Thursday, 7 July 2011

What's the question?

"This time, it's palpably nasty." That's Quentin Letts, the Mail's theatre critic. West End and Westminster.
It captures what everyone now feels about the long-running so-called 'phone hacking' scandal. For half a decade it has interested and outraged people like me - the sort of people Nick Robinson dismissed on Today as "professors of journalism ethics".
But now it's on everyone's mind. And lips: 'how could they sink so low?'
But reaching the tipping point is one thing. Where it falls is another.
On 6 July at the House of Lords, a campaign was launched to press for a public inquiry. (I should declare an interest: I was asked to lend my name to the campaign, partly because of earlier blogs I'd written on this website.)
Now is the chance for the public to tell journalists about the kind of press they want - a press they would trust.
It goes way beyond News International's serial offending - though that's the priority for now: discovering the number and nature of News of the World journalists' crimes, and those of the 'investigators' they hired.
But it's important that the investigation of this scandal doesn't end there.
We, the public, need to know how the culture of contempt - a culture of which phone-hacking is just the nastiest tip of a nasty iceberg - came to be the norm in all tabloid newsrooms. We need to know more about the routine of bribing bank and DVLA clerks, doctors' receptionists, nurses... anyone standing guard over private information. And bribing policemen - something News International's Chief Executive, Rebekah Brooks, boasted to MPs about.
We need to know, too, where the police were when this story broke five years ago. Why were those bin bags full of incriminating evidence stuffed away in a cupboard for half a decade? Did they think it was enough to catch the two crooks who'd hacked royal phones? Did they think phone-hacking as a matter of routine wasn't really very criminal at all? Or was there something more sinister at work? The symbiosis of the Met and News International?
We need to know more about the links, formal and informal, between political leaders and the Murdoch empire.
We need full disclosure about and proper, informed scrutiny of the kind of people who aspire to be at the helm of News International and BSkyB. Are they the kind of people the public want in charge of so much of the media?
And we need the Press Complaints Commission to tell us why it has spent the greater part of its two decades of life failing miserably to hold the press to account - even for the most disgusting breaches; not just of the risible Editors' Code but of any understanding of human decency.
We, the public, need to decide whether to call time on the running joke that has been press self-regulation. And whether we need something else in its place.
This matters. It matters because news isn't just a business like any other. And because the one thing that distinguishes journalism from rumour and gossip - trust - is in such short supply.
Tabloid publishers and editors may be content that eight out of ten readers don't believe a thing their newspaper tells them - but still buy them.
They may once have been persuaded that more intrusion, more bribery, more phone-hacking was the way to secure their future.
They can't any more. And the public doesn't have to accept it.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Standing up for journalism, standing out from the mob

This is the text of the keynote lecture given at Westminster University, June 8 2011 at the conference entitled: 'What makes good journalism'

This conference is part sponsored by the British Journalism Review. The Review is, of course, a very British paradox. A very necessary British paradox.
And very different from the journalism journals in, say, the United States.
Journalism is still a trade here in the UK. Unlike America, journalists have no special status, no special protection. Though even there, as John Carroll, the former LA Times editor once put it: 
“It is the constitutional right of every person, no matter how depraved, to call themselves a journalist.”
Here in the UK, we’re quite rightly ambivalent about the study of journalism and the academic style of journalism that’s prevalent in the States. We tend to shuffle nervously or change the subject when people try to talk about journalism in academic terms. We see journalism as a doing thing. Something you do by instinct. 
Talking to people. Having a persuasive and personable manner when you’re trying to get your hands on that key fact. Listening to, following hunches. Knowing something doesn’t smell right. Weaving compelling narratives. 
The American journalism reviews are wonderful things in their way. 
But they have little ink on their fingers. Never feel to me like they know much about staring at a camera with the clock running down and the story breaking round you.
And that’s the great achievement of this thing called the British Journalism Review. The paradox. That it’s a thoughtful place. A place working journalists think over what they’ve done; think over the big questions they’ve had to answer. But a place that absolutely does not lose contact with our trade.
And that’s a tribute to Bill Hagerty and his team.
If I had one observation I’d like to make about this excellent conference. One question I’d like to ask, it’s this. Where is the audience? Where are those our trade touches? Our victims, if you like.
I ask that question partly because they are almost always the missing element when we come together to talk about ourselves. And partly because the people formerly known as the audience – as Jay Rosen calls them – are now, it’s often argued, our partners in our trade.

How many of you know this man?
He’s Sohaib Athar. The IT consultant who moved to Abbottabad in Pakistan for a quiet life.
And found himself live-tweeting the kill or capture operation that killed rather than captured Osama bin Laden.
He tweeted what he heard and what he saw. 
But hadn’t the faintest idea what it was that he was hearing and seeing.
Journalist? Or the kind of faithful, eyewitness we journalists have always sought out at great events.? 
How many of you know this photograph? 
Probably one of the most famous photographs in the world.
The Twitpic image of US Airways flight 1549. 
Captured not by a journalist. But by an eyewitness. 
And already around the world before “journalism” had got its boots on.
Or again, the kind of faithful eyewitness journalists need to do their job?
And even if you aggregate thousands, millions of examples of accidental witness, does that make it journalism?
How does this stack as journalism against the work of, say, Brian Hanrahan, Kate Adie, Jeremy Bowen, Martin Bell and John Simpsone. Or of course the great Martha Gelhorn. All celebrated at the Imperial War Museum North’s exhibition on war reporting. 
Now, I’m pretty clear – and I suspect many in this room are pretty clear – about the difference between them and accidental witnesses like Janis Krums the guy who shot the Hudson plane picture. Or Sohaib Ahtar?
But you know, I’m starting to lose count of the number of conferences and think-ins and seminars and panels where there’s one question on the agenda. How is new media changing journalism? Not, how do new media and journalism overlap. But how the fundamentals of our trade are changed and changing. 
You know the questions as well as I do.
Do we still need reporters and correspondents in the age of You Tube and Twitter?
Do we still need investigative reporters in the age of Wikileaks and crowd-sourcing?
Do we still need columnists and leader writers in the age of the blogger?
There’s an underlying assumption at all levels in our business that paid-for, deliberate, mainstream journalism has to make itself more like amateur, happenstance, random social media. That we have to embrace new media and social media and change our assumptions about journalism. There’s even a strong thread in the current privacy debate that goes: if Twitter can spread rumour around the globe at the speed of light, we must be allowed to do that too. 
I usually find myself in a minority when I argue that journalism is different from, distinct from the new forms of communication that the web and social media enable.          
That it’s a very narrowly, closely defined region of the information universe. That it isn’t, can’t be, mustn’t ever be the same as or part of the white noise of the global mob.
I find myself in a minority for a very good reason.
Journalism is very hard to stand up for.

I suggest you try it. Not here, among friends. Outside. In the real world. But be prepared for hollow laughter. Derision.
When was the last time you saw a journalist as hero in a film or TV drama? It was probably Bill Nighy in State of Play back in 2003. Though the fellow played by Ben Miles in Peter Kosminsky’s The Government Inspector was a pretty good chap, too.  
One of the recent TV cults was The Killing. Remember the role of the press in that? Correct – the mercurial, anonymous mob who magnified every rumour. Took every misunderstood half-truth and made it a scandal. Decided who was guilty and made the story fit. Oh – apart from the guy who wanted to suck the Birk Laarsen’s story dry for his own career.
How very different from the home life of the great British journalist.
Well, we know that’s not true.
In early June 2011, BBC Radio produced one of the most riveting programmes about journalism I’ve heard for some time. It was the story of Kim Cotton – Britain’s first surrogate mother. You’ll remember, she was paid £6,500 to have a childless couple’s baby. And more than twice that to tell her story to the Daily Star.
You could say she was foolish. You could say she was greedy. But she was also trashed by the press. Routinely. Cruelly. Almost casually. 
“Kim Loses Her Money Box” – was how the News of the World headlined her hysterectomy.
Asides by her brother were turned into major family rows – rows that never actually happened. Inaccuracies. Distortions. Manufactured stories. Black and white judgments. Cruelty. Verbal abuse.
But as Kim confronted each of the journalists who’d written about her, one thing stood out. They really didn’t get it. Really didn’t get how they looked to the public. People who weren’t journalists. 
And it wasn't just the tabloids. Polly Toynbee expressed mild regret for what she called her ‘waspish’ comments. But they were comments that misrepresented her subject and her motives. A tad more than 'waspish', I think.
While the other, tabloid, editors and journalists said, more or less. What did you expect? Not me, guv. It’s the system.
Perhaps Kim Cotton was a victim. Perhaps she just lost control of her own publicity. Either way, it makes uncomfortable listening - especially if you put yourself in the position of an ‘ordinary member of the public’. Wondering – ‘how on earth could these people think what they were doing was right?’

We have to accept that most of the public we claim to serve don't like us. Our brand is toxic.
The IPSOS/Mori monthly poll asking ‘who do you trust’ should be on every journalist’s desktop. Our low standing is consistent.    
It doesn't matter that most of us have never hacked a phone. That most of us have never set-up a victim; egging them on to commit the very offence we're purporting to expose. That most of us have never bribed a policeman, a DVLA clerk, a doctor's receptionist to break the law. That most of us don't make up interviews and quotes. That most of us check our facts. Most of us go into a story looking for the facts that will overturn our prejudices as well as those that might confirm them. 
But our brand is poisoned by those who do. And sneer at those who don't. And by editors and executives who deny or forget that they happen on their watch.
We know that there's a culture of contempt in too many newsrooms. Not just the necessary contempt for wealth, power and celebrity. But for the public that we journalists claim to serve. 
Nick Davies described his book Flat Earth News:
"a snapshot of a cancer … I fear the illness is terminal."
John Lanchester went further in the London Review of Books. 
Journalists are, he wrote: 
"... indifferent to their own best traditions of independence, recklessly indifferent to the central functions of reporting and checking facts ... and in far too many respects, simply indifferent to the truth. There is a growing, industry-wide failure to be sufficiently interested in reality."
These are tough words. But if we’re going to stand up for journalism. And make it stand out from the digital mob, we have to accept they might be true. 
The public isn’t stupid, you know. They know that what is true of MPs, the police, the bankers, financial services is true of us journalists. That without some kind of independent scrutiny, inward looking groups and professions do things not because they’re right. But because they can. 
MPs expenses scandal. The bungling at Soham. The banking collapse. Payment protection mis-selling. It’s because the public should know what’s happening in the dark that we  legitimise journalists’ nosiness. That’s what we mean when we insist that institutions are accountable. That’s what we mean when we say sunlight that is the best disinfectant.
While boarding up our own windows so tightly Miss Havisham would be reaching for the torch.
We try to argue that what makes us different is freedom of speech. We are the institutionalisation of free speech. Its bastion.
And we argue that freedom of speech is indivisible. That freedom for Panorama to expose Winterbourne View can’t be differentiated from the New of the World’s freedom to expose Ryan Giggs or Max Moseley.
We use arguments we need to protect the best in journalism to excuse the worst.
But the public knows that free speech isn’t the same as a free-for-all.
Freedom, protection, to report on the repressive organs of power and privilege is not the same as the licence to ogle the reproductive organs of premiership footballers and their Z list flings.
They hear us when we assert journalists’ right to report in and from Syria and Zimbabwe and China. That without journalists, without men and women to bear witness, challenge authority, tell it how it is. Where there are no journalists, all we have is rumour. Gossip.    
Now, some of you may not be able to see the irony in that. But readers, viewers and listeners do. The public aren’t stupid.
At some point, we will have to face up to the fact that if we’re to stand up for journalism. If we’re going to persuade our various publics that journalism has a real and distinct value. Better than. Additional to social media, the mob on the web.
Then we have to be able to say. Look. This is important. And you can trust us to do it. And we will only convince our publics of that if we prove it by what we do and what we say. And we have the opportunity to do that in some of the current, big debates about our trade. 

The continuing debate about contempt, for example. The Sun and the Mirror face contempt proceedings – and we shouldn’t pre-judge the outcome. But at last, the public will say, an Attorney General has finally had the courage to stop spluttering on the sidelines.
No-one wants to see newspapers prosecuted. But if that’s what it takes to get the message across that press lynchings are an offence to justice and to good journalism, then it’s overdue. And if you think this is overstating things. Ask the McCanns. Ask Robert Murat. Ask Tom Stephens. Ask Chris Jeffries. 

Something similar is true of libel reform.
We all know that British libel laws are broken and need reform. We all know that they can present a real constraint on serious investigative journalism. And we’ve seen how proper, responsible scientific debate can be stifled. But you’re living in a fantasy world if we think that that’s what worries most of the public about our libel laws.
I’ve taken part in any number of debates about libel reform over the past few months. And the story from the public – from non-journalists – has been consistent. 
Yeah ok … we get the bit about free speech and investigative journalism. But why did that newspaper print lies about me? Why did they make up quotes and put them in my mouth? Or take what I did say and make it mean something totally different? 
Why did they portray me as a tart? Why couldn’t I get them to print the truth? A retraction? An apology? Even just tell me why they did it? 
So far, the debate in the media about the media has focused almost entirely on reform to suit the media. Well, that’s standing up for journalism in a sense. But doesn’t it also mean showing our publics that we understand their anxieties too? 

And then there’s privacy. 
There’s little doubt, the public would be with us if we were going to court to defend our right to expose – and their right to know about – crime, wrongdoing, hypocrisy. The abuse of power.
They’d be with us if we were defending the right to intrude where intrusion is the only way to hold power to account. They’d be with us if judges – Mr Justice Eady in particular – really were making up the law on to protect wealth and power. 
But we know that’s not how it’s been. And the public know it too. News Group’s lawyers didn’t even bother to argue in the Giggs case that it was in the public interest to reveal the details of an affair no-one except Mr and Mrs Giggs cared two-hoots about.
We congratulate ourselves that Max Moseley lost his ‘prior notification’ action. We nod sagely that THIS time it’s about orgies and Nazis – but we need to protect the principle so that serious journalism isn’t chilled. But the public aren’t fools. They know it’s not really about that.
So how we defend these principles is at least as important as that we defend them.
Get that wrong and the hollow laughter will still meet you when you try to stand up for journalism.

Now, to some of you, all of this will sound like heresy. Restraining a free press? Am I mad?
You’d be entitled to remind me that I’ve spent my entire career in the regulated sector. Broadcasting. And most of that in the cosseted  protected, publicly funded sector. And that’s true.
For me, independent scrutiny from the Trust and OfCom were standard. Strict Editorial Guidelines that, constrained all of the practices I’ve talked about in a way that the PCC’s Editors Code simply does not.
Yet … Panorama remains one of the few truly investigative units in British journalism. And at Today, we uncovered Shirley Porter’s secret bank accounts. Exposed African exorcists here in London who were guilty of child abuse. And the local authorities who bungled keeping watch on them.
But if that disqualifies me, here are some other people to listen to. Evgeny Lebedev. One of the new breed of owners and publishers. If you didn’t catch his speech at Oxford University last month, I suggest you do so.
Evgeny excites conflicting opinions. But what is unarguable is that he is in the front line of making the news business work. 
He also knows at first hand what a truly shackled press is like. What it means to have “armed raids at night by rogue elements of the state” to make the press behave. But here’s what he says about the British press:
“There is too much trivialisation … what passes as an urgent story is nothing more than tittle-tattle. And when that meaningless trivia is procured via illegal means, we are on a slippery slope as this becomes the accepted standard or norm. We must be wary of abusing our freedom, which could result in losing that very same freedom.”
And, he says:
“What has never been more under the spotlight are the role and responsibilities of the press. We must take them seriously. We must uphold them, cherish them, and nurture them. Because if we don't, we threaten press freedom and therefore we damage our society.”
Responsibilities. Evgeny is warning that if we carry on as we are, we will force statutory press regulation.
Perhaps. But the bigger danger is that we do nothing to regain our public’s trust. Do nothing to stand up for journalism and make it stand out from the mob.
Some editors get this too. Back in January, the FT Lionel Barber gave the annual Cudlipp lecture. And he talked about the importance of public trust if we were to stand up for journalism. If we were to argue that it was still valuable in the age of the web. Trust that the facts are accurate. Trust that appropriate weight has been given to context. 
“Journalism is not perfect, nor was it ever meant to be. But we have allowed our standards to lapse. Let us hope we have not left it too late.”
It’s time for journalism to enter into a bit of self-examination, Barber argues.
So perhaps some owners and publishers. Perhaps some editors understand the kind of self-examination, self-criticism we need now to be able to stand up for journalism. But there’s a third player in this who is very important. And that’s the Press Complaints Commission.
Now, I’ve never had much time for the PCC. It was, you’ll remember, the wheeze that the drinkers in the last chance saloon came up with to avoid having their collective collars felt back in the early 1990s.
Though the then Culture Secretary, David Mellor, didn’t help things much by cavorting around with a lady that wasn’t Mrs Mellor. And by taking his summer break with PLO holidays 
But for the first 20 years of its life, the PCC proved itself to be exactly what its critics predicted. A trade association. A toothless watchdog that slept through every raid on journalism’s reputational locker.
You’ll remember what the DCMS select committee said about its abject failure to face its responsibilities when the McCanns were being libelled over and over again. 
"In any other industry suffering such a collective breakdown ... any regulator worth its salt would have instigated an enquiry. The press, indeed, would have been clamouring for it to do so. It is an indictment on the PCC's record, that it signally failed to do so."
And the PCC’s weakness was further underlined when the newspaper group responsible for those libels – Richard Desmond’s Daily and Sunday Express and Star – simply walked away from the PCC in January this year. Their message: we don’t need anyone else to tell us what we can and can’t do.
The PCC had also failed to show any leadership when it took a cursory look at the phone-hacking scandal, preferring to censure those who were insisting this criminal activity wasn’t just the work of a rogue reporter and private investigator. 
But maybe – just maybe – the PCC is starting to stir. And maybe it has to if we’re to stand up for journalism as a unique, valued, skilled trade.
We probably all smiled wryly when the PCC chair Peta Buscombe told BBC 2’s Newsnight that Ryan Giggs should have come to her, rather than the courts, to maintain his privacy. And it would have been interesting to see whether News Group would have paid any attention to a body without any real sanction.
But the important thing here isn’t whether we believe the PCC could have guaranteed Giggs the privacy he wanted. It’s the fact that the PCC said it at all. The fact that it wants to be a player in what will probably be the most important debate for journalism over the coming years. What might well be the defining debate.
The balance between privacy and the freedom to report.
When I read the PCC Director Stephen Abell’s interview with Roy Greenslade last month, I was struck by the way in which he recognises he need to get onto the front foot. Not just standing up for the press. Standing up for a responsible press. He talks about reinforcing:  
"… a sense of responsibility and self-restraint.”
But, more importantly, of the way in which responsibility and restraint is a defining feature of a press that stands out from social media and the free-for-all on the web.  
"We've been in the position of seeing stories on Twitter that we know about and that haven't been run in the press following guidance from us … In the end, what newspapers find most marketable is credibility. You may ignore a story on Twitter. It only really matters when it is published on a trusted site."
Well, if this is an indication that we can’t let social media set the standards for journalism, amen to that.
Especially if the PCC goes one step further and devises a tougher Editors Code which places at its heart a notion of ‘public interest’ that really means in the interest of the public. Not just in the interest of publication.

Now, there are some in journalism who’ll think this is pie in the sky. Who’ll insist – you can’t place any restraint on free speech. And if you try, you’re out of touch with what’s happening on the web. In social media. 
At the same time, at our most neurotic, we look across at Twitter and You Tube and Facebook and Google. And we look at yesterday’s depressing readership figures. And wonder what it is now that distinguishes paid-for, deliberate acts of journalism from the eternal murmur out there. Why anyone should bother. Let’s just get our slice of the mob’s free-for-all. If they can say it on Twitter, we can say it in our paper. We need to be part of the world where gossip and rumour rule.
That’s precisely the wrong conclusion.
We need to take a long, hard look at what it is that gives journalism its value. Not what we, inward-looking journalists value in what we do. But at what it is that our publics value.
If we act in a way that shows our contempt for our publics – and we have to accept that too many of us have too often. If we sound when we’re arguing over the contempt laws, libel reform or privacy that our only interest is in preserving our revenue streams.
And if we think that free speech means having not restraint on what we say, what we do. Then we can’t be surprised to find our publics value us not at all.
And that we will have failed to stand up for journalism. And made it stand out from the mob.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

For students of history everywhere

I thought this might be a good moment to think a bit about some of the important landmarks in press freedom here in the UK … or, more accurately, England.
1641: The abolition of the Star Chamber
This had been the monarchy’s most potent tool of repression for centuries. A court that held secret sessions, without juries and produced arbitrary judgments … all to please the King.
The abolition marked the end of the blanket censorship in England.
1694: The lapse of the 1643 Licensing Order
This was the fifty year old order that required pamphlets and proto-newspapers to be licensed before they could be published. John Milton’s tract Areopagitica was a blast against this order.
The lapse was the consequence of legislation following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which among other things, established the sovereignty of parliament.
1727: Edmund Curll convicted for obscenity
Curll’s knee-trembler Venus in the Cloister or The Nun in her Smock was the first book to be banned for its sexually explicit content. He was charged with disturbing the King's peace – though since George I’s grasp of English was less than perfect it’s unlikely his peace was too disturbed by the book’s rampant prose.
Obscenity laws became a permanent fixture until 1960 when the Lady Chatterley trail began to chip them away.
1738: Parliament bans reports of its proceedings
Unseccessfully, it turned out. And the number of reporters recording speeches and debates grew steadily until …
1771: Parliament lifts ban on reporting
Several reporters, publishers and printers were arrested for breaching the reporting ban – but it proved no deterrent. The radical MP and journalist John Wilkes mounted a legal challenge to the ban, which MPs then lifted.
1803: Reporters allocated seats in the House of Commons
Two hundred years ago, newspapers vied with each other over the quality and accuracy of their parliamentary reporting and the gallery was one of the most important assignments a reporter could land.
1811: Hansard begins publication
The record of parliamentary proceedings wasn’t called Hansard until the end of the century, but it was in 1811 that Thomas Curson Hansard, the printer to the House of Commons, took over its production.
1840: Parliamentary Papers Act
This was the act that established qualified privilege for the reporting and publication of parliamentary proceedings. It followed proceedings for defamation against Hansard.
During those proceedings, it became apparent that while MPs were protected by privilege, reporting them was not.
1926: The BBC and the General Strike
During the strike, the BBC’s first DG Sir John Reith instructed news bulletins to report all sides in the dispute and to do so without comment.
This brought him into conflict with Labour leaders and with the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Reith feared that by deviating from his strict ‘no comment’ policy he would give the government the opportunity it sought to take over the national broadcaster, turning it into the state broadcaster ending its independence for good.
1977: The Gay News Trial
The success of Mary Whitehouse’s private prosecution for blasphemous libel over the poem The love that dare not speak its name resulted in the Gay News publisher Denis Lemon being sentenced to nine months in prison – a sentence quashed on appeal.
1988: Spycatcher cleared for publication in England
Peter Wright’s account of life in MI5 – a life that included bugging prime minister Harold Wilson’s phone – was written in 1985 and banned in England. But it was published – and imported from – almost everywhere else, including Scotland.
2000: Human Rights Act comes into force
The act, passed in 1998, established some sixteen human rights – including the rights to free expression and to the respect for private and family life.
Oh dear.
2006: Wall Street Journal v Jameel
The House of Lords judgment that consolidated the defence of ‘responsible journalism’.
2008: Offence of Blasphemy abolished
Though it seemed to many that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 had simply reinvented it by other means.
2009: Trafigura gag revealed
The Labour MP Paul Farrelly asked a parliamentary question revealing an injunction obtained by Trafigura to prevent the publication of a report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in west Africa.
The terms of this ‘super injunction’ meant that the existence of the injunction, let alone its content, could not be reported.
2011: Ryan Giggs named in parliament
All press freedom’s roads lead to this moment. 

The historic conflicts – from the abolition of the Star Chamber, the arrest of political reporters, the struggle to resist government interference and the power of big business.
And in a world where over a hundred journalists and bloggers are in prison in places like Iran and Syria and China and Burma.
Or risking their lives to confront authority in places like Ukraine and Kyrgystan.
Is it anything short of a freedom’s magnificent miracle that here, now, in England we have, apparently for all time, established the unqualified right to know which premiership footballer has slept with which Big Brother contestant?

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Memories of the BBC

This is the text of a piece I wrote in the April edition of the BBC News Magazine.

In the end, only memory is left. What Jane Austen called:

“so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient so bewildered and so weak so tyrannic, so beyond control”

Why we remember what we remember and forget what we forget we cannot ever know. Nor whether forgetting is any different from never knowing. 

It is the ‘retentive, serviceable’ memory that creates a collage from a sharp autumn day in 1978. The day I joined the BBC. 

I wanted to be Controller Radio 4 that day and every day since but never was and rightly so. I am too lazy, too unintelligent and hadn’t the temperament ever to sit at the top table. 

I never burned to be a journalist. It was one option. Also policeman, politician and priest.

But I did burn to be BBC. I’ve never been able to imagine any other life not even when, briefly, I worked at ITN.

The BBC co-owns my memory and that is probably quite sad but there you have it.

The memory, in Belfast, of the corpse. A prison officer murdered by the IRA. He could have been asleep at the wheel of his car but for the crimson slashes across his shirt. And the smashed glass and bloodied pockmarks in the seat.

The memory, in Blackburn, of the wet cobbled street where I cried. Deceiving myself that it was frustration that I was lost once again but knowing it was because I had finally understood what it meant to knock on the door of the parents of a murderer’s raped victim.

It is ‘obedient’ memory that tells me I always knew The World at One would be my home and so it became in 1980. Under Julian Holland it was a magical place where, in a tiny office, we would argue the whole morning over the big issues of the day, clothes and skin suffused by the nicotine of Robin Day’s cigars. 

Nature mocked Julian’s journalistic and intellectual vision, giving him darkening physical blindness. He once told me it was a privilege to work at WATO but I already knew it was so.

‘Bewildered’ memory clouds my year at ITN.

I’d left the BBC in a fit of pique - not the first, not the last - at something someone in the boss class had done. But with no real idea about the outside nor much enthusiasm for it.

By chance, I think, it was the year I felt something approaching shame at the inhumanity of our trade. That we - I - could calmly compose careful, precise graphics clerking 193 deaths in the cold North Sea on the Herald of Free Enterprise.

Or of 31 tube travellers who choked out their lives on a burning escalator under Kings Cross station.
People said they made great TV.

When I came back to WATO and the BBC in 1988, one executive wrote ‘welcome home’ in a note to me. 

Yeah. It was still home. For fourteen more years and in spite of the heart infection that tried to kill me, something my consultant said was “worse than cancer”. 

I didn’t die and lived instead to see the most extraordinary experiment in political media management this country has ever seen. New Labour. The age of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, who told the Guardian in 1997 - apparently without irony - that it was his job to “create the truth”.

Those years, that team, the incomparable Nick Clarke at the microphone, seems now like some paused journalistic summer. With a self-possession nudging arrogance, we chased down truth in an exhilarating, thrilling but ultimately futile mission. 

Futile because there seemed to grow in that decade of new Labour an indifference to truth. Some journalists took dictation from Downing Street while others gave up even trying to hold power to account, preferring instead to sulk on the sidelines,  getting up peoples noses.

We tried to challenge power with fact and argument, eschewing the grandstanding and bare-knuckle brawling that seemed the norm elsewhere. 

And then there was Broadcasting House, its title a genteel scream protesting TV’s 1998 coup d’etat and Radio News’ forced exile to a place called Television Centre, a 1970s industrial estate on the outskirts of Slough. 

James Boyle, then the Controller of Radio 4, became a good friend though I don’t think he ever knew how much I coveted his job. He was vilified for ripping up the old R4 schedule and creating a new one that was so flawed it remains almost entirely intact thirteen years later.

His brief for BH ran to a single phrase.

“Not the Today programme”. I knew exactly what he meant but it took time to get it right.

Listeners hated it. It was over-planned, over-rigid and strained to be different. Half a year on, we chilled. Dropped the rigid formats and gave Eddie Mair the room to become what he always was – the sharpest interviewer and coolest presenter the BBC has.

Time passes and so do people and it’s the pity of time that so many of those we value, so many of our heroes, become no more than ‘tyrannic’ memory making inexplicable choices. 

Why one of Gordon Cloughs interviews and not them all ? Why one of Bob Williams PMs of the hundreds we did together ? And why is the first - though thankfully not the only - memory of Nick the blazing row over an empty chair? 

And Hutton?

Memory here truly is ‘beyond control’. It could be no other.

At it’s centre, an overwhelming sadness and incredulity that flawed journalism and even more flawed politics could lead to a good man’s death. Perhaps through a shame Dr Kelly felt but could never have deserved.

That’s all that matters. The reality skulking behind the game journalists and politicians play. Who knows if it could ever have been different. 

“Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened” 

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

So that's it, then

After 33 years minus a year and a half at ITN in the 1980s I leave the BBC at the end of the month.

Hard enough to think about, let alone actually do it.

When I first walked into Broadcasting House in October 1978, Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister and Jimmy Carter President of the US. The Shah was still in power in Iran, the Berlin Wall was intact and the IRA had yet to murder Lord Mountbatten.

I've worked with amazing presenters Sir Robin Day, Nick Clarke, Eddie Mair and editors Julian Holland, Jenny Abramsky, Roger Mosey. And hundreds more.

My first assignment on the road was the Iranian embassy siege - a very minor role that included keeping the phone box free on the corner by the Royal Geographical Society.

The first programme I edited was an edition of The World This Weekend the Sunday after a recalled parliament had voted for the task force to go to recover the Falklands. Our interview with Foreign Office Minister Richard Luce ran out of time before we could ask 'will you resign?' Within 24 hours, he had resigned.

All of these things happened, of course, before some of the people I work with were even born. My own children studied as GCSE history events I had covered as a journalist.

Time to go.

I've done all of the jobs I want except one, and I'm pretty clear that I was always temperamentally unsuited for it. And one that I didn't want - ditto.

I'm resigned to a lifelong association the Hutton inquiry, report and fall out. Maybe one of the first things I'll be able to do outside the BBC is something I was unable to do inside it - finally give my own account.

So there'll be books ... more teaching ... columns .... coaching.

And life on the cold outside. Scary.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Libel reform

In case there's anyone out there who's anxious about libel reform - you will be, you will be - here's the video of my contribution to the Media Standards Trust debate at Gray's Inn on 11 January.


Another small stone on the mountain

I've hesitated before adding to the post-Chilcot comment mountain. But there are a couple of things that strike me - especially since ...