Oct 10

Assange of Wikileaks, reflections on “truth”

Yesterday was bracketed by discussions on the nature of truth. The flux of events and ideas in journalism is sending people back to first principles to blunder around in the domain of philosophers.

In the morning I was on an oversize panel convened by Editorial Intelligence to discuss “Where Truth Lies” in the media (video here). In the evening Julian Assange, founder and frontman of Wikileaks returned to City University to be questioned on his contributions to the world’s knowledge.

The single most striking thing to emerge from both debates was the vast distance between “journalism” (and all the controversies over its value, competence and conduct) on the one hand and the radically different position of the data and document leakers on the other.

In the morning’s debate, there was lively discussion of the circumstances in which it is justifiable to publish particular stories. Paul Staines, aka blogger Guido Fawkes, defended his story which led to the resignation of a special adviser to Foreign Secretary William Hague, including a refreshingly frank pitch that his aims include mischief-making gossip. Blogger Iain Dale disagreed and said the story should never have run. The distinguished investigative reporter John Ware defined his aim as building a “case which can stand up to scrutiny.” Whatever their other differences, all the speakers (me included) shared a common assumption that journalists, acting as intermediaries, select particular stories, facts and judgements for the consumption of their audience.

Continue reading →


Sep 10

Does science journalism need saving?

David Rowan, editor of the UK edition of Wired magazine, thinks so and explains why here. One sentence takeout: science writers, to survive and prosper, are going to have to learn to be less dependent on journalism’s institutions, which are being eroded.

Footnote: David Dobbs, namechecked in David’s lecture to Dutch science writers, is currently a Visiting Fellow at City University’s Journalism department in London.

Update 29/9/10: I appeared on a panel with Martin Robbins not long ago and thought that more or less everything he had to say about science journalism made sense. His dig at the mannerisms of science reporting is on the nail.


Sep 10

Downie vs Huffington: the parasite debate is back

Ex-Washington Post editor Len Downie came to City University last night to deliver the James Cameron lecture and inserted just one sting in the tail of his text, but a sharp one. Downie is not impressed, not impressed at all, by the Huffington Post.

The Huffposties are “parasites” he said, adding that much of the site’s “highly touted” web-traffic statistics were boosted by celebrity gossip. “They attract audiences by aggregating  journalism about special interests and opinions reflecting a predictable point of view on the left or the right of the political spectrum,  along with titillating gossip  and sex.”

This was the punch line: “It is not yet clear whether many – or any – of the aggregators will become profitable – or,  more importantly, whether  any of them will become sources of original,  credible journalism.” Downie’s lecture is in full here.

This barb triggered a cross response from the Huffington Post’s founder Arianna Huffington who defended the amount of original journalism on the site and said that they stick to “fair use” rules in giving only excerpts and links.

Continue reading →


Sep 10

Panorama/BIJ: data journalism is scoopy

Delighted to say that last night’s BBC TV Panorama on top public service salaries has caused plenty of ripples. The programme was a co-production with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based at City University. (Declaration of interest: I’m a BIJ trustee). The programme can be seen for six days here, some of the coverage is here and here and commentary here.

There will be more high-profile work from the BIJ before long, but  this is probably the largest stone this new outfit has yet thrown in the pond. Its journalists only began work at the start of this year. Investigative reporting is never quick. The raw material for this inquiry is 38,000 lines of data and it was obtained by 2,400 freedom of information requests.

Much of the coverage has focussed on the BBC salaries – and it must have required some nerve for Panorama to have devoted so much airtime to yet more detail of how much top people at the Beeb earn. But the really interesting stuff seems to me to lie not with the outliers at the top, but with the mass in the middle. Leaving the special case of the BBC aside, does the public service really need thosee thousands of salaries lying somewhere between £100,ooo and £300,000? It’s hard to imagine that a ruthless audit would give them all a value-for-money clearance.


Sep 10

It ain’t easy studying journalism

As more than 400 MA students arrive at City University London today to study journalism, what better way to mark the day than this exchange between a journalism student in Long Island and (apparently) Steve Jobs of Apple, reported here by Charles Arthur of The Guardian.

There’s a theory abroad that the internet and its capacity to circulate and store anything and everything makes big companies more responsive to consumers because if they ignore someone or screw up, more people will know. The House of Apple does not subscribe to this belief, it would seem.


Jul 10

Julian Assange and the Wikileaks agenda

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange came to the Centre for Investigative Journalism weekend school at City University last Friday to speak to a public audience. Assange is clearly making many more of these appearances in what might be called the Phase Two of the Wikileaks story.

Julian Assange

In Phase One, Assange barely gave any interviews at all and was secretive about himself and his organisation. Phase Two began when Wikileaks had put more than a million documents into the public domain which organisations and governments had never intended to release and when the US government arrested one of Wikileaks alleged leakers in the American military. (Earlier posts on this here and here; whole Wikileaks story here). That phase has seen Assange come out his shell and switch from defence to attack.

Here’s a summary of what he said in opening. Wikileaks has focussed from the start, he said, on revealing documents which will have the largest effect when disclosed. Borrowing the language of economists, documents kept secret create value by defining what will have impact when revealed.

But from the start, Wikileaks saw itself in quite a different perspective from mainstream media, or from all other news media. Assange intended, he said, to set up a “real free press” for the first time – in the sense that sensitive revelations at that scale which could not be shut down have never been done before. Wikileaks invested effort, time and money from the start in setting up servers which cannot be interrupted or attacked. He also saw Wikileaks as an “advocacy group for sources.”

He indirectly justified Wikileaks refusal to discuss its personnel, operations or security methods by saying that he has a “duty” to maintain “institutional integrity”. He went further: he has “a duty to history.”

Continue reading →


Jun 10

Tessa Jowell on the BBC’s “fight of its life”

Seminar today at City University on public service broadcasting set up by the enterprising people at OpenDemocracy’s OurKingdom blog, which has been assembling an impressively wide-ranging cast of opinions for the past months. The seminar gave some of them a chance to get into the same room.

Star of the opening session was Tessa Jowell, Culture Secretary and in charge of the government’s negotiations with the BBC for the past six years until the election four weeks ago. The BBC will find itself in the “fight of its life”, she predicted. (Another panellist replied that the BBC had been seen in thes melodramatic terms for at least the last 25 years and several licence fee  renewals).

Other highlights: Jowell said that in the Labour government she had found herself as “the only advocate” for the BBC in government. She criticised the Beeb’s culture and managers as wanting “all the advantages of the private sector with none of the risks.” This seemed like an oblique reference to the high salaries  at the top of the BBC.

She said that BBC accountablity was good enough and that the BBC Trust had failed correctly to read the mood of the moment, not least because the BBC’s hierarchy had spent too much of its time in intmate negotiations with the government, neglecting the broader picture. She also said that the Trust’s power had not been sufficiently built up.

Continue reading →


Apr 10

Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Yesterday saw the launch of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Britain’s counterpart to the philanthropically-funded outfits in the US which are attempting to supply the difficult, expensive long-form reporting which is in increasingly short supply in mainstream newspapers and broadcasting. (Disclosure: I’m a Bureau trustee).

The Pulitzer Prize awarded to the American investigative team ProPublica this month was a watershed in revealing to the world at large that cutting-edge journalism has moved outside the places where you’re accustomed to find it.

The Bureau has been made possible by a generous donation from David and Elaine Potter, but will stand or fall by its stories. Last night’s launch at City University London, where the Bureau is based, was a “soft launch” to mark the fact that the Bureau has begun work. Coverage here and here.  The real launch of course will be the publication or broadcast of its first stories.