Features, Journalism

Toward a new way of covering politics in the age of Corbyn

The disintegration of the Liberal Democrats, the SNPs surge in Scotland, the rise of UKIP, the Conservatives 2015 election win, and now the success of Jeremy Corbyn. When examining the significant political events of the last five years, one thing unites them all: the media didn’t see any of them coming.

Now with the press, having ignored their previous errors, predicting that Labour is ‘Red and Buried’ under Jeremy Corbyn, this failure demands explanation.

Why do our political journalists get so much wrong, so much of the time? The answer lies in the same place they find their news.

Back in June, the Sunday Times had a front page story of international significance. Under the headline ‘British spies betrayed to Russians and Chinese’, the newspaper reported that MI6 agents had been hastily reassigned after officials in enemy intelligence agencies cracked secret documents obtained by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Quite a scoop. But how did the Sunday Times reporter Tom Harper, who broke the story, come to know that the files had been breached by the Russians and Chinese?

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he told CNN.

What about the files? What did they contain?

“That’s not something we’re clear on, so we don’t go into that level of detail in the story,” he said, before adding. “We just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government at the moment.”

The Sunday Times had published a story on its front page seemingly without checking its most basic facts. The assumption seemed to be that if the government said it, it must be true.

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Snowden story in 2013, dismissed the Sunday Times story as a “self-negating joke”.

As much as this sentiment breaks even the most the basic journalistic values, the truly shocking thing about it was just how common these stories are.

“It is by now well established,” begins American scholar W. Lance Bennett in his 1990 work ‘Towards an understanding of press-state relations in the United States’; “that the mass media in the US get most of its news from government officials.”

For America in 1990, we can read Britain in 2015.

Journalists working today have more work to do, less time to do it and fewer opportunities to make contacts.

In print journalism, where most stories in the broadcast media still originate, jobs are hard to come by, and redundancies are common. Those lucky enough to be in employment, work long and hard, with the development of online journalism and 24 hour news channels meaning articles have to be churned out at a rapid pace.

In local news, the situation is even more bleak, with newsrooms located far outside the area they’re supposed to be covering, occupied by too few trainees, earning too little money. The staff at the Islington Gazette recently moved nine miles outside Islington to Ilford. Their previous office was four miles away in Swiss Cottage.

By comparison, government communications teams, as with their corporate equivalents, are booming, and ready to fill in the gaps offered by overworked journalists. In the UK, even relatively minor government departments like the department of energy and climate change have more than 10 press officers, and a 24 hour phone line for emergency media enquiries.

The disintegration of local media and the under-staffing in national newsrooms, has left political hacks based in Westminster stuck to reporting almost exclusively on Westminster issues; filling in any blanks in their stories with the plethora of briefings from government press officers and communication officials in the less well-staffed opposition parties.

Added to this mix is an array of news agencies which have “accuracy” as their watchword, but choose to interpret the term loosely.

Reporters for these agencies, based firmly within the Westminster bubble, spend their days “accurately” and speedily noting down everything that is said, in parliament and in the media by leading politicians.

Their work then gets sent to news outlets and forms the basis of the stories we consume. The politicians being “accurately” quoted could be talking complete nonsense, but that doesn’t matter. As long as the spelling is correct, and the meaning is clear, these newswires have done their job. With no time to check facts, or think of new angles to tell the story, these journalists are left in a situation where they spend their days accurately copying down the inaccuracies of the political elite.

If this seems like an over-simplification, consider the ease with which the Conservative party was able to spin the election result in the immediate aftermath of May 7th.

After a campaign marked by almost historic negativity, in which the leader of the opposition was said to have stabbed his brother in the back and was set to connive against Britain’s interests with a load of dirty Scots, David Cameron declared “we’ve had a positive response to a positive campaign”, a line which led the news agenda the next day.

Days later, while announcing the most right-wing government programme in a generation, including a clampdown on trade unions so severe it was dubbed “Francoist” by one Conservative MP, the Chancellor George Osborne was able to call the Tories the “workers party”.

In Bennett’s theory, together with the idea that journalists get most of their news from the government, is the notion that opposition voices are only shown in the media at times of “elite dissensus”.

“Elite dissensus” is when the government and leading parties, and or leading figures within the government, disagree on key issues. In times of “elite consensus”, there is no opposition to speak of, and thus little is reported on. Those opposition voices outside parliament; NGOs, think tanks, university scholars, are either ignored, or given short-shrift.

With Labour in disarray after Ed Miliband’s resignation and their crushing defeat, no one was able to challenge the Tories rebrand as the “workers party”. Similarly voices of discontent are absent in reports on the government’s military strategy against Isis, or in the months after the 2010 election, the notion that Labour overspending caused the financial crash in 2008.

According to Bennett’s model, the media report the world as the political elite sees it. Today, with journalists unable to get a view of events outside London and other metropolitan areas due to the decline of the local press, this trend has intensified. Our media have failed to represent the world as it is because they report on a group, put into power with low turnout and high apathy, who are not representative.

Just as Corbyn has promised a “new kind of politics”, it is time for a new kind of political journalism.

We should change what we see as the political beat. Journalists should be encouraged to escape Westminster. New ways must be found for funding local journalism, so reporters can cover the council meetings, small-scale protests and community events that shape the world most people live in.

We should lose our obsession with speed, for speed’s sake and instead take time to think about not just what a minister is saying, but also why they are saying it.

Otherwise, when we’re asked to explain the next Corbyn moment, we’ll be echoing the words repeated by Harper in his CNN interview: “we don’t know”.

This piece was originally published by openDemocracy.

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Features, Journalism

The Prison Service is in Crisis

Photo: Joe Sandler Clarke

Photo: Joe Sandler Clarke

This is Lee Jarman.

His step-brother was found hanged in his cell at HMP Woodhill on the 22nd of May, 2013. He was 30 years old and had a long history of mental health problems, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He was also a regular self-harmer and had made a number of attempts to kill himself in the past. Despite all this, the staff at Woodhill felt he posed little risk of self-harm and suicide.

Kevin’s death is symptomatic of broader problems in our prisons.

Deaths in prison custody reached an all-time high in 2013. With morale low, prisons short of staff, violence on the rise and the government announcing that an extra 440 inmates will have to be placed in already over-crowded cells by August, writing for VICE I found that the Prison Service has reached a tipping point.

You can read Lee’s here on VICEUK and find out about the crisis in the Prison Service by reading my investigation here.

 

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Features, Journalism

What place is there for journalism in the digital age?

It is an exciting time to be a young reporter.

This is a mantra all student journalists will be used to hearing.

Where once you had to plead with an editor to get a story published and then deliver it by post to other editors in the hope of making a name for yourself; now you can create a blog, publish your content and in minutes have your article being read by hundreds, if not thousands, of people via social media.

On top of this, you can contribute to new sites like Huffington Post and Sabotage Times. You won’t be paid but you’ll gain greater recognition by attaching your name to these established news organisations.

The digital age has also transformed news gathering. Sources are easier to find than ever before and archives can be trawled through in minutes using increasingly sophisticated search engines. Further, the rise of data journalism has opened up a whole field of story-telling, banishing the traditional reporter’s fear of numeracy in the process.

But the relentless enthusiasm for the new age of reporting masks the deficiencies of the modern era.

For all the virtues of data-driven journalism, its increased use in newsrooms across the world is as much because of cost as it is down to an excitement about the new medium.

After all, a journalist sitting at a laptop mining data is not going to accrue the same expenses as a roving reporter in the field. Similarly, stories derived from datasets won’t have the same legal question marks hanging over them as more conventional articles. Generally, as long as you’ve got your sums right, you’ve got the story right.

Moreover, the rise of the internet has coincided with a rise in job insecurity. The transformation of the advertising market online has stripped local and regional outlets of their main source of revenue and unemployment has inevitably followed. It is estimated that in the United States the number of working journalists fell by 25 per cent between 2001 and 2010.

In some cases new technologies threaten to diminish the role of the journalist altogether. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times posted an article online that was generated entirely by an algorithm, while a recent article on Motherboard speculated that a partnership between Buzzfeed and social sharing site Whisper could lead to the creation of automated viral content; lists by robots, if you will.

As the role of journalists has diminished in the digital age, the role of advertisers has strengthened. It is telling that the bastion of the modern era Buzzfeed boasts that it is “redefining online advertising with its social, content-driven publishing technology” before discussing content on their ‘about’ section.

Similarly, as part of its plan to combat heavy losses, the Guardian has become increasingly cosy with advertisers; signing up first with EE and now Unilever to sponsor whole sections of its website.

Of course, the news business has always had to walk a moral tightrope. Work that can generally be thought of as a public good – news that informs debate in a democratic society – has been funded by private money, through advertising.

But as the communications scholar Lance Bennett has argued, the rise of advertising-driven content could serve to diminish the freedom of journalists to report as well as decreasing the number of subjects open to scrutiny. A glossy, ad-filled magazine section would previously supplement expensive investigations in the news pages, but such a distinction no longer exists.

To quote Bennett: “When the internet suddenly offered cheaper and more precise means of targeting ads to audiences, both advertisers and audiences began to drift away from conventional media formats, leaving the news itself as an odd piece out in the media picture. Who would pay to produce a story on climate change? Who would pay to consume it?”

The digital age offers incredible opportunities, both for the young journalist looking to make a name for him or herself and for the public consuming the news. But the relentless enthusiasm for the modern age of journalism exhibited by media professionals still in a job and also budding reporters masks more disturbing trends in our media. By acknowledging this we can have a real discussion about what we want the future our press to look like.

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Features, Journalism

Syria’s best and brightest are caught up in the crossfire

The article as it appeared in Times Higher Education Magazine in January 2014.

The article as it appeared in Times Higher Education Magazine in January 2014.

Syria’s higher education system is in disarray.

This may not seem particularly shocking given the many thousands who have died or been forced to flee their homes since the war began in 2011, but it is deeply depressing.

The destruction of Syria’s education system means that research has gone unfinished, students have stopped learning and the countries brightest minds have fled. As well as ruining lives, the war is also destroying the country’s future

For this feature, published in Times Higher Education, I spoke to Syrian academics who have fled their country and come to work in the UK.

They told me that universities were regularly targeted by all sides in an increasingly manic civil war and that professors were a prime target for kidnappers.

I am very grateful to THE for publishing this piece and hope it raises awareness of the work done by organisation like the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics who are supporting Syrians caught up in the crisis.

You can read the piece in full here.

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