Archive for July, 2011

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.   Donald Rumsfeld

So the fall out from The News of the World (NotW) phone hacking scandal continues with resignations and recriminations breaking almost every hour on the hour. But these fast paced developments are only helping to distract us from a fundamental truth: that those involved don’t seem to know anything about who did what, when and to whom and have resigned rather than accept any responsibility. So let’s take stock here and think this through without the real names of the protagonists and the sensation surrounding their involvement to distract us. Let’s focus instead on roles and responsibilities.

In the past few weeks, the following actors have spoken about the scandal and here is what they had to say:

  • Mr Burns, Chairman and CEO of News Corp:  Knew nothing but terribly sorry about it all.

Mr Burns? Man on the verge of a total meltdown?

  • Mr Burns Jnr, Chairman and CEO of News Corp (Europe and Asia): Knew nothing but obviously concerned.
  • Mickey Mouse, ex-Chief Executive Dow Jones/Wall St Journal: Knew nothing during his time as Chief Executive, News International, newspaper division of News Corp. Worth pointing out here that this was for twelve years (1995-2007) – quite a long time to know nothing about what’s going on in the organization you head up.
  • Marge Simspon, ex-Chief Executive, News International: Knew nothing but upset and appalled at revelations; was editor of NotW when Millie Dowler’s phone was hacked but was on holiday at the time. (General Ratko Mladic might try that one out next time he appears before the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague).

"Srebrenica, your Honour? Umm I know nothing about it. I was on holiday at the time!"

  • Malcolm Tucker, ex-spin doctor-in-chief for PM David Cameron: Knew nothing of phone hacking under his watch as editor of the NotW (succeeding Marge Simpson from 2003).
  • George Dixon, ex-Chief Constable, London Met Police: Knew nothing but takes the rap for hiring right dodgy geeza (ex-executive, NotW) as PR adviser.

    Allo allo allo! What's all this then?

  • Other minor actors in the drama who worked as editors or executives for News International: Knew nothing about anything at anytime but fatally run over by oncoming, driverless train. Police verdict: inconclusive evidence to press charges.
  • Successive British Prime Ministers: Knew nothing and asked no questions as they fell over themselves to please Mr Burns and his gang for the past 30 years.
  • Successive police investigations: Knew some known knowns and even some unknown knowns but not enough evidence to press charges. But have suddenly developed a set and arrested Marge Simpson just as she’s about to face Commons Select Committee to answer serious questions about phone hacking during her tenure as editor of NotW. Probably means she can justifiably decline to answer on the basis of it being part of an ongoing police investigation.
  • Leading editors, journalists and media and journalism academics in the UK: They, too, knew more than they cared to admit; now having to seriously rethink all those nice things they’ve written and/or lectured about Mr Burns and his media empire.
  • Nick Davies, investigative journalist, The Guardian: Knew an awful lot because he worked hard to dig it out and wasn’t afraid to report it. Nice one.

So there you have it. All these lurid revelations yet most of the principal actors in the drama didn’t know anything about them. Astonishing.

And finally…Given that the Nuremberg Defence is where war criminals claim they were only following orders, what are we witnessing now amid this, one of the most serious political crises in recent British history?

How about “The Wapping Defence”? I don’t know and can’t recollect, your Honour.

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There’s a big academic conference coming up in September at Cardiff School of Journalism on the Future of Journalism. The call for papers has long passed and the draft programme (available here) was published before the NotW phone hacking scandal and the closure of the paper on Thursday afternoon (7 July). However, I have no doubt that at least some of the papers on the draft schedule will need to undergo revision in light of these recent developments.

But more importantly, the conference looks like an excellent opportunity for the Journalism Studies community in the UK to rethink not just the whole debate around the role and nature of journalism in culture, society and economy but to also reconsider the relatively recent paradigm shift in journalism education in UK universities: from an academic orientation (as a sub-discipline of classic, critical media studies) to a vocational focus and the proliferation of accredited courses that that has brought with it.

Journalism studies: the critical paradigm vindicated?

Over the past 20 years or more, Journalism Studies research and teaching has been dominated by two clashing paradigms: the critical, pessimistic perspective that sees journalism, as a form and a profession, to be in crisis – politically, economically and culturally; and the pluralist, optimistic perspective that celebrates the death of deference in journalism in the face of power and status and plays down the corrosive influence of market forces on journalistic independence. After years of being on the back foot in this debate, has the critical paradigm been vindicated by the hacking scandal and related revelations of corruption in the journalist-source relationship? By the economic crisis that has befallen the journalism “industries”? By the challenge of new media and the so-called “citizen journalism” that they make possible? And, conversely, does the pluralist paradigm carry credible weight any longer? Is it time for serious revision? I think it is and hopefully the Future of Journalism conference will provide some space to begin debate and discussion on these important questions for the discipline.

Journalism education and the shift to vocationalism

The conference must also address the parallel shift in journalism education at university level, that from an intellectually based relationship between theory and practice to the increasing emphasis on vocational training and industry accreditation.

At present, I am an academic under pressure to put my very successful, undergraduate degree forward for accreditation by the journalism “industries” and, and here’s the really difficult bit, SkillSet “approval”. Why? Because that’s how it’s going in the FE sector and so therefore, the mad logic of the market goes, we need to come down to their level just to compete.

Now, the NCTJ and SkillSet are not concerned with prescribing academic content on the courses they approve, just so long as these courses meet certain practical/professional benchmarks. This is somewhat disingenuous because in order to do that it’s necessary for a course director to redress the balance of content in favour of practical/professional learning outcomes. Not enough practice modules on your course? Then out goes one of your academic modules. Journalism History maybe? Or Sociology of Journalism? The Journalism Dissertation even? And in goes shorthand, online journalism or investigative journalism in its place.

My course is a Major option that enables students to combine with minor options in subjects like History, English, Photography, International Development and Marketing. Employers like graduates with a wee bit extra, you see, but even from my own point of view as a teacher, it’s good to see journalism essays and dissertations that are informed by a wider knowledge base. But industry accreditation and vocationalism, and the bogus rhetoric of “employability” that underwrites this shift in journalism education, militate against the development of just such well rounded, intelligent graduates who might actually have an edge over journalism trainees in a very adverse job market.

The shift to vocationalism and the rhetoric of employability have also had a negative impact on the balance of staff on journalism courses, with increasing numbers of former journalists employed to deliver increasing amounts of practice content. I don’t have any hard evidence to hand to back this up at the moment but I would guess that the majority of such staff, good and valuable colleagues as they are, do not carry out research in or teach critical journalism studies. So what long-term impact will all this have on the discipline in terms of teaching and research? I really don’t know but I’m not terribly optimistic it will be a good one, not even after running my eyes over the very broad range of interesting and relevant research papers on offer at the Future of Journalism conference.

While I think it’s encouraging to see such scholarship alive and well now in 2011,  I guess what I’m leading up to here is a call for a thorough debate about not just the future of journalism in the UK but also the long term future of Journalism Studies and journalism education in our universities. Any colleagues out there agree?

Just been to DIY superstore, B&Q, and had this rather Kafka-esque encounter:

[Cue theme tune to The Third Man – Anton Karas – Harry Lime Theme]

Are you The Man That Knows?

AA: [Approaches man with clipboard who looks like he knows] Hello. I’m looking for a set of new doors and….

The Man That Knows: [Points to the right] They’re all over there at the end.

AA: Yes, I just looked but I have a couple of questions.

The Man That Knows: Yes?

AA: First of all, do you deliver?

The Man That Knows: Oh certainly, sir.

AA:  Excellent. And will you install the doors as well?

The Man That Knows: No.

AA: Oh. Is there a tradesman you can recommend maybe?

The Man That Knows: No. Company policy you see. It’s in case we recommend someone and they do a bad job.

AA: [Crestfallen] Oh.

The Man That Knows: Though we do have a carpenter in-store.

AA: [Perking up again] Ah! Can I book him then?

The Man That Knows: No. Company policy you see. It’s in case he does a bad job. We know he won’t do a bad job because he’s very good. But company policy, sir.

AA: Yes. Just in case he doesn’t, right?

The Man That Knows: Yes sir. He’s very good though.

AA: [Crestfallen again]

The Man That Knows: You could always talk to him and come to a private arrangement but that would be totally between you and him. It would have nothing to do with B&Q.

AA: [Perking up again]: Oh of course. So what’s his name?

The Man That Knows: [Looking right and left] Sorry. Can’t tell you that. Company policy, sir. We are not allowed to give out staff details.

AA: [Looking at the name tag on his coat] Not even a name, Chris?

The Man That Knows: [Solemn shake of head.] You’ve just missed him anyway. He’s gone for the rest of the day.

AA: [Moving away] Okay. Well never mind then. I’ll try somewhere else.

The Man That Knows: He’ll be in on Sunday, though. You can talk to him then.

AA: But how will I know who to ask for if I don’t know his name?

The Man That Knows: Just ask for the carpenter. Or if I’m there, I’ll nod you in his direction.

You dirty rat! Tell me who The Carpenter is or it's no deal!

AA: [Speechless. Heading quickly for exit]

The Man That Knows: [Calling after me] But I didn’t say that. Yeah?

AA: Oh okay. Think I’ll still try somewhere else.

The Man That Knows: Sorry about that sir. Company policy.

AA: Company policy to lose business?

The Man That Knows: [Shrugs] Nothing to do with me sir. And by the way!

AA: Yes?

The Man That Knows: We didn’t have this conversation ok?

AA: Don’t worry. Unlike Arnie, I won’t be back.


I remember getting a ribbing a few years ago from two colleagues in journalism studies about my political objections to Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. As it happened, they were also practicing journalists working for the Sunday Times and thought my views prejudiced and anti-academic. How could I teach my students the about the “newspaper industries” with such a subjective, political position on the biggest media conglomerate in the UK and Ireland? With tongue in cheek, I explained that my objections to the Murdoch empire are not as an academic but as a staunch Liverpool fan keen to maintain the boycott of the Sun on Merseyside. But it was clear that they simply could not see my problem with the popular press in Britain today and that they disapproved of me bringing it into the lecture theatre.

And there’s the problem right there and it’s not atypical of media and journalism studies on these islands. The rapid expansion of journalism training courses at university level – postgraduate and now increasingly undergraduate – has changed the focus of the discipline from a critical study of the news media in society to a rather uncritical relationship with journalism as an “industry” that accredits journalism training courses to produce “industry ready” graduates.

As a consequence of this shift from academic study to training, a teaching discipline once dominated by traditional academics in sociology and media studies is now mainly populated by former journalists who simply deliver skills and refrain from encouraging students to ask critical questions about the nature and role of the profession (or rather industry) they want to enter. This is not a conspiracy and there are always good exceptions to the rule but we now have a discipline populated by sheep in wolves’ clothing, to borrow a phrase from Robert Fisk. And if this is the prevailing philosophy in journalism teaching then we shouldn’t be too surprised, I suppose, if our “industry ready” graduates reproduce it in the newsroom. I am a hack, therefore I hack…so to speak.

But the colleagues I do wonder about are those who are not former journalists; colleagues who have published books and journal articles about journalism but who still adopt the rhetoric of the market when approaching the study of journalism. How will they see the Murdoch empire now amid the continuing phone hacking scandal at The News of the World? I would imagine they will present it to their students and their peers as an “interesting case study” in the debate about newspaper regulation and the extent to which the Press Complaints Commission has failed in its brief to halt the wildest excesses of rampant “tabloid journalism”. They might encourage students to conclude in seminars and essays that The News of the World scandal shows that sometimes journalism can get things very wrong and that sometimes some journalists behave badly. And perhaps they might put things into “perspective” and declare that in the main British journalism is among the best in the world.

That’s all fine and reasonable…to a point. I’ve often taken such an approach in lectures and seminars but I go much further than that. For the hacking scandal at The News of the World isn’t just a question of journalism law, ethics and regulation. To think of it exclusively on those terms is to limit proper understanding of what this scandal tells us about newspapers – what they are and how they work in a free market.

Why did News of the World journalist hack into mobile phones on such a scale? Because they could – no one told them otherwise. Why not? Because scandal and sensation sells newspapers and editors and journalists in the British press are under immense pressure to deliver profit to their masters. Why did they get away with it for so long? Because the police turned a blind eye. And why did they do that? Because the police are prime newspaper sources and many police officers take payment from journalists for information. As for the government and parliament, we’ve got lots of outrage and condemnation. So will they now finally act to curb the power of the Murdoch press? Will they now block the transfer of BSkyB into the total control of the Murdoch empire? Somehow I don’t think so.

I could go on but the point is this: newspapers and television in a free market do not work in isolation. They operate as part of a political economy, a network of political and economic relationships ultimately governed by the profit motive. So let no colleague in journalism and media studies tell me anymore that I’m just an old leftie academic who hasn’t moved on with the times. Let them not preach to me about ethics and law and point me to the Press Complaints Commission as proof that our newspapers are properly regulated. Let them not wax lyrical to me about media pluralism and consumer choice.

Perhaps some day long ago at a dull conference on media pluralism, The News of the World hacked their brains and deleted their memory of Lenin’s old maxim on freedom of the press, written nearly one hundred years ago but which still stands true today? That the freedom of the press means “the freedom for the rich to publish and for the capitalists to control the newspapers, a practice which in all countries, including even the freeest, (has) produced a corrupt press(1917).

I’ll never tire telling my students that. And I’ll never apologize for it either.