Category Archives: Journalism

Tell Laura I Hate Her

I’ve made this point before; journalism is perhaps unique as a career where you can expect to be openly, personally abused simply for reporting what others have said. And as public figures, perhaps we should accept that strong differences of opinion are part and parcel of the job.

It’s even harder when you’re part of an organisation which is publicly funded. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a petition to sack the BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, has attracted so much attention – possibly for all the wrong reasons.

It was started amid allegations that she was regularly showing bias against the Labour Party and in particular Jeremy Corbyn. But the petition site 38 Degrees removed it following reports of sexist abuse. This made some even more angry, suggesting that there were just a couple of abusive comments posted on the site, and that 38 Degrees itself was caving in under pressure from the establishment. 

In fact, most of the abuse was on other social media platforms, notably Twitter. Many of the comments had nothing to do with bias, but were deeply personal. Several bloggers have since moaned that nobody took screen grabs of tweets which have subsequently been deleted – the charge now being that if you can’t see it, it never existed.

Frankly, I’m getting a little exasperated by the conspiracy theories. But I’m more concerned about the growing trend of my profession being easy pickings for the anonymous keyboard warriors, who think it’s perfectly acceptable to openly demand sackings, accompanied by filthy and nasty abuse.

Imagine if we were to apply the same principle to all publicly funded jobs. Should a council street cleaner, for example, be openly mocked if he misses a pile of rubbish outside a school, but meticulously polishes the flagstones at the Town Hall. Equally, ashould a police officer be disciplined for cautioning a “peaceful demonstrater” using language akin to incitement? Surely he’s suppressing free speech?

It goes wider than just journalism. I’m often baffled by the same online conspiracists who hate the “mainstream media” because we “don’t report the facts” – yet in the same breath praise, for example, Russia Today. Only this weekend someone on Twitter said he preferred the “independent” Planet Rock to anything that the “state sponsored” BBC Radio could offer him. Planet Rock is operated by the German multi media giant Bauer.

As for Laura, it’s at least pleasing to see that some in Labour are backing her; the Press Gazette reporting support from MPs Chuka Umunna and Jess Phillips.

But the hates will probably only moan that she’s not reported it.

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Posted by on May 14, 2016 in Journalism


Sold : Dancing Hamster – £40m

The sale of a group of radio stations to a much bigger company often brings with it anxiety among staff, doubts over job security and a collective sigh among the anoraks that things will never quite be the same again – and wouldn’t it be nice to bring back some old heritage brand names.

Yet the news that Orion Media has sold its stations to Bauer has been largely well received, if not welcomed, by many industry observers. And it could well be a sign that the rose tinted glasses have finally been confined to the scrap heap. Which can only be a good thing for the new owners of Free Radio in the West Midlands and Gem 106 in the East Midlands.

Gem alone has steadily grown to become a key player in the market, and continues to evolve. Its early cheesey marketing – featuring a dancing hamster – has become a station that still plays big on personality and does well in the ratings. Breakfast presenters Sam and Amy recently marked ten years on air together – quite an achievement in a cut throat industry.

And Gem, like Free, has recently refreshed its playlist – there are far more “hot” (current) tracks mixed in with 80s and 90s classics. Tune in some hours are you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Capital.

All of this matters because the two Orion brands will now have to fit into Bauer’s existing portfolio. The most likely option is that all will become part of the main network, along with strong heritage names like Radio City in Liverpool, Glasgow’s Clyde and Newscastle’s Metro. All of these stations continue to perform well in large markets – and, just like Orion’s stations, have slowly evolved into a mix of contemporary and classic playlists.

Bauer also has a ready made second brand – the Greatest Hits Network – majoring on oldies and long established heritage presenters. This would easily fit into what’s currently the Free 80s slot on the AM and DAB dials in the West Midlands – although without confining the output to just one decade.

So everyone’s happy, right? Well of course there may be some savings to be had – and nobody wants to see job losses. But I’m told that the announcement yesterday was handled impeccably by both sides. Bauer sent senior managers to both Nottingham and Birmingnam to brief staff, there was apparently no air of hostility that can often be associated with sales.

Ultimately this consolidates the UK industry into two major players. Smaller groups will continue to thrive for the time being – and competition rules should ensure that commercial radio doesn’t become a monopoly.

But I don’t think we’ll see any more dancing hamsters.


Posted by on May 7, 2016 in Journalism, Radio Stuff


Can I have a “P” please, Bob?

Like music playlists, there is one aspect of our industry that can only be looked at subjectively. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to be impartial about personality. In recent months, it’s been well documented that BBC Local Radio is going through yet another period of attempting to define the “P” word with – you guessed it – a classroom training course. 

But the main question, highlighted this week by the BBC Editorial Standards Committee, considers whether personality can sometimes go to far.

Anyone who has witnessed an Iain Lee broadcast knows what to expect. He’s direct, unconventional and challenging. Which is presumably the main reason why BBC Three Counties hired him in the first place. Yet an investigation this week has concluded that Lee broke the rules on impartiality, mainly due to what was viewed as an “inappropriately combative” approach.

Of course, impartiality is one of the founding principles of the BBC, and as a journalist I try to respect that in my professional life (my blog, my views, is a different matter). Yet I wonder if judging an interview to be “inappropriately combative” is somewhat at odds with the push for more personality? Under such hard and fast rules, a presenter can’t win.

But as a union rep – standing up for the shop floor – another part of the ESC’s rationale concerns me. It suggested that robust interviews might deter others from calling in, for fear of encountering the same wrath. In Iain Lee’s case, he was interviewing two pre-arranged guests who were on the same side of the story. Surely they should have expected to be challenged, and firmly too?  What’s more, the principles of “holding to account” and playing “devil’s advocate” are enshrined – in as many words – within the BBC’s own Editorial Guidelines. Nevertheless, we are all to be “reminded ” of the need for respect in the coming months. I wonder if this will apply to network colleagues like John Humphreys?

As always, there is a balance to be achieved. It’s interesting that OFCOM assessed six complaints on this, but decided not to launch a formal investigation. And Iain Lee will soon be back on air, as part of the line up for the new commercial station Talk Radio.

Whatever the outcome, this ruling must not be allowed to stifle the principle of challenging interviews, not least when the guest is expressing extreme views. Nor should it deter managers from hiring talent like Iain Lee. By his own admission, he went too far.

But if we never took risks, radio would be boring.

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Posted by on March 10, 2016 in Journalism, Radio Stuff


Rocks and hard places

I should open this blog with a disclaimer that these are my views as a Journlaist, and not necessarily those of my employer. The piece is meant as an observation of the relationship between reporters and their sources, and may well stimulate some debate on the subject.

Since the start of the year, I’ve been covering the story of a group in Nottingham who set up two makeshift camps, with the claim that they were supporting the homeless. They were also demanding that the city council opened up empty buildings as shelters, something which happened in Manchester.

As usual, it’s been something of a war of words between the activists and the authorities. But this one has been made all the more difficult by walls of silence on both sides – a somewhat unusual scenario when trying to accurately report the situation.

By their very nature, the activists – operating under the umbrella name Fightback Nottingham – were rather erratic in their behaviour towards the media. On some days, they were more than happy to portray themselves as modern day urban warriors, not only supporting the homeless people who were apparently sleeping in their tents, but sending our a wider, social, political message. Activism at its best, you might say.

But on other days it was a different story. “We’re not talking to you (the BBC) because you’ve twisted our words. We’ll only do live interviews because they can’t be edited.” Clearly those are editorial demands which we wouldn’t and couldn’t agree to with anybody.

Yet from the authorities, there’ve also been mixed messages. Officially, the City Council wouldn’t provide anyone for an interview. The policy seemed to be one of written statements, as getting into a debate might lead to difficult questions. Questions which we were unable to put in a broadcast environment. 

But off the record – though there for all to see on social media – were comments from senior council officers, and the head of Safe Nottingham (a police and council partnership) openly condemning the activists, calling them “hired anarchists” – before quickly retreating from their attack by hiding or deleting Tweets.

The challenge is that we all live in a 24/7 media society, fuelled by instant claim and counter claim. And that raises questions about the relationship between journalists and their sources. It might be argued that social media is king, since everybody has access to it all the time. Though it doesn’t help when some individuals choose to bulk block entire newsrooms from their accounts, lest they actually report or challenge what is being said.

The camps have now been cleared, the final one was being dismantled as court proceedings for eviction were still underway. But  there’ll doubtless be other fights in the pipeline : this weekend the war of words was taken to public buildings, where abusive slogans were chalked up. It remains to be seen who exactly has gained the upper hand.

Our job as journalists is to keep asking questions. And we will.


Posted by on January 17, 2016 in Journalism, Radio Stuff, The Training Zone


Mind Your Language

What do ISIS and The Daily Mail have in common? They both try to change behaviour through fear.

I can’t claim the credit for that assertion. It came from one of my friends when discussing the Dail Mail’s latest hateful and untrue article where it’s claimed the BBC has banned the term “terrorist” when referring to Islamic State. There is, apparently, “fury” that journalists are routinely substututing the word “militants” or “jihadists” in news coverage.

And I think I’d be furious too if – as claimed by the Mail – I were to receive an email from Editorial Policy each time I “slipped up”. Yet in the few weeks since the attacks in Paris, I’ve often referred to them in bulletins as “terrorist” incidents. I’ve produced discussion shows where we’ve openly asked “could Nottingnamshire be the scene of a terrorist attack”, and cconducted vox pops along the lines of “does the threat of terrorism worry you?”

I haven’t received a single email from Editorial Policy.

There was one potentially sensitive story (which I won’t detail here) where “upstairs” issued guidance on a terror-related issue. That guidance was discussed, digested and ultimately over-ruled by a local senior manager. Such sensible discussions often happen. After all, guidance is just that – and it’s usually the case that common sense wins the day.

Even the Mail quickly concedes that there is, in fact, no such ban, but goes on to say that the BBC – quite rightly – urges caution against pejorative terminology. In the same way as we wouldn’t say “ISIS terrorists”, nor would we say “brave RAF pilots”. It’s not a resposible, impartial broadcaster’s place to make such judgements. Terms like those are used, but only when attributed to a named source. Again, responsible journalism.

What isn’t responsible is a gung-ho rag littering its pages with the words “maniacs”. Or routinely running front page headlines and graphics which effectively amount to religious incitement, a crime punishable by a prison sentence.

In the past, it’s also true to say that political interference has clouded some of the language we use. The “Bedroom Tax” was revised to the “Spare Room Subsidy” after pressure from Whitehall. We were left with the silly situation of having to use the phrase “what critics call the Bedroom Tax”. It was less to do with a BBC ruling and more about the management caving in to pressure. I’d hate to think the same will happen this time around.

The Mail hides behind handy quotes from MPs to illustrate the alleged hysteria around the BBC’s actions. But it’s really just an excuse for it to do some more baseless bashing.

And the day I take lessons in ethics from the Daily Mail is the day I quit.

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Posted by on December 6, 2015 in Journalism, Radio Stuff


Style or Substance?

If it hadn’t been for ITN, newscasters might have never appeared on screen. When ITV launched in 1955, it was the first British TV network to introduce the concept of a face the audience could welcome into their homes. Up until then, the news had – at best – consisted of simple, straight commentary over a few bits of grainy film.

I’ve always had a lot of respect for ITN’s populist presentation style, most recently with the arrival of Tom Bradby as anchor of News at Ten. His personal, highly conversational delivery has brought something new to the mainstream UK news bulletin. Something which has been around in America for years. Connecting with the audience.

But tonight’s prgramme made me question that respect, and brought with it some fundamental questions of what the audience really wants from a news bulletin.

In my mind, the primary desire is trust. Can I trust what I see to be true and accurate? Beyond that, almost nothing else really matters. So I could cope with folksy Tom Bradby leading me casually into the mass shooting in California. But the language was so loaded, it made me wonder whether I’d heard him correctly.

Both the headline and the intro asked a question : could this latest shooting be the work of terrorists? It was a fair enough hypothesis – since Obama had used the word “might” in a single, off the cuff remark. But then we had Tom trying to further qualify the theory, with phrases like “if it does indeed turn out to be the case”; almost “we’re doubting this ourselves but we’re going to take a risk and put it out there anyway”.

News at Ten was by no means alone in running with this line. However, it seemed to go one step closer, pointing out that several US networks had run information films on what to do in the case of a terrorist shooting. 

All fair enough, you might say – or as Tom might say. Until we get to Story 2. Which interlocked with story 1. Words to the effect of : “whether or not it was terrorists, (and we honestly don’t know that yet so don’t quote us on it)  it calls into question once again the availability of guns”.

Hang on – first we say it might (we really hope) be a terrorist attack, but equally it could be a completely random shooting due to the US policy on firearms. Which is it? One? The other? Both?

Fact is, we don’t yet know.

So – should a news bulletin just be about what we do know? Should it purely be based on fact, without analysis or commentary? Of course not. But if you’re going to make an argument to a mainstream, prime time audience, at least decide on which theory you’re going to use.

I’m all for News at Ten addressing me as I would a friend down the pub. But it must do so with a clear head.

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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Journalism


Ratings or Reputation?

Last week the latest audience ratings for UK radio were published. As usual there was more spinning from station managers than Alistair Campbell in a gym class armed with comedy plates. And, as usual, the raw numbers can never tell the whole story.

In unashamedly blowing my own trumpet, I’d like to think that my own sector – BBC Local Radio – trades less on audience figures alone, and more on distinctiveness. In other words, an element of public service that may not always pull in large numbers of listeners.

So it was initially refreshing to read the Radio Centre’s response to the BBC Trust’s current review of BBC Local services. In a rare fanfare of support, commercial radio’s trade body was bigging up the BBC’s role in providing high quality, in depth news coverage aimed at an older audience. But it turned out to be faint praise, going on to suggest that BBC Local Radio shouldn’t focus more on personality.

The report bemoans a recent strategy briefing, which recommended – among other things – that stations should put greater effort into bringing entertaining and engaging presentation back on air. Local Radio sits in a curious place within the BBC structure, being part of the News division rather than Radio. Down the years, programmers from all sides (including those who have a commercial background) have been banging on about personality being the key to success.

At the risk of again banging my own drum (though I was working elsewhere at the time)  it’s no coincidence that BBC Radio Nottingham’s breakfast show has just been named the best on BBC Local Radio at the Gillard Awards. Yes – it’s a self serving pat on the back – but the winning entry demonstrated how important persinality is : one clip of our reporter playing loud construction noises outside the council’s HQ after months of noise complaints from its housing tenants.

Commercial radio seen quite happy for BBC Locals to remain pigeon holed into “news” – but has the deluded idea that news and personality should never mix. Well, I hear no evidence of that on Radio X – where the excellent Dominic Byrne sits happily with Chris Moyles, yet retains complete authority when delivering bulletins. Or how about commercial radio’s best speech brand, LBC – does Nick Ferarri wear a dinner jacket and bow tie to relate the days’s big stories?

Ratings will always fluctuate, and it’s a harsh reality that no radio station can be complacent in retaining its audience. I stand by my argument  that public service sometimes means shockingly low numbers in the RAJARS. But equally, BBC local Radio cannot be expected to stand still simply because commercial radio’s having another mardy (look that word up if you need to).

It’s also worth remembering that only the BBC regularly subjects itself to such detailed self analysis and accountability. Something RadioCentre rarely has to be concerned about.

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Posted by on November 5, 2015 in Journalism, Radio Stuff, The Training Zone