When the BBC‘s fledgling College of Journalism completed its biggest training programme so far two weeks ago, it found that 19,200 people had done the Safeguarding Trust course – 2,000 more than expected.
This course was mandatory for anyone working on programmes with voting attached, after the scandals of last year.
But college director Vin Ray had not expected that demand would snowball, so that almost everyone in the BBC, including those not strictly involved with the content side, took part.
The course took off when the first participants went back to work last autumn, still debating the seminars which raised issues such as: ‘Was it OK to use a stunt driver to stand in for Jeremy Clarkson at the North Pole?’
Even the initially sceptical Nick Higham, who presented a warm-up video, agreed the courses were moderately useful.
In an internal poll, Ray asked if the college should do more training like it. Last week the answer came back, more than two-thirds said yes, with the majority favouring mandatory sessions.
For a college still finding its feet, the message was: if you base seminars on real issues, people respond.
This has set priorities for the year, beginning with a new leadership course for the rising group of executives who take editorial responsibility (for the first time) for outputting a BBC programme, such as the Ten O’Clock News.
It will be about news values, but it will also cover the sensitive issue of managing presenters. The course is being piloted shortly, for introduction by December, and is critical for the college’s standing.
Ray’s other two priorities are the challenges of maintaining standards across multimedia journalism – BBC News has been entirely restructured – and his ambition to open the BBC journalism website, at the heart of the college, to outsiders.
First a reminder. The college was created after the Hutton debacle four years ago, and a tough report by previous director of news, Ron Neil. This found journalism training was fragmented, even non-existent.
Ray, a former head of BBC newsgathering, found there were hundreds of courses, but many never ran. There was much training in new technical gear, but at the expense of ethics, values and editorial policy, he observed.
Neil’s proposed leafy residential campus was supplanted by a virtual college, a small core team of around 14, and specific courses or projects.
The core constituency is the BBC’s 7,500 journalists from news, the nations and regions, World Service and sport.
Ray has a seat on the BBC journalism board chaired by Mark Byford, so if there are critical reports, say on how the BBC handles business, then the college responds. Kevin Marsh, former editor of the Today programme, runs the journalism website, which is huge and full of constantly refreshed content and practical advice. This includes The Journalism Tutor, which challenges users to, for example, write a headline and snap from a breaking story and decide on pictures, all against a ticking clock.
It also offers access to recorded seminars, and topical policy events, on issues such as the recent suicides in Bridgend.
Another of the basic college duties is a mandatory online legal-training course, comprising four modules of 40 minutes each, to be completed in six months, including contempt of court and defamation. About 10,000 staffers have done the course, which is introduced by Nicky Campbell. Other mandatory programmes have been on the Middle East, and the way the UK is reported.
But the single and most obvious initiative is the new year-long journalism foundation course.
Piloted last July, it began six months ago and accommodates 15 recruits at a time, mixing up, say, someone from Radio Shropshire with a World Service entrant from Kabul.
The BBC recruits 320 new journalists every year, and the experience they had prior to this was mixed. Many were thrown on to the rota.
Everyone now attends an intense six-day event in London – the most recent one was last week, where Huw Edwards, Jane Garvey and Alan Johnston gave advice. Throughout the year, entrants must also complete online courses to gain accreditation. Before the course, the journalist must study BBC editorial policy, do the law course, and complete a guide to the newsgathering system.
The website features Evan Davis on impartiality; Andrew Dilnot on interpreting numbers; a good writing guide by Allan Little; Andy Tighe, News 24 home affairs correspondent, explains court reporting, and voice coach, Elspeth Morrison, offers her wisdom.
There are about 6,000 unique users so far, and they spend 25 minutes a session.
Ray’s objective to make it external is interesting. The challenge is that it is primarily a site for BBC journalists by BBC journalists. He even wonders if there is scope for selling access to it outside of the UK.
Opening up could educate outsiders to BBC values. But it could also let in fresh air: there are good practices outside of the BBC too.