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.

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  • Just to add a few points. Mandy McAuley spoke about sources (presumably close to Sinn Féin) because they feared being labelled “dissidents” Chris Moore spoke about pressure that a source was put under by spooks at the time of the Kincora Investigation.
    Mandy seemed a little irritated with the overall “glossiness” of Norn Iron. Investigations into loan sharks and pimps were seemingly sidelined.
    Steven Graham spoke movingly about victims including a counsellor with the UDR and the strength of victims such as Rosemary Nelsons family.
    There was actually a lot of expertise in the audience, And I think that justified the two hours. Nothing worse than an event which winds up just as it gets interesting.
    Chris Moore spoke of Leveson as the politicians revenge for the expenses scandals.
    A gent from the audience wondered whether there was any credibility to any journalist who worked for a Murdoch title. Chris Moore said and I paraphrase (but AlaninBelfast will correct me if Im wrong) that a journalist has his own integrity to rely on (much more than the politicians who were fed from Murdochs trough.).

    Which is a reasonable enough point except it says little for the skills of investigative journalists who misseda scoop about a major human rights violation in their own newsroom/industry.
    Chris Moore was quite dismissive of “celebrities”. I suppose theres an element of proportionality here…..Hugh Grant is not a baby in Syria……but the truth is that while journalists bravely stand up for Human Rights in foreign parts….even dying as a result of exposing violations, the awkward truth is that journalists in London are as likely to deprive people of Human Rights.
    Another person from the floor (prefacing his contribution by saying he was athiest) wondered whether the pendulum had swung too far in respect of Catholic Church abuse….but another speaker (prefacing her remarks by saying she was Catholic) thought there was much more to come out.
    Nelson McCausland…..well his ears must have been burning…..he is a figure of ridicule to this kind of assembly and mere mention of his name was enough to induce some sniggers.
    The notion that journalists need to regulated/licensed (like doctors) is a reasonable enough premise to reasonable people but the spectre of regulation from the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure……dubbed the “Nelson McCausland Register of Certified Journalists” was enough to let the journalists off the hook on that one.
    Slightly annoyed by just one thing. A member of the audience picked up on the friction between journalist and press officer…..noting that many press officers were trained journalists. As I recall he put it that press officers were “poachers turned gamekeepers” and that “todays journalists were tomorrows press officers”.
    Although Paddy Corrigan (who was excellent in the Chair) made a glib remark to the panel “thats your future” …….he did not include this point in his round up of questions to the panel.
    There was also a person outside St Marys handing out leaflets about the detention of Marian Price…and one audience member raised it. Initially Paddy Corrigan seemed to suggest “Ill talk to you later about this”….he did actually answer this later in the session……it was along the lines of Amnesty has a good record in dealing with this……” (Alan might want to comment as to whether Ive got that substantively right).
    My own recollection from the early 1970s was that Amnesty was a bit useless….in Norn Iron.

    Other interesting stuff in St Marys……a small Healing thru Remembering exhibition, some Amnesty photographs and an exhibition on the Ballymurphy Massacre.

  • ***Mandy McAuley spoke about sources presumably close to SF…..going silent…….because they feared labelling as dissidents.****

  • aquifer

    “sourcing both sides of an argument”

    But is there an implicit assumption in this nostrum, that because there is a visible dispute, that the ideas on both side must be in some way valid and that other issues matter less?

    Protagonists are then immediately invited to make their dispute more spectacular for media attention, to displace other content and to boost the apparent validity of their arguments. By presenting ‘both sides’ in a setting conventionally used for contests of reason, aggressors may appear more rational than their ideas ever warranted.

    And how many journalists have the scientific training or analytical skills to decide when to switch from reproducing climate change denials, to covering the detailed disputes over the mechanisms of climate change within the scientific community?

    If the work of journalists is saving people the difficult work of thinking for themselves when beset by fascists, or of sustaining reason when besieged by vested interests, should we lament their decline?

  • FJH either has a brilliant memory or is a skilled notetaker!! (Adding a link to his own post on the session.) And a pleasure to meet afterwards.

  • Likewise Alan. Its was good meeting you although our paths have crossed on several occasions.
    I am not that great a note-taker as I referred to Steven McCaffery as “Steven Graham”. Apologies to him.
    As a concession to multi-media, I took notes with a black pen AND a blue pen.
    Ive also been asked to state that there was more than one person handing out leaflets about Marian Price.
    Well to be fair…….when I went in to St Marys (at about 11.45am) there was just one person. When I left St Marys at about 3.15pm there were about five people. Again Alan might be able to say what it was like when he arrived/left.

  • Lee Reynolds

    “Attack it seems mean “you know you’re on the right line”.

    That is an very intellectually lazy defence.

  • Mr Reynolds…you certainly have a good point but I think as a rule of thumb, it is good advice.
    Ministers, Advisors, Press Officers can deal with a story by Attack….or controlled disclosure…..or sullen “no comment”.
    Each is valid but having put the story to Minister, Advisor, Press Officer…….and got whatever reaction……the journalist is entitled to wonder about that reaction.

  • Lee Reynolds

    They can indeed wonder but it should not preclude some self-evaluation that the conclusion they reached was wrong or inconsistent with past criticisms they’d made.

    A trait sadly too common within journalism is they invariably fall for the woodward and bernstein myth and end up inflating things to be more important than they actually are.