Saturday, 3 September 2011

Saving the reporter

THERE is a fascinating conference being held on Tuesday morning (September 6) in London. It is being organized by Westminster Forum an organization which puts key figures of the media industry in touch with law-makers and other interested parties to inform legislation. It is entitled Media Forum Keynote Seminar: News now.
Its stated focus is to discuss key issues in the provision of news, from standards, ethics and trust to plurality and media ownership.
Its stated context is: “An early opportunity to examine the future policy and regulatory framework for the news industry, ahead of the wide-ranging inquiries into the culture and practices in journalism.”
A very impressive group of speakers includes: Professor Natalie Fenton, Co-Director, Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, University of London; Martin Fewell, Deputy Editor, Channel 4 News; Will Gore, Public Affairs Director, Press Complaints Commission; Mary Hockaday, Head, Newsroom, BBC; Tom Kent, Deputy Managing Editor and Standards Editor, Associated Press; Jim Latham, Secretary, Broadcast Journalism Training Council; Mark Lewis, Partner, Taylor Hampton Solicitors; John McAndrew, Associate Editor, Sky News; Martin Moore, Director, Media Standards Trust; Nic Newman, Visiting Fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University and former World Editor, BBC News Website; Bob Satchwell, Executive Director, Society of Editors and Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists.
In the chair will be Rt. Hon. the Lord Fowler and Lord Inglewood, Chairman, House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.
Attendees will include: Parliamentarians from the House of Lords, officials from Department for Culture, Media and Sport; European Commission Representation in the UK; and the Competition Commission as well as representatives from 3 Monkeys Communications; African Media Investments; Al Jazeera; Arqiva; Associated Press; BBC; BBC Trust; Bloomberg TV; Cardiff University; Channel 4; Channel 5; Free TV Australia; Guardian Media Group; International Broadcasting Trust (IBT); ITN Consulting; ITV; KPMG; Leeds Trinity University College; Reporters Without Borders; Reuters; Schillings; The Guardian; The Times; Thomson Media Foundation; University of Kent; Warner Bros et alia.
With such an august audience I didn’t think they would miss me and besides I cannot afford the cost or time to attend the conference, which is a shame as it is a subject about which I care passionately. Instead I submitted the following in the hope that it can influence contributions, or be logged in the records of the conference:
My main concerns are:
The impact that social media and internet-driven agendas, allied to a desire by politicians and others to manage the media and a spiralling obsession with celebrities are having on reporting standards;
Profit driven news organisations, owned by large corporations whose primary aim is to please shareholders, are cutting back on reporting staff;
Easy regurgitation of press releases is being used to fill column inches in the regional newspapers and inexperienced interns are being used by Nationals;
User-generated material is seen as an easy way of filling space, whether stories, pictures or comment;
Stories are cut and pasted from one web-site to another without any attempt to check their veracity;
Court cases are widely reported by news organisations who were not present and therefore cannot guarantee the reports are fair and balanced - the courts seem unable or unwilling to police this abuse;
The tendency of readers to click on celebrity stories is being used to unduly influence news values on the grounds that “that is what the public is interested in” without appreciation that expectations of what appears in main bulletins or printed products may differ from on-line offerings;
Reporting of real events involving real people are being squeezed out of the news agenda so increasing the gulf between the media and their customers, which may partly explain the plummeting sales of all newspaper types, and perhaps the explosion of use of social media.
The illegal, defamatory and prejudicial nature of comments on the bottom of stories on web-sites is undermining all the traditional safeguards that made free speech reliant on responsibility.
The end result of all these trends is that the role of the reporter is being undermined, undervalued and risks being destined for the scrap heap.
Who then will produce the truthful, challenging, illuminating material for whatever medium?
I offered these possible solutions:
Ask the Government’s investigations into media standards to include these issues;
Empower the courts (of all kinds) to fine organisations for contempt if they report without representation, forcing them to pay reporters who do attend for any material used;
Proceed with plans to make it easier to give independent non-profit making local newspapers charity status;
Find a mechanic to police protecting the intellectual copyright of news reports, to encourage investigative, pain-staking journalism;
Campaign to raise awareness of the importance of the skills and training of reporters to the wider public, so they appreciate the vital role they play in a democracy.
Some of the above seem daunting and even verging on hopeless, but the hacking scandal and its aftermath may just give a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these important issues.

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