In My Opinion: Blair Jenkins: Platforms and Principles – the right connections for journalism

Former head of news and current affairs, Blair Jenkins, was recently appointed a visiting professor in journalism at the University of Strathclyde. The chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission this evening (May 25 2011) delivered his inaugural, Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences Lecture, titled ‘Platforms and Principles: the Right Connections for Journalism’. This is his lecture, in full.

I’VE known for some time that universities are important for the future of journalism but what’s become clearer to me in recent years is that journalism is also important for the future of universities.

Daily and weekly journalism is the way in which most people educate themselves about what is happening in the world. I think universities have a role to play in strengthening this educational function of journalism by getting involved, and also a vested interest in society at large having access to their knowledge and expertise.

Both professions have a genuine role as honest brokers of information and education. The depth and rigour of the academic approach combined with the speed and topicality of the journalistic enterprise can make an invaluable contribution to any public policy debate as these become more challenging and more complex. I see definite scope for joint ventures – a sort of Hacks ‘n’ Acs.

Not enough is said about the role of journalism as a means of education, but I hope to rectify that a little tonight. I will also talk about Platforms and Principles, as the title of this lecture would seem to promise, and I will talk about the right connections for journalism – of which the connection with universities is certainly one, and the connection with cutting-edge technology is definitely another, and the connection with strong ethical standards is perhaps the most important of all.

I would also hope to talk about myself a little bit. Being Scottish, that’s not really something I do very much, but I’m told it is part of the etiquette of inaugural lectures to be a bit more personal and self-promotional than your own comfort zone would normally permit. I would also hope to throw in from time to time some helpful advice for student journalists or indeed aspiring journalists in general.

But first it’s always good to start with a confession… The first prize I ever won for writing was when I was 11 years-old. It was second prize in the Scottish schools under-13 essay competition on the subject of pets and which animal made the best pet. I argued the case (very convincingly as I recall) for why dogs were more satisfactory domestic companions than cats or rabbits or budgies and clearly I managed to persuade the judges. Anyway, I can now reveal the truth that there were in fact no pets in the Jenkins’ household and to this day I have never owned a dog. From this early point in my life, you can see that a career in journalism was probably inevitable…

One reason for mentioning this to young journalists is because I think it is important to know WHY you are going into journalism. In my case, I loved writing and, in spite of the cat and dog story, I did always prefer factual writing to fiction. There is no single right reason for choosing to become a journalist, but it’s good to think about why you want to do it. And I think being able to write well remains the core skill.

If I fast-forward about 12 years from the essay prize, I hit another landmark moment in how my career developed. In January 1980, I was in my final year as an undergraduate at Edinburgh University, a bit torn between either staying in a university environment or going back into the newspaper journalism which had been my first job after school.

I was at home one day, writing an essay. As usual, I built in a break for lunch at one o’clock so I could listen to The World at One on the radio while making the beans on toast. The top story was a brilliant piece of reporting from Moscow by the then correspondent, Kevin Ruane. Kevin became best known as the BBC correspondent in Warsaw through much of the 1980s and the Solidarity years in Poland, but at this point he was in Moscow.

The story was the arrest that morning of Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and campaigner for human rights in the Soviet Union. Ruane had just been to the street where Sakharov had been picked up and had spoken to eye-witnesses and he was still a bit breathless having rushed back to the studio. He then proceeded to explain which part of the state security apparatus had conducted the arrest, the importance of what had happened and how this development signalled a hardening of attitudes by the Soviet authorities, who had never been sure how to handle Sakharov. He was both a hero of the Soviet Union and a Nobel Peace Prize winner but was now also their strongest internal critic.

The combination of witness and analysis by the correspondent was utterly riveting. By the end of the report two things had happened. The beans on toast had got cold and I knew I wanted to work for the BBC.

I never believed I could be a Kevin Ruane. Like a lot of newspaper journalists at the time, I didn’t know much about how broadcasting worked, but I knew there would be roles and responsibilities which helped to get that kind of journalism to as many people as possible. And I couldn’t think of anything more important or interesting in the world. I still can’t, to be honest. So I joined the BBC as a graduate trainee straight from university. And that would be my second bit of advice. Find the kind of journalism you’re passionate about, and help to bring it about.

Passion is something I have always looked for in the hiring of young journalists. I’ve already said how attractive I find the intellectual environment of universities and there are lots of reasons why I’m delighted to have joined Strathclyde as a visiting professor.

But if you asked me for the main reason for accepting the role, I can answer very simply that it’s because Eamonn O’Neill asked me to do it. Now Dr O’Neill will be known to most people here as the programme director for the masters degree in investigative journalism. He’s somebody I’ve always had a lot of respect for, from the very first day that he walked into my office about 20 years ago.

By that time I was head of news and current affairs at STV and Eamonn had a very good idea for an investigative documentary. He also had energy, and passion and a real anger about injustice – the very same qualities he has today. As I recall the conversation, I think I hired him on the spot, but I’ll have to check that with Eamonn later. Over the last 20 years we’ve worked together and talked together a great deal and he’s never let me down in his determined pursuit of investigations or indeed his willingness from time to time to offer ideas and support.

And I suppose that would be my next bit of advice. Trust is a very important thing in journalism. You should always try to earn it yourself and look for it in others. In this business, your reputation is built on trust.

I feel I should also offer some advice to all the members of this audience by the way… If you do happen to find yourself the subject of an Eamonn O’Neill investigation (and you never know how life will turn out), then here’s my advice. It would be a mistake simply to ignore him in the hope that he will just go away. That’s not going to happen, honestly. And you should know in light of recent events that going to court for injunctions or interdicts is not a solution. So my advice would be – whatever you’ve done, just confess right away and save yourself a lot of time.

Important work is being done here at Strathclyde by Eamonn and others in producing the next generation of journalists and investigative journalists, equipped with all the necessary skills to acquire, assess and publish important news and information in the public interest.

In a new initiative, this year’s investigative reporting will be published later in the summer on a dedicated website and made available by arrangement to mainstream media, newspapers or broadcasters. The website has been developed in a generous partnership with the digital design specialists, Stream Media, who are part of the Axis Media Group. Once the investigations have been published there will be scope for readers and viewers to comment and interact, and to offer suggestions for new investigations.

I tend to be a member of the optimistic tendency when it comes to the future of journaIism. In particular, I am a firm believer that new technology is greatly to the benefit of high-quality journalism. That’s one of the reasons why the development at Strathclyde of the new Technology and Innovation Centre is so exciting.

Much of the work in this major new investment at the university will be focused on industries like renewable energy and advanced manufacturing technology, but I hope and believe that the importance of digital technology and communications in the design of new forms of journalism can also be reflected and developed.

I believe journalism and technology can and should work together to create outstanding new services and new careers in Scotland and further afield, which brings me on to Platforms and Principles. There is a great irony in the fact that, just at the point when technology is enabling much better and deeper coverage of difficult and complicated and important stories, much of the traditional media are struggling to maintain the revenue streams that will let them take advantage of the new opportunities.

Big stories and big issues nowadays are usually complicated and require a degree of simplification for a general audience. We will need both editorial and technical innovation to deal with them – things like better data visualisation in presenting complex issues, and better filtering services so that we can use our time online efficiently and read only the articles we really do need to read about something.

The sheer mass of unlimited digital content being made available now means that filtering is essential and we need trusted editorial brands to do this and smart technology to get the content we really need to see. It also places greater importance on how stories are presented – the design, as well as the depth and the disclosure.

But truly, the news enthusiasts among us have never had it so good. We can get more stories more quickly from more sources than we ever could before. The problem is that not everyone uses the internet to find news in that way. As readerships and audiences fragment, we need to make sure that reliable news is still available to most people. We have to be realistic about this. People are no longer going to read or watch what doesn’t interest them – and we are all behaving in this way, being more selective.

The best platforms for journalism keep changing, but the best principles never do. The most successful and impactful journalism in future will be available in the most attractive format for you on the device of your choosing, and will be imbued with the solid values of integrity, fairness and accuracy.

A crucial development is the mainstream adoption of IPTV – ‘internet protocol television’ – helped by the launch and roll-out of Youview early next year. As all television becomes ‘connected television’ delivered using internet technology, there is a real opportunity for new players in journalism to get visibility and viability.

For those news providers competing online and through social media – and that is where the real competition is nowadays – providing news on demand is very demanding. I think what news on the web has done is to give physical expression to something that was always true about journalism: that it can only ever be at best an honest attempt to provide a complete picture. And as long as we are honest about that, I think that’s ok.

The caveats have always been implied in journalism: this is what happened as far as we know, at this moment, based on our best endeavours to establish the truth, the kind of thing I heard Kevin Ruane doing all those years ago. The news websites are now just more explicit that journalism is always work in progress, constantly being updated.

In my view it is less important that printed copies, physical publications survive than that the type of journalism that good newspapers produce should definitely continue and flourish. But tonight I don’t particularly want to focus too much on what any new business models will look like. I think they will emerge from out of the current period of transition – transition if you’re an optimist, chaos if you’re not.

In the USA, some of the most exciting innovations are run out of universities and funded by not-for-profit organisations, philanthropy funding as it is sometimes called. Often these are set up online on the basis of grants to help them launch and get through the first few years.

After that, to be sustainable, they have to develop some kind of subscription model, or manage to sell their investigations to more mainstream media – newspapers, radio and television stations. I think that kind of collaboration in the public interest is likely to become more common both in the US and in this country too. So Strathclyde is moving in the right direction.

There is no question that there is a lot of really good journalism around today. Arguably, taken as a whole, there is not only more choice, but also more depth, a greater range of voices, more convenience, more control, a greater ability to personalise your news choices. There are new forms of serious journalism. And in the first half of this year we have seen a lot of the very best of what journalism can do: difficult stories in difficult parts of the world, told with honesty and conviction.

To be a good journalist nowadays, you need both a search engine and a moral compass. You need to know what your principles are and where the lines in the sand are for you. You need to trust your own judgement. You need to be ready for those difficult moments: the threatening phone call from a criminal; the threatening phone call from a politician. And, of course, sometimes nowadays that can be the same phone call.

One thing is certain. You will have times when you have to stand up for what you believe in. And at that time, remember that your long-term reputation is more important than any short-term discomfort caused by doing the right thing. That point was brought home to me when I resigned from the BBC almost five years ago.

At the time, I was head of news and current affairs in Scotland. I had a duty of confidentiality to the BBC and we agreed that I would say only that I was resigning on an important point of principle. However, lots of people inside the organisation knew that my resignation was over the intention to cut spending on journalism in Scotland by 25 per cent, so that was widely reported in the newspapers at the time. Resigning was a very difficult decision to make – personally, professionally and financially – but I knew it was the right decision then and I still know it today.

But the interesting thing was what happened the following year.

What I had no way of knowing was that there would be a new SNP Government after the election in 2007 and that they would wish to establish an independent Scottish Broadcasting Commission to investigate the state of the industry and to make recommendations for how it could be improved. And what I also had no way of knowing was that they would ask me to chair that commission. For reasons I will come on to, I think it is the most satisfying and most important bit of work I have ever done. And whether you call it good luck, or karma, or whatever else, I was only available to accept the role because I had resigned from the BBC the previous year.

It is a remarkable coincidence and one for which I’m extremely grateful that, almost 60 years into the television age, the one and only year in which there was a government commission looking into Scottish broadcasting was the one and only year in that time in which I was able to be involved.

Now, life is not always that neat, and you don’t always get that lucky, but I do believe in journalism as in everything else in life that if you do the right things for the right reasons then things have a way of working out for the best.

The Broadcasting Commission achieved some notable successes, not least producing the commitment by the BBC to spend an additional £40 million pounds per annum on network television production from Scotland.

Our most important recommendation, however, was for the creation of what we called the Scottish Digital Network, a new multiplatform service that would provide a secure and sustainable source of competition to the BBC for high-quality public service broadcasting within Scotland.

Journalism was right at the heart of the proposition. I think the fact that we made such a strong case, and had such a clear vision and ambition for broadcasting in Scotland, was one of the main reasons why the proposal attracted such widespread support. Indeed, our final report and that key recommendation on the new network, was endorsed unanimously in the Scottish Parliament. I was told at the time that this had been the only unanimous vote in the Parliament on a policy proposal – perhaps it still is.

Given how contentious an issue Scottish broadcasting has been over the years, the members of the commission felt a great pride that the honest and open way in which we had conducted our inquiry was recognised across the political spectrum.

We made it very clear that Scottish universities would have a very important role to play in the new network. Our vision was for an open source platform where many thousands of users in schools, colleges and universities could experiment and innovate, not just in creative content but also in developing new software applications from the source code. We described it as an online space where the next generation of creative talent and creative technologists could find both a platform and an audience for their work.

While I was out of the country in recent weeks, I was delighted to hear that the First Minister had declared as one of his top priorities in the current Parliament the creation of the Scottish Digital Network. I know it is an idea whose time has come, and it only remains to be seen how and when the political process in London and Edinburgh will create this vital new service for Scotland.

Public service broadcasting is important because commercial news media are necessary but not sufficient. In part, this is because of the distorting effects on journalism of extreme competition and the must-win mentality. Competition can drive innovation and better services, in journalism as in everything else in life, but an obsession with the bottom line can damage standards – particularly ethical standards, as we have seen recently. You need at least some widely available journalism that is not-for-profit and not commercially driven.

We do need some new forms of serious journalism which are more widely available. As a Fellow of the Carnegie Trust, I’m leading a review of how better journalism can be delivered in the UK in the digital age. A particular focus will be the current proposals for local TV services around the UK and the extent to which any new licences should contain public service obligations and a duty to provide mechanisms to ensure local accountability and engagement. We’re asking what regulatory and licensing framework will be needed to deliver reliable news services of genuine editorial quality.

More generally, I will be exploring the wider context of new approaches to journalism and ethical standards in news gathering. What forms of technical and editorial innovation, and which sources of funding and collaboration, can help to ensure that those new forms of serious journalism are made widely available? The object is in part to have a positive influence on the policy outcomes during the consultation period leading up the new Communications Act later in this parliament. I am very interested in building a broad coalition around this work.

We will also be linking with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and their initiatives in the United States on journalism education, with a view to stimulating a wider debate in the UK about training for news journalists.

Susan King, an experienced journalist who has led the Carnegie project in the US, has spoken about the need for “improving how journalists are educated and how their audiences are informed”.

The initiative has run for almost seven years. They called it a ‘pipeline’ strategy that would affect the next generation of journalists. The change came about because deans at the leading schools of journalism in the US worried that the dumbing down of the news in that country threatened their students’ careers. They began to frame a view of a journalism degree that demanded a greater element of intellectual pursuit along with the practical experience of producing news, and they created incubators around the country for new forms of high-quality journalism.

The Carnegie Corporation’s initiative in journalism education has been focused on a vision of journalism that exists to serve the public. They believe that new journalists will have to be smarter, better educated, more nimble and entrepreneurial than their predecessors if they are going to make it in a business in which the future is just being written. I think the work here at Strathclyde is evolving in a similar direction.

I think this approach is right. Journalism in future will need to provide ways of enabling a broader section of society to engage with important subjects like Economics, Energy, Defence, Transport, Housing, Health and Diplomacy. That is where the urgency of journalism and the rigour of academia might really collaborate to present important specialist policy areas for a general audience and offer expertise and guidance in an accessible form. This kind of honest and thorough interpretation is invaluable. It will reduce the information gap between those who are part of a policy elite and those who still feel like outsiders.

Of course, there is now a very big test coming up for the news media in Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK. That will be the reporting of the events and the campaigns leading up to the proposed referendum on Scottish independence, which now looks certain to go ahead within the next five years and most probably in 2014. I think journalism has a special responsibility in how we report the campaigns and the debates leading up to that vote, for two main reasons.

First, the job of journalism as always will be to hold all the claims and counter-claims up to the light, to test sources and their assertions, to enable citizens and voters to understand what is fact, what is conjecture, what is opinion and what is outright fantasy.

Inevitably, there will be a temptation on one side of the argument to say that we will be the happiest and most prosperous country on the planet within a few years of independence, and equally on the other side to say that in the same time frame we will be the unhappiest and most impoverished nation in the world. All such assertions will need good journalistic examination – who is making the claim, on what is it based, does it stand up to scrutiny? The news media will have power and influence in this debate, but they must also exercise responsibility.

The second point is that the tone and spirit of the independence debate will be hugely important. To some extent, the eyes of the world will be on us and while the result is obviously important and interesting, we should also work hard to demonstrate that we have gone through a very good and fair process in arriving at our decision.

That means lively discussion, but also tolerance and respect for the views of those who hold a different opinion. All of us in Scotland will be in the same boat to this extent – whatever your own personal view, you will almost certainly have family members, friends, people you work with, people you like and respect, who take a different view. That is why the manner in which we conduct the debate is just about as important as what we actually decide to do. And that will be a real test, not just for the political parties, but for the news media too.

This is one event that will not need to be hyped. We need to see not just advocacy from our newspapers, but also fairness. In any genuine news service, there should not be a single dominant perspective. We should see a range of perspectives and more than one point of view. We need to see the best qualities of our journalism brought into the independence debate from the start. Then at the end of the campaign, whatever the result, people can feel they took part in a decision-making process that was fair and considered and well-conducted.

The job of the media is to inform rather than inflame, to reflect the complexities of the debate rather than to hurl insults at one side or the other. In the end, in this debate as in any other, what unites us as a society should be more important than what divides us. I should say that I think the early signs are encouraging that we can have such a debate. There’s that optimism again.

I have just three things to say in conclusion:

First, obviously, I offer my apologies to anyone in the audience who was a competitor in the 1968 under-13s Scottish Schools essay-writing competition.

Second, I hope and intend to bring my experience and enthusiasm in journalism to my work here at the university. I would urge the staff and students at Strathclyde to make use of me while I’m here, because I certainly intend to make use of you.

And third, with the happy coincidence that he is currently a guest in our country, I think it is worth remembering something that Barack Obama said when he attended his first White House correspondents’ dinner as President in 2009. He told a room packed with the country’s editorial leaders and top journalists just how important their profession was, saying: “Your ultimate success as an industry is essential to the success of our democracy.”

That is as true in our country as it is in his. I look forward to working with you on the continuing development of the vital work of journalism and journalism education.

Thank you.