Thursday, 21 June 2012

What Price Progress?

Journalism is changing.

Blogging, the required mastery of social and networking websites, added to the galloping growth of online journalism is changing the media landscape in a way that even those starting out a decade ago could not have imagined.

Though established older hacks have reluctantly adopted email addresses and in some cases learned to operate to a computer, often with hilarious consequences, none have seen their positions under threat from a lack of understanding of changing media technology.

That's because they received the training which still makes the difference between writing the scoop or re-writing someone else's lead later.

It frequently would have in involved alcohol; usually with an older veteran hack; the art of conversation (Yes - it still exists somewhere), fostering and nurturing contacts; and discovering whether you have the inner drive to beat the competition.

Contrary to what many who have witnessed some of the worst excesses outlined at Leveson, or from the reporting of Operation Motorman, it didn't involve hacking phones or spending days on the phone to private eyes.

Journalism then was the old-fashioned technique of wearing out shoe leather on the streets, and working long hours to get stories which those in power frequently were doing their utmost to stop you getting.

Fast forward to 2012 and often the only danger to shoe leather for many young hacks is tripping on the scuffed carpet in  offices where they spend too much time writing for online newspaper sections without going out on actual stories.

The long hours are, of course, still there, and the staff of most newspapers is less than half of what it was ten years ago.

And whereas many local newspaper groups frequently sponsored aspiring journalists to get training, covering course fees and accommodation costs, this is now proving to be the exception rather than the rule.

Which brings us to another of the biggest changes in the media - the explosion in post graduate media courses and the fees required for those who still want to pursue their dream of becoming a journalist.

City University, for example, runs the country's best known and most successful post graduate courses in journalism. But to undertake a full-time MA in say Investigative Journalism at City students have to come up with £9,000 if they come come from the EU, or £18,000 if they are from a non EU country.

Kingston Uni, another of the leading choices for those wanting to study for an MA in Journalism, charges £5,850 for full-time students from the EU, and £12,350 for non EU. At Cardiff it is a similar picture - £6,320 for EU students studying for an MA in International Journalism, and £12,400 for their non EU counterparts.

Just how many of the older hacks, many of whom come from the deprived East End, included in their numbers former messengers, or sons of printers, could have afforded that TT wonders? 

A friend who works at City says the courses are excellent but that the sheer cost has meant the vast majority of the students come from privileged backgrounds, and most definitely do not include the working classes.

Those national newspapers which run their own graduate recruitment schemes have the pick of thousands of applicants, frequently plump for Oxbridge students, who again do not tend to come from the ranks of the less well-off.

So while today's journalism students deserve huge credit for paying so much to simply enter what is an extremely uncertain profession one concern remains: Is some of the raw talent we once took for granted simply being being priced out?

Hopefully the answer to that is a resounding "No" and students from deprived households are still making it, albeit with an even larger student debt.

And if they're not perhaps its time for some of the newspaper groups earning millions while not paying Corporation Tax to set some money aside to ensure that everyone gets a chance.

Yes and pigs might fly - but TT lives in hope.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Arrest 1 Public Right To Know 0.

Contrary to what a few appear to think - most journalists do not consider themselves to be above the law.

Indeed, there are countless occasions when reporters assist police investigations despite there being  nothing (editorially speaking) to be gained from doing so.

Quite how that relationship is going to work in the future seems uncertain - particularly given the treatment of some two dozen or more colleagues from The Sun newspaper during the last few months.

Most have been arrested in front of their families during dawn swoops on their homes - not permitted to dress, shower, or even take a shit on their own without an officer in view.

The investigation is into whether they made corrupt payments to public officials - not because any were involved in phone hacking (the sister investigation run by the Operation Weeting unit).

The vast majority have had their collars felt, so to speak, as a result of their own bosses at News Corp and its UK division News International handing over evidence of what they say is potential wrong-doing as part of an internal clean-up operation. No other newspaper group - UK or otherwise - has followed suit.

As we all know, the Management and Standards Committee (MSC)  - chaired by Lord Grabiner QC at  £3,000 an hour - was set up at a time when the company was desperately trying to divert attention away from James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks.

In contrast to say the much-maligned Leveson Inquiry, it is not independent and does not publish evidence on a website for all to see. Nor is it supported by Parliament or Mrs Brooks's friend the Prime Minister.

The only expense claims or other documentary evidence it has handed over to Scotland Yard to date has been that of rank-and-file staff from The Sun. No executives have been reported for authorising any of the "corrupt" payments despite the fact that they would have signed them off.

Odd too that so many senior managers from News Int met leading police officers - as we know from Leveson - yet none of these expense claims were then passed to the Yard.

One principal reason why so many Sun reporters have been getting wake-up calls from the police at 6am is because the MSC, in its wisdom, decided to check all records dating back ten years.

Staff at The Times were told the company was only checking back over the last 12 months. Not exactly fair you might say, but then the MSC is making up all the rules in this particular game.

One could say that the injustices outlined above are hardly down to the police who, after all, are simply doing their job.

Until recently - whether we liked it or not - many journalists would have reluctantly agreed.

But as the arrest count continues to rise there is growing evidence that some officers from Operation Eleveden are becoming increasingly speculative and perhaps even looking to limit free speech and investigation.

Last week's arrest of Sun journalist Neil Millard is a prime example. Neil, 31, was arrested at his home in Croydon in the early hours of the morning. He was driven straight to a police station and left alone in a cell for 13 hours before detectives saw fit to interview him. Again the information which led to his arrest was provided by the MSC.

What is perhaps all the more extraordinary about this particular arrest is that the basis for it was that officers wanted to know if Neil had paid an official for a story he wrote about child killer Jon Venables.

The article was published in March 2010 and revealed how Venables was enjoying a comfortable existence behind bars which included his own 36in TV screen and various board games.

If there isn't a clear public interest in a journalist revealing that Jamie Bulger's killer was getting VIP treatment in jail then what point is there in having investigative journalism? If this story is reason enough for police to arrest a hack then what isn't beyond the reach of Operation Elveden?

The arrest also came despite Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, saying in April that it was important that the public's right to know remained protected.

Introducing a new 17-page guide for prosecutors, Mr Starmer said: "Freedom of expression and the public right to know about important matters of public debate are an essential foundation of our society - but there are limits for those who cross the line into criminality.

"These guidelines will assist prosecutors in striking the right balance between those interests in cases affecting the media.

"Journalists, and those who work with them, are not afforded special status under the criminal law, but the public interest served by their actions is a relevant factor in deciding whether they should be prosecuted in an individual case."

Now either officers from Op Elveden haven't bothered to read the words of Mr Starmer or - as seems more likely - they think its OK to arrest anyone then worry about whether prosecutors throw it out later.

Once upon a time we would have been writing about this kind of authoritarian police approach in the likes of Russia or the Middle East - now it seems the UK is no different.

Journalists are the ones suffering in the short term but it might well be that the public - and their right to know - end up losing out in the longer term.


Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Troll Update

Yesterday TT had a Twitter spat which involved a young journalist called Mic Wright who tweets as @brokenbottleboy.

This is a brief explanation of the background to this row for the benefit of some who only saw the later tweets and misinterpreted the exchange.

For clarity a friend of TT was taking Mr Wright to task over a  direct message he sent to this account back in April suggesting he visit a specific page of a blogger because the latter had written something about TT.

In fact, as it turned out, the exercise was to assist the blogger in trying to trap TT into giving the identity of the account holders away via IP addresses.

After more than an hour of exchanging tweets Mr Wright finally admitted to this yesterday - justifying his actions by stating that he believed TT had made a number of unjustified attacks on others via Twitter.

Of course he is entitled to his opinion - as we all are.

The point, however, remains that instead of engaging with TT and making his feelings known Mr Wright took part in a sting against other journalists.

As one of his supporters said yesterday - IP address investigations are only justified when someone has committed a crime - something that TT wholly concurs with.

All TT is saying is that it is a sad day when journalists start turning on each other - particularly as this particular blogger has a long and dubious track record of bullying and abusing hacks on Twitter.

Indeed the said blogger is currently hounding a former TV production assistant from Question Time who was asked to deal with his complaint about being removed from the show. Despite the fact that she has tweeted that she has left QT and is now working at London 2012 he continues to ridicule her - lately asking if she was fired from her old job.

Earlier the same blogger targeted the respected Italy-based journalist Nick Pisa simply because of a subbing error at a national newspaper office in London which the latter knew nothing about.

Discussing this any further simply gives the blogger the attention he craves. 

TT apologises here to Mr Wright for suggesting that commissioning editors might want to re consider employing him - that was wrong and said in the heat of the moment. However, TT does ask him to perhaps not work against people in his own industry in such an underhand way again.


Saturday, 9 June 2012

Who is @tabloidtroll?

Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere on Twitter Tabloidtroll isn't the work of any one person holding only one set of views.

Indeed, for those who follow the account closely enough - such as the perceptive talkSPORT radio host Mike Graham - you'll see that the tweets from @tabloidtroll are too varied and, in some cases, too contradictory to be coming from the keyboard of a single journalist.

The point of the Twitter account and hopefully this Blog is to give you some insight - assuming you even want one - into what some of the country's tabloid journalists are thinking. The reason why they can't express those thoughts under their own names is fairly obvious - like dealing with some unpleasant truths about those who pay our wages.

It has meant that in the case of one journalist wrongly identified as being Tabloidtroll we haven't been able disprove blatant lies which have been told about him in an instant - which coming out and saying who we are would obviously do.

And without giving too much more away we can tell you that those contributing to this Tweet/Blog come from four very different and distinct tabloid newspapers - giving you unparalleled insights, for example, about what is happening behind the scenes at News International, while also writing about the internal machinations at Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. Among our ranks are both Sunday and Daily newspaper staff of all colours and creeds, and sexes.

And if sometimes we sound angry that is simply because we are bloody angry - not least by the way that some who have reinvented and misrepresented their own limited national newspaper careers claim they are speaking for us, knowing as they do that our newspapers frequently stop those who work on them from speaking out. To be fair it is the rubbish said and written by these "journalists" which persuaded us it was time to talk, albeit in this limited form for now.

And while we don't realistically expect to alter your views the very least we hope to achieve is to entertain you a little. If trying to guess who is behind this account is part of that then so be it - however, it would be nice if the bile written by a handful of idiots about it being an Ad hominem account could end now.

As we all know such accounts are closed down by Twitter in an instant and how many Ad hom's have 2,600 plus followers? Precisely.

The Dark Arts, One Famous Footballer, and What Future For The Media

THE MOST famous footballer in England was marrying his former neighbour and the prospect of not getting some sort of story on the wedding of the decade was too nightmarish to contemplate.

Matters were hardly helped by a magazine buying up exclusive rights to the nuptials for Paul Gascoigne and Sheryl Kyle – with all guests ordered to sign an agreement saying they would not breathe a word to a single living soul.

Unfortunately for us journalists editors want “exclusives not excuses” – we absolutely had to get a line on the wedding and that was that. “They must have a fucking wedding list,” screamed the (female) boss, “Surely that can’t be that hard to get you bloody imbeciles.”

The fact that the same editor had moved up the journalistic ranks without ever bagging an exclusive worthy of the name, or ever stuck her neck out for anything or anyone on the road made no difference. She wanted a story and it was our job to get it – period.

We knew it was time  – in those days every publication newspaper bar none had one – to turn to our so-called “black arts correspondent”. These are the journalists who skirted the law, and very definitely crossed moral and ethical boundaries to get stories which – put quite simply – no one else could.

Stage One was to acquire via his murky contacts the (very) private ex directory number of Paul Gascoigne’s parents  – and the very tricky Stage Two was to sound exactly like Steve McManaman (Yes – really) on the telephone. Stage Three was to hope like hell that we were never caught.

Within two hours a former member of the military’s Special Forces was whispering the home telephone number of Gazza’s Mum to the journalist at the other end of the telephone line. I have no idea how he acquired it because, frankly, I didn’t want to know.

Moments later the landline in the Gazza household was trilling away until it was answered in the chirpy Geordie tones of Gazza’s Mum. “Stevie” McManaman was very apologetic but he had lost the details of the wedding list and would she mind helping him out. Mrs Gascoigne sounded confused, replying that there was no wedding list, and that “Our Paul” said to just get whatever the guests fancied. She had bought him as basket full of silver cutlery from Newcastle’s House of Fraser, she helpfully added.

Stevie apologised, saying that must have slipped his mind but wasn’t able to get off the phone for several minutes as Gazza’s Mum consoled him over England’s unlucky defeat to the “bloody Germans” at Euro 96 two weeks earlier.

That Sunday we ran an exclusive about how Mrs Gascoigne had splashed out hundreds of pounds on silver for her son’s fairytale wedding, helpfully illustrating it with a pic from the store’s range.

No-one complained and a week later we tried Mrs G again, improbably hoping she hadn’t noticed. “Who are you this week?” she guffawed. “Robbie Fowler” before bursting into laughter again and saying she had to go out and do her own shopping.

Thankfully she had seen the funny side and no complaint was received, no excuses had to be offered, and the dark arts continued to be employed whenever normal methods of getting a story failed.

I could relate two dozen other instances of similarly questionable methods being employed on that particular newspaper alone during the same 12 months. To my certain knowledge all other newspapers competing in the same tabloid market were doing likewise. Staff were also frequently interchanging between these papers during this time and taking the blaggers and their own “darks arts” skills with them – and yes that included the broadsheets.

Significantly we are talking about a period which predated Operation Motorman when virtually every newspaper on what was formerly known as Fleet Street was using private eyes and blaggers to illicit personal information, sometimes legally, and sometimes very illegally. Nine years ago the Information Commissioner gave us an almighty slap on the wrist and Editors were told this was to stop or, very simply, reporters would go to jail.

Overnight the blaggers and private eyes who had until then made an extremely good living out of working for the national press found themselves out of work, in some cases switching their allegiances to the very same law firms who now regularly sue newspapers for breaching the privacy of their clients.

As we now know one Sunday newspaper in particular didn’t appear take to take the ICO’s warning seriously, and not only continued to employ very questionable “dark arts” but took getting a story at all costs to its very extreme. The result has been Rupert Murdoch’s company forking out millions of pounds in compensation, and the closure of the News of the World.

Perhaps if we had a journalistic amnesty others might come forward to say they were hacking as well, perhaps not. Indeed it is possible that some journalists still employ blagging but the one thing which I am personally sure of is that they are not going to tell us all about it anytime soon.

Instead we continue to rake up old ground –the most farcical point in Leveson for me was the reporter Sharon Marshall being quizzed about events in her fictional book, including one which was 30 years old. The events of the past, it appears, have to be gone over before the legislators can map out the media’s new future.

The trouble is, for me, is that we are missing the point and missing it horribly here. The issue isn’t how newspapers used blaggers and pulled ex directory number and car registration plates more than a decade ago.

As Mr Justice Leveson has recognised in refusing to enter the Motorman evidence – there is no court in the land which could hold anyone to account for something that happened in 2003, especially when no-one can prove the private eyes were acting on specific instructions from anyone on a newspaper.

The real issue is what is happening on our newspapers now. The alarming decline in journalistic standards where  a local newspaper story can appear in a national word for word after being stolen off the former’s website; the newspapers were inexperienced website staff outnumber the journalists working for the newspaper; how some news sections are being written by 2-3 reporters.

Producing newspapers with smaller less experienced staff is going to lead to greater inaccuracies, lesser pre publication scrutiny, and poorer less interesting reads. We have already seen, for example, that for all their output many bloggers and tweeters lack the creative skills to really interest a wider audience, and frequently make large gaping errors in both the law and privacy.

If that is what we all want then fine – let the newspapers go to the dogs, let their staff go into other industries where their skills are better appreciated, gone never to return.

But please don’t then complain and ask why newspapers are so boring and that we don’t cover anything anymore. Oh and do tell Leveson that’s a far bigger worry than what happened to Gazza back in 1996.