On award-winning journalist Alex Crawford’s comments on citizen journalists


Alex Crawford raises some very difficult issues that the media and politicians have been struggling with for years. The problem is too many senior executives [‘decision makers’ as I often call them] in the mainstream media have not done enough to help themselves or their industry over trust issues.

You can read Alex Crawford’s blogpost here. It was published following her appointment as the first patron of the National Council for the Training of Journalists. The part James Walker for the Press Gazette picked up on was Crawford’s comment on ‘citizen journalists’. You can read that article here.

Declaring my interests

I have to. I run a local Cambridge-based Y-Tube account at https://www.youtube.com/antonycarpen where I film various things including extended council and political meetings. Sometimes local community groups and campaign groups pay me to film meetings. It’s not glamorous work even at the best of times – but it is very important in a place like Cambridge with so much building work going on and money being spent.

Despite the TV dramas, real journalism involves long hours, attending multiple often mind-numbing meetings, and holding those making decisions to account. This is why for all its flaws, the BBC’s local democracy reporter scheme is ever so important. How do I know this? We’re often at the same meetings locally. Furthermore, my video record on several occasions has been used as the source for a number of print and online articles in local media where a professional journalist has not been able to attend. This for me is one of the reasons why it’s better for local councils and public sector bodies to have their own in-house teams to do the filming as a matter of routine.

“Doesn’t that mean in part you’re subsidising what should be being done by paid professionals?”

Of course it does. But if I didn’t do it, nothing would happen. With the rise of new generation of automation, the case for a form of citizens’ or universal basic income in my opinion becomes stronger and stronger. The fact is that at the moment, the media market cannot meet its costs covering all of the institutions that need to be covered. In my experience, the communications plans for many of these institutions – especially when it comes to press releases, has not acknowledged the changed media environment.

“Sounds like the world Alex Crawford is talking about is a very different one to local council sub-committee meetings that no one really wants to go to on a cold rainy November night”

It is. But then that’s why she’s an award-winning journalist with extensive training and experience of working in very hostile environments. I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near such places with my anxiety and mental health history!

“Does your work need to come with a health warning?”

Why shouldn’t it? I’m not trained. Hence why I prefer to use the phrase ‘community reporter’ rather than ‘citizen journalist’ because for me the latter implies some sort of professional training and qualification. The problem Crawford argues is with this new wave of partisan operations, mainly online-based, that are outside the remit of the existing measures of regulation – in particular the very strict ones for the broadcasters when compared with the print press.

But then here’s the problem: The internet, and more importantly, online video has blurred the line between what is published by an ‘audio and moving picture’ broadcaster such as the BBC as was, and a traditional print press operation such as your red-top tabloids in the 1980s. Both The Guardian and The Telegraph have been producing short video clips for some time now. At what point does such coverage fall into the remit of OfCom, and the rules about party political neutrality?

Broadcast media setting a poor example to the rest of us

Here’s Laura Kuenssberg – mentioned in Crawford’s blog on the receiving end of a critic who has asked her to analyse a comment/statement made by one of the candidates to become Prime Minister.

In the run up to the EU referendum, not enough of the broadcast media were robust enough in fact-checking and holding politicians to account for untrue statements that they made. In late 2018, Robert Peston of ITN criticised the BBC for this very point.

“The problem with the BBC, during the campaign, it put people on with diametrically opposed views and didn’t give their viewers and listeners any help in assessing which one was the loony and which one was the genius,” he said.

“I do think that they went through a period of just not being confident enough. Impartial journalism is not giving equal airtime to two people one of whom says the world is flat and the other one says the world is round. That is not balanced, impartial journalism.”

So…where did that lack of confidence come from? The roots go all the way back to the Iraq War, and the Hutton Review of 2003. It cost Greg Dyke, then the highly regarded Director General of the BBC, his job. Anti-war protesters were furious and called the whole thing a whitewash. A year later when I joined the civil service I would find out that as an institution a number of the senior civil servants were furious with themselves over failing to give the late Dr David Kelly the necessary support in the face of one hell of a media firestorm. Award-winning investigative journalist Tom Mangold’s extended account here is worth a read.

Since then until just after the 2017 general election when Jeremy Corbyn did unexpectedly better, and Theresa May the Prime Minister unexpectedly far worse than anticipated, (combined with the US presidential elections shortly before), I’ve felt that the lines of questioning from BBC Politics as an institution, along with the tone, has been unnecessarily timid. It’s only been as the reality of trying to deliver Brexit has hit the Conservative Party – and the failure of the official opposition that is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to take advantage of this (as reflected by the local council elections and the European Parliament elections in 2019) that has given the likes of Emma Barnett, Emily Maitlis and Mishal Hussein the opportunity to make some of the highest office holders of state look very, very small in political stature and utterly unfit to hold the office that they do or once did hold.

“It’s not true! It’s simply not true!” Emma Barnett to a backbench Tory MP.

Above – one-too-many interviews like that.

Above – Jenni Russell of The Times tearing into Theresa May and Boris Johnson

Emily Maitlis in ferocious form against blundering former Cabinet Minister Damian Green MP who doesn’t seem to know what has hit him. Excellent cross-examination.

Is it enough to undo the damage of the previous decade or so?

That can’t be ‘undone’ as such because we’re in very different technological times. The danger here are the echo chambers – and the Pro-Leave Right has been far more effective at producing slick media operations than the Pro-Corbyn Left, but the latter has got enough online media outlets to produce enough content for some of its online readers to ignore the mainstream. The problem then is what happens when two very different realities of the same event are presented to different audiences? (Obama discussed this in late 2018 here).

Separating professional journalist from media institution that employs them

One of the things Crawford raised was the criticism and abuse that she got for being an employee of Sky News, part of Murdoch’s empire. What’s easy to forget is just how important UK broadcasting laws are on impartiality at the other end. Here’s Murdoch Sr back in 2007 on impartiality rules to the House of Lords. It’s what allows very talented journalists to maintain their reputation at ‘controversially-owned’ media organisations. Given Labour’s troubled history with large media organisations over the past century, it wouldn’t surprise me if a Corbyn-led Government brought in much tighter rules around media ownership.

The rise of fact checking

One thing that has helped not just the public but broadcast journalists in live interviews is the rise of independent fact checkers, such as the charity Full Fact. (Again, I declare an interest in having worked voluntarily with a couple of people in their team in years gone by). They now live-fact check events such as Prime Minister’s Questions and programmes such as Question Time. Channel 4 has its fact checking team here, and the BBC has a more in-depth Reality Check on specific stories as opposed to stats alone.

On journalists not fighting each other, but on taking on those that spread disinformation

One of the most significant issues Crawford takes on are the editors (and indirectly their proprietors). In the case of regional newspapers, too many historical brands have been ruined by the drive for clickbait – Trinity Mirror, now Reach PLC being one of the worst offenders.

The problem for new career journalists in particular with the above model is articles such as the above end up staying on their record.

190519 CambsLive Clickbait.jpeg

I don’t know what their obsession is with sex, poo, and mouldy food but it inevitably means that public interest reporting (as opposed to clickbait-for-the-public uploading) gets drowned out. This matters because it makes it harder for people to stay informed about decisions taking place in their local area. In Cambridge, one of the most important functions local newspapers carry out is informing the public of large planning applications. Very few people otherwise have the time to find out how to work the council’s planning portal. Hence my attempt at a guide here.

Training for citizen journalists?

The Centre for Community Journalism at Cardiff University is here. There are a number of people I bounce off in the community journalism field. One of the reasons it took off in Cardiff is because the London-based media all too often ignores news happening in Wales (and outside London generally) or doesn’t understand how the application of some policies announced in Westminster will have a different application in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The border issue in Ireland over Brexit is one such symptom of England-based politicians being ill-informed of the implications.

Yes, I’d love to do some training, but as with more than a few hyper-local types like me, we’re single people operators. Hence applying for funding or support isn’t so straight forward. Not least with zero self-confidence in my case, extensive application processes don’t feel like they are worth the effort.