Wednesday, 6 October 2010

"You can't do that on Google".

Tonight I attended the  launch of the new London Metropolitan MA in International Journalism, which took the form of a debate on International Journalism in the 21st Century.

After an introduction by James Bennett, academic leader, who said that the "MA was one of the first of its kind in the UK", and that the degree "transcends international borders", the first of four panellists stepped up to the stand.

Johnathan Charles, foreign correspondent for the BBC, who has covered the wars in Iraq, the conflict in Yugoslavia and many more, regards the time he spent abroad as "the golden age of journalism". 

He elaborated by saying that, although the world has been getting smaller in terms of news coverage, budgets have been getting smaller as well, and that with money cut off the budget, people have been questioning whether they can afford to retain a foreign correspondent. His response?
"You can't do that on Google".
Johnathan covered the war in Chechnya in the late '90s, and he described it as "piecing together a jigsaw puzzle". 

He made the point that you had to be there experiencing and reporting on it, which would enable you to make the connections to spot the trends emerging in future events. He said that a good foreign correspondent stops seeing the pieces of the jigsaw and sees the whole picture, something that you don't get from Google. 

In a nutshell, the longer one is a foreign correspondent the easier it is to see the links. He ended with a quote from Winston Churchill: "The more you look back, the more you can look forward".

Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, was up next.
He said that the targeting of independent journalists worldwide has soared over the last decade, mentioning the journalists who were charged recently with "seditious libel" for criticizing the Gambian president, Yahyah Jammeh, and another who was imprisoned in Cameroon. 

And yet, he emphasized, the shocking treatment of journalists in some places has not put a stop to articles about threat, censorship and political pressures, saying that the "irrepressible spirit of independent journalism" is alive and well.

Echoing Jonathan's comment about budgets affecting journalism, he said that corporate business models are threatening quality journalism, that thousands of jobs have gone, and that there are 200 less journalists currently covering the European Parliament and its affairs than there were 5 years ago.

He emphasized the importance of "boots on the ground", giving an inspiring example of a journalist, Robert Fisk, who investigated a bombing in Baghdad by going to the site, picking up the pieces, getting the serial number off the fragments, and identifying where the bomb actually came from as opposed to what was reported elsewhere.

Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media Studies at Goldsmith's College, spoke about the media's relationship with democracy, saying that "journalism is de-democratizing as well as being democratizing", as the abundance of choice of news sources on the internet can result in less exposure as people get more easily sidetracked. 

She said that the current style of speeding it up and spreading it thin was more like "creative cannibalization" than news journalism, again echoing the previous speakers' message that there is too much googling going on and not enough real journalism. She said the ideal way forward would be a post-corporate, not-for-profit, independent news media.

Clive Jones, Chairman of GMTV, spoke about his time as a journalist for the Yorkshire Post in the '70s, a time when you had to look out for the nearest phone-box to report a story, or knock on someone's door and ask if you could use their phone. "You will have noticed there's been a technology revolution" he said to much laughter from the audience. 

He said that technology should have changed and liberated news gathering, but instead has created an environment where news as entertainment gets a bigger audience than serious journalism. He said that the  24hr news channels are a "wonderful lost opportunity", and that the quality and range of journalism needs to be improved. One way of doing that, he suggested, was to increase the amount of advertising in the news channels.

After Mr Jones had finished, John Gabriel, Dean of the Faculty of Applied Social Sciences, lightened the mood:
"Well students, I hope that hasn't put you off". Laughs all around.
Richard Evans, Senior lecturer at London Met, asked if any of the panel had some inspirational advice for us.


Laughs again, then Clive Jones saved the day by saying that Journalism "is one of the areas of study with the highest employment rates". Jeremy Dear did his bit by saying that getting stories that make a difference to peoples' lives is definitely worthwhile, and Jonathan Charles emphasized "the thrill of getting the story, getting it first, getting it right and getting it on air".

Phew. That's alright then.

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