News UK future of journalism conference: 'Above the law? Many of us have been arrested'

Even in its undoubtedly colourful history, it seems unlikely that News International had seen anything quite like this.  Late last month around 200 teenagers from 15 London state schools packed into the plush executive rooms on the 13th floor of News UK’s new Wapping  HQ, for a day of discussion and debate with leading journalists and editors on The Future of Journalism.  

It is not every day you can hear Gordon Smart, editor of the Sun’s Bizarre section, discussing the ethical merits of his Shagger of the Year award with an A-level English teacher, or Guido Fawkes giving students free tips on how to be a top blogger, or this writer quoting Karl Marx in defence of press freedom in the heart of the Murdoch empire. To judge by the smart and savvy questions and responses from the young audience, the future of journalism would appear to be in good hands, despite all the obvious challenges ahead.

The conference for 16 to 18-year-olds was organised by the Young Journalists Academy, which runs annual journalism summer schools for London state school students. The YJA was initiated by the online magazine Spiked, where I am editor-at-large. The Future of Journalism conference was headline sponsored by the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times, as well as the Canary Wharf Group and RSA insurance.

The opening plenary session posed the question ‘Why be a journalist?’ at a time when, post-phone hacking and Leveson, our profession is widely held in low esteem and the industry is under economic pressure.

Broadcaster and freelance journalist Samira Ahmed talked about the good that she felt journalists could do, and called on would-be journalists in the audience to take themselves and the job seriously by insisting that they are paid for their work. Ally Ross (pictured below), the Sun’s star TV columnist, said that as a young man in Scotland he had shared fashionable prejudices about the tabloid press, even writing to the Sun to say that it should be banned by law. But he had come to appreciate the role of journalism to entertain as well as inform people, the importance of freedom of expression, and the onerous restrictions that journalists in Britain already labour under, with libel lawyers looking over their shoulders.

Guto Harri, the ex-BBC journalist and Boris Johnson’s former communications chief who is now director of communications at News International, spoke of the importance of maintaining a professional body of journalistic excellence and integrity in print and online, amid the chaos and countless voices of web publishing. He suggested to the students that to be a journalist meant being interested in and interesting to people, and asked them to imagine the horror of telling fellow party guests you were a banker or an accountant instead.

The break-out sessions that followed covered some burning journalistic issues and controversies of the day. In one discussion on Celebrity Gossip and ‘public interest’ journalism, Gordon Smart of the Sun gave a stout defence of his brand of showbiz coverage, pointing out that nobody had to pay to read it if they didn’t want to, and warning against indulging in pure snobbishness about popular journalism. Several contributors from the audience said they did not like celebrity scandal, but thought celebrities could do good in the media by raising public awareness of problems from African poverty to breast cancer.

Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, the second panel speaker, took a different view, arguing that celebrity tittle-tattle should be accepted for what it is, whereas celebs raising awareness is embarrassing, patronising and often misleading. O’Neill insisted that the tabloids had not invented the spread of celebrity culture, but were reflecting the decline of seriousness in public life.

Another important session discussed the future of investigative journalism after the phone-hacking scandal. Andrew Norfolk, chief investigative reporter at The Times, insisted that the indefensible use of phone-hacking at the News of the World could not be allowed to undermine the importance of investigative journalism in exposing wrongdoing in the public interest. A prime example of that is Norfolk’s own exposure of the sex-grooming gang in Rochdale, for which he won the Orwell Prize. Investigative reporter and documentary film-maker Tess Mayes then admitted to having broken the law to get an important story. This sparked a debate among the students over ‘how far should you go? Which laws would you break?’.

Mayes pointed out that it is hard to have iron rules on this, and journalists and editors have to use their judgement in each case. She concluded that the post-Leveson atmosphere is having the knock-on effect of making reporters and media outlets less daring about what they expose. In response to a suggestion that journalists at NI papers acted as if they are above the law, Andrew Norfolk wryly observed that, on the contrary, "many of us have just been arrested".

That issue was raised again in the final plenary, After Leveson: the Future of Journalism, addressed by Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and now comment editor of The Times, Sarah Baxter, the newly-appointed deputy editor of the Sunday Times, and me, speaking as the author of There Is No Such Thing As a Free Press (see picture below).

Montgomerie  and Baxter both conceded that important errors had been made at the News of the World and elsewhere, and that the press is having to learn important lessons for the future. However, they argued that the fallout from the scandal and the Leveson Inquiry was now endangering the future of a free press, risking political interference and the targeting of journalists by the police.

I argued that, despite being the only panel member who had supported the striking print workers of Wapping in the mid-1980s, I was entirely opposed to the regulation of a free press, suggesting that we would be far better off with the 45 words of the US First Amendment than the million words of the Leveson report. You do not have to like the tabloid press, I replied to objections from the audience, but in a free society you really should have to lump it, ending with my old friend Karl Marx’s defence of indivisible press freedom: "You cannot grasp the rose without its thorns".

Throughout the Future of Journalism conference, the students pinned the speakers down and tested the journalists’ arguments to the limit, even cornering them to continue the debate for an hour after a session had ended. They raised questions about everything from the influence of Rupert Murdoch to Page 3. Not all of the attendees were persuaded of the press’s case, of course, but all were left with plenty of food for thought. As one student from Tower Hamlets said: "To hear different points of view and top journalists being honest and hanging out with us… it was like getting the inside story."

A personal point to end: the only sour note heard afterwards was from the Hacked Off lobby complaining on Twitter and elsewhere that the Future of Journalism conference had been ‘unbalanced’ because there were no 100 per cent pro-Leveson speakers. In other words, they had not been invited to speak.

Some of us, on the other hand, were happy to be at an event where journalists and others could put a clear case for the importance of our profession and a free press, without dodging awkward questions. Hacked Off and co have been allowed too much of an unchallenged say over the past two years. It is high time that freedom of expression and of the press, with no ‘buts’, was put back at the centre of the debate about the future. As I said at the conference, there might be plenty of problems with the UK press and journalism. But neither in Britain nor anywhere in the world is the problem that the press is ‘too free’.

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