Nick Jones

Media Ethics

What Shadows, Chris Hannan’s dramatic play about the build-up and aftermath of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, explores the fracturing of a family friendship, while nailing at the same time an important home truth about a politician attempting to manipulate the news media.

Seeing my mother make her principled stand in rebuking Powell for exploiting immigration, and then hearing her berate my father for having advised Powell on how to promote the speech, prompted some timely reflection on my part, a salutary reminder perhaps of my own culpability as a journalist. 

Hannan’s production, which had its premiere at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1.11.2016), has Ian McDiarmid in the lead role; George Costigan as my father, Clem Jones, former editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star; and Paula Wilcox as Marjorie Jones.

In my mother’s opinion Powell, to further his political career, had crossed an unforgivable line when he raised fears about Wolverhampton’s rising immigrant population, describing what he claimed was the plight of the last white woman living in a street near our home, a war widow who had been harassed by “wide-grinning piccaninnies.”

Broadcasters, like print journalists, are rightly being challenged by leading figures on the Remain side for the news media’s failure during the EU Referendum campaign to exercise sufficient scrutiny over the claims being made by Leave supporters.

Based on my 30 years as a BBC correspondent, from well before the 1975 referendum, I am in no doubt as to how viewers and listeners were short changed.

During the 1970s and 1980s there was always a clear divide during election campaigns between news stories and campaign reports.

Major announcements and developments were treated on their news value, as self-standing items, and any political ramifications were covered in separate balanced packages on the day’s campaigning, later in the bulletin on programme.

But in the 2016 referendum campaign the BBC’s news value judgement seemed to be totally awry.

Seeking political opinions from drinkers in the local pub, or from shoppers in the town centre, is a popular device for television and radio journalists and has always had its limitations, but never more so than during the polarised campaign leading up to the European Referendum.

Having spent many years myself collecting vox pops – a staple ingredient for any broadcaster out on the road – I know how unrepresentative these on-the-spot surveys can be.

Perhaps the greatest drawback is that such straw polls are often conducted in the late morning, or early afternoon, having to be completed ahead of time, ready for editing so as to be included in packaged reports to be transmitted in the early or late evening programmes and bulletins.

A major flaw in the practice is that most day-time shoppers or public house customers tend to be retired or self-employed, local tradesmen and the like, a sample that is invariably unrepresentative of the population at large.

This time constraint tends to exclude most if not all those of working-age who are unlikely to be either day-time shoppers or drinkers. The same problem arises on a general election polling day. Invariably TV crews dispatched to get early footage find that most of the morning voters leaving polling stations are pensioners.

Corbyn ElectedComing to terms with the trials and tribulations of leading the Labour Party is proving a steep learning curve for Jeremy Corby, but he has had plenty of training for the media onslaught that he is having to endure.

I know from personal experience as a former BBC political correspondent that Corbyn’s durability under fire should not be underestimated.

His criticism in his acceptance speech of the unacceptable level of media intrusion being experienced by politicians was heartfelt – and something of a premonition given that five days later he was subjected to a frenzy of revelations about his relationship in the 1980s with Diane Abbott, the shadow international development secretary.

But Corbyn has remained steadfast and resolute for the last 30 years in the face of sustained denigration at the hands of Conservative-supporting newspapers and their erstwhile allies in New Labour.

January 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. A new book, FOI 10 years on: freedom fighting or lazy journalism (Abramis) is due to be published in February 2015).Nicholas Jones explores the errors of judgements that led to self-inflicted humiliation, and that culminated, after four years’ prevarication, in calamitous repercussions for confidence in the political process.

British politicians have continued to pay a heavy price for the House of Commons’ wilful obstruction of the disclosure required by the Freedom of Information Act.  An explosion of public anger in May 2009 that followed revelations about the way Members of Parliament had abused their expenses, and in some cases even defrauded the taxpayer, was far greater and lasted far longer than would probably have been the case if the Parliamentary authorities had started answering journalists’ inquiries as soon as the Act finally took effect in January 2005. The lesson of the Westminster expenses scandal is that if a managed release of information is rejected, and then subsequently thwarted, journalists will always try to retaliate and that illicitly-acquired data can invariably find a buyer in today’s competitive media market place.

The self indulgence of a cohort of departing BBC executives in agreeing between themselves the size of their pay-offs and pension pots came as no surprise to many of the journalists and producers who had worked alongside them.  Nicholas Jones, a BBC correspondent for thirty years, traces the origins of a sense of entitlement that took root in the upper echelons of the Corporation and which uncoupled an ‘officer class’from their obligations to the licence payer.

 While some employees found the collective strengths and ideals of ‘auntie’ BBC outdated and restrictive, many of my contemporaries ended fulfilling careers acknowledging they had been well rewarded. Most are comforted in retirement by their good fortune in being the beneficiaries of what for them has been a generous final-salary pension scheme. But those of us who stayed the course cannot help but reflect on the gulf that grew ever wider between editorial and production staff and the multiplying layers of upper management

 

No wonder there were complaints from Downing Street about the four national newspapers which printed photographs of the Prime Minister wrapped in a Mickey Mouse towel as he struggled to change out of his swimming trunks on a beach in Cornwall. As he and his wife Samantha had already provided a pre-arranged photo-opportunity earlier in week, the couple had assumed they would be left alone for the rest of their holiday.

But what No.10’s media minders had not taken into account was the fact that the Prime Minister’s run of summer holidays – four in four months – had become a story line in itself and their holiday snaps had far greater news value than usual.

Whereas in previous years the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Times might have respected Cameron’s privacy, the temptation was too great; the Prime Minister sunburnt belly and Samantha’s obvious amusement as her husband tried to pull up his shorts were a gift for the headline writers.

For once Cameron’s sixth sense about how to play along with the whims of the national press seemed to have deserted him. He had left himself open to the charge that he appeared more than comfortable flaunting the fact he and his family were having a magical run of summer breaks while many other families, hit by hard by harsh economic times, would think they were lucky to have had one holiday, let alone four.

From the moment he first bid for the Conservative Party leadership in 2005 Cameron has been willing to provide far greater access for photographers and television crews than most previous party leaders or Prime Ministers.  Indeed his willingness to allow himself and his family to feature in endless photo-opportunities – and his own ease in front of camera – has endured far longer than most seasoned publicists would have predicted.

What Do We Mean By Local? The Rise, Fall and Possible Rise Again of Local Journalism, due to be published in September, reflects on the golden age of the provincial press and examines the future prospects for local newspapers and other local news outlets.

My father Clem Jones was editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star throughout the 1960s and he helped a provincial pace setter gain national prominence.  Strong local news coverage and innovative localism in sales and distribution drove circulation ever upwards.

In a chapter for What Do We Mean By Local? I explore ­– from the perspective of a schoolboy and then trainee reporter – the highs and lows, and also stresses and strains, of what it must have been like editing one of the most successful local evening newspapers in the country.

My father, who joined the Express and Star as district reporter at Bilston in 1943, had over the years become a close friend of Enoch Powell since his election as Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West in 1950.  

The two men would talk animatedly for hours; my father admired Powell’s diligence as a constituency MP and Powell, who was fascinated by the processes involved in news management, was eager for tips on how to use the media to promote his political career.

But their friendship was shattered by the racist tone of Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968. My father, who had gained an unconditional exemption from war service as a conscientious objector – and who had been sacked in 1940 for refusing to report stories in support of the war effort – was about to find that once again his own editorial principles would be tested almost to destruction.

 

European-wide regulations to provide for the erasure of personal details stored online will not provide an absolute right to be forgotten.  This was the clear warning of speakers at a conference on policy priorities for social media.

Facebook’s European director of policy Richard Allan told the Westminster eForum (10.7.2013) that although Facebook users had the right to delete their own profile it was not possible to erase all associated material held about an individual by other data controllers.

Lawyers representing social media companies urged the European Union to be much clearer in how it was proposing to enforce “a right to be forgotten”. 

Hazel Grant, a commercial lawyer and partner in Bristows, said the European proposal for a right of erasure of data when consent was withdrawn could not provide an absolute right to be forgotten.  The data controller concerned would have an obligation to inform third parties and ask them to erase data unless the cost was disproportionate but there was no guarantee that could be done.

“If the European Union wants to introduce a right to be forgotten it needs to be much clearer...It cannot be delivered entirely because a complete right to be forgotten would destroy history...Business needs to know how this will work”.

Fleet Street and the BBC should realise that they had a stake in each other’s future and that by working alongside each other they could go on delivering some of the best journalism in the world.

James Harding, the BBC’s new director of news and current affairs, gave the Journalists’ Charity what he acknowledged was an unfashionable but unashamedly upbeat assessment of the future of British journalism.

He told the charity’s annual summer lunch (2.7.2013) that the BBC had a vital stake in the future of the press and in safeguarding press freedom.

Not only did Fleet Street provide a brilliant, boisterous expression of opinion but it also faced the critical challenge of helping to provide a constant a constant stream of ideas which sustained the journalism of the BBC. 

“Within the BBC there is a constant hunger for fresh stories and opinions for which it relies on the papers and for its part the BBC acts as a fog horn for the great work of Fleet Street and it should credit newspapers and journalists for their reporting”.

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