Nick Jones

Broadcasting

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.

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 While some employees found the collective strengths and ideals of ‘auntie’ BBC outdated and restrictive, many of my contemporaries ended fulfilling careers acknowledging they had been well rewarded.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

 

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”.

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.

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.

 

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.

Journalists are addicted to the blame game. The priority is to work out who is to blame and who should say “sorry”.  Personality-led stories attempting to hold public figures to account are the easiest to write. But journalists should be on their guard: political spin doctors and the public relations industry are showing ever greater sophistication in managing the personalisation of news and turning the “S” word to their clients’ advantage.  In a speech to the annual conference of the Institute of Communication Ethics (Coventry University, 28.10.2009) , Nicholas Jones explored the ethics of saying “sorry” and the part of apologies play in the   hyper-personalisation of political coverage.

When Shami Chakrabarti appeared on stage wearing a red poppy to accept her award as 2008 communicator of the year, she triggered flashbacks which trouble me every year. Why was a civil rights campaigner the only winner at the annual PR Week awards dinner (Grosvenor House, 21.10.2008) to wear a poppy? What was the director of Liberty trying to say two and a half weeks before Remembrance Sunday?