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Should our press be free – or not? Review my thoughts…

No more restrictions on our Press thanks....

This week I was asked to fill in a survey about press freedom and the phone-hacking scandal.

It’s part of a study by a university which is questioning journalists across Europe about their views on the issue of regulation of the Press.

Those of us who work in television a lot, often try to talk about the Press as though somehow we are a separate entity. I’ve never believed this. Coming into the industry through newspapers and still writing today – I believe we are all one industry and we should defend, support and, when necessary, chastise each other when things go wrong.

This phone-hacking issue, the Levenson inquiry, centres largely around the national newspapers. Our national newspapers are more powerful than most people realise. Not because us ordinary Joes care about it – but because our law-makers do.

Having worked alongside politicians for many years, I can promise you that those who are ambitious, want to climb the political ladder, really, really care about what the newspapers say. I have even heard politicians make judgements based upon ‘what the Daily Mail would say about it’.

As a regional journalist for most of my career, I’ve always been astonished by this.

 

And many celebrities care too. The amount of times I’ve heard people turn down interviews with the local media, because ‘it’s not national’, ‘it’s a waste of time’ – an argument that has never had much validity and even less now with the internet. When a parish magazine advertising local jumble sales can be found on the internet, the notion of local press almost becomes obsolete…

However, I will absolutely defend the rights of the Press as a whole – it’s a mark of our democracy that our Press is free.

I could not support any further legislation restricting Press freedom. This does not mean I condone phone-hacking – I don’t. I’ve never done it, never been asked to do it, never asked anybody else to do it for me. It’s illegal and the law is already in place to deal with it. That law should be used.

There’s another reason I defend the Press. The written media has to obey the law of the land but the broadcast media also has to obey the Ofcom code which is very strict. Television has to obey much tighter guidelines than newspapers. I well remember coming into television and being amazed about the hoops that had to be jumped through.

One example is secretly recording a telephone call – note, not phone-hacking. In television, you have to seek legal permission to actually record a call. And it can’t be because you ‘think’ something will be revealed. Oh no, you have to be very,very sure you will get something out of it. If you get permission, then you have to then get further permission to use that material. A lawyer has to be satisfied that the material ‘adds further value or something new’ to a programme which could not have been obtained in any other way. So recording a telephone conversation is no guarantee that it will be used at all.

It also is worth remembering that most journalists are not into underhand means to get information. We’re not interested in people’s private lives unless they are hypocrites or it somehow impacts on a public role. We don’t offer sums of  money to people for information (although people often ask for money) and we don’t hack into people’s phones. Yet we still find things out, reveal things, hold things up for scrutiny, regardless of whether or not that makes us popular.

Let’s keep our free Press, we’ll regret it if we don’t….

 

Who cares what a journalist thinks? You?

Sue and I have just attended a networking event in Swindon which we regularly attend.

We like the event’s very relaxed, social atmosphere and had invited a client along too (Tailored For You). When I arrived, Sue and our client were chatting away happily – and not with each other. Always a good sign.

 

If you’re wondering, the event was run by Business Scene.

There’s a guest speaker at every event and this one was no exception. This time it was a marketing expert sharing tips about how to make marketing, selling, business enjoyable and easier. Lots of good stuff in there and I’m glad to say that Sue and I felt we’d already, quite naturally, employed some of her tactics.

But it made me think. Should I be a guest speaker?

One of the tips was to tell personal stories – what personal stories would anyone out there want to hear from me? Well, as a journalist I’ve had a varied and interesting career. I’ve probably got stories coming out of my ears. But could I talk about business, SMEs in particular? I thought tonight I’d have a go.

As a business person, I get loads of stuff through my door inviting me to this free business seminar, or that business event – and when I see these flyers they are soon decorating my orange box. Do you feel like that? Is the word business a turn-off? What do you think a journalist thinks?

When I was told I was to be appointed business editor of my local newspaper in the mid-1990s, I almost stifled a yawn. How dull would that be? A more senior role writing about dull and boring stuff.

What I learned was that business isn’t actually dull at all – not when you realise you are writing about PEOPLE who happen to be in business.

You are writing about events which are organised, attended and enjoyed by PEOPLE. A human face can be put on almost anything.

It was at that time my job to go out and do that very thing. Tell business stories in an interesting way. Then there were multiple reporters on the newspaper. Today there are a handful. If businesses want publicity, more often than not, they need to blow their own trumpet or they won’t be noticed by any journalist.

If you look at your business and you think ‘who will want to read about my work, my company, it’s so mundane’. STOP IT! Your stories are all before you, if you just take the time to look. It’s about PEOPLE, it’s about ‘QUIRKY’, it’s about ‘UNUSUAL’. Put a human face on your business and you are a long way towards having a news sense.

Don’t forget pictures too, especially moving ones – essential for some businesses eg. hotels, venues. Moving pictures are becoming more and more important – think social media, think You-Tube, think about the choice that consumers enjoy today.

 

think people, think quirky, think pictures...

And of course, if writing or pictures are not  for you, you may need a Sue or a Fiona to help – (sorry had to get that plug in!)

Ever made a mistake? Review it!

Make sure that mistake doesn't bite!

What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made? I’d love to know — and what did you do about it?

I recently read in my local newspaper a letter from a new restaurant owner in Swindon about a review written by a journalist. She’s attended his/her restaurant and had a meal.

The letter said that while there were many positive comments, the reviewer was unreasonable in her criticisms. One was that she’d asked for a vodka mixer and no vodka was available – however the journalist should have been satisfied with the 32 types of wine on offer on the extensive wine list.

What? A journalist doing a review is no different to any other customer – and customers can be hard to please. If I want a gin and tonic or a beer – sod the 32 choices of wine – that’s what I want.

The clue is in the world ‘review’ – it’s an experience, it’s about fulfilling expectations. Some may be fulfilled, others may not.

If this happens to you, bleating about it in the letters page and slagging off the journalist is hardly maintaining a strong relationship with your local press – something you need if you are a local restaurant. Also what do you think as a reader? A reader like me? Well, do I want to go to a restaurant where my choice of  beverage is ridiculed? I don’t think so…

So, what should that restauranteur have done?

Taken the positives, learned, maybe invited her back again in six months time…keep the lines of communication open. Turn something negative into something positive – a cliche but true.

 

A review is very powerful and, unless there’s a bug in your food or the chicken is raw, will almost always put bums on seats. Don’t diss it.

 

This is not a journalist’s mistake, it’s an opinion based on experience.

 

So what is a mistake?

 

Consider the following:

Any journalist who claims never to have made a mistake is from another planet.

All human beings make mistakes and if you are banging out 3,000 words a day for a publication – it will happen.

 

However if a journalist makes a mistake the consequences can be huge – the power of the written or spoken word cannot be underestimated.

So if you are talking to a journalist and a mistake is subsequently made what do you do?

 

It’s easy – talk to the journalist about it.

 

Be sure before you do, that the mistake came from them. (Remember that a mistake in a headline or sub-heading might be done by an editor – and the journalist may have not seen it yet. Equally a mistake in a picture caption can also be done by a third party) But the journalist can help put things right.

There’s nothing more embarrassing than having a difficult conversation with a journalist and then finding out that your press release was inaccurate – or your press office/pr consultant was the source of the mistake.

Also remember that journalists are taught that ‘inaccuracy kills’ – there’s no defence if an inaccuracy leads to defamation. So journalists should be open to those kinds of conversations.

Discuss what the mistake was and how you wish it to be rectified.

For example, a simple mistake like a name spelled incorrectly may be embarrassing but it’s not going to be the end of the world. A small correction or repeat of the story (if it’s short) may be sufficient.

A good friend of mine who’s first name is Spencer was captioned in a photograph as Stella – he’s never forgotten it and neither have I – it’s hilarious.

But if a teacher say, at a school, is charged with abusing a pupil and a journalist names the school or the wrong teacher then that’s a serious mistake and much harder to put right. That gets into the realm of defamation and possibly contempt of court.

For something serious such as the latter, seek advice before talking to the journalist so that you know where you can go with it.

However it’s always advisable to give a newspaper, tv, radio or online publication the opportunity to put things right before getting heavy with lawyers’ letters.

Apologies will be given quite prominently in a serious matter, it’s actually quite rare that a media outlet does nothing when a genuine mistake has been made.

 

Tip: always talk to the journalist if she/he has made a mistake. Keep the relationship going by avoiding getting heavy. Expect a rational response in putting right that wrong.

(next week, I’ll tell you about a mistake I made and the consequences)

Phone hacking – a journalist’s view.

when is it right to conduct secret recording?

Phone hacking – it’s inevitable that I need to talk about this, being a journalist.

 

Have I ever hacked anyone’s phone? No.

 

Have I ever been aware of any other journalist doing so? No.

 

Would I do it? No, it’s illegal.

 

Would I even know how to do it? No.

 

Could I get someone to do it on my behalf ? Probably.

 

The whole News of the World mess is gradually revealing the lengths some will go to to get that so-called big story and earn the big bucks. This kind of journalism has never interested me. I can’t be bothered with the ‘who’s sleeping with you’ stories.

 

I should say that I have worked, and still do, work on local newspapers and publications.

 

No, I’ve never worked on a national newspaper. Is it a different animal to a local newspaper? In some respects, yes. Those who work on those newspapers certainly believe so.

 

Did the editor at the time know all of this was happening? Maybe.

 

Should she/he take the rap? Yes.

 

That’s the responsibility one takes when one takes that job on, enjoying the rather large salary at the same time.

 

Editors fall into two categories – one who is remote and who’s office may be floors away from the newsroom and one who is hands-on and who lives in the newsroom. Both behaviours have merits – being distant doesn’t necessarily mean they are not savvy about what’s going on.

 

Having worked in a newsroom, this is how it usually goes. At least once a day, there’ll be a news conference where the day’s or week’s stories will be discussed. Not all reporters will attend this meeting.

 

Usually the editor, news editor, deputy news editor and maybe a chief reporter. So if an editor says to his/her news editor ‘what’s on today/tomorrow?” that person will answer. An editor might then say ‘where did that story come from?’ and a news editor might answer ‘oh, from reliable sources’. What do you say then as an editor?

 

Do you trust your senior team? Or do you question them further? Where does trust begin and end in the workplace?

 

 

What I’m saying is that it’s possible that an editor didn’t know what was going on and didn’t spot the signs that something was fishy. However that’s not the point. The point is that this is where the buck stops. Blame who you like, as the editor you should take the hit.

If you’re wondering what rules newspaper journalists adhere to – well, look at our ‘We Love’ section and you’ll find out.

 

However in broadcast journalism it’s different – not only do these journalists have to obey the law, they also have to follow the Ofcom Code of Conduct and that absolutely prohibits phone hacking, or even any kind of secret recording which is known as ‘fishing’ – recording stuff just on the off-chance that you’ll come across a good story.

I’ve secretly recorded material, both sound and pictures, and I’ve never regretted doing it.

As a journalist who’s been involved in many investigative projects, it’s sometimes necessary.

 

However, in television, if you want to secretly record, say, a telephone conversation, you have to fulfil strict criteria to get permission to do so.

 

That process involves outlining a case which must be put before a lawyer and the most senior executive in the building at the time.

 

You should not randomly record any telephone conversation you want with the intention of putting it on air.

 

You need to persuade the lawyer and executive that there is a high chance that by doing so you’ll get information that you couldn’t get in any other way.

If you’ve got that permission and you go ahead with the secret recording, you then have to go through a further process to use that material. You have to show that the material obtained ‘adds’ something to the film/broadcast that you wouldn’t have got by being upfront.

I have got permission for the former and then not been able to use the material on air – it’s never seen the light of day. So the case was made to record, but what was recorded on the day, didn’t fulfil expectation and therefore couldn’t be used.

But I accept the checks and balances that restrict those of us who work in radio and television.

I know how damaging these things can be if you get it wrong, so you must do all that you can to get it right, tell the truth and expose wrongdoing – when in the public interest.

Sometimes that kind of journalism exposes real problems which need to be revealed – think Panorama and the home for vulnerable adults in South Gloucestershire. Think of the whole pthalidamide story years ago.

Good and important things can be exposed by excellent journalism.

It bears no relation to anything that’s being revealed at the moment about the practices by certain individuals associated with News of the World.

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