Archive for the ‘Fourth Estate’ tag

Journalism wins

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Though we don’t yet know the long term effects of the MPs expenses scandal we already know it has had a very positive impact on journalism. 

Despite the resignation of the Speaker, Michael Martin, the repercussions of this story will take a long time to play out for MPs and the political process. ‘Much much more needs to happen if MPs are to get out of the expenses morass’, Peter Riddell writes in The Times. And later in the same paper Daniel Finkelstein wonders if MPs have really yet understood what a profound impact the information revolution has had – and will have on politics.

But some of the beneficial repercussions on journalism are already apparent. For one thing it has reminded people – print journalists in particular – that not only are rumours of newspapers demise greatly exaggerated, but that they can genuinely hold politicians to account, and catalyse root and branch reform.

The expenses scandal has been a shot in the arm for public interest journalism. It has shown that political news can sell papers (the Telegraph has, according to Media Guardian, sold 600,000 more newspapers), that a newspaper (as opposed to a website or blog) can lead the news agenda for days – weeks – on end. And it has shown that the role of journalism as watchdog is alive and well.

This will not only put a spring in the step of political correspondents but make all journalists more conscious – and prouder – of their trade. It will help remind journalism students about why they’re going into a profession that has – in so many other respects – such an uncertain future.

All the better that the story has been owned – quite literally – by the conservative (Conservative?) bastion that is the Daily Telegraph. A paper that appeared to have lost its way politically and journalistically. The Telegraph has now found its voice – and found it in 130+ point type.

It is not yet clear whether this story represents a flare in the embers of newspapers that are already dying, or whether it represents a revival of the – often idealised – the Fourth Estate. Whichever it is, journalists should take a moment to reflect on a good time for public interest journalism.

Written by Martin Moore

May 20th, 2009 at 9:19 am

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A new founding principle for the BBC

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Fantastic. A proper thoughtful speech about politics, the media and the role of the BBC from Mark Thompson – the BBC’s Director General (‘The Trouble with Trust’).

Admittedly, part of the reason I’m impressed is that I’ve been banging on about many of the same issues for a while now. Indeed, for the last couple of months I’ve been on a road trip telling anyone who will listen (BBC included) that news organisations are changing fundamentally, that the Fourth Estate is under threat, and that the only news organisation with the scale and remit to take the lead in doing something about it is the BBC.

One aspect of his speech particularly struck me. Thompson did not just outline what he saw as the problems with democratic engagement (including a healthy dose of scepticism about the value of scepticism) he also had a go at suggesting a way forward. This included transforming “the way we [the BBC] connect British democracy – and all its many democratic institutions – to the public”.

This is important. It means, in effect, adding a fourth pillar – ‘to connect’ – to the BBC’s famous founding principles – to inform, educate and entertain’. I’m not sure I like the verb Thompson’s used – I’d probably go with ‘to engage’ or ‘to include’ rather than ‘to connect’, but the concept is right. Only by including the public in a reconstituted Fourth Estate can we hope to sustain and renew it.

Thompson then talked about what this might mean in practice, for example, giving the public “Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them”. Much, in other words, of what mySociety has started to do through www.theyworkforyou.com, and some of it’s other excellent websites.

Indeed it sounded like organisations like mySociety – and, I hope, Media Standards Trust – inspired this part of Thompson’s speech. Which appeared to be confirmed by Thompson’s comment at the end that “We don’t want to do all this on our own, but in partnership with some of the existing sites which are pioneering web democracy – and with the democratic institutions themselves”.

This is significant – and exciting – new territory for the BBC. The Corporation will need partners, and will need to sustain its ambition (not so easy given the financial and other pressures it is under), but this is most certainly the right direction. Thank goodness.

Written by Martin Moore

January 16th, 2008 at 12:48 pm

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Plucky Lords to challenge the media

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I yesterday had the pleasure of giving evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.

The House of Lords, unlike their counterparts in the Commons, have plucked up the courage to do a serious examination of the impact of media ownership on news.

I say courage because, despite the enormous changes happening in news and the difficult questions these changes raise about public interest reporting and the role of the Fourth Estate, MPs have studiously ignored the problem.

Indeed there have been more blue moons since 1997 than there have been government inquiries or consultations into the media. It was only as Tony Blair left office that he felt brave enough to challenge the influence of the news media (in his now infamous ‘feral beasts’ speech). The Conservatives have been even less critical – indeed so comfortable is David Cameron with media malpractice that he snapped up Andy Coulson as his director of communications – shortly after Coulson had resigned as editor of News of the World following the royal phone tapping scandal (see previous post).

So the House of Lords should be applauded for launching such an inquiry, and for not being scared off by the danger of bad headlines.

Yet this said, I can’t help but be anxious about what the Select Committee will achieve. By focusing on media ownership the inquiry could end up being either anachronistic or prescient. Working out what to do about media owners has been a bugbear of the government ever since mass media arrived. The first Royal Commission on the Press, back in 1947, was set up because of ‘increasing public concern at the growth of monopolistic tendencies in the control of the Press’. Now, 60 years on, we’re still worrying about it, and not much closer to working out a solution.

But the focus on media ownership could also be prescient. If, by ‘media ownership’, the Lords are thinking about the economics of news production. The financial model that used to underpin news is being eroded every day, and so the question of how public interest reporting will be funded in the future is horribly unclear.

If the Select Committee can raise awareness about the seriousness of this problem, and can suggest some innovative ways for how we might address it (preferably ones that don’t include the term ‘Public Service Publisher’), then they will have done a great service.

Written by Martin Moore

October 25th, 2007 at 11:09 am

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Harnessing the power of the new Fourth Estate

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I spent this afternoon in Oxford talking to BBC journalists, producers and editors about the threats to public interest journalism and the Fourth Estate (imagine how few news organisations would not only make time to talk about this, but where journalists would turn up and discuss it – good old BBC), and realised – after having left, that I’d forgotten to talk about the exciting bit. There’s so much to worry about in news it’s easy to forget that the revolution in media is as exciting as it is scary.

Central to this – and where the BBC plays a critical role – is the reconstitution of what’s traditionally been known as the ‘Fourth Estate’. What I mean by this is the massive explosion in the number of people doing what they consider journalism, but who don’t call themselves journalists. Maybe they take the occasional photo and send it to the BBC, or write a blog about an event they go to, or do some digging about some local scandal.

The exciting bit, and the bit I hope the BBC will play a big part in, is harnessing this amazing explosion by giving people the tools and advice to help them become informal constituents of this new Fourth Estate. This occurred to me when on the way back I was reading excerpts from Demos’ study about the ‘Pro-Am Revolution’:

“…in the last two decades” Demos writes, “a new breed of amateur has emerged: the Pro-Am, amateurs who work to professional standards. These are not the gentlemanly amateurs of old – George Orwell’s blimpocracy, the men in blazers who sustained amateur cricket and athletics clubs. The Pro-Ams are knowledgeable, educated, committed and networked by new technology. The twentieth century was shaped by large hierarchical organisations with professionals at the top. Pro-Ams are creating new, distributed organisational models that will be innovative, adaptive, and low cost”

Imagine if the BBC built the tools to enable these ‘Pro-Ams’ to do some of the jobs journalists would like to do but just don’t have time: to search through health statistics, to look at local councillors records, to look at public sector budgets. Many might use them just for their own benefit, but in doing so they could turn up things no single journalist would have time to look for. MySociety have built tools like this to enable people to scrutinize MPs (TheyWorkForYou), and more recently on to report local problems – FixMyStreet (broken drains, cracked pavements).

Isn’t this something the BBC could do too? And, if it did, wouldn’t it harness the power of an army of local and specialist journalists?

Written by Martin Moore

September 26th, 2007 at 4:48 pm

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