In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: People who know the true value of journalism

DURING the last two weeks, thanks to Skype, I have been chatting to people from Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, Greece, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Jordan, Nigeria, Serbia, Thailand, Turkey and Uganda.

What they all have in common is that they are applying for the international Masters in Journalism at one of the three universities where I lecture. I am now responsible for interviewing all the applicants who might meet the criteria. It sounds like a chore; in fact, it has been a privilege.

Among them is a former Spanish-language foreign correspondent who covered the second Gulf War and Palestinian elections and who is now lecturing in journalism in South America. There is also a news editor of an African national radio network who is also lecturing at his capital’s university.

Another is an assistant editor on one of Africa’s leading newspapers.

I am hoping to see him next year, along with a former Africa correspondent on Chinese radio.

If I do, they will be studying alongside young post-graduates. One from India already has two degrees and has completed three internships, one at an internationally-known paper. Another from Turkey has completed five internships with media companies in London and Istanbul.

Many of them have ambitions to improve journalism and journalism training in their own countries. They see good journalism as vital for the development of their countries’ governance, democracy and welfare of the people.

They’re not the first international students to impress me. In a classroom discussion of the kind of constraints journalists might face, one African reporter told how a colleague was killed on the same story he worked on. Another spoke of the humiliation of having to accept payments for attending Press conferences, because his salary was not enough to feed his family.

Yet on that continent, not only journalism, but investigative journalism, has managed to thrive. Look at the work of the Forum of African Investigative Reporters.

I’ve always been proud to be a journalist – even though the Leveson Inquiry proved beyond doubt that the occasional shit I have met was not just a rogue reporter. These students make me proud to be a lecturer too.

Experienced journalists come to us to develop their skills, to take time to study and reflect on their profession and function in society, often in societies that they will shape and influence in ways that you and I will not.

Alongside the international students, I lecture to domestic students. They are invariably young graduates. None are experienced journalists. Do British journalists not feel the same need to develop their skills and reflect on their role?

I know they feel the need to develop their skills. I meet them on the one-day courses I run in freelancing and in law for newspaper groups and the NUJ. I meet them on the one-day courses my NUJ colleagues teach in social media, digital convergence, advanced internet research and many more.

They do not feel able to take time out to develop a deeper understanding of their role. After all, who can afford to these days?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no ‘hackademic’ – that ugly word for a journalist-turned-academic. I have no time for academics who look down on practitioners, masking what I suspect is a fear of those who can do what they can’t but which they want to teach.

There is no guarantee that thoughtful, better-educated journalists will be better behaved. Those involved in the hacking scandal were sharp, intelligent people.

It might, though, equip us better to defend our role as the watchdogs of society against those who would restrict us – and there has never been any shortage of those.

Francis Shennan is director of and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.