Friday, May 30, 2008

Shorthand - no short cuts

Sanity appeared to prevail in the lively debate sparked by Charlie Becket’s Polis blog on the future of shorthand teaching.

He reported on a London College of Communications validation meeting at which the relevance of shorthand teaching was questioned. The debate got a bigger airing when it appeared on Martin Stabe’s Wired blog. Thankfully, most of those who joined in were student journalists who took themselves seriously and were adamantly against the suggestion.

What worries me is that it was on the agenda at all? It is a core skill and one of the few that can’t easily be learned on the job. I’d question the credentials of anyone in education who thinks otherwise.

The only thing that interests me as an employer is not whether someone has shorthand, or even whether they use Pitman or Teeline - but how many words per minute they have.

Tape recorders are fine for sit-down interviews but are not relevant to day-to-day newsgathering. Reporters should use them like subs use spell-check.

And I’d never employ either if they couldn’t work without them.

Monday, May 26, 2008

No photographs? You're havin' a laugh

I witnessed comic history on Friday when I joined more than 15,000 at London’s O2 Arena to see Chris Rock beat Lee Evans’ record for the biggest audience for a live comedy gig.

A one and a half hour music-free, prop-free monologue of sex, race, politics, race and more race was probably worth paying £50 for, joining a queue for a drink that took the entire interval and a queue to leave that took 30 minutes to get outside, but that’s showbiz.

But I reserved the biggest laugh for the pre-concert announcement to comply with the artiste’s wishes for no photography during the show. Stewards then found themselves running up and down the aisle shooting chiding glances at those who did what they did at every other concert - and snapped away merrily with their phones.

Two nights later, a hand reached across to my £85 seat at the Coliseum and patted me on the back during the Liza Minnelli concert. The steward couldn’t reach the woman filming a few seats up and asked me to pass on her disapproval.

I did, only out of politeness, but have to say I felt that sanity returned later during the encore when a few dozen en masse began to flash away.

I’m the first to jump up and down when someone breaches my copyright and am no stranger to litigation when my interests need protecting. But these days every ticket-holder is a photographer and promoters would do well to wake up to that.

Besides, when you ask that number of people to pay those prices (plus, in the case of the Coliseum an extra £5.50 for a small glass of ordinary white wine) and expect them to keep their phones in their pockets when the performers do their best to ramp up the excitement, I think you’re taking the Michael with an M.

Friday, May 09, 2008

A question of trust (part two)

I’m sorry to have missed the launch of Adrian Monck’s book last week as it fell right on deadline. But I gather there were lively exchanges, as you’d expect for a work with such a controversial title as Can You Trust The Media?

Andrew Gilligan didn’t seem convinced by his assertion that the waning trust may not be quite such a crisis after all. But I’m on Monck’s side on this one.

When I began lecturing in the mid nineties I mischievously collected samples of some of the dodgiest newspaper practices. For example, all first editions the day after a serial killer was jailed, and pinned them up alongside each other to show headlines such as “Ten more victims”; “He killed dozens more say police”; “The Search begins for 100s more”.

Same story, different take. But how could this happen, I'd ask? Was it the reporting or the source? In this case it was a moment of madness that was a five-minute post-trial press conference, with the official response: "Well, there are ten people unaccounted for that we know about. It's not inconceivable that there are many we don't know about. How many would that be? Think of a number. It's pure speculation at this stage."

Headline writers, take your pick.

They joined a growing collection as I began to enthusiastically archive pages that were a. pulled after the first edition; b. only ever went abroad before being pulped; c. never actually made it into print; d. got a senior exec or two sacked.

The reaction? A good laugh. Interesting points made but a light touch to break up the heavy stuff. Did it deter them from reading - or writing for - newspapers? Don’t be daft. And did they matter a jot when I brought them out after a dinner party? Not a bit.

Why? There was no real trust there in the first place, merely an acceptance that we can generally read between the lines when we need to and our natural scepticism will spare us from being conned.

Since then, our attitudes to media consumption have changed. We know what to accept, what to dismiss and what to use merely as a point of reference.

I'm talking generally here. And I’m not talking major exclusives.

But look at it this way: a commuter on the 6.32 from Waterloo who picks up a discarded red top will no more believe Elvis is living on the moon than that the small ad on page 52 can make him attractive to women. But neither will destroy his confidence in the media or singles nights.

The importance of the message depends on the level of trust he places in the messenger. TV awards aside, strong images and reporters in flak jackets will generally get a good response, first person headlines about soap stars in the Sunday tabs will not.

A local paper will be trusted by and large (and that’s the point) because the issues it deals with matter to its readers and, given that many of their stories will be exclusive in the purest sense, there are fewer points of reference to test their scepticism.

Even if the Weekly Bugle says Fred Toadstool is 52 when you know for a fact he's 56, you’ll accept the mistake at face value because the paper’s perceived raison d’etre (planning applications, real people’s weddings, death notices) is to inform, not to grab attention at any cost.

A national paper will invariably be merely one of many reference points for a reader following a story on many platforms; the bigger the story, the greater the outlets. Angles will vary and some facts will differ but, in the main, the key ones won't.

It's a game of averages. What really matters is that a paper has to be seen to get it right most of the time but be trying to get it right all the time.

Levels of trust will vary according to experience. Readers like victims of crime, are a product of their experiences.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A question of trust (part one)

I was on the middle bench of the Sunday Mirror the day they bought up the boyfriend of Julie Ward, the year old safari girl killed in an African game reserve. It was to be the splash, the headline was already written and my job was to shoehorn it on to the page.

I gave it to one of my top subs, a woman in her early thirties, and set to work on the subdeck and then an extraordinary thing happened. She sent it back. Resolutely refused to have any input whatsoever.

Why? Did she know the girl? Was this too close to home in some other way? No, the reason, she insisted: “It was utter bollocks.”

Surely there was nothing dodgy about intimate, unsubstantiated, descriptions of passion in the Kenyan moonlight and the appalling headline; Safari girl Julie's last sex-crazed night.

Don’t answer that. Years later it joined a few dozen anecdotes on a list I trot out from time to time when debating ethics with students.

This week Prof Adrian Monck, whose charges at City University I occasionally speak to, gave me a few more with his book Can You trust the media?

He cites many examples of trust erosion from the shark photographs Kevin Keeble didn’t take in Cornwall to the bogus drug addict story that landed Janet Cooke a Pulitzer prize.

This isn’t supposed to be a book review but I will get to the point and highly recommend it as a pretty decent work on the state of journalism as he puts succinctly on paper what we all know but rarely publicly admit: our main priority is to gain as much of the public's time as we can, rather than inform. And their trust is eroded in the process.

He refers to it here and there as a crisis but explores it rather coolly and with little sense of panic. There's some good analysis too, especially for the sociologically-minded; not all of Fleet Street swallowed the dodgy dossier story, bad news did more to boost morale than good news in the WW2, for example. And he puts a realistic perspective on the so-called power of the citizen journalist.

But he sees light at the end of the tunnel and offers a few solutions, which - suppose, is what you'd expect from an educator.

Personally, I welcome any work that intelligently questions what we do and how we do it. Ever since Lies Damned Lies I've been comfortable with being uncomfortable, if that makes sense.

Monck’s book is not quite the gloom and doom of Nick Davies's Flat Earth News and his publishers are quick to point this out. But I don't see it as a head-to-head. Their debates launch from different premises. Where Davis exposes, Monck examines and discusses.

I'm drawn to these works, having seen at first hand many excesses over the years. None of them made me want to quit, join the PCC or leave my drink on the bar in the last chance saloon.

And I've bookmarked a few passages for use in a lecture theatre somewhere near you, sometime soon. I share his passion in nurturing the talent of the future, but it’s always good to let them know what they're coming into.

More on this later . . .