What you'll need to get a passport to promotion

Hutton
report casualty Richard Sambrook has a new role at the BBC, fronting
its ‘virtual college of journalism’. Caitlin Pike asks what’s behind it

THESE HAVE BEEN an eventful
18 months for Richard Sambrook. Having been criticised by Lord Hutton
in the inquiry that followed the death of weapons inspector David
Kelly, he left the BBC news department to take up a post as head of the
World Service and global news division.

Nine months after taking up the job, Sambrook is now the front man
for the BBC’s new £5m ‘virtual college of journalism’ set up in
response to the recommendations of Ron Neil, who carried out a review
of the BBC’s journalism in the wake of the Kelly affair.

The aim
is to bring journalism in line with professions such as law and
medicine, with staff holding personal “training passports” that will
directly affect their promotion prospects.

When Neil published
his findings in June last year he identified the need for a “sea
change” in the BBC’s training, with more emphasis on editorial
procedures, ethics and values.

Sambrook, who was criticised for
failing to take the government’s complaint about Andrew Gilligan’s
report on Radio 4’s Today programme seriously, admits that training was
fragmented and, because it was voluntary, often inconsistent. The focus
was mainly on technology and production, with little on editorial
issues.

The new training passports will be stamped each time
journalists receive training and will also determine whether they can
be promoted. “If people know their career development depends on it
then there will be a demand to do it,” he says.

A senior
broadcast journalist will have to have completed a certain amount of
training to become an editor. “At that point in their careers they
start to make decisions about the air time they are responsible for,
which epitomise BBC output values,” he adds. “By and large people used
to just get those jobs and carry on. Now we will be offering far more
support.”

Journalists will also receive training in a variety of
subjects such as Europe, the Middle East and UK institutions and
devolution – the common link being that these are areas in which the
BBC’s coverage has been criticised.

“Helping to raise
journalists’ knowledge-base in these areas should not reflect badly on
BBC staff,” he says. “These are deep-seated issues, complicated and
long running – now there will be somewhere they can go to find out
more.”

He readily admits that training was lagging behind the
highly pressurised 24-hour world of news: “The world has become a much
more complicated place and we want to support staff so they are
equipped for this.”

But he denies there was anything wrong with journalists’ work before Hutton.

“It’s
not that there was big problem before but the environment has changed
very rapidly. New technology such as digital cameras, laptops and the
internet have brought about more 24-hour services.

Competition and pressures on journalists in terms of decisions they have to take have vastly increased.”

His
role, he says, is to be “like a midwife”, getting the project up and
running before a director he will appoint is able to take over next
year.

The governors have approved plans to double the training
budget to £10m by 2008 in order to develop “interactive learning
modules” that can be completed by journalists at any BBC office or
bureau around the world. There will also be workshops and seminars that
can be held at any location.

Might such training have prevented the broadcast of Gilligan’s live two-way that led to the Kelly affair?

“How can you ever tell?” Sambrook says quietly.

“How can you know or judge something like that?

What I do feel is that this is less about rules and guidelines and more about support.

“If
people have the opportunity to spend some time and learn from other
people’s experience then the judgments they make are likely to be more
sure footed.

But the BBC will go on making mistakes; we produce
120 hours of news programming every day, it’s not all going to be
perfect, not every minute of it.”

With up to 4,000 staff in the
BBC likely to lose their jobs, the millions spent on training might be
a concern to journalists who also fear their workloads will be
increasing as a result.

Sambrook replies that the BBC will not be
basing its training around a building, as Neil had recommended, as
“that would just soak up money”.

Instead all training will be
based on a US model of interactive e-learning. The cuts, he says, will
free up funds to invest in areas such as training.

But will the training produce a breed of journalists who are reluctant to take risks? Sambrook says not.

“We have developed this with the idea that we are supporting people to do their jobs so I see it as the other way round.

“With
some really good training they should be able to do some more
adventurous and stronger journalism and to do their job more
purposefully.”

Around 9,000 staff have already completed two
training modules from the “virtual college” that has been rolled out,
along with a two-hour workshop called “Sources, Scoops and Stories”.

Around three-quarters of those have said they are now doing their job differently, Sambrook says proudly.

But
will the likes of Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys be expected to
complete these “interactive modules”? What about Nick Robinson when he
returns to the BBC as political editor?

“I don’t know off the top of my head if they have taken part in any training,” says Sambrook, adopting a headmasterly tone.

“The
point about the Paxmans and the Humphrys is less that they go to do the
module on journalism law – though frankly they should – but actually
that they should be taking some of the classes. They ought to be
teaching younger reporters how to deal with a difficult interview. The
BBC needs to tap into some of the brilliant talent here and pass it on.”

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