Monday, 28 January 2008

Alastair's denial

I was struck by a couple of passages in Alastair Campbell's Hugh Cudlipp Lecture and subsequent comments blogged by Charlie Beckett of POLIS.
First this: that, apparently, one of the reasons Alastair left No10 was:
"relations between media and politics had become so bad, I had become something of a symbol within that, and part of me thought maybe things would improve."
An act of selfless self-sacrifice, then, on behalf of the greater good ... though, he asserts, a sacrifice made in vain.
"I am not sure things have improved at all.”
May as well have stayed on, then ... though the diaries (and cheques) etc would have had to wait.

Alastair's list of what didn't improve at his going is long and familiar: quantity of journalism up, standards down ... and there's much with which most would agree. The media - the press in particular - should
"understand (that) its responsibilities in a modern democracy go beyond making money and filling space"
for example. Amen to that.

But while Alastair seems on one level to recognise that his controlling urges changed both politics and political journalism, he seems on another to be in denial about the scale and corrosive effect of that urge for control ... and what needs to be done to make good that corrosion.

The truth is that some very important things did change the moment Alastair left No10. It became possible, for example, to have rational, calm conversations both with Downing Street and other Government departments. My dealings - I was then Editor of Today - with Government and Ministers was no longer a perpetual combat, a zero-sum game in which reason was a sign of weakness and the resolution of every negotiation or complaint had to have a winner and a loser.

Second, this: I sometimes wonder whether Alastair's obsession with the quantity of news (“In an era of more pages, more space, more access, more talk, there is less said and done that is truly memorable”) is any more than the realisation that he could never really control the supply of news ... that no-one could. That news and journalism is cantankerous and messy. And I wonder whether what he calls "the media's obsession with itself" isn't just a cry of frustration at those pesky journalists he felt he should have controlled but who insisted in going off-grid - like Nick Clarke's The World at One, which always took as its starting point stories and angles that weren't on the Downing Street spreadsheet.

But Charlie Beckett is right - the question to both journalists and politicians is ... what are you going to do about it? Things may have improved since Alastair left Downing Street ... but not by enough to make repair all the damage done while he was there.

There are plenty of shortcoming in the British press; the obsession with failure or with doing down public figures ... rather in the way Alastair describes the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition as:
"a PR man by trade whose single most important achievement prior to becoming leader was making a speech without notes"
and the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as:
"a good looking 40 year old about whom next to nothing is known"
But then, old habits die hard. Which is the point Alastair has never seemed able to grasp - that if you want a higher level of serious political debate then some old habits need to go ... on both the political and the journalistic side. And that those habits will never go while the default nature of politics and political journalism is blood sport and neither politician nor journalist really, really wants that to change.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

A UK first?

Roy Greenslade asks the question:
"Is Guido Fawkes responsible for Britain's first genuine
blogging scalp with Peter Hain's ministerial resignation?"

And points out that Guido Fawkes/Paul Staines
makes a passing mention of his possible involvement in the tonsuring while asking:

"Is this the first example of a blogger supplanting Fleet Street?
A good question given the realities of politics and journalism ... but one that for some reason hacks me off.

And not just because I've been reminding myself of the glory days of Ian MacIntyre and John Birt in
David Hendy's excellent history of Radio 4. I was a rebel, honest.

Of course, bloggers have been supplanting Fleet Street (columnists) for a couple of years now -
sorry Simon - you really don't get the best venom on paper any more nor do you have to pay for it.

Question is, have bloggers usurped Fleet Street's right to fuel palace coups or court culls - aka make the kitchen so hot the only sensible way is out? Answer is, no. Fawkes/Staines may have known (roughly) where the petrol cans were ... but it was only when the mainstream started waving them over their heads that it got dangerous for Mr Hain.

Test is this: who'd have cared if Fawkes/Staines was wrong? Or ... alongside the Hain 'scalp' how many missed crania are there? Possibleymore than one and perhaps up to many.

But back to the coups/culls. I really do understand the thrill of it - I've had my share and there's something undoubtedly satisfying about tucking the bloodied follicles under your belt. It's exciting, fulfilling, endorsing, validating. I really do understand it.

Except.

It can't be right, can it? Being a watchdog is one thing - waking voters up to those things the elected have done in their name. Reminding the people that they own the power, not those they lend it to.

But ... do watchdogs scalp those they watch? Isn't that up to voters? Is this kind of pressure exerted by a handful of journos on a single individual, an uncertain and increasingly insecure Prime Minister, really what democracy is about? Or what voters want it to be about?

Actually, the thing that really hacks me off is that it never seems to me that many political journalists - and now bloggers - see this side of their trade as anything more than or other than a game.

They use the language of democratic accountability to describe something that looks to those on the outside (ie voters, citizens - sorry, subjects - people, you, me) like a round of British bulldog in which they're not asked to play.

I said something like this
here back in April:
"From what I see of the successful political blogs - let's take Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes for instance - they replicate the inward looking, metropolitan chumminess of the Westminster village that many in the audience find repellent in both politics and political journalism."

Fawkes/Staines pinged back:
"it is only a blog, and it is intended to entertain not save the world."
Or change it. But that was then. This is now.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Future(ish) News(ish)

Recently, my good friend and Head of BBC Newsroom Peter Horrocks spoke to Leeds University and posted these comments to the BBC Editors' blog on user generated content.
The speech and blog are an early glimpse of the direction he intends for the newly merged 'News' department of the world's most important broadcaster and it’s a pretty clear statement of the relationship he sees between traditional, 'big' journalism and the participating audience ... as both journalism and information sharing on the web evolve.
He has the responsibility for that News - I have the luxury of being able to comment with no responsibilities, now, of a similar order. Peter was clear that he wanted a debate on his thoughts ... so I helped with these thoughts from the yellowing ivory tower and posted them this week on the internal BBC College of Journalism website.
One thing no-one could argue with; the nature and scale of the challenges to the BBC from new(ish) journalism are unique. The risks to it dwarf those confronting any other news organisation. It would be wrong to underestimate that. In this as in most things, the BBC is different.
For that reason if no other, a careful and cautious approach is probably essential; but, some would argue, Peter's journocentric approach might not be so essential. It’s worth discussing - his vision of journalism yields very little of the trade’s role as the principal agent in the information business. Interacting with audiences isn’t much more than a help and assistance in that.
Not everyone would agree.
Take this. Peter describes how the BBC considered closing down the online debate following Benazir Bhutto’s death, ostensibly because that debate, in conventional journalistic terms, went off message - discussing Islam (rarely in flattering terms) rather than the political future of Pakistan (though there are perfectly respectable arguments here, here and here, to pick a few at random) to be had about the nature of Islam and its effects on Pakistan’s social and political development.
In the end, he/they didn’t close the debate down … not because it was felt that the debate was in and of itself worthwhile but with two ex post facto, journocentric justifications.
One, this.
“Buried amongst the comments … were insights from those who had met Benazir or knew her. And there were valuable eye witness comments from people who were at the scene in Rawalpindi. Our team that deals with user content sifted through the chaff to find some excellent wheat.”
The other, this:
“In one sense it is very useful to understand the strength of feeling on this issue (the nature of Islam) amongst our audiences.”
In other words, the value of hosting the debate (and remember, it’s the comment and debate side of audience participation not its role as occasional, accidental reporter) lies in the “wheat” we journalists can sift from the chaff (a wheat/chaff distinction determined by us journalists) and in the steer it gives us journalists about what audiences are thinking, though a steer we journalists interpret and are at liberty to ignore.
“We cannot just take the views that we receive via e-mails and texts and let them drive our agenda. Nor should they in any way give us a slant around which we should orient our take on a story. At their best they are an invaluable information resource and an important corrective to group-think.”
True. But who’s saying that it should?
Put the other way around, is it right still to place traditional journalism (with all its failings) at the heart of the “public participation journalism” model? It’s understandable that we journalists want to - but is it really just “messianic and starry eyed” to consider the possibility it doesn’t have to be that way? Or even that it shouldn’t be that way.
Peter gives a straw man a good shake with this rhetorical interrogative:
“Should we (in the case of the BBC’s Bhutto coverage) have given over a significant part of our website and our analysis programmes on Radio 4 to consideration of whether Islam is a religion that is inherently skewed towards violence? Or were we right to concentrate our journalism on reporting and analysing the life on Benazir, how she came to die and the political consequences?”
Some will see this as a journocentric elision that assumes the web and what happens there and on Radio 4 (or in any other traditional context) are both parts of a single editorial continuum … with traditional journalism at the ‘good’ end and peer-to-peer web action at the other.
But are they all on the same continuum, the ‘low’ end validated by the ‘high’? Or if they are in journalists' minds, do they have to be?
Only if you assume that the web is no more than a source (of stories and audience insights) for traditional journalism does the argument hold. It may just be that (some of) what’s done on the web – in particular peer-to-peer information sharing and debate - really is a different species from traditional journalism … and that it should be. And that by the same token, what happens there – even on a BBC site – should have no inevitable consequence for the choices made in traditional journalism contexts.
So why not either let the web crowd do what it does or – if traditional journalism must intervene - inject into that web debate (in this case, over Islam) content touching on the question the audience is itself discussing? Why does that have any necessary consequence for the choices Panorama, Newsnight or News 24 makes?
Here’s one of Peter’s answers why not – but some will wonder whether it really flies.
“The general conversation on the web is freely available to all. The BBC does not have to host that.”
Rework that with the word “News …” instead of “The general conversation …” and see where it goes.
And for the BBC to host a web conversation, here’s the essential criterion ...
“We will want the information generated to be editorially valuable ... we need to be able to extract real editorial value from such contributions more easily … (we must get) real journalistic value out of this material.”
Hmm. Is there really no intrinsic worth in civic debate - whether on the web or in a village hall? Is that debate and conversation only to be judged by the editorial content it supplies to traditional journalism? Is there truly no public purpose and civic value in hosting that conversation?
It’s a question of choice. The argument that moderating web debates is costly and time consuming and brings editorial risk is true of all BBC journalism. Cost and risk alone and in themselves can’t invalidate any journalistic activity – they’re parameters to help a broadcaster work out priorities.
There’s no doubt that audience participation on the web does and should support traditional journalism done by traditional journalists. Anything and everything is a source. There’s no doubt, too, that peer-to-peer debate and information sharing offers big journalism important audience insights – including an aid to calibrating what impartiality seems to mean to audiences on any story.
But is that what it’s for?
Few will argue with Peter's stress on the idea of “radical impartiality” and the pointers the web conversation gives traditional journalism to achieve it – though I think “radical impartiality” was something both Peter and I were already pursuing in the pre-web age … he at Newsnight, me at World at One ... both ever looking out for the “thoughtful or surprising views and opinions” in any source.
But some eyebrows might be raised at the characterisation of web debate as, occasionally, “digital bullying”. And at the assertion that it’s:
“actually about getting the so-called mainstream media to adopt specific policy agendas, or lean in certain directions.”
It may once have been true that contributing to online debates was a minority activity and that, therefore, marginal views became amplified. But even if that’s a valid metric – and most would argue that on the web, it isn’t – it’s becoming less and less true. A piece of academic research due to be published later this year suggests that 42% of audiences now participate in online interactivity.
But even if the web debate does shift the centre of gravity on an issue? So what? Off-line conversation as well as speeches, books, magazines, newspapers … even press releases and spin meisters … have always done that. Have journalists feared “hot-air” or “paper” bullying?
So, the question is worth asking in the light of Peter’s clear statement of purpose for the BBC in journalism’s latest burst of evolution.
Is audience interactivity on the web – or more precisely, interactivity on BBC websites – only validated by its usefulness to traditional journalism? Or, conversely, does the BBC (and some other parts of big journalism) need to shift from an understandably journocentric view of audience participation and consider the fact of the online civic debate as a public good in itself?
Discuss.