It's only a story' equals 'I don't need all the facts or even the best selection of them'. 'The story' can be no more than waypoints in a convincing narrative... convincing, so long as the reader looks no further than 'the story'.

Which is why 'the story' is dead. The people we journalists used to tell our 'stories' to, with a 'trust me' wink, now routinely look beyond 'the story'. And we help them. Websites like the BBC News website are built on the basis that users will look out their own subset of facts, context and background.

More than that, news websites blur the distinction (a distinction that was only ever really relevant to journalists) between 'news' and 'information' while news aggregators make no assumptions about any individual's news agenda in the way that 'the story' has to.

In other words, the process of selection that used to be the province of the journalist - the process we used to call 'storytelling' - is now the province of each member of our audiences. Good.

This is where Prof Monck and I are in total agreement. He doesn't quite put it this way - but the death of 'the story' is part of the answer to the trust conundrum. Now journalists can get on with increasing the access of the people formerly known as the audience to the information they need and in the way they need it.

And that hand journalists once used to polish 'the story' can instead be held out to guide readers, listeners and viewers through their selection of facts, context and background and not ours.

Journalism, not 'churnalism'

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 11:02 UK time, Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Guardian journalist Nick Davies arrives at some damning insights in his new book, Flat Earth News. Many will share his wrath at the "sloppy" and "morally bankrupt" British press - too much of the British press is as bad an anything anywhere else in the world. But he might have come to the right answer for the wrong reasons.

If you haven't caught up with the book yet, the headline to his Guardian article captures one half of his tale crisply: "Our media have become mass producers of distortion", it reads.

The reason, he argues: while the number of journalists on most papers has increased, the space they have to fill has increased even more quickly. Davies reckons the average national newspaper journalist now has to fill three times the space he/she used to... as well as the greedy pockets of owners and shareholders.

Result, he goes on: journalists are now forced to shovel unchecked drivel from PR firms straight onto the page or onto the airwaves - "passive processors of unchecked, second-hand material, much of it contrived by PR to serve some political or commercial interest. Not journalists, but churnalists."

And because journalists don't have the time to do their jobs properly, he argues, - and this is where the threads go ping - some cut corners and resort to snooping, bugging and bin-trawling.

I'm not sure about this route from ‘gradgrind exploitee’, through dereliction of journalistic duty to moral bankrupt - too many newspaper journalists have been too content for too long to run massive moral overdrafts without any pressure from corporate bosses.

It's true that journalists have more time/space to fill - even more, incidentally in 2008 than in 2006, the last year that the Cardiff researchers looked at - and that's a concern for anyone who cares about journalism and what it does.

Clive GoodmanNick Davies is right when he warns against 'churnalism' - news as process... but I just don't believe that the former royal reporter of the News of the World, Clive Goodman, illegally bugged royal phones (and he was not alone in that kind of activity) and went to jail because he and his paper were drowning under the weight of press releases to process.

Nor do I believe pressure to produce is the real reason why too many journalists couldn't stir themselves to check the facts of the Etireno "slave-ship" a few years back or of the Romanian "child traffickers" in Slough a few weeks back. (Though BBC and Guardian journalists did. Both.)

Nor was it why some political journalists connived at becoming little more than the publishing arm of No 10 in the Campbell era.

These are all questions of personal, moral and ethical choices. If a journalist chooses to abandon the principles that all journalists claim to hold (commitment to the truth, independence, acting in the interest of the public) then he or she can blame no-one but him/herself.

BBC newsroomAt the BBC College of Journalism, we place the ethics and values of the trade, along with safeguarding the trust of our audiences, far above any technical or editorial skill... one reason why trust in broadcasting remains much higher than that in the press.

The truth is, too many British newspaper journalists have for too long confused verification with impact, independence with arrogance and the interests of the public with the basest interests of some sectors of the public.

As the respected Guardian veteran and blogger Roy Greenslade describes, most senior, thinking journalists welcome Nick Davies' book as something to be taken seriously. Let's see if journalists - and not just editors - do take it seriously.

The trouble is, though, the British newspaper journalist has no history of taking criticism well... or working out what it is that needs to be done to turn a dysfunctional, distrusted press into something that performs a useful public purpose.

Future of impartiality

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 10:59 UK time, Friday, 9 November 2007

There was something of the Tristram Shandy about it.

"The Future of Impartiality - is the Public Ethos Doomed?" is pretty weighty stuff on at least two fronts... existential, even, as far as the BBC is concerned.

But like Tristram Shandy, last night's joint BBC College of Journalism and POLIS event at the LSE never quite got to say what it was that it was talking about. Though it was no worse a debate for that.

In spite of Feedback's Roger Bolton pressing the panellists, none cared to define 'impartiality' - though that didn't prevent them discarding 'it' (Richard D North, author of 'Scrap the BBC'), redefining 'it' in terms of 'the right of reply' in an unlimited, webbed world (Emily Bell) or drawing a distinction between the intellectual case for 'it' - a difficult but not impossible one to make - and the instinct that it was right that 'it' is every BBC journalist's aspiration (Evan Davis).

Richard D North's case - that the BBC and other terrestrial broadcasters are constrained by an unnecessary obligation to be impartial - rested on his view that the market alone can deliver news and information (not just comment) from a limitless 'variety' of viewpoints. One, monolithic, impartial view was unnecessary. The British press, he asserted, was 'a beautiful thing', taken in the round - and had never needed an obligation to be impartial to make it so. Plus, the requirement to be impartial, he argued, had two important effects on BBC journalism; it encouraged the belief that its reporting was somehow 'more true' and an attitude amongst BBC journalists of 'perennial dissidence'. That it was enough to be 'equally unpleasant to everyone'.

Emily Bell's case rested on the web's ability to deliver limitless accountability, right of reply and fact checking. That overcame the need to try to define a particular standpoint or a particular way of embracing diverse standpoints. Emily even posed the idea of an editorless news organisation and deskless newsrooms - the audience deciding the order in which it uses information, the standpoint of that information, the depth and breadth of its use and, crucially, the extent to which it wants to play a role in creating and improving it.

Evan Davis's case was that impartiality was 'probably a public good' - though he acknowledged the intellectual difficulties that surround both its definition and its practice. His instincts, though, challenged his intellect; for all the difficulties in arriving at a definition and accepting that it's possible there's no market demand for it, the aspiration to be impartial, he thought, did mean that what the BBC did was 'a little bit different from what the Daily Mail does' - or any other newspaper for that matter. And, he said, he always tended to go with his instincts.

In the audience, two BBC (former) luminaries tried to help. Phil Harding spiced things up a bit by defining impartiality as 'truth, fairness and being unbiased'. Therefore, to be against impartiality meant being for untruth, unfairness and bias. While Will Wyatt observed that the level of trust in broadcasters - regulated and with a requirement to be impartial - was relatively high whereas the level of trust in newspapers - unregulated and with no requirement to be impartial - was low, 'at the bottom'.

So if impartiality was closely identified with the idea of the public ethos in broadcasting, did that ethos have a future? All agreed it probably did - but in different ways.

Richard D North foresaw its future embodiment as a kind of 'National Trust' of the air - relatively wealthy, educated middle class people clubbing together to preserve the kind of broadcasting they preferred, without state or taxpayers' interference.

Evan Davis likened this to the PBS model in the US - a worthy organisation with limited appeal and influence: he believed there probably was a future for the public service ethos within any future media market ... though in an entirely free market, without subsidy of some kind, he believed the product of that ethos would be smaller and lesser than it is at present.

Emily Bell had a very different, intriguing idea. A future BBC, she said, could be a kind of 'non-commercial search engine' interpreting its public mission in terms of ensuring equality of access to the world's information.

Protection for journalists

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:54 UK time, Monday, 15 October 2007

Graeme McLagan's court victory is another step along the long and rocky path of bringing the laws of libel in line with the laws of common sense.

McLagan, a former BBC journalist, had written a book about police corruption. A former policeman who McLagan names in the book had successfully sued the author and his publisher for libel. Yesterday, the Court of Appeal overturned that decision and ruled instead in McLagan and his publisher's favour.

The case hinged on something called the ‘Reynolds Defence’ - a phrase on the lips of most journalists and some lawyers but not necessarily a subject of nightly conversation in the Dog and Duck.

Briefly, the Reynolds Defence is named after a defence raised in the late 1990s by Times Newspapers after the Sunday Times published an article about the former Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds. Mr Reynolds sued, arguing the allegations in the article were not true and were defamatory. The newspaper argued that the allegations it published were serious and that it had a duty to publish them. They were, it argued, made in the public interest and after they'd exercised all reasonable care in checking. Even if the allegations were not true, they argued they should have been able to report them and be legally protected by 'qualified privilege'.

In 2001, the Law Lords decided that the Reynolds Defence was a valid one, subject to certain conditions. Crucially, for the defence to be successful the journalism had to be careful, its tone sober, its subject important and of urgent public interest. In other words, it had to be good journalism. It was not a charter for publishing tittle-tattle.

It was a defence that the Wall Street Journal raised when it was sued by a Saudi Arabian businessman Abdullah Latif Jameel and his companies. Initially the defence failed - but was finally successful on appeal to the House of Lords. In their judgement, the Law Lords seemed to move the law even further in defence of careful, sober, investigative journalism, also recognising the principle that journalists work in a pressured atmosphere in which the life of a news story is limited.

It is a stance that recognises the essential disadvantage an investigative journalist faces in breaking a story that someone, somewhere would rather was not broken. The libel laws in the UK notoriously favour those with the money or motive to make life tough for a journalist bent on disclosure and a public bent on transparency. The late Robert Maxwell was ruthless in his use, and threats, of libel actions to deter journalists from printing what we now know was the truth about him and his business methods.

An important feature of the McLagan ruling, though, is that the Reynolds Defence has now been extended to longer-form and longer-term journalism, and is not now limited - as some assumed after the Wall Street Journal case - to the rough and tumble of daily news.

The key point, though, remains; that this defence is only available to careful, considered journalism. As one of the Appeal Court judges put it, criticising the judge in the original case: “I do not see in this judgment any sufficient allowance made for McLagan's honesty, his expertise in the subject, his careful research, and his painstaking evaluation of a mass of material.”

"Honesty", "expertise", "careful", "painstaking" all describe Graeme McLagan's methods precisely - I know, I worked closely with him in the 1980s on documentaries about the IRA, spying and the Official Secrets Act; a fact checked and corroborated only twice or three times was still, in his view, unverified. Yesterday's ruling now - properly - offers a greater degree of protection to journalists who fit that description.

Talking trust

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:49 UK time, Tuesday, 4 September 2007

“Least said, soonest mended” is Peter Preston's take on the 'trust' row that dominated the Edinburgh TV Festival and which is taking up a fair chunk of our time at the College of Journalism too - though I wouldn't describe the work in progress as searching for what Peter elegantly calls ”paradise probity lost”.

Peter's pessimistic take on the human condition - that stuff happens, good intentions founder, public distrust persists in the face of attempts to turn the tide - may have an element of truth in it. But it would be wrong for educators and publicly funded broadcasters to conclude that there's no point trying or that the mission is doomed to failure. Or that they should shut up about what they can't control.

It would be wrong, too, to ignore the most striking passage in Jeremy Paxman's MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival.

Jeremy Paxman"Once people start believing we’re playing fast and loose with them routinely, we’ve had it." Jeremy said. And by people, he didn't mean the people at the Edinburgh TV Festival or other broadcasting worthies. He meant audiences - the people who've been significantly absent from platforms and podiums (though not from the blogs and message boards).

It may be that some broadcasting bosses are a bit fed up with the trust thing, as Peter Preston suggests they ought to be… and jaundiced in their views about remedies. Audiences, though, aren't.

When Newsnight (which you can watch here) looked at Five News' opportunistic decision to ban some TV editing techniques (though not editing per se, you notice) its blog attracted nearly 150 thoughtful audience posts.

Many of those posts - and similar ones to the Guardian's Edinburgh Festival blog - illustrated a truth that lies behind Jeremy's "fast and loose” comment and poses a real problem for those of us trying to construct useful, credible learning for BBC content producers.

For the most part, audiences realise that all media is artifice and contrivance. Even the hardest, straightest most factual news report is the result of choices and framings in the deployment, recording, editing, scripting and presentation.

And there's an element of audience collusion with content producers; both want strong, insightful, compelling narratives… of the kind that you don't get if you present the world without taking the boring bits out.

But it only goes so far and context is everything. “Playing fast and loose” in news could mean intercutting unrelated footage to produce a false relationship of events; do the same in a drama or comedy show and no-one in the audience would raise an eyebrow. The discussion, debate and learning around that judgment of context really is worth talking about. Because the audience cares - is angry, cheated - when broadcasters get it wrong... whether deliberately or in a panic.

At Edinburgh, Jeremy said this too: "The problem is not going to be addressed until senior people in this industry have the courage to come out and state quite clearly what television is for... What’s needed is a manifesto, a statement of belief."

Another reason to reject Peter Preston's call for a period of silence. The boundaries between Big Journalism's constructed content and the content web users make and post for themselves is blurring. Broadcasters can't control - shouldn't want to control - how the web develops and what trust, truth and artifice mean there. But they can decide where they stand and what - in that evolving media world - they stand for.

That's got to be worth a bit of chat, too, hasn't it?

Fusing big and citizen media

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 16:36 UK time, Tuesday, 24 July 2007

It was a terrific clash - but not the intended clash of aspirant presidents tussling to give frank answers to the people’s questions in the people’s circus. It was, instead, a clash between two media cultures; old-style 'big journalism' and new-style 'citizen media'. On this showing, 'big journalism' is safe.

There's been a long scrap between the American networks and US social networking sites over the role of each in democracy there - and not just in this campaign. Four years ago, webmeister Joe Trippi persuaded the Democrat contender Howard Dean to focus his campaign online; the Dean campaign blogged, networked and raised funds online.

Trippi was so excited, he wrote an account called 'The Revolution will not be Televised; Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything'. It wasn't. Dean never even made the presidential slate and Bush won for the Republicans.

YouTube presidential debateThis time round, social networking has moved on and YouTube has entered the stage, along with zealots advocating the role of ‘citizen media’ in helping America choose the occupant of the most powerful office on earth.

Uber-zealot Jeff Jarvis – who blogs here at Buzz Machine - was one of those behind a website called ‘Prezvid’ – its aim, to bring video sharing into the democratic process. Fine – except that behind it is the unwritten value system that ascribes the highest worth to so-called ‘Macaca Moments’ - named after Virginia Senator George Allen’s apparently racist comment in an unguarded moment. The relationship between media and democracy has got to be more than catching out the unguarded or unprincipled.

To fuse ‘big’ and ‘citizen’ media, CNN came up with a simple proposition. It invited voters to submit their questions for the presidential candidates via YouTube.

The network then selected questions, flew some of the questioners to be at the debate in person and in a two-hour show, anchor Anderson Cooper linked their questions to the candidates – last night it was the Democrat candidates, on 17 September it will be the Republican candidates. There was also the battle of the videos … on the ‘anything you can do’ principle’, live blogging on site after site. CNN even offered viewers the chance to be their own analysts.

Citizen media’s advocates, like Jeff Jarvis, had high hopes:

“The YouTube debates could fundamentally change the dynamics of politics in America, giving a voice to the people, letting us be heard by the powerful and the public, enabling us to coalesce around our interests and needs, and even teaching reporters who are supposed to ask questions in our stead how they should really do it.”

Too high. In the event, nothing new was revealed and a snowman was the star. No candidate was especially tested – indeed, they all seemed to find their key task (don’t get out, don’t give hostages to fortune) substantially easier than with a format such as ‘Meet the Press’ … or even the traditional anchor interview. As far as I could tell, the dynamics remained unchanged.

Contrast Jeff Jarvis’s disappointment after the event with his hopes before it – he and others blamed the format, blamed the anchor … even blamed the system for producing too many candidates.

He misses the point. ‘Big media’s’ monopoly of communication in the democratic process is over. Good. But hopes for ‘citizen media’ need to be realistic; as does any assessment of the enduring merits of ‘big media’ … like its ability to pose and press the really tough questions; like its persistence in coming back to the unanswered questions; like its ability to field ego against ego, personality against personality … not the most attractive aspect of ‘big media’, but its most necessary given the politics that we have.

Maybe there is a way of fusing ‘big’ and ‘citizen’, ‘old’ and ‘new’, but this wasn’t it.

Agenda politics

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 16:55 UK time, Monday, 11 June 2007

Here's an interesting thought: "BBC news is not free to pursue its own agenda". It's from Emily Bell in this morning's MediaGuardian.

She takes a tricky route to this conclusion, involving several hand-brake turns. Her starting point: John Humphrys' grilling of C4 chief executive Andy Duncan on Today.

Somehow, it's not on for the BBC to ask whether C4 is fulfilling its public service remit. Or as Emily Bell puts it: "If the question on the C4 story is really 'are you still a public service broadcaster?' then it surely can't be asked in this way by the only other public service broadcaster in Britain."

Well, it would be nuts to argue that C4's public service remit wasn't on everyone's agenda at the time; its own deputy chairman Lord Puttnam put it there . And his - and John Humphrys' - was a reasonable question to ask after the rows over that Diana programme and Big Brother competitor Emily Parr's expulsion; she was the one who used the 'n' word.

Emily Bell's reasoning is complicated, but seems to come down to this: "Where your remit and funding comes directly from the ability to deliver impartial information this is particularly important. So it is surprising how the BBC's coverage of its own stories, or indeed the woes of its competitors, is not always being handled with impeccable impartiality."

One of her examples is the BBC's alleged failure to examine the row over the Panorama wi-fi programme. There was, she claims "no inquest". It's a tough claim to uphold.

BBC's Newswatch - broadcast on News 24 and BBC One - carried out just the kind of "inquest" Emily Bell seems to have had in mind. The BBC News website carried the counter view to the original programme and 'Have Your Say' gave space to viewers to display both expertise and scepticism.

Here at the BBC College of Journalism, we commissioned Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust to give journalists an outside view of the issues raised; his external blog on the theme is here.

But the most difficult of Emily Bell's arguments either to follow or to endorse is the idea that the BBC should be different from other news organisations in that it shouldn't do original journalism ... because if it does, it can't be impartial about news from all other sources or about other broadcasting organisations: "When stories which lead news bulletins start 'the BBC has uncovered...', how can we trust the news values attributed to it if we think the agenda is not strictly impartial?"

This argument can only hold if you assume that out there is an objective thing called "The Agenda" that can, should a news organisation choose, be purely pursued - and if any news organisation should so choose, it's the BBC. But of course, uncovering new information - one of the most fundamental tasks of journalism - implies "an agenda" rather than "The Agenda" ... and therefore the BBC shouldn't do it. It should instead suck on its pipe while deciding whether Trevor McDonald's programme or the Reuters news wire has the better story with which to lead the Ten O'Clock TV bulletin.

But there is, of course, no such thing as "The Agenda". There's the impartial examination of the many agendas we confront daily - and in the end, that impartial and fair and balanced examination is, of course, an agenda in itself. It's also probably the closest thing to something the BBC can call its own.

Which brings us back to where we started - and the question Emily Bell ducks. If "the BBC is not free to pursue its own agenda", whose must it pursue?

Media standards

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 14:20 UK time, Monday, 4 June 2007

I’m catching up with the first series of Life on Mars – that’s what media on demand is all about.

lifeonmars203.jpgIt is, of course, brilliant. Our 21st Century hero Sam Tyler takes PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act) and post-Scarman, post-McPherson, post-Bichard, post-Morris attitudes and procedures back into the policing Wild West of 70s Manchester.

His ‘guv’, Gene Hunt, is unencumbered by the niceties of collecting evidence and thinks ‘questioning’ is another word for ‘bloody good hiding’.

Sam Tyler calls Hunt: “An overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding?

Hunt’s reply: You make that sound like a bad thing.”

To make this series about the police, you have to time-travel – albeit only cognitively and coma-based.

You could make a similar series about the British press (call it ‘Life on The Sun’ maybe??) without leaving 2007.

cliveg_203afp.jpgThe former News of the World royal reporter, Clive Goodman, is in jail for bugging (royal) mobile phones; the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, says more than 300 other journalists do the same kind of thing; a few years ago, the Sun’s editor told MPs it was ok to pay policemen for confidential information; entrapment and intrusion are routine.

Where the British press doesn’t fuse fact and fiction, re-shape evidence to support obsessions with house prices, mobile phones, cancer or the death of Diana, it relies on sources it could name but doesn’t for fear of its stories failing any test of verification.

Oh… and anyone trying to correct even the most blatant falsehood faces either a lengthy, costly, unpredictable struggle in Her Majesty's courts or what usually amounts to a haughty brush-off from the newspapers’ own court, the Press Complaints Commission.

And yet, the British press remains unembarrassed.

In the US, newspapers have responded to scandals with a thorough examination of standards and practices. Almost every paper in America – no matter how small or local – now has a written code of conduct, many have a readers’ editor or ombudsman; corrections are increasingly prominent and swift.

The debate over the press is much more developed there, too, led by the universities, schools of journalism and organizations such as the Committee of Concerned Journalists or the Project for Excellence in Journalism, assisted by an army of bloggers.

A new(ish) entrant to the (emerging) UK debate (joining other newcomers such as the Reuters Institute, POLIS and, of course, the BBC College of Journalism – no public link, yet) is the Media Standards Trust – actually, it’s been going a while but its website is very new. So is its approach.

The MST’s director, Martin Moore, hopes the site will be:
a properly independent public space where people can have an informed discussion about news coverage

… especially standards; accuracy, fairness, context, sourcing and ethics. This week’s topic, for instance, is: 'Are the media presenting the dangers of wi-fi radiation fairly?’ Panorama does not escape unscathed.

He also wants it to be a place where people (readers, viewers and listeners as well as journalists) can confront the press with challenges and propose solutions.

It’s impossible to know whether this venture will be part of bringing newspapers’ ethics and practices up to the journalistic equivalent of Sam Tyler standards. It may well be that pressure from formerly passive, newly active audiences has a greater effect – lippy bill-payers can be persuasive.

But it would be good to think that if the British press is to change its ways, it does so following something approaching intelligent critique and the kind of open debate the Media Standards Trust is offering.

(Update 5 June: The Guardian did appoint Ian Mayes as its readers' editor in 1997, a move which was followed by a handful of other papers.)

Improving journalism

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:39 UK time, Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The scientologists have done us a service. Their rebuttal campaign aimed at John Sweeney’s Panorama investigation is a foretaste – a particularly well-funded and well-produced foretaste – of the feedback firestorm beginning to engulf all of Big Journalism.

Good. Journalists and audiences have to get used to the new world.

The story so far. The latest Panorama (which you can click here to watch) began life as a John Sweeney investigation into Scientology. It’s not the first time Panorama have been here; they looked at the religion in 1987. Many of John Sweeney’s allegations were familiar, though his evidence was more up to date and more compelling.

But the film turned into a report on a report on a report. Panorama put a reporter, producer and crew into the field; the scientologists did the same… Panorama looking at Scientology’s methods and mores, Scientology looking at John Sweeney’s methods and mores.

The result; a Panorama film that told the story of a Panorama reporter’s reaction to the scientologists’ mirror. And a little bit about the scientologists too.

sweeneyj_203pa.jpgIn the end, (depending on your point of view) either John Sweeney cracked or, as he explained it in the programme, he asserted his authority, leaning heavily on a prior thespian persona in “Oh What a Lovely War” (Joan Littlewood, you have much to answer for). Either way, he shouted a lot and links to the clip of 'the moment', posted to YouTube by a scientologist blogger, spread through e-mail networks faster than Staph A on a lukewarm Petri dish.

And the scientologist onslaught was multimedia; they handed out copies of their counter-film to BBC staff on Monday morning and posted it on an elegant and well-designed website which broadened the attack onto the BBC in general.


This is how it is now and will be more so in days to come. And it's not a bad thing for Big Journalism. OK, so not everyone in journalism's many audiences has the resources, time, commitment and Tom Cruise/John Travolta on the books. But almost everyone has a mobile phone, a digital camera, the ability to record audio, blog, join networks... do much more to just tell the editor what they think of the journalism they use or experience.

And if you doubt the power of the audience... look what happened to Eason Jordan, Dan Rather and Judith Miller.

It's uncomfortable... IF you're used to the old one-to-many lecture that journalism used to be. But the reason it's to be welcomed is that it will improve journalism; perhaps even raise our trust in what journalists tell us.

After all, if the argument for investigative journalism is that things done in the light are done with more integrity and accountability than things done in the dark... then the argument for investigating journalism - for audiences and those journalism puts in the news to investigate journalism - is unanswerable. Journalism that has integrity and honesty in the first place has nothing to fear.

Postscript: one of the many other features of this new world is the maxim - 'nothing is ever finished, it's just the latest version'. Within hours of the 'Sweeney moment' being posted to YouTube this 'tweaked' version joined it.

The importance of leaks

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 11:30 UK time, Thursday, 26 April 2007

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke is definitely not old school. But make no mistake - his speech this week (PDF link) to the Policy Exchange think tank was a clip round the ear and a stentorian "now laddie, don't do it again" for the Whitehall news machine.

DAC Clarke's warning that a "small number of misguided individuals who betray confidences" by leaking details of anti-terror operations was stated in terms as cool and calm as they were serious. The leaks were compromising investigations, he said, revealing sources of life-saving intelligence and putting lives at risk.

He didn't exactly lay a hand on a pin-striped shoulder with a cheery "you're nicked." But his carefully measured speculation that the villains were looking "to squeeze out some short term presentational advantage" from the leaks left no-one in doubt who he meant.

Certainly Conservative leader David Cameron was in no doubt. He extracted from the prime minister at PMQs the condemnation of “leaks of sensitive information from whatever quarter” and the non-denial denial that “as far as he (the prime minister) was aware” the leaks did not come from civil servants or ministers.

Leaks - private briefings - are a basic tool of the journalist. They satisfy one of the first conditions of news; revealing something significant that those outside a small circle of privileged people don't know.

They can be irritating and embarrassing for those in positions of power, authority and influence... and that’s sort of the point. Without leaks and whistleblowers a long list of abuses of power would have remained unknown. Even small leaks are a constant reminder to those we allow to govern us that we want to know what they’re really doing in our name... not just what they choose to tell us.

But there are leaks and there are leaks. In the ‘traditional’ model of journalism, a leak is associated with some sort of journalistic enterprise. The good contact; the spade work to find the right person... and then asking the right question; winning the trust of the whistleblower; reporting the leak faithfully, honestly and fairly.

But that model's been turned on its head by a different kind of leak, one that's entirely unburdened by journalistic enterprise. One that has become very much more common since the mid 1990s. The staged, selective leak not from a whistleblower but from someone who legitimately holds the information and whose purpose it is in leaking to massage and manipulate a “short-term presentational advantage,” to quote DAC Clarke once again.

DAC Clarke had in mind the investigation in Birmingham into an allegation that a British serviceman had been targeted by a terrorist network. This leak was of the second and not the first type.

“Almost before the detainees had arrived at the police stations to which they were being taken for questioning, it was clear that key details of the investigation and the evidence had been leaked,” DAC Clarke said.

Now, no journalist has ever turned his or her back on a piece of information presented as a leak... especially if, as in this case, the leak is a shower and all the competition has it too.

But since the mid 1990s, the currency of the leak - particularly in the political context - has been devalued.

Journalists still exist who by their own hard work spanner out the facts citizens need in order to know what’s being done to us in our name. But two other kinds of journalist have come into being in the last decade and a half; the first who - bluntly - just makes it up under the protection of 'sources'. The second who waits patiently in line for today's or this week's handout from authority, knowing that a story that is in fact from official sources but which is misleadingly buffed to possess the patina of a 'leak' automatically attracts a validation denied the official version. Even if the story is the same.

DAC Clarke's anger - and that of the journalists trying to cover the Birmingham raids on the ground who felt undermined - was aimed at those who leaked/briefed London based journalists. There was more than a measure of disappointment, too, at the journalists who lapped it up.

There will be no inquiry nor is the oath of omerta that binds journalist to source, even in this distorted version of a 'leak', likely to be breached. But the test journalists always employ after a leak is captured in the Latin phrase 'cui bono'. Loosely - 'who benefits'.

Everyone will come to their own conclusion on that - DAC Clarke evidently has. But it's worth spending a moment pondering also whether journalism has benefited or lost.

'Dumbing down'?

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:12 UK time, Tuesday, 3 April 2007

I'm intrigued by Richard Alleyne's report in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph - "BBC should dumb down, says own report".

I haven't seen the report - it's a long way from being finished. But I'd be prepared to wager a few bob that the words "BBC should dumb down" do not - and will not - appear in it. And I'm not the only one who hasn't seen it - Mr Alleyne hasn't either, depending instead on a report of what an unnamed insider is said to have said.

Another un-named insider is quoted as saying: "There is a feeling we may be serving the professional classes well, but not reaching the C2s and D1s." While the same, or perhaps another, insider opines: "The corporation has lost all perspective. It is defeatist to constantly chase the populist market. Sometimes you have to give people what they need and not just what they want."

It's all fascinating stuff. Fascinating... but nothing whatever to do with the current debate/debates over audiences.

And for the BBC, that starts with the licence fee. The proposition is a simple one; everyone pays, everyone - the BBC hopes, certainly intends - gets. Gets something it values. In a simpler world, the only thing that could really mean was mass audiences (BBC One, Radio 1) - big numbers sitting round the TV set, all together, that evening. It hasn't meant that for a long time and won't ever again. One American communications scholar, Jay Rosen, calls listeners, readers and viewers "the people formerly known as the audience" - partly because the whole idea of "the audience" as a big blob of big numbers just ain't so any more.

But it's only if you do cling on to the anachronistic idea of "the audience" as a big, amorphous, internally indistinct blob that phrases like "dumbing down" or "the populist market" have any meaning - based as it is around the idea that "the audience" watches "the schedule". And, because Blue Planet is good for you and When will I be Famous isn't, that for every half-dozen WWIBFs in "the schedule", "the audience" needs one BP.

drwho_203.jpgNow - increasingly so in the future - the people formerly known as the audience who watch, listen to and read BBC content do so on their own terms; when they want, where they want and how they want. They watch news reports on their PCs, Dr Who on replay and listen to 1Xtra through their TVs, and Mark Kermode through a podcast. Each individual member of the audience can build his or her own schedule - many do. On Wednesday evening you could settle down to Britten, Victoria and Tippett on R3, skip across to the Lent talk on R4, grab a bite to eat then catch the documentary on King Leopold II of Belgium over on BBC Four. Or, of course, you could go for the more upmarket stuff. You're the scheduler.

Nor is it any longer a simple equation; more quizzes = less costume drama; more reality TV = less politics (the two, of course, being mutually exclusive). Expensive dramas last longer - so do cheap ones, actually. The so-called 'long tail' means that tens of millions can watch a production and find value in it over a period of time and on a variety of outlets and platforms; it's not down to one shot on one night any more. It's both/and not either/or.

And it's against this shifting picture that the BBC has to make its calculation - is everyone who pays £131.50 (a bit less than the cost of taking, say, the Daily Mail every day) getting £131.50 worth of value?

It's possible that some audiences are less easily able than others to find BBC content that's valuable to them. It's possible, too, that some audiences feel there's not enough programming that's relevant to them - I simply don't know. If either is true, there's a strong case for putting it right - but that's nothing to do with giving people "what they want" rather than "what they need" or with "dumbing down". It is, though, a lot to do with giving licence fee-payers what they've paid for.

Not making the news

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 13:52 UK time, Thursday, 29 March 2007

One of the jobs of the BBC College of Journalism is to ask difficult questions - often, they're questions to which no-one has a definitive answer or to which the answer isn't simple. One of those questions is; why do some stories make it onto the national news while others don't?

jasonspencer203_pa.jpgOK... editing a programme is an art not a science and there are many reasons why an editor will decide one way on a Monday and a different way on a Tuesday. I know, I've been there. Plus, programmes aren't edited in hindsight by paragons of omniscience. But think about this.

If you listen to or watch the BBC outside the Midlands, you almost certainly won't know the name Jason Spencer.

17-year-old Jason Spencer was stabbed in the chest on 6 March. A single wound. He died. Eight days later, 16-year-old Kodjo Yenga was stabbed in the chest. A single wound. He died.

Both boys' families were distraught. Both ruled out the possibility that they were involved with gangs or drugs.

Jason Spencer's murder did not make network news... except in a stabbings roundup on News 24 on 19 March. Kodjo Yenga's did; about 170 times on network radio, 14 times on terrestrial bulletins and over 200 times on News 24 between 14 March and 21 March.

Jason Spencer was stabbed in Nottingham; Kodjo Yenga in Hammersmith.

On Radio Five Live this week, Jason's mother and stepfather said they felt they'd been failed by organisations they expected to help. They had in mind organisations like Victim Support.

Does the list end there?

Alert to the arguments

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:32 UK time, Tuesday, 13 March 2007

One of the things the College of Journalism tries to help BBC journalists think about is the kind of question raised by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, David Rowan, on Today recently.

levy203_pa.jpgHe was invited on last Friday to talk about a piece in his paper written by the rabbi at Lord Levy's local synagogue, Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet. (You have to subscribe to the JC to get more than this summary).

Rabbi Schochet's target was what he called “the blatant nastiness in some of the tabloids and the recent seeming trial by media” of Lord Levy.

He had previously talked about "sinister corners” from where, he argued, the leaks in the cash-for peerages story emanated. And in a TV interview had claimed that “the Jewish community is becoming increasingly more sensitive that there is one Jew, who has been called the most dynamic Jew in Anglo-Jewry, seemingly being hung out to dry here.”

Readers will make up their own minds about Rabbi Schochet's arguments but David Rowan makes an interesting point - and one that all journalists should think about, whether they agree with his conclusion or not - about how key words in the way stories are reported or framed have a significant effect (intended or otherwise) on the understood meaning... even if the words or facts chosen are not, in themselves, in dispute.

David Rowan doesn't accuse the BBC of making such choices in this case - though that doesn't mean BBC journalists should not be alert to the arguments.

In his interview, David Rowan points to such things as the inclusion of Lord Levy's middle name - Abraham - in articles such as this one in the Daily Mail, an inclusion he argues that underlines and emphasises the fact that Michael Levy is Jewish, the son of "devout Jewish" parents.

In the same article, David Rowan points out, we don't learn either the middle name nor the religious affiliation of the two other main players, Ruth Turner and Jonathan Powell.

Rabbi Schochet's article and to some extent David Rowan's appearance - and that of Sir Alan Sugar also on Today - seem prompted by a concern amongst Lord Levy's friends and supporters that he's being turned into the scapegoat for the whole cash-for-peerages affair.

Only time will tell on that. But, David Rowan argues, there is what he calls "a strong tradition" in both British politics and British political fiction of the Jewish "money man" who "comes in from the outside" and makes a convenient scapegoat; in fiction, Trollope's Augustus Melmotte, in history Sir Eric Miller and Joseph Kagan of the Wilson years.

His argument is that these provide a strong pattern into which the media are able to push the Lord Levy story - should they either wish to or unconsciously allow themselves to. And, he hints - though without, it has to be said, explicit evidence - that a guiding hand in the Downing Street "circle" might well be "managing" the story with precisely this in mind.

So whose side are they on?

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 10:52 UK time, Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Is journalism – including BBC journalism – ‘on the side of’ civil liberties? Or at least, on the side of free speech?

A question worth putting after the Sun twice asked last week “whose side are these guys on?” ... meaning, the BBC. It was first prompted by a correspondent on the Ten O’Clock News reminding viewers that the Birmingham terror arrests were “an intelligence-led operation. Intelligence can be wrong". Forest Gate? Jean Charles de Menezes?

Then, after one of those men arrested - and released a week later – appeared on Radio 4's Today programme, the Sun mused:

    "It sometimes seems the BBC would prefer terrorists to succeed than for an innocent man to be briefly held without charge. In their politically correct bubble, intelligence is always flawed and anti-terror action is inevitably heavy-handed. So the release of two suspects held over the alleged plot to behead a British Muslim soldier was a gift from heaven."

Abu Bakr (picture courtesy of ABC)Over at the Daily Mail, columnist Richard Littlejohn objected to Abu Bakr's using his freedom to say on Today that Britain was ‘a police state for Muslims’.

Littlejohn’s logic was tortured: mind, it was the same column in which he found it hard to condemn bomb attacks on government offices ... so long as not too many people weren’t too badly hurt.

I quote:

    “Be honest, until you heard that a woman had been injured, how many of you suppressed a cheer at the news someone had sent a letter bomb to the company which runs London's congestion charge?

    Even after we learnt that two men were treated for blast injuries, I'll bet that there were still plenty of motorists who thought: serves the bastards right.”

Two things made Abu Bakr a bit ‘dodge’ apparently; one, that he seemed ‘very well briefed’ and two, that he was represented by one of Britain’s best known civil liberties lawyers. He should have made it a fair fight and engaged a copyright lawyer, I suppose.

Littlejohn is, of course, wrong footed by the inconvenience that, in the eyes of the law, Abu Bakr is as innocent as anyone … perhaps even more innocent than someone with an ambiguous stance on blowing up government offices.

It would, he argues, have been ok to interview Abu Bakr if the BBC had a record of interviewing, let’s say, the (innocent) associates of gangsters.

BBC Head of TV News, Peter Horrocks, posted here last Monday that it’s “not the BBC’s job to take sides”.

Sort of.

If journalism is about anything it is about free speech. No-one would – or should - question the right of Sun leader writers and Mail columnists to speak freely. If predictably.

It’s the same right that allows the pub bigot to void his spleen in the snug … or an innocent bookshop employee like Abu Bakr to tell Today that he thinks he and his fellow Muslims don’t enjoy the same civil liberties that, say, Richard Littlejohn enjoys. However offensively well-briefed his argument seems.

The Mail and the Sun are in that great tradition of punchy, gobby, misguided, opinionated, rabble-rousing journalism in this country – and long may it survive. Long may they keep their right to be wrong.

But that right applies to every individual and it's the job of journalists to support it; the freedom to speak, to be treated fairly and according to the law and to be free to live a life unburdened by prejudice.

There’ll always be forces pressing to take those liberties away; there’s always been a new ‘crisis’ that means this age is different from all that went before. The pieces will always be in flux …

But when journalists write leaders and columns against freedom of speech … you really do have to wonder whose side they’re on.

Maintaining standards

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 15:42 UK time, Tuesday, 16 January 2007

The College of Journalism website - CoJo online, in the office at least - was launched at midnight on Tuesday.

cojo203300.jpgAn odd launch in some respects because, initially anyway, it won't be visible outside the BBC ... though we hope its effects will be. The aim is to add to every BBC journalist's skills, learning and judgement and through that improve the service of BBC journalism to its paymasters, the licence fee payers.

The college and website came about as a direct result of the Gilligan affair, the Hutton inquiry and the report of a senior BBC News executive, Ron Neil ... who, as it happens, recommended a residential college to reinforce BBC journalists' learning. Sadly, a cloistered, towered, Gothic pile somewhere deep in the countryside was not to be. They don't come cheap and the licence fee is, after all, the licence fee. So, a website in cyberspace and a college located above an Italian deli in W12 is what it is. There is no wisteria.

But there is learning in ethics, values, law, writing, broadcast and production skills - films, tutors, scenarios and hypotheticals, articles, podcasts and links. Five hundred pages at the moment and forty-plus films. And it will grow - partly because one of the other main functions of the college and its website is to generate intelligent critique and discussion about BBC journalism and editorial decisions. Did we get it right over the Ipswich murders? Saddam's execution? Pictures of Kate Middleton?

One of the questions that's inevitably asked is - why is it only for BBC journalists? Why can't viewers and listeners see for themselves? Well, as the UK Press Gazette reported it's very likely that it will be an external site before very long - or more probably, parts of it will be.

And when it is, perhaps it'll scotch some of the dafter ideas about the college - like those in the Times... an excellent case study, incidentally, in journalistic tosh with its predictable and misleading 'back to school' image and the - ho, ho, ho - amusing picture of an inky-fingered J Paxman behind a desk (Is this the Beano?)

Our initial focus is - and has to be - on the skills and learning of BBC journalists. It's what all major employers do - offer their staff the best possible learning in their trade. But the argument that, in time, we should share with our paymasters the thinking and learning behind our decision-making is a powerful one. As is the argument that the BBC has a responsibility to play some role in raising and maintaining journalistic standards in the UK - standards which, for the written press at least, mean five out of six people don't trust what they read in the papers.

Before that can happen, though, there is an array of technical and practical hurdles to be overcome. For example, to be truly useful to BBC journalists, the site has to link extensively to internal BBC web pages - an external site would have to have all these links removed. There are also tricky questions about the BBC's place in the journalists' learning market; would a licence fee-funded learning site be fair competition? And so on.

My hunch is that we'll come up with answers to these questions before the end of the year and some part or parts of the site will be made public. Before then, though, I hope our audiences will already have noticed the value of the college and website.

'Slamming' newspapers?

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 10:41 UK time, Thursday, 9 November 2006

Recently, I spoke at the Society of Editors annual conference in Glasgow where, according to the UK Press Gazette I "slam op-ed writers and reveal newspaper of tomorrow".

Well, sort of. I wasn't actually aware of slamming anyone or, for that matter, revealing anything. I was there to talk about the journalist of tomorrow and the learning we (the industry generally) need to offer.

Understandably, a lot of the talk was about skills; turning monomedial newspaper journalists into bi- and tri- and multi-media journalists. My argument was that this is the wrong focus. Yes, of course journalists need to acquire all the skills necessary for polished, professional production in any and every possible medium - and the BBC College of Journalism will be at the forefront of providing that learning.

But journalism is facing a much bigger crisis; the simple fact that five out of six don't trust what they read in the papers. And if journalism - newspaper journalism especially - doesn't address that, having all the skills in the world won't help.

Publishing skills are getting easier and easier to acquire - you can be faking photos as elegantly as any tabloid picture editor within an hour of buying Photoshop. Having those skills (or the means and money) is no longer the thing that distinguishes journalists from non-journalists. Nor is the ability to tell a good story.

Hundreds of millions of digitally literate 'ordinary people' are writing blogs and making podcasts every day... and telling very good stories in the process.

But the blogger or podcaster doesn't have to answer the question from a paying (or even non-paying) consumer; "do I trust this source to tell me something true and useful?" They may do both - but journalists have to. If there is a future market for journalism, it is for the work of trusted intermediaries dealing in fact.

The same isn't true of opinion... which is where "slamming" the op-ed pages comes in. Gutsy, partial, vitriolic and not-necessarily wholly fact-based argument is vital to any society's openness and free expression.

But I wonder how much longer consumers will be prepared to pay for it when many free blogs are already better written, more timely, more authentic, more argumentative and more thought provoking than most op-ed page columns.

As to revelation - that future of newspapers wasn't mine at all but part of a conversation with the reporter, photographer, blogger, author, thinker and renaissance man, Ben Hammersley at the Frontline Club in Paddington last September. Ben's prediction is that newspaper reporters will soon be using off-the-shelf software and hardware that "an eight year old" could master to choose how to tell their stories - text, film, audio, graphics... whatever. Mostly online. And with no deadlines, the 'newspaper' will be no more than a version of content frozen arbitrarily at the time someone pressed the print button.

He makes the same point; journalism will justify itself by what it is, not by what its practitioners can do. And if what it is can't be trusted, then why should anyone take any notice of it?

Editor as interviewee

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 09:56 UK time, Monday, 18 September 2006

Someone, some time ago, proposed that one of the things we should make sure was on the BBC College of Journalism website was a module - a film, perhaps - showing the way we cover news stories ... as seen from the perspective of those in the story.

I can't remember whose idea it was - but it's such a good one I'll call it mine and we'll do it.

Alternatively, we could just make all BBC editors appear live - or "as live" - on their own programmes; or perhaps, someone else's. But appear live/as live, anyway.

I had the experience this week on Newswatch. And it was both scary and salutary. I was invited on to talk about the CoJo's plans to help BBC journalists with basic English. A lot of viewers, listeners and online users get upset when our journalists make daft mistakes - and they do, usually under pressure... though I'm not sure that was the explanation for the capital of Ecuador being spelled K-E-E-T-O in one example.

I couldn't fault Ray Snoddy's team for the way they fixed the interview - all according to the Marsh rule book. They were open about the subject of the interview without giving away the actual questions; and what they said would happen did.

So far so good. Plus, I've done dozens of TV and radio interviews ... but until this, all except one had been pre-recorded at a leisurely pace for editing later; the only live one was a twenty-minuter on Radio Coventry.

What I'd never appreciated before was the immense pressure on the interviewee of a four to four-and-a-half minute live/as live interview - even though I've edited thousands of programmes made up of jigsaws of just such interviews. The short, live interview is probably the most familiar tool of my trade.

But it's very strange to be on the other end of it. It was nothing Ray did - but somehow, the time pressure conveyed itself as prepared words and ideas ran off and hid. And even though I knew the rule in theory - statement, context/explanation, next question - in fact, the strands of thought threatened to get into a complete tangle.

While Ray - as a good live interviewer should - kept up the pace of the questions, something close to panic wiped the synapses on one side of my brain.

I have a vague memory of talking about Caxton and Webster's dictionary; perhaps I did, perhaps I didn't. I certainly haven't the faintest recollection of anything I said [you can see for yourself here]. Either way, I now understand rather better than I did before the lot of the hundreds - thousands, possibly - of guests our programmes churn through in the course of a day.

Obviously - being a news man - I wouldn't go so far as saying I have sympathy with them ... even though I was one, briefly. But it does, as they say, make you think.

Understanding the law

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:07 UK time, Monday, 11 September 2006

When we asked BBC journalists - a lot of them - what they most wanted the new BBC College of Journalism to do for them, one answer dominated the list: "Make me more confident about the Law".

All conscientious journalists care about contempt and defamation - the journalist who puts a foot wrong in either area can find him or herself personally liable for damages, a fine or even a spell in prison. And self-interest aside, it can never be the aim of any journalist to spread an untruth or interfere with the processes of the courts.

Hence the College's recently launched legal online course for staff covering defamation and contempt - modules on copyright and contract follow next year - supplemented by face-to-face courses for all and sessions aimed at senior journalists.

But however excellent, detailed and interactive a course is, it's only the beginning. Journalists also have to become confident in applying the principles they learn, absorb and practice on the online and face-to-face courses - and as any media lawyer will tell you, all cases are different. Perhaps the most important thing for a journalist to take away from any law course is an ear more finely tuned to the alarm bell that alerts them to the need to seek expert legal advice on the specifics of their piece - to avoid being too cautious as much as too reckless.

Take an example. Last week, Raphael Rowe presented a Panorama special raising important questions about the scientific evidence used in the trial of Barry George, the man convicted for the murder of Jill Dando. Raphael also interviewed two of the jurors in George's trial - revealing uneasiness about the scientific evidence and suggesting that some members of the jury had ignored the trial judge's instructions not to discuss the case outside the jury room.

Those interviews will have sent many journalists scurrying to find their copy of the legal bible "McNae's Essential Law for Journalists" to confirm their - possibly vague - memory that there is a blanket ban on interviewing members of a jury; that it is a clear contempt of court.

As it happens, that's not quite the case... though as a rule of thumb, it's not a bad one; the 1981 Contempt of Court act makes it an offence to "seek or disclose information about statements made, opinions expressed, arguments advanced, or votes cast by members of a jury in the course of its deliberations". And a 1994 House of Lords ruling made it clear that the intention of the act was to keep "the secrets of the jury room inviolate". Plus, some lawyers believe that the identification of any juror is itself a contempt.

So what to do when a careful, lengthy investigation uncovers evidence that the conduct of the jury in a case might have rendered a conviction unsafe? And that evidence is voiced by the jurors themselves?

I wasn't privy to the discussions between Raphael, Panorama and the lawyers; but it's clear that the decision to broadcast the juror interviews was made in the specific context of the programme and on very precise grounds. As a humble viewer, I was able to detect no questions were put or offered concerning the deliberations in the jury room - and any conversations outside the jury room were contrary to the judge's express instructions; Raphael pointed up more than once in his script that he was aware of the legal restrictions; and, of course, the matter was one of great public interest.

The challenge for the College is to make sure that our journalists are aware of the way in which the law is applied in cases like this - and don't draw the wrong conclusions. It would be wrong, for example, to conclude from this Panorama special that interviewing jurors was now fine in all cases.

The Panorama decision also illustrates another truth about the application of the law - and another challenge for the College. In very few cases where there's a legal risk is the decision to cut or broadcast a clear one. Almost always, the editorial team has to make its decision based on the balance of risk - and since most defamation cases, for example, are settled out of court, there are often too few similar precedents to be a clear and unequivocal guide. In the end, though, it is always should be an editorial decision informed by precise legal advice.

The College can do two things; provide the knowledge that no journalist should lack through online and face-to-face courses; and second, to provide awareness of important cases and decisions. In the end, though, the most important lesson is that all cases are different and there is no substitute for detailed, specialist advice.

Unfixed language

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 15:01 UK time, Friday, 14 July 2006

Pity the pedant and the pedagogue.

There are two things that fuel the BBC licence payer’s wrath more than any thing else; language and impartiality.

Look what happened when my colleague Jon Williams tried to set out the BBC’s thoughts around one small aspect of usage – the terminology we apply to events in Israel/the Palestinian territories.

His posting attracted more than 150 comments – all of them deeply felt, most claiming to find unconscious bias, inconsistency or injustice in our usages. Right to have that level of debate. Everyone has to pay, everyone has a say. Simple really.

But the comments taken together sum up the problem; with impartiality and with language everyone believes they’re right. With the first, that’s true by definition; with the second, it’s true by virtue of dimly remembered days spent parsing in fusty schoolrooms.

The pedant is condemned to an unhappy life watching infinitives split, singular nouns of multitude pluralised and "militate" confused with "mitigate" by what he/she sees as the language’s slouching hoodies.

The pedagogue – i.e. me/us/the new BBC College of Journalism – is no happier. I challenge anyone to take those 150 comments attached to Jon Williams' posting and synthesise a single paragraph that could be given to every BBC journalist which, if it were followed, would make everyone happy.

Which is a pity… because The College has to attempt to do something very like that.

Only yesterday, I was commissioning two big pieces of work for the College website; a language course and an online, interactive style guide.

Both have to confront the problems of language and impartiality; neither can be pre- or proscriptive. That’s partly because of the nature of both beasts – as discussed – but it’s also because of the nature of the organisation.

There are 8,500 journalists in the BBC producing thousands of hours of output each month – most of it for English speaking audiences here in the UK, some not. Some output is very formal, most is not. Some is scripted for BBC staff or stars to present, most is live and involves outside guests.

The idea that you could have a single stone tablet – like the Economist or FT has, setting out in detail the “house style”, words to be used and words not to be used – and that every BBC journalist and contributor be forced to follow it is nonsense.

Would anyone really expect every interviewee on every BBC programme to ingest the “house style” before appearing... or that BBC presenters should correct and reprimand them on every departure?

You might get the 85 or so journalists on a small paper to agree on the use of the apostrophe or on the difference between “insurgency” and “resistance”. It’s impossible to achieve that uniformity in an organisation with a hundred times the staff and more than a hundred times the output.

Apart from anything else, there exist in the BBC the very experts – some of them dissenting on a particular point – on whose judgments other organisations base their preferred usages.

All that we pedagogues can do – with both language teaching and style guides – is to describe the consensus, the implications of departing from that consensus and the major variants. We can indicate preferences and usages that, for the time being, are judged to be better than others.

We can draw attention to words and phrases that are contentious and we can suggest usages that avoid the pitfalls of bias, unconscious or otherwise. From time to time, the organisation will take a view that a particular word or phrase, while not perfect, is the best anyone can do... and it’s our job to make sure everyone knows about that judgment and makes every effort to apply it.

And we can describe the changes happening around us. Has the battle to save the first meaning of “anticipate” been lost? Does it now confuse more than it clarifies to draw any distinction between it and “expect”?

But the idea that we can or should instruct the BBC’s 8,500 journalists to use a single version of the English language fixed at some arbitrary point in time and culture, or dictate precise terms that everyone agrees are neutral or impartial – if we could ever find them – is fanciful and, probably, wrong.

Kevin Marsh is editor of the BBC College of Journalism

What does an editor do

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 11:26 UK time, Tuesday, 27 June 2006

So this is the editors' blog. But what do we mean by "editor"?

The first thing to note is that the person who edits a particular edition of a programme - what we call "the output editor" - is not necessarily "the Editor".

So what's the difference?

The set of the BBC One O'Clock NewsAs with all the best questions the honest answer is - it depends. On some programmes, there's less difference than on others - often the Editor will be the output editor on any particular day. But in broad terms, the output editor is responsible for one edition of a programme; the Editor for the programme, and the team, over time.

So what does being responsible "over time" mean ?

Every programme has a programme remit - a description of the programme, its key features and in particular the features that make it original and distinctive. Some are written down, though most programme remits are less formally set out and often agreed only verbally with Department Heads. That doesn't make them any less binding on the Editor. Recently, objectives dealing with aspects such as audience size and appreciation have supplemented or even superseded formal programme remits.

In addition to these, all Editors set themselves objectives when they get the job. The selection process demands detailed pitch which can include anything from changes in programme agenda and tone, to changes of presenters or personnel - or even what shouldn't be changed.

The tools the Editor has are limited. Money is one; you have to manage the programme budget - which includes the annual argument for more (you always end up with less) as well as making it all add up at the end of the financial year, having spent a proportion of it on things intended to achieve your objectives. Staff is another; you appoint - or supervise the appointment of - staff, appraise them, decide who does what on the programme, give them feedback and advise them on their performance.

A BBC Radio 4 studioThe other tools - the really powerful ones - are less easily defined. Influence... setting the programme weather... stalking the floor... hunting down inaccuracies... generating an atmosphere where originality can flourish... spotting flair and encouraging it... spotting bad habits and discouraging them... knowing whose case you need to be on, who you can cut a bit of slack. And dealing with The Talent - the presenters, the real power-mongers in the BBC.

And Editors will have influence over programme decisions, though different Editors have different approaches. Clearly, as Editor you have to make the calls on the big, risky stories. And you have to have the means in place to make sure you know all you need to know before making those big calls; and the nous to know when someone on an even higher grade than yourself should be aware of the risks you're about to take on the BBC's behalf.

But you can't - and shouldn't - make every decision. Though you do have to be prepared to take the rap for decisions made in your absence or ignorance, even if you'd have made a different one based on the same facts. There are two phrases no Editor should ever use outside the programme. "It wasn't my fault" is one. "I didn't know" is the other. Both might be true in fact, but never can be in spirit; and anyway, the skill of the Editor lies in making sure they never are in any sense. It is your fault and you did know. Live with it.

And output editors? In the broadest sense, output editors are responsible for everything that happens on their watch. Which may be anything from a day to a couple of hours. They don't work in a vacuum, though - indeed, it's the Editor's job to make sure they don't. If the programme Editor has done the job properly, output editors will know as clearly as possible the direction they should be taking each edition of the programme.

They'll express that direction by a number of means; they'll choose the lead story and the running order... choose the guests... and the way stories are treated. They'll also be responsible for getting the best out of the team that day; running meetings and discussions creatively... chasing progress and keeping the story in sight. They'll stamp on inaccuracies and keep a mental note of fairness and balance; they'll brief reporters and presenters and give feedback after the programme.

Journalists working in the BBC News 24 galleryThey'll also know when to involve the Editor. Some output editors prefer to avoid discussing anything with the Editor until after transmission; others like to feel they've thrashed out their ideas - and their problems - beforehand. In all cases, though, having antennae for the possible consequences of decisions - consequences that may go way beyond a single edition of the programme - is a key requirement of both output editor and Editor. The first has to know when to consult, the second has to learn how to spot the signs that an apparently straightforward decision might turn out to be anything but.

Which leads to the final responsibility of the Editor; accountability. While the output editor will deal with the small rows around a particular programme - and some are inevitable - it is the Editor who has to explain why decisions were made or how - in spite of evidence to the contrary - the programme did uphold the highest standards and values.

Or if it didn't, apologise.

Representing readers

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 13:31 UK time, Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Is it the job of a newspaper to "represent" its readers?

Tweak (or wrench) the paper’s news agenda to reflect readers’ prejudices – I get. Argue for and defend those prejudices – I get that too. And campaigning on their behalf – of course.

All good stuff, well within the finest traditions of Britain’s lippy, gutsy, argumentative, pluralist press.

But “represent”?

That’s what the News of the World claims it does – or has been doing with its campaign for a so-called “Sarah’s Law”; a law that would enable local people to find out if a convicted paedophile were living in their neighbourhood.

It was in response to the World Tonight’s interview with Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys and the child protection spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (listen to it here).

The Chief Constable’s criticisms of both the paper and Government was tough; likening the relationship between Ministers and the tabloid press to that between blackmailer and victim. And the World Tonight listeners who joined the debate seemed to share his view.

It’s absurd to argue that newspapers aren’t political players; campaigning does – and probably should – influence Governments, change public sentiment or the law. All the best campaigning journalism has a moral component; “stop this evil now.”

But can campaigning newspapers “represent” anyone?

They can speak for them; articulate their views, or what they perceive them to be; hunt out the facts to confirm their readers’ views of the world. Press the case hard. And in doing all of that they play an important role in our messy and sometimes fuzzy democracy – but do they, can they, “represent” anyone?

There’s a confusion here about the role of elected politicians and their non-elected critics. Editors have the right - the duty - to call for the heads of elected politicians they and their readers think have failed; and they have the right and duty to put the evidence that they’ve failed in front of their readers. That’s accountability.

But that doesn’t put them in the same place in our democracy as elected politicians - for the simple reason that they represent no-one but themselves.

I can’t un-elect the editor of the News of the World, even if I want to. I can’t hold him to account for the consequences of his campaigns - intended and unintended.

That’s fine so long as he doesn’t claim to “represent” me - for better or worse, I am one of his readers.

But once he does claim to represent me, then I want to ask him some awkward questions.

The obvious ones, like - how does he choose which readers he represents and which he doesn’t ? How do I change his mind or get him fired?

Or; what if he fails the readers he chooses to “represent”? What if the Government decides in the end that “Sarah’s Law” would be the charter for vigilantism that some claim and some in the United States claim Megan’s Law already is? Does he apologise to those he “represents” and resign because he’s failed to get them the law?

Or; what if he succeeds and “Sarah’s Law” is enacted? And the casualty list of mobbed paediatricians grows? Does he take responsibility for the unintended consequence and compensate the victims? And does he resign, just as he’d call for an elected politician to resign whose legislation went similarly awry?

The press may be many things; argumentative and campaigning; a powerful and legitimate force in democracy, certainly.

But “representative”? I think not.

Trust me

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 12:18 UK time, Wednesday, 14 June 2006

Apparently 32% of BBC staff don't think news organisations should be more open with audiences.

More than 600 have voted so far in a BBC intranet poll which was started after I made a speech to Bournemouth University Media School's Newswatch '06 conference (you can read it here).

I'd be intrigued to know how that 32% breaks down.

Presumably some think that news organisations are already open enough with their audiences - though, I guess they've never tried to get a correction to a newspaper story they know to be untrue or watched helplessly as two completely unrelated sets of facts are mashed together into a tasty, but fundamentally misleading, newspaper narrative.

Presumably, too, some think they should be less open - which would be difficult. It's worth spending a bit of time trying to get out of British newspapers anything resembling a code of conduct or ethics. The Guardian has one - against which it audits itself - and which goes a little further, though not much, than the Press Complaints' Commission's code, itself more of a trade code designed by newspaper editors for newspaper editors.

The point, though, is this. The new media - including, but not limited to, the web - are giving audiences and readers degrees of choice they've never had before. There'll always be a demand for gutsy argument and opinionated "news" - though it's interesting to ponder where the differentiation will lie in two years' time between "news that confirms my world view"/my favourite column and the blog.

The demand for news - facts about the world that professional journalists have gathered, verified, made sense of - continues to grow. The organisations that will do best at servicing that demand among developing audiences will be the ones that show their workings.

The ones that don't just say "trust me" - but show why you can.

Strong language

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh | 16:23 UK time, Tuesday, 6 June 2006

The Governors are funky dudes. Or their programme complaints committee is, at least.

Their latest complaints bulletin rules that Radio 1's Chris Moyles wasn't being homophobic when he called a ringtone "gay". Young people - apparently - now routinely say "gay" when they mean "rubbish". And the complaints committee is "familiar with hearing this word in this context".


That's the problem though. Keeping up with the latest street argot. Is "bollocks" now OK or not? I have to say, I thought it had been since the Sex Pistols won their case back in 1977. You'll remember it. The title of their album was "Never mind the bollocks, here's the Sex Pistols". A policewoman in Nottingham complained. M'learned friends got involved... and it was decided that "bollocks" was OK following the intervention of a linguist from the local university.

Chris MoylesSome 30 years later, it's still not a unanimous view. When Today referred on-air to those rather popular "Bollocks to Blair" T-shirts that were doing the rounds after the hunting vote, sensitivities were aroused. We argued - successfully - that the word, while clearly abusive, wasn't necessarily offensive.

It's not always that simple. I used to receive two or three letters a month complaining that once again Brian Widlake - when he was one of the presenters of The World at One - had used the phrase "cock-up" to describe some public figure's minor oversight. I decided to settle it once and for all and started to compose a well-researched letter showing how the complainant was flat wrong and an idiot to boot - but no slang dictionary could help. In fact they made it worse, linking the phrase to a very dubious practice at a minor public school.

There is a very useful chart which, sadly, was last updated some time ago. Even so, it's re-assuring to know that you can say "peace off", "wear the fox hat" or call someone a "salad tosser" with relative impunity. In the intervening six years, it seems that "shag" has moved down a peg or two and - if Chris Moyles is now our arbiter in this - so has "slag".

Context is all ... as those funky dudes on the Governors' committee explained when they reviewed a deluge of complaints over the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves back in 2005. The Committee noted the words ‘bastard’, ‘bollocks’, ‘piss’, ‘bugger’ and ‘bloody’ and "after careful consideration given to the context" decided that "the language was part of the rough-and-tumble of the story, appropriate to the rough and coarse characters depicted and the age they lived in".

Maybe that's what got Moyles off the hook this time.

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