Well said, Jon Snow (In fractured Britain the media are part of a distant elite, 24 August)! I have been delivering the same message to WI meetings, Rotary dinners, village halls and anyone up ’ere in’t north who would listen ever since the British press retrenched to London and I retired to oblivion.
Peopling journalism with home counties-bred, middle-class varsity types whose family incomes and proximity to London enable their offspring to fulfil the required “zero pay” contract for a couple of years is a poor way to build a campaigning, popular press; so is recognising an army of gossipy, untrained bloggers as a reasonable alternative to news.
An excellent alternative is offered by former leading regional and international editor Neil Fowler, who proposes a national network of (hopefully profitable) local newspapers run by universities and major journalism colleges offering student journalists a two-year course/contract. Learning local journalism on the job would take the accidents of both birth and geography out of the business of producing fine, trustworthy journalists, as was the training regime when I was a junior on a Warrington weekly.
David Banks (editor, Daily Mirror, 1992-94)
• Jon Snow is quite right about the decline in local newspapers breaking an essential link between media and public. When I was news editor of the Kensington and Chelsea Post in the 1970s, we worked all hours cultivating contacts in the area to produce a paper of 48 pages or more a week packed with local news, competing with the equally vigorous Kensington News for the latest shock revelations. Privileged backgrounds and degrees were a rarity among the dozen or so editorial staff, most of whom, like me, started working on local papers in their teens. They went on to other jobs in the wider media, taking their grassroots experience with them.
• I suspect part of the problem is that print journalism has become respectable, and has lost its spark. Where are the outsiders now that once made newspapers so special, like James Cameron, Claud Cockburn, John Pilger or Alan Watkins?
Journalism has never been the same since it left Fleet Street. It might be better if it returned to its grubby but sometimes glorious roots. If/when established institutions collapse they will be replaced by a fractured, murky, digital media landscape; but that might not be a bad thing. A noble profession might also be reborn.
• Jon Snow’s call for greater diversity within the media is valid but still leaves journalists as the gatekeepers of ideas. We need a mechanism to enable the public to put issues of concern on to the national agenda. Asking questions in parliament, or on Question Time, has little effect and never results in a proper debate on any issue because of lack of time and respondents generally fighting their own corner.
We need a different format to give a voice to stakeholders from all around the country. The BBC and C4 could broadcast in-depth programmes dedicated to single issues as proposed by the public; they would be presented and prepared by a diversity of journalists and editors, but the choice of topics would be citizen-led. Academics would be engaged for their expertise to moderate the discussions, and expose any outrageous and inaccurate claims.
Politicians would not be involved. They should instead be listening. Thus could the Grenfell residents have initiated a debate on the state of public housing and attitudes towards tenants, and the public have been properly informed about the issues surrounding Brexit before voting in the referendum. Open this idea to the public and I think there would be a steady stream of subjects suggested for discussion.
• Journalists’ preoccupation with the affairs of government, parliament and the mainstream parties seems to leave them with little time and interest in the realities of life in the rest of the country.
During parliamentary breaks, for example, BBC2’s Daily Politics programme closes down, as if problems freeze when politicians go on their holidays. When it returns, it predominantly features MPs, allowing space for “outsiders” only when a thinktank issues a report or some tragedy like Grenfell Tower hits the headlines.
It should be the mission of journalists to seek out and give voice to the mass of people suffering from deprivation, inequality and injustice. Instead we have a mogul-controlled media mostly concerned with distracting viewers and readers into a kind of virtual world.
Derek Heptinstall (retired journalist)
• I admire Jon Snow and his journalism. I also acknowledge his declaration that “we [the media] have to widen both our contact with and our awareness of those who live outside and beyond our elite”. Yet open the pages of the 2018 edition of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and we find listed 104 regional and local newspapers plus a reference to 40 BBC local radio stations and more than 300 commercial stations up and down the country.
So, what is this “virtual collapse of local journalism” Snow is lamenting? I accept – and I too lament – that the number of local papers has declined over the past 50 years or so. But there are hundreds of local journalists still digging out the stories from Inverness to Cornwall, from Bolton to Banbury. They are in touch with their communities. They are not members of “a distant elite”. They are the reliable disseminators of local news. And they work for wages Snow should consider unacceptable.
Jack Thompson (former BBC correspondent in south-east Asia and Cairo)
• While I accept that the failure of the national media to accurately predict Brexit and the general election result shows a disconnect with the mood of the country, Jon Snow should refrain from self-flagellation over his personal responsibility in this and his inability to prevent the Grenfell Tower fire. Channel 4 bends over backwards to highlight minority and diversity issues, something he should be proud of. But I do agree that we should make a real effort to provide news literacy and create a society that is as connected to what it reads and views as with what it eats. The success of the 12-year-old Grenfell victim Firdows Hashim in winning the school debating competition judged by Snow and Bill Gates, and described as being “poised, confident and with a beautiful use of language”, suggests that this process has already begun.
• Concerns similar to those expressed by Snow led to the growth of the British Workshop movement, a network of small, local media enterprises in towns across Britain in the late 70s and 80s. The individual enterprises were very varied but most filmed local issues, ran community film shows and provided media training for people other than the BBC’s public or grammar school. This network, although partly self sustaining, relied as well on the kind of local authority and central government cultural and social funding that no longer exists. Its reach was limited but impressive given that it was never more than modestly funded and existed for a fairly short period. Change needs to come from outside as well as inside the established media.
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