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Month: July 2003

What is a journalist?

Eric, a thoroughly good chap from the other side of the pond, has directed a question at me. It’s in his post point5b: Scary Media Thought on his Livejournal. In it he refers to an article which “reveals” that most journalists arn’t experts in the fields they write about. My response?

Yeah, and…?

The skill of being a journalist is not being an expert on a subject and then pontificating about it in print. The skill of being a journalist is just the same as it’s ever been:

  1. Set out to report on a subject
  2. Research your subject
  3. Build contacts in that field
  4. Gather information from all of your sources
  5. Summarise it as a news story or feature

A journalist isn’t someone who is an expert in a particular field. He or she is an expert in finding the experts in the field, gathering their collected knowledge, sifting through it to find out what is most interesting for the readers and publishing it.

A journalist is essentially a conduit between those who know and those who wish to know. They act as a filter and a translator from the expert source to the lay reader. That’s the skill of journalism, not some nebulous idea of being an expert before you put finger to keyboard.

Unfair Dismissal? Justice Done

The latest issue of the NUJ‘s magazine, the Journalist, has an article by my former boss, Mark Hayes. I used to work for him on a magazine called Hotel & Restaurant, until 1996. Late that year, the management gave me the choice of being made redundant or moving to a job I didn’t want on another one of their titles. I took the latter option, and less than a month later found myself a new job with my current employer.

The way they treated Mark was even worse, as his article describes:

Management’s response was to unfairly criticise my performance, freeze my salary and threaten me with disciplinary action. I reached breaking point in May 2001, when I went off sick with a severe stress reaction to my workload and the way Quantum management were mistreating me; I lost my voice. I could not speak.

They drove him to the edge of a breakdown and then dismissed him while he was off sick. Two years later, with the backing of the NUJ’s lawyers, he has won £93,000, costs and a moral victory over Quantum Business Media.

It’s a damn shame it came to this, though. Mark is an extremely talented journalist and editor, and has the awards to prove it. It’s a shame that some publishing companies don’t have the intelligence to realise the gems they have in their organisations.

Beware the Fox

Like Dan and Meg, Lorna and I have to endure the sounds of foxes getting romantic several times a year. It really is just as bad as he makes it sound. They also dig up our lawn, tear open our rubbish bags and generally behave like anti-social neighbours. The urban fox of London Town is a canny beast. It can even whisper in the ears of Labour MPs while they sleep, persuading them to ban the hunting of their rural cousins.

Beware. The foxes have it in for us. They taunt us with their breeding and they defile our gardens. This is just the start…

400 years of pain

What happened 400 years ago today? Unless you were listening to Today on Radio 4 this morning, just as I was, you probably have absolutely no idea whatsoever.

In fact, 400 years ago today, James IV of Scotland was crowned in Westminster Abbey, becoming James I of England as well. This The Union of The Crowns was the first step towards the eventual Union of the Nations.

You can catch some oblique references to it, if you hunt around, but not many.

Of course, students of the history of the preceding few hundred years will note that the two had been one in some measure on and off for centuries. Scots kings were constantly swearing allegiance to the English, rebelling, getting invaded, rebelling again, swearing allegiance…

That uneasy relationship continues to this day, even after devolution and the formation of the Scottish Parliament. My fellow English folk have a terrible habit of using “England” and “Britain” as interchangeably as tourists do, which doesn’t endear them to the Scots. As a child growing up in Scotland, I was routinely irritated by kids’ TV wishing everyone good luck in their exams and giving guides to revision over a month after the Scottish schools exams had finished.

It’s common for the English to accuse the Americans of being isolationist and ignorant of the world outside their shores. How ironic that so many of us are just as ignorant of a land which borders on our own.

The call for devolution and a Scottish Parliament were an inevitable result of a London-focused Government and media that repeatedly neglected the land north of the border or, worse, used it as a test bed for terrible ideas like the poll tax.

One of the good things Labour did upon taking power was granting Scotland a measure of independence, satisfying that hunger for more control and recognition, without destroying the United Kingdom. What a pity that they screwed it up by excluding English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from a direct say in running Scotland, while allowing Scottish MPs a say in measures that don’t affect Scotland at all. This is the West Lothian Question, and years after it was first asked, nothing has been done to address it.

There have been calls for a English Parliaments, or to ban Scots MPs from voting on purely English matters in Westminster. Yet, the Labour Party continues to ignore the issue. Could the fact that Scottish MPs are predominantly from the Labour Party have anything to do with this unwillingless to address this constitutional nonsense.

400 years after we first welcomes a Scots king onto the English throne, we should be mindful of the fact that his political successors have more influence over their neighbour than is warranted. The English’s wilful ignorance of all things north of the border makes this a vain hope.

Destroying a myth

You know that myth about hard-drinking journalists and long lunches?

Well, I just had my first “wet” lunch in a very long time and I’ve been completely useless for much of the afternoon. Journalists just don’t work like that any more. Alas, alack.

Taking Notes

I’ve been watching the blame-storming with increasing interest over the last few days. However, one comment in an Evening Standard roundup of the controversy caught my eye, mainly for this paragraph:

There are also rumours in the corporation that a tape recording may exist of Dr Kelly discussing the dossier. In a statement, the BBC referred to supplying the inquiry with “notes and other materials” made by the journalists but this may simply refer to Mr Gilligan’s records which were made on a Palm Pilot computer rather than a notebook.

He made his records on a Palm?

I’ve been known to use a Palm for notes myself, in non-contentious, low pressure situations. However, with the best will in the world, writing graffiti on a Palm is going to be much slower than writing shorthand in a notebook. It doesn’t seem the best choice in the world.

Worse than that, though, is the evidence factor. Libel actions can be brought up to five years after the publication of an article. Thus, most publishers require that journalists keep their notes for a minimum of five years after the article sees print. Our notebooks and other research material go into a “squirrel” – warehouse storage somewhere in the country where they can be retrieved if need be. I’m not sure what happens to them after the five years is up – they get burnt, probably. Anyway, the point is that they are accessible if I ever need to defend a story in court.

Not so with notes taken with a Palm. Most Palms don’t even have hard storage of any kind. They’re kept in memory and only exist on a hard drive after the Palm is synchronised with the desktop. Let the power run out on your Palm, and any evidence of the original format of the notes is gone. The notes could be altered, untraceably, at any time after they were made. Only making notes on a Palm on so important a matter seems unspeakably foolish to me, but then, that seems to be the order of the day.