Something new

It’s been almost a year since my last entry, but I’m back with something which I hope will be the beginning of a regular series; I’m going to upload full interviews recorded in the line of duty as a news reader and reporter for the Lincs FM group, where they’re interesting or relevant to current debates. With luck it will demonstrate the diversity of stories I cover and simply give the material more air than it would otherwise clipped up and only used a couple of times in our news bulletins.

The first thing I have is a recent interview with Peter Davis of fruit and vegetable import/export company Davis Produce. The main thrust of the discussion is Peter’s description of the impacts on his business of the recent (and possibly recurrent) strike by French ferry workers at Calais. At the end we pick up briefly on the migrant crisis in Calais, distressing coverage of which has been in the national media. The final section is primarily to do with the implications for businesses like Davis Produce and doesn’t address the sad conditions the migrants find themselves in. It can seem myopic to focus on the commercial stakes rather than the humanitarian crisis, but the interview was recorded to generate a ‘local’ (for Lincolnshire) angle on the story.

A new chapter and a new story – EU protected food

At lot’s happened since my last post – I’ve graduated from my Postgraduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism at the London College of Communication, upped sticks and moved to Lincoln and started work as a full time, staff journalist at the Lincs FM Group. Expect to find me whizzing between Lincoln, Scunthorpe, Stamford, Grimsby and all of the other glamorous locations Lincolnshire has to offer in a fully branded company car reporting the news of the day! Even more has happened since I began something of a journey last July and decided to become a journalist in the first place, but I’d like to publicly (on this blog that nobody reads… ha!) thank everyone who has helped, supported and encouraged me along the way including my friends, family, interviewees, vox pops and perhaps most of all my brilliant tutors at LCC, Martin Shaw and Rebecca Pearce.

But after all that, let’s get back to some radio. The brief for my final piece of coursework at college was to produce a package about a subject to do with EU politics (not everyone’s favourite topic, though I do rather like it). I decided some time ago – even before the trip I took to Strasbourg which is documented in an earlier post – that I wanted to explore the EU’s food quality schemes using a domestic case study. I was pleased to see that a London-based producer of smoked salmon was in the process of applying for protected status and delighted when the owner, Lance Forman, agreed to be interviewed for the project.

The final piece moves from H. Forman and Son’s factory on the aptly named Fish Island to interviews with European Parliamentarians in Strasbourg and on to traders at London’s Borough Market, working through some of the issues associated with the debate over if and how certain products ought to be protected. Listen below, and scroll down for some photos of the salmon being smoked and processed at the H Forman premises.

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London’s smoked salmon industry needs protection, according to the East End’s oldest producer of the gourmet fish. They’re applying to the EU’s agricultural quality scheme for official recognition of the local techniques and tradition which go into smoked salmon production. But what’s in a name, and why’s it so valuable? Tom Baker’s been finding out.”

Polis 2014

A couple of Fridays ago I went to the the Polis Journalism Conference at the LSE; Polis is the university’s ‘media think tank’. I should have written this while the proceedings were fresher in my mind, but I still want to record a couple of points about the proceedings I saw. On balance the content of the day was very good, and I particularly enjoyed Krishnan Guru-Murthy interviewing Ian Katz. The coffee queue was too long, and there wasn’t enough lunch – #conferencelife if you will.

One of the sessions that raised a question for me was a panel discussion on ‘the future of transparency journalism’ with Eric Newton, George Brock, Richard Sambrook and Angela Phillips – all journalists now working in universities or equivalent institutions – and chaired by Richard Gizbert who presents The Listening Post on Al Jazeera. While there was a lot of worthy discussion on the question of transparency, particularly as enabled by new methods (using social media, data journalism), I felt strongly that what was missing was any recognition of the sometimes murky world of editorial decision-making and the news agenda.

Why do some things make the news and not others? It’s not always obvious for the consumers of journalism, and I would make the point strongly with the example of Flight MH370. Over the weekend just gone there have finally been some developments to the story, but until then the reporting had been far from illuminating. Indeed, it wasn’t clear – and despite huge media interest and journalism hours spent on the story – what on earth was going on, above and beyond the basic message that lots of people were still searching for a plane. Journalists like to think of themselves as credible sources of information, yet a great deal of the coverage dealt in misinformation and rumour, undermining the claims made by news outlets as to their own trustworthiness. Quite frankly it was like a drunk stumbling back to the bar for another pint of ‘no new news’. Why, then, did this story lead bulletins for nigh on two weeks solid? What are the viewers meant to think, and where is the transparency in that?

For me, one of the issues at hand is the under-acknowledged status of the news as a product which is created, mediated and consumed – it doesn’t exist outside of the structures of its production – and yet is presented as a transparent record of what’s going on in the world. As someone I know put it, we might like to think of it as ‘some news’ rather than ‘the news’. Given the gravity with which most news broadcasts present themselves, it’s sometimes easy to forget that someone, somewhere is making decisions about what you watch and listen to on the evening news. For the audience sitting at home, wondering why, despite no apparent development in the MH370 story, it continued to be the most important news around, the answer is ‘someone thought you would like it’… and nobody’s unearthed anything more interesting! Of course, I’m not denying the intrigue surrounding MH370 – it’s compelling – but the coverage has raised questions about transparency, for me at least.

Another, shorter point to make – lots of references were made at the conference to data journalism. Apart from the Guardian data blog, I’m not aware that data journalism is making huge inroads at the moment (though I don’t wish to downplay the significant potential, particularly given the rise of open data, or my own significant ignorance). Indeed, probably the biggest story of the last year emerged from a very traditional source – a whistleblower leaking documents. Having worked with data in a limited capacity in the past, I’m keenly aware that, as well as pushing boundaries in terms of newsgathering, data journalism must tell good stories too. Some of the discussion felt a bit like your elderly relatives trying to sound relevant.

Interviewing Santiago Fisas MEP

Following my previous post, here’s one of the fruits of my labour from my trip to the European Parliament in Strasbourg – a video interview with Santiago Fisas MEP, the Rapporteur on a new European Parliament report – ‘European gastronomic heritage: cultural and educational aspects’.

Mr Fisas is a Spanish MEP representing the Partido Popular and the European People’s Party Group in the European Parliament. You can read the report here.

This complements a story I’m working on about the protected food statuses granted to different local and regional food products under EU legislation.

The European commitment to transparency

As part of our education about the systems of power and influence in society we have been learning about the functions of the European Union and associated bodies, which has been bolstered by a funded trip to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to observe the proceedings the week commencing the 10th March 2014. Courtesy of the European Parliament Information Office we’ve been given full press accreditation for the week, and are free to use all of the available resources as we wish. This encompasses a large press working room with individual desks and telephones, a press bar, a permanent staff of press officers to use and a significant amount of audio visual equipment.

Would it be unfair to accuse the European Parliament Information Office of ‘buying’ young journalists? That’s certainly one reading, and there’s certainly something of a PR job going on, but their argument is that the EU and European Parliament must hold the highest standards of transparency, and that improving journalistic understanding of the functions of European administrative institutions is an excellent way to go about this. There has been no lecturing as to the positives and negatives of European integration – we are simply invited to come and make of it what we will.

The commitment to transparency is impressive; during a tour of the facilities earlier, it was explained that the wealth of audio visual equipment available for free use by journalists exists in order to limit the extent to which a lack of access to equipment can curtail accurate reporting, so broadcasters and media organisations with limited resources can come to the European Parliament and cover the stories without worrying. The access to elected officials is also good – the telephone numbers of the MEPs’ offices are all publicly listed, and the Members are generally very receptive to press interest. Earlier this morning a group of four of us set about trying to organise interviews with MEPs about several different issues and have all been successful to some degree. That arranging interviews with public officials in the UK can be so difficult only makes the European Parliament situation more refreshing.

Hard at work in the European Parliament press working room!

Hard at work in the European Parliament press working room!

The Edible Bus Stop

I’ve made a short documentary about the Edible Bus Stop (no it isn’t made of chocolate), a community gardening project which began in Stockwell and which is now spreading to at least a couple of other sites in south London.

Winter veg at the Edible Bus Stop.

Winter veg at the Edible Bus Stop.

Two end of terrace houses were destroyed in World War Two and never replaced, leaving a wide piece of pavement on Landor Road which came to be home to a bus stop, telephone box and a few – apparently neglected – flower beds. When a planning proposal was made to build two houses a couple of years ago, a community effort resulted instead in the construction of a community garden instead – the Edible Bus Stop was born.

Apart from being a completely charming example of community-led public realm improvement, the Edible Bus Stop is playing into wider debates about food production and urban greening in London, dovetailing with both the Transition Towns movement and the Greater London Authority’s pocket parks initiative.

Listen to my documentary to find out more, and my thanks to the volunteer gardeners and others involved for their help in making it. There are more of my photos down the page.

Convictions

At the end of last week one of our tutors organised for the political journalist Rob Merrick to come and speak to our class. Rob is in the Westminster lobby and has been since the late ’90s (he first went to Westminster a year or so after Tony Blair came to power), and now writes for the Northern Echo, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus and the Southern Daily Echo.

Understandably, Rob declined to indicate his personal politics, but what he did make clear is that being a political journalist for over a decade doesn’t mean he has lost his own sense of (simplistically) ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, or at least which side of an argument he agrees with. This is in contrast to a couple of other guests we’ve met since the course began, and I was pleased to hear it.

Of course I understand that the closer one gets to the coal face of politics, the more detail there is to see, and the less easy it may be to discern the best course of action. But I would argue that, if you lose your ability to place yourself in relation to a debate, then do you really, properly understand it? And if you don’t understand it, how can you report on it? If I’m not completely convinced by the rules around political neutrality for the British broadcast media, then I at least understand the context, and, regardless, those rules aren’t going anywhere soon; when I do join a broadcaster, I’m fully prepared to uphold the highest standards of neutrality. But that doesn’t mean that I will stop holding a personal position – much of my interest in politics, culture and society stems from my political beliefs. To lose them would be to lose my connection to the subjects of so much news reporting.