The Byline Festival - among hacks in the woods
SPEAKING WITH JOURNALISM students recently, I asked them what media development caused their pulses to race? Answer came there none. They were taciturn too when I enquired which journalism had inspired them to join our industry.
Such apparent non-immersion in the media is widespread, according to my informal survey of journalism educators. What better way to address this, then, than the Byline Festival - a music-festival type event themed around discussion of the the media and the burgeoning world of independent broadcasting and publishing?
Its inaugural event was in Pippingford Park - a country estate beside Ashdown Forrest in Sussex - on 2, 3 and 4 June 2017. The weekend-camping, events-in-tents and wooded backdrop created the vibe of an intimate summer camp. The discussion, however, was of fake news, media regulation and red-top sleaze.
There was much to inspire - the burning conviction of journalism's vital democratic role expressed by veterans such as Martin Bell, David Henke and Jim Cusick, for example. John Cleese speculated that the world would be a better place if there were a newspaper targeted mainly at members of his audience. And there were eye-opening discussion panels, such as that on the fast-multiplying independent magazine scene. At that, Louis Jensen, the UK editor of Illegal!, a magazine that drug takers sell to fund their pharmaceuticals, explained how his own enjoyment of narcotics made him a natural fit with the Danish-originated title.
The evening musical programme ranged from the Blow Monkeys' uptempo soul, to three-chord punk veterans The Members and The Vibrators as well as the London International Ska Festival, poetry and book readings.
As with any decent festival, there were serendipitous encounters. I bumped into a score of NUJ members, a few former colleagues and a dozen angry, finger-jabbing supporters of Turkey's president Erdogan who took exception to my publicly-voiced criticism of his enthusiasm for jailing journalists ("they are all half-journalist, half-terrorists who any country would imprison" was the general tenor).
A second Byline festival is planned for 2018 - but to become a media scene essential, it will need to up its game. Fewer tickets were sold that then organisers hoped, not helped by the unexpected timing of the general election. Most of the main-stage panels were too big and lacked focus. And the heart of the event needs to be more about the future than the past. Discordant voices and a generally younger profile would help too.
Asserting the NUJ's presence felt worthwhile, if only to sprinkle a little industrial reality on liberal platitudes. We sought out recruits too, and delivered workshops on eBook publishing and counter-surveillance to protect sources.
In an impressive show of confidence, the festival's organisers have already launched ticket sales for their next outing (see www.bylinefestival.com). Hopefully at that Byline will refine its distinctive voice as well as its echo chamber.