Monday, 27 February 2012

Leeds Trinity Journalism Week 2012 - Mark Easton

Auntie finally got a look in this morning with Mark Easton, Home Editor of the BBC. He was candid about his entry into journalism - "I've never applied for a job in my life." He described his career as a skydive, and encouraged all of us to grab opportunities where we could.

Turning the tables somewhat, he asked the audience why they wanted to get into journalism. Excellent way to shut up a room full of hacks, nobody tell the politicians. There were some admirable goals - "hold the powerful to account" and such - but I kept quiet, as I thought "Being sent to review gigs" wouldn't really stand up in this Leveson-dominated era.
He praised those of us with high-minded ideals, and recounted how his tour of duty on the ink, paper and whiskey-soaked Fleet Street in the eighties had knocked some of the starry-eyed optimism out of him. It was telling that people chuckled more at his straight-faced comment about journalists looking to make an "honest dollar", than there ever was at his rolling oratory on booze-soaked hacks of yesteryear.

Reading occasionally from his book Britain, etc. Mark mentioned the 'Westminster bubble' of politicians, lobbyists and journalists who essentially set the entire national news agenda. He also referred to our responsibility as journalists to the 'numbers' - statistical news - and accurate reporting of science, two crucial matters which have often brought the media's reputation into disrepute.

He opened the floor to questions, and was immediately hit with the moral responsibility of journalists to follow the law when reporting. Reflecting on the constant grinding of the Leveson Inquiry, Mark said "there are going to be times when journalists frankly need to break the law" but qualified this remarkable statement by saying that journalists who do deserve to be prosecuted.
A formal and viable defence of Public Interest should be introduced to deal with situations where a journalist has acted in the greater good by breaking the civil - and even criminal? - laws of this country.
Is the PCC a toothless watchdog then? Yes, he responded without hesitation. The media needs a regulator with more cojones he said, reminding us that he - and the BBC - work under the scrutinising eye of Ofcom, a much tougher regulator.

Looking to the future, he advised us that "statistics are where it's at" and fully supported the moves to offer training in data reporting, a theme I feel will be echoed by many speakers in the wake of the latest Wikileaks release.
Mark turned a critical eye on regional media, which is a favourite bugbear of the Corporation, and stated "local papers are rubbish at holding local government to account", accusing them of being "entirely driven by advertising."
I tweeted this controversial opinion to the editor of our regional (who secured my placement last month) and Mark quantified his statement to us both later this afternoon - "Arguing local paper industry not where it was in holding local democ to acct."

Mentioning twitter, Mark urged enthusiasm in all forms of social media. "If you aren't blogging, tweeting, WRITING - well, what ARE you doing?" He knows the future will be in social media. So where does that leave the traditional media that he and the regional press use? It'll be the "stick in the sand", a lynchpin in a shifting, confusing world of cutting edge new media. Not a stick in the mud, I clarified on twitter.

It was this traditional media as well that was at the heart of the problem in British journalism - that the balance of privacy is just not write. He spoke disparagingly of the "unforgiving firestorm" of press attention that can destroy careers and lives when people who happen to be in the public eye make a personal mistake. A very humbling point of view I felt. I was also driven to ask if glorifying tales of whiskey-fuelled reporting wouldn't end up breeding a whole generation of replacement Alistair Campbells, but Mark was quick to clarify that the 'golden age' of Fleet Street caricatures was long past.

Instead, he urged us, disregard these tales of fewer journalism jobs being available and more applicants gunning for them. Employers are just as desperate to find some shining new talent, as you are to land your career in the field. The chances are there!

He concluded with words of encouragement for those of us spending thousands (or racking up thouands in debt) to be qualified as a journalist when a mobile and a twitter account allow the 'citizen journalist' to scoop an exclusive just as easily.
He said "The definition of a journalist is becoming much looser. It basically depends on the quality of material being provided." Never discount the ability to analyse and interpret the material, which is actually what we're trained for.


That blog post went on for longer than I was intending! I'll write up the talks from Peter Salmon (BBC) and James Ball (Guardian) in a new post later on.

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