Sunday, April 7, 2013

POLIS: Can TRUST in journalism be restored?

‘Trust’ the most important keyword in journalism was discussed in all its manifestations at the POLIS conferences at the London School of Journalism on Friday April 5, 2013. Organised by POLIS director Charlie Beckett, it had an impressive array of speakers and panels.

The choice of the theme is not surprising as today journalism is probably going through its darkest phase in recent times in gaining public trust. The hacking scandal and the shout out loud tabloid journalism has led to a low public confidence in journalists and post Leveson journalists are struggling to gain trust of not just the public but also sources. My top 3 panel discussions:

1.      Nick Davies Panel

He is accused of single handedly exposing the hacking scandal; shutting down Murdoch’s News of the World last year; of sending many journalists into prison and for bringing about a ‘draconian’ Leveson enquiry that threatens to curb press freedom; yet this man in jeans and a cool leather jacket bats away every accusation thrown his way with humour and honesty.

Nick Davies, perhaps the journalist of 2012, spend over an hour in an intellectual combat with Ben Fenton, of the Financial Times. Fenton boldly asks Davies, whose investigations into the hacking scandal put several journalists in the dock, why he hates journalists?  “I don’t hate journalists, I love journalism,” came the crisp reply.

Nick spoke about who young reporters enter the profession high on ethics and with stars in their eyes only to get disillusioned by the profession once they settle in. He particularly didn’t seem fond of the tabloid culture. Tabloid journalism using unethical practises to create news that sells their papers and then justifying it, “is like a rapist sayings its free love,” added Davies.

He refused to accept the responsibility of “closing down” NoTW saying, that some involved with the paper were pushing for its closer “months before his story was published” and “to aid the company’s bid for BSkyB.”

On the “false hope” claim made by the guardian, which later the paper had to refute, Nick said he was “absolutely certain at the time of publication that it was true.” He however added, that they did get a “good kicking” by Fleet Street for it later.

However while Davies did not sympathise with journalists using unethical practises; he also had no love for the police using the hacking scandal to their benefit. “It is sickening to see how an authoritative and bullying police office has used the hacking scandal to gag officers. It is both distressing and wrong,” said Davies.  

2.      Media Policy

The LSE Media policy project panel discussed this deteriorating relationship of trust between a journalist and source.

In fact Barry Fitzpatrick, of the National Union of Journalists called this a “worrying development for just media but society and democracy.” Fitzpatrick believes that News of the World arrests have sent alarm bells ringing among journalists especially in tabloid press and damaged relationship of trust between source and journalists. “Unless common sense is applied it will have far reaching consequences,” warned Fitzpatrick.

Andrew Bousfield , an investigative reporter with Private Eye who broke several stories through his investigations in the health sector highlighted how difficult the non-disclosure agreements made it for doctors to be whistle blowers.  “These no-disclose agreements are scary,” says Bousfield.

According to him such non-disclosure agreements existed mainly in hospitals that were fearful. “During our investigations we found that people (health care professionals) were being silenced where care was going wrong.”

European law protects journalists not whistle blowers, said Gavin Miller QC, who suggested the establishment of a commission to bring proceedings to protect whistle blowers. “Law protects whistle blowers if they move towards government, MPs, court but NOT the press,” he said.

3.      Public Service Broadcasting: Trust in Journalism

In UK, BBC probably hit its lowest in public trust when the Newsnight cover-up of the Jimmy Savile scandal broke out. As one skeleton after another came out of the closet exposing the crimes on the BBC premises, BBC used the fact that Panorama programme belonged to its “family” to hail its ethics in investigating itself. This may have restored some confidence in the public broadcaster but left several question on trust unanswered nevertheless.  Earlier in the day Mary Hockaday, Head of BBC News Room said that “public trust in BBC was back to where it was pre-Savile crisis.”

Hence a panel discussed on trust esp in public service broadcasting was perhaps the need of the hour. But it wasn’t about giving audience “ethical news” but also about how audiences can be engaged in finding the “truth” and contributing their opinions to what makes news.

On other news verification, Trushar Barot, assistant editor of the BBC News UGC and social media hub believes that in the end journalist’s instincts are a better judge in helping separating the grain from the chaff. He gave an example of an extremely popular video on the internet which showed a Syrian activist “buried alive” by Assad’s men and the BBC dilemma to broadcast it or not. Barot spoke about how he used twitter to express his doubts on the video and soon citizen journalists investigated the video themselves and came up with more loopholes that collectively helped discredit the video. According to him the factors that build trust in journalism are the diversity of sources, speed of editorial judgements and ability to reach your content out. “Trust is a growth industry in journalism... great value in the ocean of chatter is journalistic judgement,” adds Barot.

One of the most interesting concepts came from Cilla Benko, Director General of Swedish Radio. She spoke about Journalism 3.0 - a two way street that uses both the traditional reporting (Journalism 1.0) and the social media journalism (Journalism 2.0). “In my news room everyone has to be on twitter, it is not an option,” she said highlighting how twitter helps find news and develop sources.

Her four important ways to connect with the audience and in turn find fodder for news stories include: creating a sort of public network where you invite contributions from people. This PublicNetwork now has 300 members signed up to contribute news and ideas expanding in multitude its reportage from just 4 reporters on the team.

They also launched a blog called ‘The Earth’ where in people discuss issues that they find pertinent and the reporter then goes on to make a radio programme about it. Using twitter to see what what “news” is.

She emphasised that twitter does not have to be marketing tool to promote your stories, it could also be a good source to get stories. Lastly she insisted that the public debate could also be a good source of generating stories. A debate on appropriate language to prevent racist overtones was one of the important issues that the public were debating. The radio team decided to approach the public for opinions. They put up a video on the website and created a hashtag of the issue. Over 600 potential stories were generated through public feedback. This provided a huge impetus to Swedish Radio as “many people didn’t know Swedish Radio existed before the project," adds Benko.

Also on the panel was Ruurd Bierman, former director Dutch public service broadcaster NOS now associated with Vision 2020 which looks at Trust in 2020 and gives a roadmap for PSB to be indispensable. He gave an example of Altijd Wat Monitor in Holland which has opened its newsroom to the public. Here people can monitor progress of research live, leak documents, comment on content and provide opinions.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Journalism in the dock: Will investigative reporting evolve or dissolve?

When the News of the World Fake Sheikh asked me to record every conversation I had with the subjects of my stories for an investigation the paper did in India, I thought it was an unnecessary, additional work. But this very policy of the News of the World saved their journalist Bethany Usher when she was arrested for the hacking scandal under Operation Weeting.
Usher was arrested for ‘transcribing a voicemail message in an email’. "What saved me was the News of the World policy about taping everything," says Usher who had taped her interactions with the source who had had given her permission to use the voicemail for a story, which led to charges being dropped against her within eight days. “Tape everything” she advices journalism students at the Journalism In The Dock’ panel discussion at City University yesterday. 
“Tape everything”
- Bethany Usher,
former News of the World journalist turned journalism lecturer (arrested under Operation Weeting and later cleared)
While Usher has taken this experience in her stride and moved on to teaching journalism now, her colleague Neil Wallis, the former executive editor of the News of the World, also arrested for his alleged involvment in hacking scandal and only cleared recently seemed still agitated by the whole experience.

Wallis warned journalism students that Leveson is ‘destroying your future’. Speaking on press freedom, Neil added that ‘once it is taken away; you will never get it back.” The bitterness in Neil’s arguments reflected his experience as a suspect in Operation Weeting. Neil was on police bail for 21 months which he describes as ‘isolating’ and his arrest as ‘politically motivated’.
Neil described his friend’s experience who was taken to the police station in the wee hours of the morning while the police searched his house, while his “teenage daughters watched them rifle through their underwear drawers looking for alleged evidence.”
His angst against Leveson inquiry and police investigations sparked off a heated debate with Brian Cathcart, the editor of the Hacked Off blog, journalist and writer. Cathcart’s support to Leveson, smirked Wallis and a row continued on the fine print in the Leveson recommendation. Wallis believed that the politicians and police are using the low journalist credibility in public now for “payback” against Murdoch’s papers. He is currently pursuing Masters in Criminology.
All though the panel discussion Cathcart and Wallis were found taking pot-shots at each other. Did the hacking scandal create a “with us or against us” mentality in the journalist fraternity, I wondered.
A sombre argument came from Peter Preston, the former Guardian editor who warned that Britain was setting a dangerous example for the rest of the world. Preston who has travelled extensively around the world described media freedom (or lack of it) in other countries. “It’s become a norm to arrest journalists in UK”, said Preston, and added that now some countries justify the atrocities on journalists by citing UK as an example. He mentioned that at the International Press Institute, the Turkish Prime Minister defended locking up journalists or terrorism charges because “it happens all the time in Britain.”

Losing sources:

The most insightful comments on the state of investigative journalism today came from Brian Flynn, investigative editor of the Sun. “It feels we are being frogmarched into a police state,” he said which generated an agitated response from a professor in the audience that such a comment was “ludicrous” and a by product of tabloid mentality.

" It feels we are being frogmarched into a police state"  
- Brian Flynn, Investigations Editor, The Sun
Flynn argues that the fear of arrests and no public interest defence in the bribery law has led to journalists turning away stories that could be great investigations. “Sources are motivated by a number of reasons, for some its money,” he said adding an example of a worker in a care home asking for money to expose abuse which in the atmosphere of fear today “would not be published even though it was clearly in the public interest”.  

Flynn said there was a “crackdown” on journalists as now “journalists make unsympathetic victims”. Journalists are also losing important sources that are paramount for good investigative reporting as "officials are being arrested for speaking to journalists even where no money is involved." Police have stopped speaking to local papers after Leveson except on very official matters, he added. As an investigative reporter, I can understand the importance of police sources and gag orders like these do more harm than good to investigative reporting and are detrimental to public interests. 

Investigative journalism operates through grey areas, said Flynn adding, "After all remember the expense scandal was broken through stolen documents."

Hotline for whistleblowers

Another Leveson suggestion of a whistleblower hotline found no takers with Cathcart stating that “it was not a good idea” and Usher declaring that she would never use a hotline. “You have to trust your colleagues”, she stated. Preston said that the idea of a hotline was discussed 20 years ago when he was involved in setting up the Press Complaints Commission but “for real change of ethical standards, there has to be a consensus (among journalists) to make it work,” he said. 

The panel represented two distinct views – one that believed that Leveson would bring ethics back to journalism and another that thought Leveson would kill investigative reporting. Even among the five journalists present on the panel there was no consensus.

Walking down the halls of City University, almost a decade after I did my Masters in International Journalism, brought back good old memories but it was also a little melancholic now because journalism has changed so much.
Back then we mostly used tapes to record a lengthy interview if we didn’t want to scribble notes. Journalism was also respected. We were excited about entering a profession that strived to ‘make the world a better place’. On this, my old professor Colin Bickler who passed away in January this year would look at us in our conflict reporting class and remark that we were just romanticising journalism.
‘Journalism is a dangerous profession. There are many forces trying to stop journalists from doing their true job,” he said. In the ten years of my journalism career, I slowly understood what he actually meant- not all forces are external; sometimes these forces are just within journalism.