Archive for the ‘public interest’ tag

Journalism for everyone – why the BBC’s journalism website is such an important public resource

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When Dan Gillmor suggested that we’re all journalists now, back in 2004, he was talking more about our newfound opportunity to publish journalism rather than a newfound aptitude to practice journalism.

Gillmor rightly pointed out that, once we had internet access, we could all publish what we saw, heard and did. And boy did we. Today more than 225,000 blogposts are published on WordPress. 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. More than 300 million people are now on Facebook – many providing regular ‘news updates’.

But publishing what you’ve seen, heard or done is different from journalism. Much of the new ‘reporting’ – whether by amateur bloggers and micro-bloggers, or by professional communicators in government, commercial organizations or NGOs – is not necessarily informed by the principles of journalism. By this I mean the principles of verification, of objectivity (in process rather than product), of independence (from commercial or government), of accountability, and of public interest. (nb. see George Snell on ‘reporting is now a commodity’ HT @Greenslade).

“Why should what we publish be informed by the principles of journalism?”, you ask. Well, certainly a lot of new content neither aspires to be or wants to be considered ‘journalism’.

But, if you ask a different question – do I want this content to be trusted? Then you have part of your answer.

The principles of journalism developed partly out of an aspiration to inspire trust. The principles are a journalists way of saying: I’ve checked this so you don’t have to; I’ve contacted people with differing views in order to best represent a range of perspectives; I’m not doing this to promote a product or service; I have written and published this in the public – rather than private – interest.

Clearly some people who have embraced the opportunities of new media do this already – and more so. In terms of transparency, bloggers have shown mainstream media best practice rather than vice versa.

But masses of self-published content is not informed by these principles. In many cases because they’re not relevant (like Facebook updates). But with others, it’s not because the content does not seek to be balanced, or fair, or trustworthy, but because those publishing it are not familiar with the principles or have not thought it necessary to make them explicit.

Which is why the launch of the BBC’s college of journalism site this week is so important. This is one of the most substantial online journalism resources in the world. There are many other important sites – the Poynter Institute, the Columbia Journalism Review, Project for Excellence in Journalism, journalism.co.uk, buzzmachine. But few that have such a wealth of teaching materials and resources, curated so carefully and put together so professionally.

Take, for example, the section on ‘public interest’ journalism in Ethics and Values. Alan Little uses the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia as a basis to explain how a journalist has to guide ‘An intelligent, informed audience… to make the connection between a specific event and its broader significance’. A ‘journalism tutor’ gives you the material to pitch a story – on its public interest merits – to a news editor. There are guidelines about the use of secret recording and on the line between privacy and the public interest. And BBC journalists talk about what they understand by ‘public interest’ journalism.

There are similar sections on trust and judgment, accountability, independence, impartiality, and truth and accuracy. Elsewhere on the site you can see tutorials about writing for the web, read about the difficulties of maintaining contempt of court on the web, and test how much you know about world religions.

There could, of course, be more. I’d like to see a section on transparency in journalism – what this means and how to do it well. But this is a remarkable and important resource, not just for those who aim to be journalists, but for the growing millions of professional and amateur communicators on the web.

Written by Martin Moore

December 16th, 2009 at 3:37 pm

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Local press subsidies are not the answer

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Most people would now acknowledge that there are serious structural issues facing regional and local news. ITV says it’s too expensive and it will stop providing it unless the government makes it worthwhile (see Michael Grade’s piece in the Telegraph). Local newspaper circulations have been dropping virtually non-stop for the last few years and, more importantly, their advertising and classified revenues keep falling. As a result news organisations are cutting local staff, closing offices and shutting down newspapers (see Job Cuts Timeline at journalism.co.uk, Roy Greenslade on Archant shutting offices, and the FT on newspaper closures).


Some local areas have it worse than others. This week two Welsh politicians called Wales a ‘media wasteland’ where stories of public and political interest simply go unreported – despite the devolution of power to Wales a decade ago. ”Since 1999″, Dai Davies said, “we have seen a vast increase in powers to politicians in Wales and yet more and more journalists losing their jobs, and less and less reporting of politics and political debate and decision-making” (from BBC News Wales).

Now English politicians are also starting to become animated about the decline in reporting and lack of political coverage. Ashok Kumar, Labour MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland says he is next week going to ask the government to provide state support for the regional press (from Press Gazette).

Kumar and other politicians follow a growing number of voices from within the media itself who are suggesting the government should subsidise local newspapers. Most notably Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who wrote back in November:

“Is there any reason why local newspapers – whether in print, on broadband or broadcast – shouldn’t compete with the broadcasters for some form of subsidy in return for providing the public service of keeping a community informed about itself?”

But subsidising the local press is not, IMHO, a good idea. For at least three reasons:

1. An independent commercial press would be neither independent nor commercial if it was taking hand-outs from the government. The watchdog role played by the local press would be seriously compromised were it to be state subsidised. Imagine the attitude of local councillors to reporters whose salary was partly dependent on government financing?

2. There are huge changes taking place in the way news is collected, edited, published, delivered and consumed. These changes are forcing news organisations to completely rethink how they do business. Subsidising a 20th century model will not help them rethink and reform, it will just encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing

3. It would distort local editors and journalists view of who they serve. Instead of feeling – at root – responsible to the public, they would inevitably feel a degree of responsibility to the government.

This is not an argument against intervention per se. The government can set parameters – particularly fiscal parameters (i.e. tax) that incentivise people to collect and publish public interest news. But this is fundamentally different from providing a subsidy, however arms length, that organisations can apply for. 

Written by Martin Moore

January 16th, 2009 at 1:06 pm

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Defending the public interest defence

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We have to hope that Christopher Galley’s public interest defence – if true – is successful. Galley has said, through his lawyer, that he leaked numerous documents to Conservative MP Damian Green because he believed they were in the public interest. He did not, he says, receive money for the documents, nor was he ‘groomed’ by Green as a plant in the Home Office. Damian Green has reiterated these claims (according to a ‘senior Tory source’).


Making this defence does not make Galley immune from prosecution. The police can still take action. However, he has not been charged under the Official Secrets Act and has, to date, only been questioned on suspicion of ‘misconduct in public life’.

His public interest defence is, in these circumstances, not just valid but valuable. We need more successful public interest cases based on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, in order to create precedents. Only through numerous precedents will the government and police recognise that it is legitimate for people to release and publish information that is genuinely in the public interest – no matter how embarrassing it is. The government is still entirely justified in taking disciplinary action, but may feel less inclined to pursue criminal proceeedings. Plus, with more precedents, journalists will feel more confident investigating awkward stories without fearing they will be hauled into the police station and threatened with life imprisonment. 

These are not idle fears. The journalist Sally Murrer went through a horrific ordeal simply for doing her job. Murrer, a 50-year-old single mum with three children who works part time at the Milton Keynes Citizen, was arrested at her home 19 months ago. She was held at the police station, strip searched, told she might face life in jail, and then prosecuted for over a year. The charge was the same as that levelled at Damian Green – ‘aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in public life’. Murrer had been given information by a police source and then published it in the local paper. Not information that might have threatened national security. Not information that could have impaired the investigation of a serious crime. No, these were simply local stories about pub fights and drug dealers: ‘One concerned a local footballer involved in a brawl, another about the death of a former drug offender and a third, which was never published, involved an Islamist released early from prison’ (Sally Murrer, The Daily Mail).

The case against Murrer eventually collapsed because her lawyer successfully defended her on the basis of Article 10 – freedom of expression. But the lengthy ordeal has had a profound effect on Murrer. ‘I tried to keep working,’ she wrote in the Daily Mail last Saturday, ‘but I don’t know if I have the strength to continue as a journalist. I certainly won’t be doing another police story again’.

Of course the government should be free to take disciplinary action against civil servants that leak information – particularly serial leakers. It could – should – have fired Christopher Galley long ago when the Home Office first realised what he was doing. But before the police are called in to take criminal action – and criminal action that seems designed to scare not just the accused but anyone who might be thinking of acting in a similar way – then the public interest defence needs to give them pause.

Written by Martin Moore

December 2nd, 2008 at 2:54 pm

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Is Wales the canary in the mine of news?

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It would be difficult to find a quieter way to go.

Last Friday Rhodri Morgan, Wales’ First Minister, announced that he would step down in September 2009. It was reported in the South Wales Echo, the South Wales Evening Post, the Daily Post (Liverpool) and got a brief mention on Betsan Powys’ blog (BBC Wales).

Nothing in the national press or on their websites. Nothing on Sky. Nothing on the BBC News Online (excepting Powys’ blog and a short piece about the succession). Tumbleweed.

Now, you could try to explain this absence by arguing that September 2009 is a long way away, that the announcement was partly expected (though not its timing), and that Rhodri Morgan is not the most exciting figure. And, of course, it would be daft to expect anything approaching the fanfare attached to news about Tony Blair’s corresponding announcement.

But wouldn’t you have thought it was in the public interest at least to report it? Isn’t the fact that the leader of the Welsh Assembly Government is going and that a succession battle will now begin relevant not just to Wales but to UK politics and democracy?

Were Alex Salmond to announce he was stepping down it’s hard to imagine the Scottish press ignoring it, or indeed the BBC.

And this isn’t the only piece of Welsh political news that has gone AWOL. Last summer Morgan was hospitalized. Few outlets reported it. Immediately before that the successive attempts by different parties to form a coalition government were given scant coverage by the media.

Indeed there is increasing evidence to suggest that Wales is becoming a ‘news blackspot’. That it is experiencing the spiral of decline in news reporting that people keep saying is threatened elsewhere.

The process goes something like this. Commercial organisations gradually cut back on their editorial commitment. The less an area is reported the less people assume there is to report. More reporters are pulled out. Finally only the BBC and local papers cover the region – and the BBC ghetto-izes much of its reporting into online pockets and blogs. At this point there’s a good chance that, even if something happens that is important/newsworthy, it will go unreported or so under-reported that the vast majority of people will completely miss it.

Is Wales the first of many? Other areas now seem to be following the same path. Perhaps, if we think it’s important that political news continues to get reported, we should look at what’s happened in Wales and work out if we can do anything to reverse / stop it.

Written by Martin Moore

February 13th, 2008 at 3:17 pm

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