Is the British press doing a good job?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Maggie Woods of the Calderdale branch of the National Union of Journalists chaired a public meeting yesterday evening at the White Lion, Hebden Bridge to discuss whether the press was truthful, fair and honest, and if it was doing a good job.

One disturbing conclusion that came from both the speakers and subsequent discussion was that cutbacks to newspapers and TV over the past few years are making in-depth and investigative journalism less and less common.

Two speakers were invited: Chris Frost, Professor of journalism at Liverpool John Moores University and the Chair of the NUJ Ethics Council, and Campbell Malone, the solicitor, who challenges miscarriages of justice, notably the wrongful conviction for murder of Stefan Kiszko.

Chris Frost spoke first. He talked about the "spiral of cynicism" that has come to pervade discussion of politicians and journalists. He explained how important it was to remember that most newspapers and media concerns were businesses which have to make a profit. This greatly influences the way they cover issues and the news, and what they think is important news. Panorama, he pointed out, is expensive to make and attracts an audience of 2 million while Big Brother costs peanuts and attracts audiences in excess of ten million. In such a financial climate, we should not be surprised that investigative journalism is disappearing: it is very expensive. Over the past 15-20 years, money available for more in depth journalism has declined significantly.

Campbell Malone said that he has had to learn to deal with the press. They can be very intrusive and overwhelming for many of his clients. However, over the years he has learned that there are certain journalists who can be trusted, and he tries to work with them. He has assisted in the production of several documentaries over the years. These can make all the difference to the success or failuree of his clients' cases. When he has struggled to find missing evidence or experts who can testify, this suddently became much easier when a relevant documentary was broadcast.

The House of Lords recently upheld the right of prisoners to have access to investigative journalists; evidence was cited of 60 cases where investigative journalists prevented miscarriages of justice. Campbell said that for lawyers like him workiing with committed journalists can be critical to ensuring individual liberties.

The first question from the floor was to ask Campbell how difficult it made his job, having the press against him. "They are always against you, at the beginning." Part of his job was to try and change that.

Other points and questions from the floor included

Attitudes to disability: Chris Frost said that the NUJ had changed and now had a policy on this.

Headlines exploiting baser prejudices; such headlines can often be anti-educational, not educational as Chris Frost claimed journalism should be. And the articles they head often fail to deal in depth with complex issues.

Internet and new media: allows readers to collaborate with journalists in away hitherto impossible, feeding in info and photos. Chris Frost wasn't sure about this, saying that journalists had always had their "sources". But he then went on to remark how journalists used to have to go out of the office to get news; now they have to stay in, using the computer and phone.

Press releases: where these used to be the beginning of a possible story, many journalists are now just reproducing them verbatim. All agreed it was lazy journalism but had been provoked by the pressures on journalists by management.

The Press Complaints Commission had limited power. Only 20 out of 3500 complaints last year were upheld.

The meeting ended with the realisation that many younger people coming into the profession had little experience of good in-depth or investigative journalism. We may be getting censorship by default.


Calderdale NUJ

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