Churnalism matters

JOURNALISTS' traditional protestation that we stand outside the stories we report is wearing thin as a protection, former BBC correspondent in Gaza Alan Johnston told a packed seminar on "new threats to media freedom" organised by the NUJ's London Freelance Branch with the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom on 26 January. In his face-to-face meeting with the leader of the group that kidnapped him he was asked whether he was "a crusader like George Bush": he replied that the average crusader probably wouldn't spend years telling the stories of people trapped in Gaza's refugee camps and was told he had made "a pretty speech" but it wouldn't get him out.

Peter Wilby (left) with Granville Williams, Chris Frost, Victoria Brittain  and Lester Holloway:
Photo © Pennie Quinton
Peter Wilby (left) with Granville Williams, Chris Frost, Victoria Brittain and Lester Holloway

Alan thanked, once more, those in the room - at the NUJ's HQ - who had helped secure his release, and paid tribute to the more than 250 Iraqi journalists and fixers killed since the latest war started.

Back in the UK journalism is more under threat from ninja bean- counters than armed jihadis. NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear described the "churnalism" against which reporters on the Milton Keynes Citizen are striking: they are tasked with churning out so many stories that they can leave their desks for just a couple of hours a week actually to report. Like other speakers, he promoted Nick Davies' new book Flat Earth News, on the "mass production of ignorance".

David Crouch, Deputy News Editor of the FT and of Media Workers Against the War pointed out that there had been almost no coverage of a huge battle for Musa Qala in Helmand Province of Afghanistan in December. Was it timed so the Ministry of Defence could announce the town had fallen just as Gordon Brown arrived? They provided a string of good-news stories, with a Taliban leader changing sides, which had to be corrected.

Sometime Independent and New Statesman editor Peter Wilby observed that "by some coincidence all of Murdoch's editors decided they were for the Iraq war and are broadly Eurosceptic - but the most worrying thing is that he's a natural monopolist who doesn't compete on quality but attempts to achieve a dominant position" by force of cash - "by another coincidence all the Murdoch newspapers constantly rubbish Sky's competitor the BBC."

Then there are the UK's libel laws - but it'd cost too much to legal the salacious tales leading solicitor Mark Stephens had to tell.

The conclusion? Still, 120 years after William Morris engraved the slogan on the Social Democratic Federation membership card, Dear declared that we must "educate, agitate, organise".

We plan to produce an extended written report online, including freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke's account of being given an hour to read 2000 "offers of hospitality" and the concern of Index on Censorship editor Jo Glanville about restrictions on reporting terrorism trials. Thanks to Pennie Quinton, a full recording of the morning sessions will be online.

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