journalist ≠ campaigner?

There was an interesting – though overly lengthy* – session on Human Rights and Journalism in St Mary’s College at lunchtime today as part of this year’s Féile an Phobail.

A panel of Mandy McAuley (BBC Spotlight), Steven McCaffery (Deputy Editor PA The Detail) and Chris Moore (the Detail UTV) was chaired by Amnesty NI’s Patrick Corrigan.

While human rights were on the edge of much of the discussion it was rarely the central point. As well as talk about the efficacy of public inquiries and the stress they put on families, the importance of whistleblowers (and the increasing reluctance for previous sources to continue to talk or even meet up) and the “crisis” in some media outlets that was restricting investigative journalism, the panel spoke personally about what drove them and how they were affected by the stories they covered.

Both Mandy McAuley and Chris Moore talked about the length of time that investigations can take, often measured in years rather than months. Mandy spoke about her “duty to report injustices affecting people across Northern Ireland”.

Several times the Girdwood Barracks Spotlight edition was mentioned along with Nelson McCausland’s comments on his blog suggesting that the programme “fell far short of the standard we should be able to expect from a public service broadcaster”. Attack it seems means “you know you’re on the right line”.

Steven McCaffery advocated at one point (and the other panellists agreed) that reporters had to be wary of becoming campaigners. Journalist should always interrogate the facts (often double or triple sourcing both sides of an argument) and put real people into stories to ensure authenticity.

Campaigning journalism was not on this panel’s agenda – and usually is out of the question for public service broadcasters who toe the line of impartiality – though it is frequently part and parcel of local weekly newspapers (eg, campaigning to keep local hospitals open) and pops up in the Belfast Telegraph (eg, Sit Down Sort It Out campaign around the transfer test).

MPs expenses were uncovered through Heather Brookes FOI investigations, accelerated by a whistleblower leaking the unredacted details on a CD to the Telegraph. And once the data was out, the facts spoke for themselves with no ‘campaigning’ required.

Which raises a question: how valuable is press campaigning? Is it really necessary in order to put pressure on public (or private) bodies? Does it simplify complex issues in order to attract support?

*There should be a rule at panel events that audience questions can’t exceed 140 words!

The West Belfast Talks Back event this Wednesday evening could be interesting. As well as George Galloway and Ruth Dudley-Edwards, Gerry Kelly and Gregory Campbell will be on the panel answering questions from the audience. St Louise’s College at 9pm.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.