BBC news head ‘launches’ journalism MA in Suffolk

Helen Boaden, BBC’s head of news, speaking at University Campus Suffolk last evening, asked the audience the predictable question about their main sources of news. Was it newspapers, television, radio or online?


It is a question I have asked new students many times, but in pondering my response I realised convergence has gone so far that there is no longer a clear-cut answer.


Often my television is delivered by iPlayer (it is just another channel on the TV) watched from the comfort of an armchair.


I buy a printed newspaper, but I also subscribe to it as an iPad app which is more convenient to read at the breakfast table.


The distinction between lean-forward and lean-back media is disappearing. Both iPlayer and iPad app are delivered by the internet but the distinction is much less clear than it used to be.


In the introduction to Helen Boaden’s talk, Professional Journalists Wanted, it was mentioned that she had been named as a likely contender for the job of BBC director general in the Daily Telegraph.


Back home, I checked online to see what they were saying. I also saw that the Guardian was leading on the story that the search was on for a successor for Mark Thompson who is expected to step down at the end of the this year or early next.


In this case my primary source of the news was a talk at UCS, backed up by the internet and expanded by reading a printed newspaper this morning.


Ms Boaden, who went to school in Ipswich and Colchester, was effectively launching a new Journalism MA which still has to gain formal approval. That should come in early March with the first students enrolled in September.


As a new course at a new centre of higher eduction, the UCS MA will establish a programme specifically designed for convergent media, without the traditional separate courses for newspaper, magazine, broadcast and online journalism which continue to afflict some of the long-established journalism departments.


Ms Boaden painted a picture of the requirement for multi-skilled journalists with flexible approaches to where and how they should work.


User generated content (BBC jargon for what some call citizen journalism) was of growing importance but it required skilled journalists to assess it before broadcast. She gave the example of mobile phone video submitted after wrecking of the Costa Concordia much of which was filmed on different ships in different places.

Murdoch looses on social media, but wins even more power in UK

As Rupert Murdoch gets the go ahead to take over the whole of Sky TV, he lost more than half-a-billion dollars on the sale of MySpace, one of his bigger mistakes.

Even as the financial markets and media analysts hailed News Corps purchase of the social networking site for $580 million in 2005, others were questioning whether MySpace could thrive in the Murdock culture.

In the fast moving, innovative world of the internet, the business grew at first but then stalled, being overtaken by Facebook and then other newcomers. New owners, Specific Media, who have brought in Justin Timberlake as part owner, paid just £35m.

The same cultural objections do not apply to his prosed purchase of the 61% of shy he does not already own. He is well-versed in TV ownership.

But the price he will have to pay the other Sky shareholders has risen since his first proposal and a figure of up to £10bn is now mooted. Can it really be worth that much? Or will he have to be even more aggressive to make the profits needed?

There are serious concerns about the huge share of British media that will be held by an American citizen or Australian origin after culture secretary Jeremy Hunt gives the go-ahead for the purchase.

The Financial Times, in an editorial, sees the requirement that Sky news is demerged as a small price for News Corp to pay for being allowed to control 37% of UK newspaper distribution and 35% of television.

The FT says:

Mr Murdoch has in the past accepted constraints to protect the editorial independence of Times Newspapers and the Wall Street Journal after he bought them. Neither was effective.

But even if the machinery works as defined – a big if given its complexity – Sky News will still enjoy a hollow form of independence. The reasons for this were best put in a lecture given by Mr Murdoch’s son, James, two years ago. The only guarantor of independence, he observed then, was profit.

Murdoch’s record in British journalism, including the way he has used his media power to influence politics and, if some of the allegations about phone hacking are true, the police, suggest he should not have been allowed to extend his power.

Offcom has urged Mr Hunt to strengthen media ownership rules to provide greater protection for plurality. If he does this, it will be too late to role back the dominance of Rupert Murdoch.

And will Murdoch use his cross-media dominance to attack the BBC, frightening politicians into further reigning-in of the Corporation? It is one way of increasing the profitability of Sky, but it would be very, very bad for Britain and all those of us who do not subscribe to Sky.

Sources: Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times.


iPad: Al Jazeera, yes; BBC Radio Suffolk, no

I love my iPad. Couch blogging has become a reality. And the new BBC iPlayer app is brilliant but….

Yesterday evening I wanted to listen to Radio Suffolk’s any questions on the county council cuts. I could not find the station on the digital radio in the kitchen where I would be cooking at the time.

So the iPad would be the solution. No, the iPlayer which generally works very well, refused to play Radio Suffolk because it required Flash.

So, I was only able to hear snatches of the discussion, which so far as I could tell was predictable.

But it seemed strange that I have been able to follow events in Cairo, watching Al Jazeera on the iPad (use Livestation to watch on an iPad), but not something happening 12 miles away in Ipswich.

Social media and protest in Egypt and England

Until last night it was, if not unthinkable, unsayable to draw parallels between what is happening in Egypt, with events in England. During a Tonight programme focusing on Egypt, but considering the history of revolution, Jeremy Paxman said it was perhaps “inappropriate” to bring in the protests against cuts in this country.

Yet they did, in a report by Paul Mason. A common factor, he suggested, was young people with a university education and facing unemployment. They were reacting to a broken pledge that if they became well educated they would be better off than their parents. (It seems seems this segment, or something like it, was originally planned for last Friday. Look at Paul Mason’s blog for more on this.)

The British link has to be seen in context of the whole programme discussing Egypt and the record of revolutions. It included historians Simon Sebag-Montefiore and Simon Schama. You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer for some time.

While the pattern of revolution may not change much, one thing is different now. That is the horizontal nature of protest, loose coalitions of people without obvious leaders.

These two factors: youth alienated over education and jobs, and horizontal organisation through social media has been clearly seen in the tuition fees protests in England.

The library protests, while polite and peaceful, show unmistakable signs of horizontal organisation through social media with the use of email, twitter (#savelibraries), Facebook and blogs.  No obvious leaders have emerged either nationally or locally here in Suffolk, but there is cohesion and common purpose.

British governments have long been terrified of losing control of the streets. They have adopted gradual change to avoid revolution, probably since the Civl War, three-and-a-half centuries ago.

There was no domino-effect here from the French Revolution, Chartism in the 19th century did not turn into a revolution, nor did the General Strike in 1926. Margaret Thatcher fell after poll tax riots 20 years ago. John Major then replaced poll tax with council tax.

In the 19th century Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police with control of the streets of the capital as one of the principal reasons. He also adopted gradualism when he switched from opposition to Catholic emancipation to getting it through parliament when he realised the old policy was untenable.

No one is seriously predicting a revolution in England except for some Marxist and Trotskyist survivors from another age. Yet, I feel sure that in Downing Street developments are being watched carefully and a Plan B is being prepared whether or not they will admit it. Gradualism (that means concessions) may yet rule if protests become loud enough.

The bear that never was

All Fools day has come early this year with The Telegraph and The Sun among those hoaxed by sightings of a bear in Rendlesham forest, Suffolk, previously best known as a landing place for aliens from another world.

The East Anglian Daily Times which ran the story yesterday, today revealed that it was all a stunt by a theatre company which is putting on an open-air production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (stage direction “Exit, pursued by bear”) this summer.

In 1980 American servicemen from the Bentwaters air base in the forest followed weird lights and found marks on the ground. The story was of an unexplained flying object but some believed they had encountered an alien craft and its landing site. In 2003 the BBC claimed it was a hoax by a USAF security policeman who used the lights of his patrol car.

Jon Snow starts blogging

Jon Snow, the main presenter of Channel’s evening news, has started a blog. There is nothing particularly insightful or revelatory so far but I have great hopes for the thoughts of the presenter of what is probably the best UK evening news programme.

Dispatches on Islamophobia in the press

A story in the Independent today suggests that Dispatches on Channel 4 tonight will be well worth watching. The programme, on the third anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, is called, “I shouldn’t happen to a Muslim”.

The Independent story is from a pamphlet by Peter Oborne, who presents Dispatches this evening, and James Jones. It tells of a Sun splash about a “Muslim hate mob” which had daubed obscenities over a house in Datchet, near Windsor.

The Sun suggested local Muslims were waging a vendetta against four British soldiers who hoped to rent the house after returning from Afghanistan.

But, says Oborne, there was no Muslim involvement of any kind. Eventually the Sun published a correction:

Following our report “Hounded out” about a soldiers’ home in Datchet, Berkshire, being vandalised by Muslims, we have been asked to point out no threatening calls were logged at Combermere Barracks from Muslims and police have been unable to establish if any faith or religious group was responsible for the incident. We are happy to make this clear.

Dispatches also commissioned an examination of the reporting of Muslim issues. What is included in the Independent story makes very sad reading.

I have no doubt that the coverage of Muslims and Muslim affairs in Britain is biased and negative.
But politicians must accept some of the blame. The Tory MP for Shipley in Yorkshire was quoted in the Sun story saying: “If there’s anybody who should fuck off, it’s the Muslims who are doing this kind of thing. Police should pull out the stops to track down these vile thugs.”

Why a Yorkshire MP should want to comment on an incident in Berkshire I can only guess

Media failed to warn of house price inflation dangers

Evan Davis has raised an issue of huge importance to journalism: to what extent were we complicit in events leading up to the credit crunch. He was talking at the Radio Festival in Glasgow yesterday, but a Google News search suggests only the Guardian and the Press Gazette reported the event.

Davis, the former BBC economics editor who now presents Radio 4’s Today, said:

I do ask whether we did our best to warn people of impending problems during the upswing of the [economic] cycle… We did warn them but didn’t warn sufficiently loudly or clearly, and might have warned a little too early.

By reporting every house price survey the media may have helped inflate the market, he said

Very simply, if house prices over a period of years are rising considerably faster than incomes something nasty is going to happen. The arithmetic is easy and it shows that eventually mortgage repayments for someone buying a house would overtake their income. That, of course, is impossible and the market crashes long before that.

Clearly the media did not do enough to explain the dangers of house price inflation. But neither did the central bank, the financial regulator nor the government.

The boom brought a mass of advertising that made the property and personal finance sections of newspapers fat. For a troubled industry it was a lifeline and you are hardly going to write warning articles to keep  apart the ads for new mortgage deals including ones that offered more than the price of the house.

In commercial TV much the same applied, particularly at Channel 4 which produced so many programmes not just about buying homes but by investing to make money through buy-to-let and property development.

BBC local web video could boost local news diversity

Peter Preston in his Observer media column today writes about the BBC’s plans for local on-demand web sites with up to 20 minutes a day of video and the opposition from the regional newspaper giants. “It is,” he says, “a baroque row.” Not sure about the adjective but I see what he is getting at.

He writes of “hyper-local internet video sites which conflict directly with the sites that Johnston and Trinity (among others) are creating as their own escape paths to a digital future”.

That is surely a part of it but it seems to me to be more about preserving the monopolies the big groups have built up over the years by buying daily and weekly newspapers across the land. The comments of David Newell, director of the Newspaper Society, the owner’s union, quoted in Hold the Front Page, bear this out:

The BBC should not spend public money duplicating local news services already provided by existing local media companies. This was acknowledged by the BBC when it withdrew its plans for ultra-local television last year.

The BBC’s 60 local websites already compete head-to-head with regional newspaper websites and its expansion plans, combined with its cross-promotional power, threaten to steal away audiences and undermine the ability of publishers to pursue their own digital development strategies, which are so important to the future of local media in the UK.

Nationally newspapers have competed with the BBC since the start of news on the web. The result is that we have some of the best news websites in the world. A little more competition in the regions would be welcome.

Peter Preston uses the term “hyper-local” while others have used “ultra-local”. The BBC itself uses an unadorned “local” for its plan to set up sites in 60 areas across the UK. They would serve, on average, populations of 1 million each.

The one they are planning for Suffolk, where I live, would be aimed at a population approaching 700,000. It is an area over much of which Archant has a virtual monopoly of print news. The BBC would aim at an area roughly the same as the circulation area of Archant’s East Anglian Daily Times.

The way the cost of the service is being presented in newspapers is typified by Preston’s phrase: “Ofcom letting the BBC spend £68m of licence fee money.” This is for a period of three years, and spending would reach £23 million in 2011/12. As journalists we play with phrases for emotion power. From my perspective, the sites would cost an average of £350,000 a year, the cost of a modest family home.

It is worth going back to the source material and looking at BBC’s proposal. Done properly, the scheme could help make local independent news websites more viable. Most of the local content would be made available for embedding (with BBC branding) in both commercial and not-for-profit sites to supplement their own coverage. The BBC also says it would link to coverage by other local news providers.

For anyone who is thinking of news sites which are really ultra-local this is promising. But I do feel their proposal to spend about £800,000 a year by 2012/3 on buying video news from external providers is not nearly enough. It works out at little more than an average £13,ooo freelance budget for each site: the price of a modest family car.

Age is not wearying media people

Peter Preston points out that while Sir Menzies Campbell (66), departed from the Lib Dem leadership because he would be too old to fight an election at 68, media people go on.

In his Observer column today he says Michael Grade (64) is bringing back Trevor McDonald (68) to present News at Ten. It might, Preston suggests make a topic for discussion on Question Time presented by David Dimbleby, 69 today.

Peter Preston, is older than any of them at 69 and five months. Long may he continue to write.

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