I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the summer (or a bit of it). But will be back well in time for the new school year.
Last night the Media Standards Trust invited Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, to open its series of talks on the theme ‘Why Journalism Matters’.
We’ll be publishing an edited version of his talk, along with others in the series. You can also read the text in full
Why have we organised a series on Why Journalism Matters?
- Because we believe that it does. Amidst all the talk about technology and business models, we don’t want the critical values of journalism to be lost almost by default
- Because we believe that the real values of journalism are not universally understood or acknowledged.
- And because we think that, as journalism goes through a massive period of transition it is not enough to rely on important concepts that – to borrow from George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language – have become stale from over-use, and whose lack of precision has reduced their power to convince. Phrases like: The Fourth Estate, the democratic deficit, the public interest, and the people’s watchdog.
If you care about journalism, and genuinely believe it has a critical role to play in our democracy and society – as we do – then you cannot use such phrases as a crutch without interrogating them, challenging them, and trying to work out what they actually mean.
Over the next year a number of decisions will be taken – or not taken – that will have a significant and material effect on journalism. Rules surrounding ownership of news outlets may be relaxed. The government will consider if – and how – to intervene in local and regional news. It will consult on whether to top slice the BBC License Fee.
During the same period more newspapers will fold.
And you can be sure that, between now and next summer, no-one will suddenly work out how to fix news’ broken business model.
We have a choice. We can wait and watch change happen around us. Hope that it is creative destruction and that in the end things will sort themselves out for the best.
Or we can try to do something about it, and make sure that, while navigating the rapids of media change, we do not lose things that are difficult or impossible to rebuild.
But it’s no good doing anything without first having thought carefully about the purpose and value of journalism.
Which is why we have started this series – that Lionel Barber began at the British Academy last night. Barber has been at the FT for over 20 years – in which time he has been the paper’s Washington correspondent, news editor, Brussels bureau chief and editor of its continental edition. Before that he was a reporter at the Sunday Times and at the Scotsman.
‘In the new world of citizen journalism,’ Barber wrote last October, ‘the role of the trained journalist as trusted intermediary no longer holds…. Perhaps there is no such thing as a neutral filter or objective truth, and (print) journalists were imposters to suggest as much.’
We’ve just launched Value Added News
– to help anyone producing journalism to mark-up their news articles in a consistent, machine-readable way.
The idea is that by enabling straightforward, consistent mark-up of news articles, it will be easier for people producing journalism to distinguish their articles online (e.g. from commercial or government information), and make searching for those articles quicker and more intelligent.
This isn’t about the subjective stuff, rather about highlighting the who-what-where-when of a news article so that:
- A journalist, or someone producing journalism, can accurately identify their work on the web
- A member of the public has more information with which to assess the provenance of an article when they’re looking at it (i.e. who wrote it, when it was first published etc.)
- A member of the public can search the web using the news mark-up to focus their search
- News organisations, third party aggregators, and members of the public can use the news metadata to create new ways in which to access and navigate news
We think that better signposting of news on the web will be good for journalists, good for news organisations and good for the public.
Value Added News
recommends integrating a new draft news format – built on hAtom
– to news articles. This is not to say this is the one and only way to mark-up news – far from it – but we think it’s the easiest, most practical, and most effective way to do it right now. Value Added News is intended to be complementary to, but serves a different purpose than, pre-existing IPTC standards
(as we’ve discussed with them in the past).
Based on the pilots – at Associated Press, at openDemocacy.net
and elsewhere – and the discussion around the proposal we will develop and evolve it. We’re certainly not fixed about the best way to do this, but are committed to finding the best way. We will also work to make these standards compatible and, as much as possible, complementary to whatever is already out there.
Value Added News
should be as useful and as beneficial for a single blogger as for a major news organisation. This is not about big vs little journalism – it’s about distinguishing all journalism on the web.
This project is funded by two grants – one from the MacArthur Foundation
and one from the Knight Foundation (we won a Knight News Challenge Award
for this last year). It is entirely non-profit and non-proprietary. In other words, we’re not trying to make any money out of this – we just think it’s a Good Thing for journalism.
Nick Davies’ revelations about News Group Newspapers
reiterate both the serious public concerns about privacy intrusion highlighted by the Media Standards Trust in its report
earlier this year, and the failure of the current system to deal with this effectively.
“No evidence has emerged”, the 2007 Press Complaints Commission (PCC) report on subterfuge and newsgathering
stated, “either from the legal proceedings or the Commission’s questions to Mr Myler and Mr Hinton of a conspiracy at the newspaper going beyond Messrs Goodman and Mulcaire to subvert the law and the PCC’s Code of Practice”. “[N]o-one else”, it continued, “at the News of the World knew that Messrs Goodman and Mulcaire were tapping phone messages for stories”. Clive Goodman was, according to the (new) editor of the News of the World, a “rogue exception”.
Davies’ allegations that awareness of phone tapping was both widely known and accepted would, if proved, contradict these findings. During the Goodman inquiry, Davies reports, ‘officers found evidence of News Group staff using private investigators who hacked into “thousands” of mobile phones’. ‘The Scotland Yard files included paperwork which revealed that, contrary to News Group’s denial, Mulcaire had provided a recording of the messages on Taylor’s phone to a News of the World journalist who had transcribed them and emailed them to a senior reporter, and that a News of the World executive had offered Mulcaire a substantial bonus for a story specifically related to the intercepted messages’.
At the time of the PCC’s inquiry it stretched credulity to think that a private investigator could have done such a significant amount of information gathering for the newspaper and no-one but Goodman be aware of many of his activities. Yet the inquiry seemed almost designed not to shed further light on the episode. The PCC decided it was beyond its jurisdiction to interview the relevant editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, because he had resigned following Goodman’s conviction. “The Commission had announced that it would make specific inquiries of the editor of the newspaper”, Sir Christopher Meyer
, then Chairman of the PCC, said, “but as he [Coulson] has now resigned this is no longer appropriate”. Therefore they had to rely on the knowledge of the new editor, Colin Myler. But since Myler had not been working at the News of the World during the period in question – indeed had been editing a newspaper in New York – it was virtually certain he could not have known anything about what had been happening at the paper.
After speaking to Myler and Hinton, the PCC chose not to extend its interviews to more newspaper editors, but rather to write to them with specific questions. But these were not, as you might expect, to check whether the practices engaged in by Goodman were or were not widespread. Rather they were ‘to inquire about the extent of internal controls and what they [editors] did with regard to educating journalists about the requirements both of the Code and the law’. The PCC reported that it was satisfied by their responses. It then issued further guidelines about newsgathering and subterfuge. That was it. End of story.
Yet, only months earlier, the Information Commissioner had presented the PCC with files of evidence showing that the practices were widespread, and had urged the Commission to conduct a proper investigation. The PCC declined. Frustrated by the press’ lack of action the Information Commission published two reports, ‘What Price Privacy?
’ and ‘What Price Privacy Now?
’, referencing evidence of widespread illegal data hacking – most of it demonstrably not in the public interest. The Information Commissioner also published a ‘league table’ of newspapers’ trade in confidential personal information. The News of the World did not even come top of the table: the Daily Mail did, with 952 ‘transactions’ (and this from one detective agency, there could well have been others). Yet the Commissioner refrained from publishing the names of the victims or of the journalists involved. Some of the names of the victims are now being revealed by The Guardian’s new allegations.
Davies’ investigation backs up and extends the findings of the Information Commissioner’s inquiry. It confirms what many people thought, and what the Media Standards Trust report said earlier this year: that the current system of press accountability is not effective.
The question is, what to do now? There clearly ought to be proper investigation into the collection of personal information by newspapers – particularly the use of phone tapping. But who should do it? The Press Complaints Commission has already had an opportunity to conduct an inquiry but failed to discover any further wrongdoing. Moreover, its Articles of Association constrain its freedom to act and it has limited resources and personnel. However, any disproportionate action by Parliament or the police would raise understandable – and justifiable – concern about freedom of the press and a journalist’s right to protect the anonymity of their sources.
The press should, therefore, appoint a genuinely independent figure with wide-ranging powers, to conduct a lengthy and detailed investigation. There is precedent for this within the media and elsewhere. The BBC appointed Will Wyatt in the wake of the ‘Queengate’ affair. Wyatt then published a report highly critical of the Corporation. The FA appointed Lord Burns to look into the structure of the Football Association. The government has a long history of finding independent figures to run inquiries including MacPherson, Nolan, and Kelly.
Do this and the press could achieve two things. It could prove to critics of the system of press self-regulation that it is – contrary to popular perception – able to hold the press to account. And, it could help to renew public confidence. Based on a YouGov poll commissioned for our report and published in February, 70% of the public believe there are ‘far too many instances of people’s privacy being invaded by newspaper journalists’. Davies’ revelations will only confirm this impression. An independent investigation could both demonstrate whether this impression is misguided, and provide a basis from which action can be taken.