Hacked off by the press

Rhys David argues that professional standards need to be restored to the journalists’ trade

Somewhere down the line as a result of the hacking scandal regulation of the press will be strengthened and the Press Complaints Commission will pay the penalty for its weak performance. Yet, while newspapers may become more constrained, fundamental weaknesses within the press may well remain untouched as long as another issue is not addressed – the training and continued professional development of journalists, from reporter and sub-editor up to editor and indeed editor-in-chief .

Over the past few decades, parallel with the growth in university numbers, and partly as a result of this, other jobs have progressively become more professional in their approach to training. Nurses now take degrees and so, too, do many of the entrants to the ranks of the police. A whole variety of other jobs from physiotherapist to catering management , where a largely vocational training was previously all that was needed, now have the underpinning of structured degree level courses.

The reverse seems to have happened in newspapers. Though more and more of the industry’s intake are graduate, and in some cases the owners of more than one degree, training remains all too informal, quite often voluntary, and in some cases non-existent. There, are of course, hundreds of people emerging from media courses at British universities but many of these courses are not about producing journalists. Instead they graduate individuals with a training in analysing the press and trying to understand and interpret its ways.

Going back several decades it was all but impossible to start a career on a UK national newspaper because the National Union of Journalists took the view that Fleet Street would not train young entrants, who should, therefore, begin on a provincial newspaper, where they would learn the basics. The union at that time operated a closed shop and was able to enforce this.

The training on newspapers outside London still fell way short of what would be expected of someone seeking to become, say, a solicitor or a teacher. However, it did mean that, coupled with on-the-job experience, recruits would become familiar with newspaper law, ethics, politics and constitution and no less importantly, shorthand. Other basic principles were inculcated, such as the need to use only sourced quotations and the importance of allowing both parties to a dispute to state their case. Without either of these safeguards stories would not run.

We might not wish to go back to this era but it would appear that since the provincial route has ceased to be obligatory the most important route into national newspapers has become the (often unpaid) internship, good student newspaper work or assiduous speculative filing from outside. Apart from its other disadvantages, such as the lack of a proper career path, this route can exclude many worthwhile candidates who do not have the connections needed to secure vital intern posts.

How many of these entrants to our national titles proceed to take courses in the law, as it affects newspapers, or learn any form of shorthand in case their recording technology lets them down or they find themselves in a position where it is not appropriate to use it? How many have been exposed to guidance on newspaper ethics? Precious few it would seem if the evidence from the News of the World is to be a guide.  What proportion of those working for our national newspapers today has the industry qualification, a certificate from the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ)?  Precious few again, one would imagine, and quite possibly none of those from News of the World who now find themselves being questioned by the boys in blue.

The industry’s attitude to training is neatly encapsulated by information on the NCTJ’s own website where it advises that a job may be offered after a person has proven themselves to an editor time and time again, producing content for love and little or no money.

“Hiring editors need trainees who can hit the ground running and produce quality news content immediately … Training gives able people a short cut [my italics]. It saves them time by teaching them the basics of journalism quickly, accurately and effectively.  It means they don’t need to learn by trial and error. They can get it right first time.”

It is hard to imagine any other profession selling itself in this way, though it is almost certainly a fair description of how things currently work. To its credit the NUJ also offers a range of courses, including in new technologies, but is it the job of the journalists’ union to provide the training that newspapers should be offering? In any case the NUJ expends its energies in a range of other directions, seeing it as its role to campaign on Third World, equality and other issues as well as fighting for its members’ rights.

There is, of course, the dubious argument that how to be a newshound is not a skill you can learn and that writers are born not made. Much of what is written in today’s UK newspapers is also in the form of columns – the views of a chosen few score hired writers and celebrities who are deemed to have strong enough opinions to set readers’ pulses racing. This would, however, seem to make it even more important that those who read and edit their writings before they appear in print have a solid grounding in good  – and legal – newspaper practice.

It is time, therefore, that as an industry newspapers set professional standards as an entry point into writing and editing and not as an optional extra often paid for by the individual on his or her own initiative. These standards, too, should focus especially strongly on law and ethics. At a more senior level a record of having the contacts to be able to wine and dine with politicians should count much less towards advancement than evidence of continued professional development.

The response will be that newspapers are thrusting and dynamic and not bureaucratic entities and that all you need from a journalist is a nose for a story and the determination to go after it with hound-like obsession. Journalists and newspaper owners need to realise, however, that we live in an increasingly professional world and that the tried and tested methods of the past are in this new environment delivering ever smaller newspaper circulations. Something is not working.

Journalists have for too long been a self-appointed and largely untrained elite who believe they only need to be able to quote an affiliation to a press or broadcast organisation to be allowed to demand entry wherever they wish, ask intrusive questions, threaten careers and if necessary bring down governments.  This is no longer good enough.

The press does enormous good and perish the thought it should be heavily regulated in Britain. MPs’ expenses and the exposure of News International’s behaviour are just two of its recent triumphs. However, the exercise of such power needs to be in the hands of professionally trained people, working to agreed and enforced high standards, as in other professions, if the public is to regain confidence in the media.

Rhys David is Associate Director of the IWA and a longstanding member of the National Union of Journalists.

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