Nick Jones

Media Ethics

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”.

Chris Huhne’s downfall had a thread running through it which connected him to the disgrace of a long-line of post-war politicians. In almost every case it was the work of journalists which was responsible for initially exposing their misdemeanours or sexual infidelities yet those involved seemed to have believed mistakenly that they could somehow outwit the ability of Britain’s national newspapers to hold the powerful to account.

Whether it was John Profumo, John Stonehouse, David Mellor, Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken or John Prescott, they had all learned how to use – and to even manipulate – the news media yet in the end they could not keep the journalists at bay.

Often because of their prominent positions in public life or their acquaintance with newspaper proprietors, editors and broadcasting executives, politicians believe they have established some kind of protection against the worst excesses of the tabloid press.

They tend to become overconfident; they sometimes make the mistake of threatening to go over the heads of reporters direct to the editor or worst of all, try to play one newspaper or news outlet off against another  -- a sure fire way of encouraging Tony Blair’s “feral beasts” to take even greater risks.

In a news provider like the BBC, where story lines are constantly being changed and updated, journalists and editors have to trust each other. There is what amounts to an umbilical cord of trust between a reporter out on assignment and those executives who have editorial control over what is broadcast in news bulletins and programmes.

Sometimes that sense of trust gets eroded; perhaps the journalist senses that the editor no longer approves of the story line which is being pursued.

If there is a serious misunderstanding the umbilical cord might be broken altogether.  Very occasionally – as I know from thirty years as a BBC correspondent – that breakdown in relations might have been due to what I can only describe as a hidden agenda on the part of the BBC’s management.

When it comes to the dropping of Newsnight’s investigation into the allegations of child abuse against the late disc jockey Sir Jimmy Saville, the suspicion is that the story was dropped for corporate reasons: the BBC did not want to jeopardise its pre-Christmas tribute programmes to such a well-known celebrity.

It is the manoeuvring within the BBC’s editorial chain of command – which was going on without the knowledge of Newsnight’s reporter Liz MacKean and producer Merion Jones – which makes the Savile saga so dangerous for the BBC.

While reshuffles are often an unpleasant ordeal for the cabinet members who have lost their jobs those ministers who have been sacked no longer face the humiliation of having to run the gauntlet of television cameras in Downing Street in order to get their marching orders from the Prime Minister of the day.

Losers in the first shake-up of the coalition government were told of their fate by David Cameron in the privacy of the Prime Minister’s rooms in the House of Commons.

He learned at first hand as a 26-year-old political adviser the brutality of a badly-managed reshuffle and was keen that the first ministerial casualties of his administration were shielded from the kind of public pain suffered by his ex boss the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont who was dumped by John Major in the cabinet clear out of May 1993.

Lamont was summoned from No. 11 to No. 10 to be told the news just after 10am – he refused to accept Major’s counter offer of a switch to the Department of the Environment – but he was left hanging out to dry for the rest of the day with only Cameron to keep him company.

Donating my father’s papers to Wolverhampton Archives was a sobering experience. Tucked away inside voluminous scrapbooks from the 1940s was a letter of dismissal for a failure to carry out his “journalistic duties”. But a refusal to write stories in support of the war effort was a principled stand that would have to be reversed...

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A reporter having to struggle with his or her conscience is not the kind of story line likely to win much public sympathy at a time when the headlines have been dominated for so long by allegations of phone hacking and the bribing of police officers.  Journalists do get sacked because of their convictions but examples among my generation seem few and far between.  Indeed I freely admit that during my fifty years as a reporter I cannot remember having such strong feelings on an issue that I felt the need to stand up and be counted in support of my beliefs.

Having had no experience of the inner turmoil which might have resulted if I had ever put my job on the line, I felt increasingly inadequate as I read and re-read correspondence tucked away in long-forgotten family scrapbooks.

Six months after the start of the Second World War, my father Clement Jones wrote a letter accusing his editor of “a violation of principle” for having assigned him to report events being held to raise morale of the troops and boost arms production.

As with many of those who saw active service but were subsequently reluctant to discuss their front-line experiences, so it was with my father; he died without ever describing what it must have been like to get sacked, become a conscientious objector and then within two years be forced by dint of family hardship to have to put his pacifist beliefs to one side and return to war-time news reporting.

Scrapbooks, letters and other personal papers belonging to the late Clement Jones, former editor of the Express and Star, are being donated by Nicholas Jones to Wolverhampton Archives.  The collection reveals how seventy years ago the challenge of reporting events in war-torn Bilston by a conscientious objector helped launch the career of a celebrated Wolverhampton journalist. His reports of the famous war-time parliamentary by-election in Bilston in September 1944 attracted the attention of Lord Beaverbrook  - but Jones turned down the offer of a job on the Daily Express

Bilston in the mid 1940s was unquestionably at the heart of the Black Country: smoke particles were falling at the rate of nearly 1,400 tons per year per square mile over the whole town.

This was just one of the telling war-time statistics unearthed by my father Clement Jones, then an idealistic young journalist, who became the Express and Star’s Bilston reporter in June 1943 and whose reports highlighted what must have been some of the worst living conditions in the West Midlands

The pall of smoke from steel works and factories was so bad – and prevailing winds deposited so much soot, dust and grime on nearby houses – that Bilston became the setting in May 1944 for what Jones reported was a “unique” investigation into atmospheric pollution and the most comprehensive survey of its kind conducted anywhere in the country.

Gauges and dishes were placed around the town. Deposits were collected every two days and by using six different instruments Bilston’s salvage officer Eric Sheldon was able to weigh them to an accuracy of one-tenth of a milligramme.

Jones described how any local housewife would have agreed immediately that the air of Bilston was dirty: if she went to the best room in the house she would be able to “draw her finger over the polished surfaces to show the grime and dust deposited from the air.”

Meryl Streep’s gripping portrayal of Margaret Thatcher did not do full justice to her remarkable ability to make sure that not only male politicians – but also radio and television interviewers – were kept firmly in their place. Her mere presence was enough to strike fear into the hearts of eminent broadcasters and producers.

Unlike so many of her political opponents she treated each interview as a battle for supremacy and from the moment she entered a studio and sat down in front of the microphone, she took no prisoners.

Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher in The Iron Lady captured the all-conquering nature of her Premiership at the height of her power.  But some of the early scenes – as she fought to get elected as MP at Dartford and then succeeded at Finchley – did give a hint of vulnerability.

I remember my first interview with her in early 1975 – as she campaigned for the Conservative Party leadership – because there was a degree of informality which was not to be repeated. Indeed on seeing The Iron Lady I can hardly believe it myself.

Dame Elizabeth Filkin’s warning that police officers should refrain from accepting alcohol from the media has had journalists reflecting on their own misdemeanours.

My one and only attempt to emulate the subterfuge and bravado of the renowned crime reporters of Fleet Street was hardly a stunning success. I ended up footing the bill for a boozy lunch for a clutch of Scotland Yard detectives but had little to show for the hospitality which the BBC had funded.

Hard drinking went with the territory in the macho world of crime reporting in the 1970s.  Journalists, lawyers, senior officers and detectives mixed freely in the watering holes around both the Old Bailey and the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. It was an era when reporters had more free time – and also the expenses – with which to entertain their contacts; casual conversations over lunch or a drink could easily develop into a fruitful relationship.

Armed with the right personal or private telephone numbers a reporter could by-pass the press bureau at Scotland Yard and gain tip-offs and other useful information direct from the officers concerned – and for a high-flying detective a well-placed story provided useful publicity.

 

Perhaps the one redeeming feature of Freddie Starr’s hurried exit from “I’m A Celebrity...Get Me out of Here” is that this time television viewers saw for their own eyes what the comedian had eaten.

In contrast to the Sun’s infamous front page in 1986 – “Freddie Starr ate my hamster” – this week’s headline, “Freddie Starr ate my camel” was based on fact rather than the fiction of much show biz news.

After a month’s occupation of their tented encampment outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the campaigners backing Occupy London Stock Exchange still look as they might be able to avoid a repeat of the violent end to the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York.

If OccupyLSX does succeed in thwarting legal action by the City of London Corporation – and their camp remains in place through Christmas and on into the New Year – it will be a vote of confidence in the media-savvy strategy which the London protesters adopted.

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