Updated: May 10, 2020
I went to my first Hacks/Hackers event last night in London with colleague Helen Roxburgh. It was pretty packed out, mainly I guess because Simon Kelner was speaking about the Journalism Foundation. But BBC head of technology Rupert Brun, given the task of speaking first, also provided an entertaining and thought-provoking contribution on the future of audio. I would’ve liked to explore further the argument about whether, because people accept poorer quality in return for greater accessibility, that necessarily means they wouldn’t like better quality. It’s an issue which has a wider resonance.
Which leads to Simon Kelner’s contribution and a similar point. A few people said later on that they were underwhelmed by Kelener’s contribution, but to be fair he was invited to pitch the Foundation’s work and did just that. But he began by pushing a point of view that I’ve banged on about a fair bit on this blog. He said: “Anyone with a phone is now a journalist”. Helen asked, in what I’ll admit was a far less confrontational style than I would have, if in the light of this he could tell us what qualities he looked for in a journalist if “anyone” was now one.
Kelner immediately qualified his comment, saying that what he really meant was that anyone with phone “could be” a journalist. He should be more careful when defining the debate, but he’s not the only person to sloppily put forward a view that is, in my opinion, extremely damaging.
He had also talked about a lack of confidence in journalism sparked by the Leveson hearings and the surrounding revelations. He is not wrong that the trade is currently under attack, but pushing this nonsensical view that anyone is a journalist is another manifestation of this lack of confidence. As Kelner admitted, there is something to the trade of journalism – in fact, that’s exactly what the foundation he heads is attempting to impart.
I’m not pretending that defining what journalism is is easy. When I debated the issue with Freelance Unbound on this blog nailing a definition proved trickier than either of us thought. But, as Kelner admitted, there are some qualities that distinguish journalism from communication. This is, as I’ve argued before, not an elitist argument. But it’s an important definition. There is more to journalism than simply publishing. The great change that we are all dealing with is that anyone with access to technology can publish. But knowing why it is important to protect sources, to balance debate where necessary, to check facts and establish authority… these are just some of the things which distinguish journalism from communication.
I don’t accept that is an elitist argument, any more than I would agree that it is an argument that says that journalism is better or worse than other forms of published work. But we need to recognise that journalism is, or maybe more accurately should be, something which holds to specific values which are important. That’s not to say it always does, but this idea that merely by tweeting or by taking a photo, someone becomes a journalist has to be resisted.
This week at the Leveson hearings, Ian Hislop mounted a passionate and informed defence of journalism. He pointed out that the wrongdoings uncovered were against the law, and that if the law had been enforced there would be no discussion of regulating the press. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” he said. We risk doing the same if we subscribe to the idea that “anyone is a journalist”. Bringing new people into the trade and widening opportunity means not just learning new ways of doing things for people who have worked in the trade successfully, but also passing on best practice to people entering the trade. We need to take the best of what has been built up and combine with the best of new ideas to make a whole that is better than what existed before.
I suspect that many media professionals lazily parrot the line that “everyone is a journalist now” when really they would admit that there are some industry tenets we need to cherish. And one of those, ironically enough in the circumstances, surely has to be defining our terms accurately.
• I was also interested to see that John Tusa was listed as one of the patrons of the Journalism Foundation. Tusa is head of the governing body of the London College of Communication, and held the position when the college awarded Rebekah Brooks an honorary degree. Budding journalists, and those more established, may find it interesting to ponder the implications.