In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Universities need print heavyweights to balance perception of bias towards broadcasting and digital

THE news that Blair Jenkins, chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission and a former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, has been appointed a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Strathclyde is both welcome and worrying.

It is welcome because Jenkins, who is also a former director of broadcasting at STV, is someone who obviously knows his stuff about newsgathering for the broadcast media.

But it is worrying for newspaper people who would like to see more emphasis being given to the written media by university journalism courses.

Jenkins did start out as a newspaper journalist and indeed, while working for the Aberdeen Evening Express, was voted Young Journalist of the Year in the Scottish Press Awards of 1977.

But he left newspaper journalism 30 years ago and, if a week is a long time in politics, then 30 years is an eternity in newspapers.

Jenkins says he has been “really impressed by the work being done at Strathclyde and their commitment to improving the practice and the principles of journalism”.

For him, he says, this is “a lifelong passion” and he is looking forward to working closely with the staff and students.

This statement of commitment by Jenkins is impressive, as is his CV which shows he returned to BBC Scotland ten years ago as head of news and current affairs, a post he held for six years.

And that he was invited by the Scottish Government in 2007 to chair the Scottish Broadcasting Commission and is currently chair of the Scottish Digital Network Panel. He has also been chair of BAFTA Scotland.

But that’s pretty sedentary stuff. It hardly touches on the kind of cutting-edge journalism that is now desperately needed, especially in our weeklies, to give the Scottish Press a much-needed circulation boost. Indeed, it is not journalism at all. It is mostly administration and politics and it is not what students on journalism courses need to know about, or want to know about, in their formative years.

allmediascotland readers will have read – or be able to read – elsewhere on this site what Derek Tucker, editor of The Press & Journal, had to say a few days ago about university degree courses.

He told the Society of Editors in Glasgow: “It frustrates me, and I know many other editors feel the same, that a lot of the young people leaving so-called university journalism degree courses are totally unsuited to the needs of newspapers. Very few possess the street cunning and inquisitiveness that are the hallmark of good journalists and it appears sometimes that English is a second language.

“We are, in a sense, reaping what we began to sow years ago when we decided it was cheaper and more convenient, to leave training to the academics, who were only too pleased to tap into the continuing demand for a career in the media. Unfortunately, we also washed our hands of the careful selection process which placed the attributes of a good journalist above, or at least equal to, educational qualifications.

“If we are to re-establish newspapers as the information source of choice, we must play a more active role in the selection and development of the young people entering our profession.

“Tomorrow’s journalists must be identified and trained by today’s journalists, not yesterday’s enthusiastic but amateur academics. I know the NCTJ is seeking to address this situation, but much work needs to be done.”

Derek Tucker, regretfully, is retiring from the P&J after 18 successful years in the editor’s chair there. He is an ink journalist to his armpits and he deserves to be listened to by everyone in the industry, from students to shareholders.

I am not suggesting for one moment that Jenkins is not a suitable choice to become a visiting professor at Strathclyde. His advice to students and staff there will be most welcome and it will no doubt prove invaluable to budding broadcasters.

But perhaps Derek Tucker – and similar people with his expertise and experience – could be considered for such visiting professorships in order to address the imbalance widely perceived in the industry that university courses are giving broadcasting and the new digital disciplines precedence over print.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning newspaper editor, reporter and columnist. He has been a special adviser to the First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish, and media adviser to David Martin, vice-president of the European Parliament. He was, for four years, media adviser and PA to the chair of the UK Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a Life Member of the National Union of Journalists. He is now a media consultant.