Archive for journalism

Leveson: journalist conscience clause could be Inquiry’s lasting legacy!

Posted in Media with tags , , , on November 30, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Leveson InquiryThe biggest irony of yesterday’s publication of the report from the Leveson Inquiry into the standards, ethics and abuses of the UK press, is that in recent years our press in this country has been incredibly well-behaved.

With Sir Brian’s Sword of Damocles hanging over their collective heads the press has, in effect, reformed itself.

I offer this as evidence.  Firstly, not one single national newspaper published the photos of the Duchess of Cambridge topless on holiday.  In fact only one newspaper, in what was a deliberate two fingers to Sir Brian, published the photos of Harry in Vegas.

Is this some Damascene Conversion to the right of privacy?  Almost certainly not and one suspects that once the haggling over self-regulation “underpinned by statue” is out of the way, normal service will be resumed.

However, buried in Sir Brian’s mammoth publication is one recommendation which could have very far-reaching consequences for how our press behaves, namely the conscience clause in journalist employment contracts, which would allow individual journalists to opt out of working on any story which they believe to be unethical.

When I heard the Labour MP Tom Watson speak in Birmingham earlier this year, he offered the view that the abuses at the News of the World could never have happened if Wapping had been unionised and there had been a counterbalance to employer abuse of power.

There are many in the trade union movement who agree with him and it would seem that Leveson does too.  Some of the most interesting sections of the report in fact, detail the culture of abuse and bullying at Wapping which fed the (alleged) criminal behaviour of journalists.

There are numerous positives that have come out of the Leveson Inquiry and its resulting report, but the conscience clause, and the increasing recognition of the positive effects that workplace unionisation can have in curbing employee abuse, could be Sir Brian’s most lasting legacy.



Savile scandal is a body blow to the BBC’s editorial credibility

Posted in Media with tags , , , , on October 24, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The facts behind the Jimmy Savile Scandal are, unfortunately, horribly familiar, but the puzzling bit about the whole affair is not that Savile managed to get away with it for so long, but the editorial decision-making process within the BBC once Newsnight got wind of the story.

Here was a story which was potentially career-making for the journalists involved, requiring brave editorial decisions and the backing of senior management.  This could have been one of the BBC’s finest hours, fearlessly turning the spotlight on itself and, in turn, metaphorically pulling down the Saddam-like statues which were being erected in Savile’s name, not least by BBC Light Entertainment.

It’s not as if the journalists involved were going that far out on a limb.  The investigation had generated filmed witness statements and Savile was known to have been interviewed by various police forces over the years.

There was not even fear of retribution.  It is not uncommon for journalists to want to run a story, but for their editors to be warned off by the in-house lawyers for fear of being sued for six figure sums.  But Savile is dead and the dead can’t sue.

So, instead of being fearless, supporting investigative journalism at its finest and having to put up with some short-term discomfort as part of a whole host of organisations who now have questions to answer, the BBC decided to spike the story.

The lessons of history, from Watergate through to Hillsborough and beyond, show us that the truth will, 99.9% of the time, come out. Somebody will turn whistleblower; a document will be uncovered or someone will listen to the tapes.

Did nobody think to try and get ahead of the story and break it on the BBC’s terms?  Lo’ and behold, less than a year after the BBC decision to drop the story, ITV screened its own version of events which has set off the current storm.

One of the biggest ironies in all of this is that many of those whom we can only assume were involved in the decision, namely Helen Boaden, Head of BBC News and Stephen Mitchell, Deputy Director of News have gone to ground.  They don’t want to talk to the media!

Many of these individuals, from Director General George Entwistle down, are paid huge amounts of money (the BBC’s Head of News is paid circa £350k per year) to get these decisions right.

They have failed and in the process have done enormous damage to the BBC’s credibility.

Forty years ago today journalism started on the road towards its finest hour!

Posted in Media, Politics with tags , , , , , on June 18, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

40 years ago today the Washington Post carried a small story at the bottom of page one with the headline “Five held in plot to bug Democratic offices”. This was the start of what is probably the greatest journalistic triumph of all time.

At the time nobody much cared, but within two years the dogged pursuit of the story by the Post, in particular journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, had caused the story to be renamed, creating a suffix which has become synonymous with political scandal ever since.

Watergate, as it became known, is the mother of all‘gates. In simple terms it was, in Nixon’s words, a “third-rate burglary”of the Democratic Party office in the Watergate complex perpetrated by White House henchmen and designed to uncover embarrassing information about candidates for the Presidency.  In reality, it is the story of how journalists on the Post, in the face of unprecedented political and peer pressure (for months no other newspaper would touch the story) uncovered a political scandal which brought down a President.

In many ways this was the high water mark for the profession. With a series of brilliant scoops, often using unnamed sources, the Post linked campaign contributions to the Committee to re-elect the President, or CREEP as it was known (you couldn’t make it up!), to the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars and then linked the White House to the burglars in the person of Charles Colson, Special Adviser to the President who was effectively in charge of campaign dirty tricks.

When Nixon embarked on a cover-up, the Post continued its pursuit alleging that the White House had instructed the CIA to illegally block the FBI investigation and that documents had been shredded at the Justice Department.

As Nixon wriggled on the hook the Post linked Presidential advisers of increasing importance with either the original break-in or the cover-up, eventually forcing Nixon to sack his most senior advisers, namely Chief of Staff HR ‘Bob’ Haldemann and policy adviser John Ehrlichman. When the Senate started investigating, and the Oval Office “tapes’ became public knowledge, Nixon’s fate was sealed. In all 43 people went to prison for Watergate related crimes, although of course not Nixon himself.

Forty years on the media landscape looks very different. The web is making traditional print news look, at best sluggish and, at worst, positively outdated. Newspapers across the country are closing, merging or going down one edition per week. Social media is making us all into ‘Citizen Journalists’ armed with our iPhones to record events to post ourselves on YouTube. Twitter and trending allow instant sharing of information.

Most importantly, journalism itself is now in the dock.  Parallels between phone hacking and Watergate have been made before, but it is startling that the key lesson, that the cover-up is at least as bad as the original crime, appears not to have been learnt. For the White House substitute News International with all of its alleged shredding, obstruction of justice and non-denial denials.

However, it would be wrong to paint journalism as an outdated and dying profession.  The Telegraph’s investigation of MPs expenses proved that investigative journalism can perform a public duty in the 21st century. The challenge for Leveson is to bring the press into line without strangling the opportunity for the sort of investigation which holds our public officials up to scrutiny and can bring down a President.

A triumph for social media (in Glasgow!)

Posted in Media, Sport with tags , , , , , on February 20, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

For those who didn’t get around to reading the Guardian’s excellent article on Saturday about the phenomenal job done by the blog ‘’, I would urge you to make time to give it a read.

Even if you are not a football supporter, there is much to ponder on from the perspective of the performance of traditional media sources and in terms of the impact of social media.

It is a story with multiple themes; alienation of the traditional football fan; a perceived failure on the part of traditional media and the use of social media as a catalyst for the sharing of vital information amongst stakeholders.

For those who don’t have the time let me summarise the story for you here. An anonymous football supporter, ironically not a Rangers supporter, got wind of the tax trouble that Glasgow Rangers was in, but could find no mention of it amongst traditional media outlets.

Instead, traditional media fed its readers, namely the club’s supporters, the usual stories including the building of a super casino and transfer gossip, including, apparently, a ‘link’ to the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. The result was that many Rangers supporters had little clue that their club owed £70 million to HMRC until last week when it went bust.

In frustration, our anonymous hero set up a blog, ‘’, and started digging deeper. The blog has ‘broken’ a whole host of stories in relation to the case and now has a daily traffic of over 100,000 views with reader comments coming in at a rate of about 1,500 per day. Bear in mind that these people are not discussing football, they are discussing accounting conventions and insolvency law!

How did this happen? Our hero blames an unholy triangle of trade in which traditional media sources have got too close to the club and felt unable to cover the story for risk of losing their ‘access’.

For the record, I am fully aware of the role that PR has probably played in all of this. PR people at Rangers, let’s assume they were in the know, have been feeding these stories to traditional media outlets, in the guise of ‘doing their job’.

So what can we learn from all of this? Media owners from Rupert Murdoch down have blamed the internet for their woes, but this case begs the question whether certain sections of traditional media are giving readers the information they need and perhaps explains why so many are turning to alternative sources of information.

It must also be remembered that not all traditional media is scared of questioning itself. After all, I read this story in The Guardian. Kudos to them for running it!

New Independent website is [expletive deleted]

Posted in Media with tags , , on November 4, 2011 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The new Independent newspaper launched earlier this week and I am still waiting for it to work properly! Try it, go on, and see if you can go two minutes without resorting to language you only usually find down at Liverpool docks.

Broken links abound on a site which was trumpeted as a rival to the Guardian’s site and the Telegraph’s. I’d give you an actual quote but the page won’t load.

In an excellent piece in The Drum magazine on Wednesday, Matt Lindop, a digital marketer from London commented “It’s clear the site just wasn’t ready for launch.” He goes on to list a host of technical and advertising “don’t dos” which put into context the disaster this has been.

I’m no web designer, I really can’t comment, but denying me my regular fix of three of the best writers in UK journalism is driving me mad. For me there are three ‘must reads’ in the Independent, namely Hamish McRae on economics; Steve Richards on politics and James Lawton on sport (I’d post links to some of their best stuff but all you get is “The Webpage Cannot Be Found”).

At a time when the world is undergoing a seismic financial shock; we’ve just witnessed the biggest rebellion by Conservative backbenchers since Maastricht and racism has reared its ugly head again on the football pitch, the fact that I can’t read any of them is [expletive deleted].

I can’t think of a worse start for new editor Martin King.

Murdoch suffers at the hands of ‘Generation Won’t Pay’

Posted in Media with tags , , , , , on September 29, 2011 by Tom Leatherbarrow

(An excellent blog from my colleague Stephen Graham which I thought was deserving of wider circulation)

It’s been a torrid year for the Murdoch family and Rupert in particular.  The media mogul was ‘humbled,’ during hacking gate, closed his only UK newspaper which actually made any money and was even accosted with a custard pie.  You’d forgive him for thinking that things couldn’t get much worse, but, as they say in old blighty, ‘when it rains, it pours.’

It would seem that Murdoch’s venture into the digital world has not provided the ray of sunshine it may have been hoped to be and I’m not talking about paywalls.  The tablet newspaper ‘The Daily,’ launched in February, is averaging a rather pitiful 120,000 readers a week.  Bearing in mind that when the paper was launched in February it was declared that it would need an average weekly readership of 500,000 to break even, it’s safe to say that so far it has not been a success.

Why?  It would appear that once again News International is falling foul of what is fast becoming a cast iron law of digital communication that, if it is on the web, then ‘Generation Won’t Pay’ wants it for free.  No matter how insignificant 99 cents a week is, against a plethora of quality and more importantly free content online, we just won’t reach into our pockets.

It is hard to over-emphasise how much of a blow this is for Murdoch.  The tablet was seen as a way of extracting revenue from a bust financial model, namely print media.  Now it would appear that it is back to the drawing board unless of course he makes the Times / Sunday Times paywall actually work.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any readership figures on that though!

High fashion, high stakes

Posted in Media with tags , , , on April 4, 2011 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Today, I turn my blogging attention to the world of fashion. Surprised? I don’t see why, those who know me well also know that I can admire a crop-top or a crocheted stitch as much as the next man.

Anyway, I will defend myself no more, the big news is that Times fashion editor Lisa Armstrong and her deputy Luke Leitch have jumped ship to the Telegraph who are cock-a-hoop at their coup. However, there is more to this than meets the eye. Apparently, this is no mere case of the Telegraph dangling much gold in front of The Times’ star pair.

According to rumour (Roy Greenslade’s blog to be exact) both Armstrong and Leitch have become increasingly disenchanted with The Times’ paywall which has seen their readership drop and have resorted to “tweeting like crazy” to maintain their links with readers. Greenslade, in fact, describes them as “paywall refugees”.

This has happened before. When the New York Times erected a paywall around its OpEd pages many years ago the columnists rebelled. Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman etal threw their toys out of the pram and demanded the return of their readership.

Why? Because those journalists working at the pinnacle of their profession are not mere writers anymore, they are ‘brands’ for whom the weekly column is a loss-leader to get their message to the wider world in the hope that we all then go and buy their books. Think I’m kidding? Try searching any of the names listed above on the Amazon US website and see how many books they’ve each written. Brooks, for example, is currently #2 on the New York Times Non-fiction Bestsellers List.

Can we expect to see a similar rebellion over here? I’ve got news for you, we already are! Armstrong is a contributing editor to Vogue and has written multiple books, both fiction and non-fiction, all with a fashion twist.

An anonymous life behind the Times paywall is no good to her!