Nicholas Jones spoke at a meeting organised by the National Union of Journalists in Swansea (20.2.2008) in support of the union's campaign for recognition at the South Wales Evening Post. Jones said that journalists of his generation should do all they could to help the journalists of tomorrow adjust to the commercial and ethical pressures imposed by the dramatic pace of change in the news media. He believed more should be done to advise young journalists on how to respond to the challenging dilemmas they face.
No visiting journalist can speak here in Swansea at an NUJ gathering like this without acknowledging the great journalistic traditions of South Wales. You have always been recognised for the strength of your local newspapers and for a hard-won tradition of great reporting which has produced some of the greats of our profession, whether it was Hugh Cudlipp and his brothers who all started out here as teenagers on local papers and then became editors of national newspapers or currently a more familiar name like that of John Humphrys of the Today programme. That great tradition is reflected again in the respect for graduates of the schools of journalism at Cardiff University and here in Swansea.
So it is a great honour to be here at a meeting in support of the NUJ’s campaign for recognition at the South Wales Evening Post. I know that all those former journalists with their roots in South Wales -- who are up there now on that great spike in the sky -- will be urging you on, hoping you succeed. They all knew and appreciated the value of union organisation, not just for bargaining but also for providing support for the maintenance of basic journalistic standards. That would certainly go for my grandfather, ex Radnorshire Standard reporter, and for my father, Clem Jones, ex Cambrian News and South Wales Argus. He became district reporter in Abergavenny and was the Monmouthshire branch delegate to the 1943 ADM of the NUJ, right in the middle of Second World War.
I was born the previous October, just as my father and mother were getting their life back together. My father was a conscientious objector and was sacked at the start of the War for refusing to report stories which he thought supported the war effort. His editor said he could not employ a journalist who refused to go out on stories on grounds of conscience. But so strong was my father’s conviction that he was granted an unconditional exemption from war service and he went on to become election agent for the anti-war Peace Pledge Union. But by 1942, having one son already and me on the way, he had to swallow his principles, get a job and earn some money -- and all honour to the South Wales Argus for helping him to get back into journalism. Hence why I was born in Abergavenny.
I am sure my father had the support of the NUJ in his day just as the union would be there today to help any other member of the awkward squad trying re-build his or her career. Unlike my brother George, who worked on both the South Wales Argus and the Western Mail, I have never held a job in Wales but frequently been here covering stories. The most momentous was just down the road in the middle of the 1984-5 pit strike. I was the BBC radio reporter at the miners rally in Aberavon, near the Port Talbot steelworks, where a hangman’s noose was lowered down from the ceiling in front of the then TUC general secretary Norman Willis.
That was a difficult time for reporters both nationally and locally -- we were all accused by Arthur Scargill of being Fleet Street hyenas and journalists faced a lot of hostility on the picket lines, especially here in South Wales. Looking back there’s no doubt in my mind that much of the news media -- after some astute footwork by the government -- had by and large become the cheerleaders for the return to work. But the National Union of Mineworkers made the fateful mistake of alienating journalists, of regarding us all as part of the enemy. The rest of the union movement learned from the miners’ mistake and never again has there been a dispute where union activists have refused to co-operate or provide access for reporters.
So whether it was my father during the last war finding it hard as a conscientious objector to get back into journalism, or industrial correspondents like myself in the 1980s facing so much difficulty reporting the miners strike, or journalists campaigning here in Swansea in 2008 trying to get the NUJ recognised at the South Wales Evening Post, we all understood and understand the importance of our union as the one and only organisation that can represent us all, speak for us all and look after our interests. I joined the NUJ in 1960, at the age of seventeen, and served my apprenticeship of local newspapers.
But I got my break into national reporting because of the massive expansion that took place in the BBC in the 1970s -- the expansion of Radio 4, the opening of local radio stations, then in the 1980s the start of breakfast television and in the 1990s, the launch of News 24. It was a roller coaster ride of new services, new programmes and new jobs. So you can imagine now how concerned I am to see the BBC journalists of today facing cutback after cutback and more to the point how upsetting it is to see such a demoralised BBC. I date the decline to the aftermath of the John Birt years. Somehow he seemed to neuter that great pride and spirit of independence which characterised the BBC of my day.
Now we have a management that already seems to have thrown in the towel when it comes to top slicing -- that is allowing the government to take part of the BBC licence fee to finance other broadcasters. I am even more alarmed by the lack of any spirited defence for the very continuation of the licence fee which currently is only guaranteed until 2013. The Beeb is already having to absorb a shortfall in funding of £300 million a year -- over the decade it could reach a total cut of two billion -- and it is leading to round after round of redundancies. As Jeremy Dear knows the cuts are eating away at the BBC’s core journalistic services in newsrooms up and down the country.
But as journalists we have to accept change; we cannot stop the advance of new media platforms and techniques; what we must do is try to adjust to them. What we are seeing now is a massive investment by newspaper groups in their websites and especially in the development of new audio and video services -- in fact television by internet. Convergence will mean that newspaper website television is not just available on our computer screens but also on the television set in the living room. For example, look at Telegraph tv: the Daily Telegraph’s site now offers a seven minute tv news bulletin; the site is even broadcasting its own political programme, chaired by the Tory MP Anne Widdecombe along with right-wing journalists like Simon Heffer, Andrew Pierce and Jeff Randall.
You only have to pick up the Sun or the News of the World to see how much effort they are putting into the task of urging their readers to go on line. Their sites offer full length videos of celebrities sniffing coke or the latest kiss-and-tell starlet revealing all about her sex life with a Premier League footballer. It is quite a revolution: the Telegraph has just hired twenty video journalists, capable not just of reporting and subbing, but of taking video and audio and then uploading it. They have just been trained at the Press Association’s audio-visual training centre in Yorkshire. My own brother -- who was the Daily Telegraph’s long-established political editor -- is now re-inventing himself doing short video reports for the television news services which PA is offering newspaper websites.
Look at the latest piece of kit being issued by the Reuters news agency: it is a mojo phone which includes a high quality camera, decent microphone and software to enable a journalist to organise and publish text, photos and video direct on to websites and blogs. This is all light years away from what happened on my grandfather’s biggest story -- King Edward VII opening the Elan Valley reservoir in mid Wales in 1904. Immediately after the royal opening he had to get on his bicycle and ride straight back to Llandrind Wells to write up his report for the Radnorshire Standard. So yes the pace of change is speeding up. Personally I am sure there will be plenty of work for the journalists of tomorrow but it’ll be different.
We all know that wages and working conditions are under threat, never has there been a greater need for union organisation and collective bargaining. That is why we need the support of professional negotiators on our behalf. What journalists of my generation can also do is help you defend basic journalistic standards, help you adjust to the new and immediate demands of 24-hour news and advise on how to handle the many ethical dilemmas which are posed by instant and often live reporting. That is why the NUJ’s Journalism matters campaign is so important. We face all sort of threats to our editorial values. Take the BBC: one of the biggest threats is that internet tv on newspaper websites could, by the back door, bring politically-partisan reporting to our television screens.
For many years a great democratic safeguard of Britain has been the impartiality of broadcasting, especially at election time when our tv and radio news bulletins and programmes have to offer equal time to the opposing political parties. And the broadcasters themselves have to be politically impartial too. Here in South Wales it means Plaid Cymru has to get a fair share of broadcasting time along with the other parties. But Plaid -- or the Nationalists in Scotland -- are hardly likely to get equal time on Telegraph TV or Rupert Murdoch’s Sun TV. That is the danger: that newspaper proprietors like Murdoch will bring in Fox tv to the UK by the back door. What has been the government’s response: ministers turning a blind eye.
Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator has thrown in the towel, and agreed that the audio-visual content of newspaper websites should be left to self-regulation. So that effectively is a green light for politically-partisan tv. Another of my concerns has been the impact on journalistic standards of the public relations industry, spin doctors like Alastair Campbell and publicists like Max Clifford. Their one stock in trade is that usually they prefer to trade information on an anonymous basis -- we all know the drill, "an insider said", "a friend revealed", and "a colleague commented". All sorts of sources but never the real source of the quote.
I blame the likes of the former Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, who in the 1980s encouraged what I call the "Freddie Starr ate my hamster" school of journalism. You only have to read those three words "An onlooker said…" to know that the story is going to owe more to a journalist’s imagination than to reality. Alastair Campbell gave another push to the downward spiral when Tony Blair doubled and then trebled the number of Labour Party spin doctors, creating a web of anonymous sources in Whitehall and Westminster. We read these political stories every day: front-page leads without a single named source -- just attribution to "Downing Street insider", "friend of the minister", "Whitehall official" and so on.
My worry is that we now have a generation of journalists who are under so much pressure -- to file stories and produce exclusives -- who will embellish, yes even invent quotes. I know I sound like Troglodyte but when I was on local papers and then on The Times in the 1960s, stories wouldn’t be used unless they contained named quotes. Obviously it was different for investigative reporters and yes, a columnist might get away with using unnamed insiders but the news pages needed positive attribution. I talk to young journalists up and down the country -- for two years I was chairman of the Journalists’ Charity which helps journalists in need -- and I do understand the massive demands and constraints on the journalists of today.
So when young reporters on free sheets tell me their editors say they can write a local story based on just one quote from one anonymous resident, I fear the worst. The temptation is there to cut corners and make up a quote.
But I am not pessimistic about the future of journalism. Many of those leaving universities and colleges up and down the country want to defend the best journalistic standards. Lots of them work for websites and they know there is no hiding place. If they manufacture stories or quotes they get challenged immediately. All honour to the Press Association: its cardinal rule is that a quote is a quote. Those words inside the quotation marks are what the person said. And whenever it can PA does try to identify its sources.
So standards are being defended in practice and the NUJ does all it can through its code of conduct to support the best possible ethical behaviour. I would like to wish you all the best in your campaign for NUJ recognition. As I explained I come from a family of journalists. Indeed you could say we are recidivists and beyond help. My son is a journalist too, even my daughter in law -- and she was a mother of the chapel for her NUJ branch. So never forget the collective strength of journalists lives on. It should never be overlooked by employers and should always be an encouragement to the journalists of tomorrow.