23 Jan 2012

Hugh Cudlipp lecture: Poised for journalism's golden age

Channel 4 News Presenter Jon Snow gives the Hugh Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication on 23 January. You can read the full text of his speech below.

Thank you Lady Cudlipp, the Cudlipp Trustees, and Staff and Students of the London College of Communication for inviting me. I’m excited to be here tonight.

How timely that we should be celebrating the life of so legendary and pivotal figure as Hugh Cudlipp: a man who inaugurated one of the finest periods of tabloid journalism. The nearest I ever got to Hugh Cudlipp – beyond shaking the hand of his dear wife Jodi, present
with us tonight – was to be employed at LBC by his nephew Michael Cudlipp, who literally told me to get on my bike and become a proper reporter.

How apt then that we should be paying obeisance to an emblem of a Golden Age of tabloid newspapers in what is inescapably the darkest and bleakest moment this end of the industry has ever known. It is salutary to think of what Hugh Cudlipp achieved and to wonder what he would have made of today’s tabloid leadership…

And what a life! – Leaving school at 14: Becoming a peer less than fifty years later in recognition of his life’s achievement.

I feel hugely honoured to be allowed to speak in his memory here tonight – hugely honoured to follow in the footsteps of Michael Grade, Andrew Marr, Alastair Campbell, Alan Rusbridger, and Lionel Barber. (I may have left a couple out there…)

Tonight, I want to focus on the art, the trade, the power of journalism – in print, onscreen, online and beyond, and the breath-taking opportunity that is beckoning us on into a new Golden Age of journalism.

Tonight I want to context where we are going by briefly establishing where we have been.  My anticipation of our Golden Age will not eschew the downsides we have all suffered and will all suffer along the way.

I have never worked in print. I have written for the Times, the Telegraph the FT, the Mail, the Independent and the Guardian – the Spectator, New Statesman and most recently the Radio Times – with joy and fulfilment. Charles Wheeler once told the Observer that as a TV journalist he felt a sense of inferiority in the face of print. I know what he means – there is still something magical about seeing your work on the printed page.

But such dalliance does not qualify me to pontificate about the state of tabloid journalism – you have been there already. Although I love print. And even though I started in radio, my experience is television:  my life today is multi-platform.

So I want to start with the journey since Hugh Cudlipp’s day.

I arrived in journalism as he left it. Joining ITN in 1976. I was in time to see Harold Wilson out of Downing Street in an era when one still went down there often accompanied by a silent wind up Bell and Howell – superb lens, but only a minute of film at a time. It tells you something about the journey  deference has made since then – we were not expected to shout at the prime minister – not even on the one
occasion when we really needed to – “Prime minister, your pocket’s on fire!” Indeed it was – he’d failed to put his pipe out properly as he left the door of Number 10.

By 1977 we were beginning to perfect the quick-fire, if cumbersome live news inject – but it wasn’t without its problems. I was sent to report President Jimmy Carter’s first visit to meet Prime Minister Jim Callaghan. I managed to engineer with Tom McCaffery, his delightful pressman, that if at all possible Carter and Callaghan would come out live during our fifteen minute news at 5.45pm. Standing outside Lancaster House, I was strangely exclusive, because reporters had been excluded – only technicians for live pictures had
been permitted. But I had got in dressed as a techie and Tom, once he detected what had happened, allowed me to get away with it. I did a live inject at the top of the news – wearing the techie jeans and polo neck sweater. But there was no Carter. At one minute to
six, the editor that night, David Phillips ,took a gamble and crossed back to me – twenty seconds later Carter walks out – I shout what nowadays would be a banal boast: “Mr President we are live on British television”.

He and Callaghan stride over to me – and with now fifteen seconds to the end of the news, madman that I am, I ask him a question and he begins to answer. Network TV in those days was immensely complex and protocol strewn, you could never over-run without weeks of negotiation, and quite suddenly the network engineers had to decide whether to throw the switch on the President of the United States.

Only Yorkshire Television threw the switch to cut him off, to vast complaint, amazingly, from their viewers. The other channels stayed with me. By 6.10pm we handed back to the network having completed a live ten minute interview.

When I got back to ITN there was champagne and a phone call from miniscule Channel Island TV stating that my action had trashed their entire evening of recorded television programmes every one of which was now ten minutes out of kilter: “It must never happen
again!” barked the furious manager.

But if things were tricky at home, they were even tougher abroad. We were still on film.

Communications, all communications, were extremely difficult. Telex was the mainstay – thumping out perforations that somehow coalesced into words the other end. “Live” was thankfully impossible. “Same day” reports were for the most part impossible – and from
Africa, where I worked a lot – “Next day” was all but impossible.

Hence we would spend more time preparing the report. We reporters would have to make copious notes on every shot the cameraman ever took. Then I would toil to write and record a script which could be stitched together with the pictures – then there would be
more time spent shipping it – often bribing a passenger or a crew member to carry it on British Airways. And even when it got back, there would still be three hours in film processing and a complicated edit. Three days after the event my report would hit the
airwaves. But if you distil it, the actual time spent on the journalism was no more than today – maybe even less. Sitting in Uganda – there was no Google; no ready comparative resource; no means of checking anything other than what you had witnessed. Those reports
were gripping: one pair of eyes – and our understanding of the news was deepened – but it was finite – we could only do what one could. Today for example, a local minister may tell us one thing – and we can check and build our findings into the report and yet still root
it in Uganda as part of our tradition of being witness on the ground to events. Contrast therefore my first reporting from Uganda in 1976 and my most recent foreign assignment in 2011.

That first report on the ground in Uganda dealt with the horror of Amin, it was graphic, and because I was not constrained by immediate “live” deadlines and the rest, I had time to hang about to try to grab an interview with the tyrant: that’s the upside. But I had little
mechanism for developing any sense of how the story connected with the outside world – the UN, Westminster and the rest. If I was lucky I might hear a very badly distorted BBC World Service: we were so on our own compared with today. Mind you I was also spared the endless calls from the office: “Sky has an interview with a woman whose children were fed to crocodiles can you try and find her”.

Contrast that with my last major foreign assignment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square where I tweeted, blogged, reported, fed the bird, and then anchored that night’s Channel 4 News live from just outside the Square. Mind you, with the pressures of time, some of the fun has gone out of it all. I well remember going in search of a prominent Ugandan exile that had just fled Kampala for his life to Kenya. Together with my cameraman Mohinder Dhillon we found him in a remote Masai village, but the BBC’s late Lamented Brian Barron was hard on our heels – we dashed into an open tea shop and crouched beneath a table with our prey – and watched Brian’s Toyota Land cruiser steam past in a cloud of dust – no time for that sort of shenanigans these days.

By the late 1970s someone has come up with lightweight video, or ENG -suddenly video as we had known it was no longer stored in a two inch tape form in vast spools almost too heavy for one man to lift – but in cassettes…Lightweight was a misnomer; it was as much as
we three man crews could carry.

In 1978/79 I was posted to Rome – it was the year of two dead popes – the story was a nightly feast of colour, intrigue, quick turn around, white smoke and more. Paul dies of old age…there was a collision of big Italian cardinals – they all knocked each other out and the simple second division devout archbishop of Venice became John Paul I,  became Pope. He lasted 33 days -some thought he died of stress, others that he had been murdered; we tended to the view that he had been pressured to death by a corrupt and reform resistant
Curia. Either way it was a terrific story. Why, even the body of Mr Calvi of the Banco Ambrosiana turned up hanging from under Blackfriars Bridge just up the road here. It wasall such fun – and all accessible on video – news was speeding up! Our journalism could
barely keep pace.

And then we had the god’s gift to a whole new round of intrigue in the first Polish pope. I remember the white smoke signalling the Cardinals had made their decision. “Habemus Papam” shouted a fat prelate from the Vatican deis, “his name is Karol Wotiwa” – good God
whispered the AP man next to me – they’ve elected a woman!’ Suddenly we were on his travels – down Mexico way calling in on Santo Domingo. I had managed to get the first interview ever with a pope in English…we were back on film because neither Mexico nor the
Dominican Republic could yet handle video. We were on separate sound and vision – so I had to do a clap before the interview (CLAP!) “Holy Father…” He looked more than bemused. But even so we could never sync the tape and the film up and in my exasperation, at the
end of the evening I took the spool and hurled it into the ocean. What an idiot – these digital days this exclusive interview would have been synced in seconds.

We were evolving fast: And yet in 1985 when the Challenger Shuttle crashed killing the crew and the first teacher in space – Christa McCaulliff, I witnessed it watching the TV racks in our Washington Office…we turned to each other as the plumes tumbled to earth. We
knew it had gone.

“Book the satellite NOW”, I screamed ..and in that moment we beat the BBC to the six o’clock news. We’d secured the only route out – the only other was relaying a live ice hockey match from Germany. In those days you beat the other guy with technology…these days it’s pure journalism that wins.

By 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, we thought we had cracked it. Not the wall, but the technology: but we hadn’t. I was on the western side of the wall, Nik Gowing was the other – but for some reason the micro link decided to offer him to us upside down..
that same year a part of me came in doors and left the road.

That intoxicating daily mix of new faces, new places, new information gleaned by me alone and ordered in the way I wanted it, had given way to a different kind of time – far removed from faces and places beyond the familiar ones that people a news room and a studio.

Suddenly my contact with “the people” was incoming in the form of the occasional letters in green ink underlined in red. I had become the anchor of Channel 4 News – albeit with itchy feet to report to this day.

And this is where my conviction that we are poised for the Golden Age of Journalism begins: for the first time since Caxton, Alexander Graham Bell, Marconi, or Logie Baird – the entire media has been liberated; liberated in a way that allows the reader, viewer, listener the true capacity to answer back.

We are in the age of answer back, better still we are in the age in which “we the people” have their greatest opportunity ever to influence the information agenda…But above all we are in the age of more. More potential to get it right, to get it fast, to get it in depth. We
have that illusive entity “the level playing field”, we can compete on equal terms and yet be the best.

Sure, we are justifiably scared of “we the people” – where will they lead us – we want control, order.

Fear not! Our editorial control remains. It’s just that we no longer live in a vacuum, unknowing of the effect of our reporting. We know more about how to interest our consumers, how to engage, and what effect what we do has upon them. We can detect them switching on or off. We can see their comments surge on Facebook or Twitter – they interact – they augment – and if we are open enough, we learn.

In short, the democratisation of information through the web is providing journalists with opportunity to enter the Gateway to the Golden Age. Why even our video news footage can be emailed in a matter of minutes from virtually anywhere – no need for satellite dishes.

And our mere existence has forced countries that would never have allowed us in in the past to let us in. We can go more places faster and transmit more quickly than ever before. The “we” ensures that mechanisms sustain exist now to politicise, to campaign, to bring
together, as the Arab Spring has shown, however uncertain its outcome. Here in the developed world individuals within corporations, civil servants within ministries, are beginning to contact us, are beginning to use the discreet mechanisms of cyberspace to tell
us about what is going on, to tell us about things that go wrong.

Today, three decades into my career, I now know more about what’s going on around me than I have ever known and I have the potential at my finger tips to know even more. Sometimes the information is wonky and we pursue it and there is no truth in it. Sometimes it’s there, but to have the capacity to sift through this stuff, that’s the problem. There is so much material coming in now that it is very difficult to keep pace with it, but it is an exciting time. Nowhere is it clearer than in the abuse of power: witness the Telegraph’s
brilliant expose of the MPs and peers’ expenses scandal. The Americans told us that Wikileaks would result in the deaths of many agents and informers. Are we to suppose that if even one had died the Americans would not have broadcast the fact to prove their case?

How about a challenge: I believe there is no evidence that anyone has died from a Wikileak. Wikileaks told us what we know: the most extraordinary quantity of stuff is kept from the citizenry because it’s easier that way – it’s the culture.

Our secretive society is being opened up. Our media society is being opened up with it. If the Leveson Inquiry does nothing else it reveals the questionable values of key elements of the tabloid press – to the grave detriment of the very fine work that is done by other
elements of that same tabloid press that help keep sport, politics, and business straight.

Well instanced by both the Cricket fixing story and key aspects of the Stephen Lawrence investigation. The tabloid street is not one way – but when it reaches the gutter it is devoid of proportion, care, and all too often, truth.

If we journalists are to cut it in the Golden Age, we need to be straight, and we need to toil for trust. I hate it when I get something wrong. I feel I have failed – I feel physically wounded. I do everything possible to avoid a repeat. We all need to be more candid when
we are wrong. I would even argue that being wrong (as rarely as possible) is probably an inevitable that comes with the territory. When we are wrong, we need to put it right, publish our correction, and learn from it. We should not be shy about corrections: the New
York Times has published a dozen or so corrections a day for the past twenty years – I argue it is the more trustworthy as a result. The consumer needs to have confidence that when we are wrong we will admit it and put it right.

I believed a shadowy story six months ago that Piers Morgan had been suspended by CNN over hacking accusations -I rushed to Tweet. I was wrong I withdrew it a minute later – but too late. It has lived with me ever since and informed a deeper caution and respect for a
medium I shall return to in a moment. But this too is where regulation comes in.

I want to be regulated, I want to be held to high standards – I don’t want the impact of my journalism to be tainted by even a hint of questionable ethics.

I think it is absolutely right that there is a regulator that people can go to. Who are we to be above the opportunity for people to review what we’ve done? Furthermore I do not want to find my own editors somewhere in the mix. I want an objective regulator.

I’m no Ofcom sycophant, but I’m afraid they have done an excellent job regulating my end of television: firm, fair, and intelligent. No one’s perfect – I find some of the documentary Ofcom compliance irksome – but as a regulator, hatched in our present age, they have
done, and continue to do a remarkable job.

What are these print guys afraid of – if their story is right, is justified, they have nothing to fear from a regulator. Even the most hardened of tabloid journalists must have been, mortified, embarrassed, even shocked at the rubbish that has tipped across Leveson’s desk;
what age do these supposed journalists and editors who the agents of this stuff live in…what lives do they live?

Of course, papers and TV are entirely different beasts, and they work in entirely different ways, but I see no reason why print journalism wouldn’t benefit from a credible regulator in the same way TV has. Alas thus far they have not enjoyed a credible regulator. I’m not suggesting Ofcom should take over. But an independent system with its own powers to investigate wrong-doing seems an essential given what has gone wrong in the past couple of decades. It should be at well over arms length from Government, exclude any serving editors from its ranks, and probably – a very long way down the line have recourse to the law to enforce its will. But I would hope that the mere spectre of the law would be enough to sort things out. By the way the establishment of the regulatory system should be accompanied by the wholesale abolition of the UK’s current libel laws and any recasting to ensure both free speech and the rights of the individual – it could probably be achieved within the Human Rights Act.

I repeat: If we can practice cutting edge journalism on television with regulation I see no reason why an Ofcom style regulator (although not necessarily an identical system) with full access for public complaint – should not be perfectly applicable to the print world too.
If we have good regulation – we don’t need a privacy law – it’s the sensationalist tabloid stuff that has triggered the desire for a privacy act – I admit that I went through a phase of wanting one but if we get regulation right we shall get privacy right.

The upside of the now: The demand for depth

“But you only have a hundred and forty characters!” the cry of someone who simply does not understand the truly vast implications of Twitter.

I see Twitter as a fundamental element, a signpost, and more at the Gateway to the Golden Age. Twitter leads the information thirsty to water – Twitter is a breaking news source, yes but above all, far from being merely superficial Twitter is an agent that is playing a key role in satisfying the desire for depth. Twitter’s power lies in links – for me it is a major source of links to important articles and video and I deploy it to lead people to material that has augmented my own understanding of a story.

But I also use it on the ground. From Egypt to Japan from Downing Street to Brussels I have used it to build the environment in which news is breaking. In Egypt : “Armed Mubarak thugs on camels plough through crowd next to me…” In Japan “I just opened the door of a
blue van: Mother father two kids sitting inside, dead, drowned.”

Or more recently: “This is what I want of a poet laureate: brilliant carol Ann Duffy on Stephen Lawrence, or from Haiti: ‘If you want to know why aid to Haiti is fading,  read this from Wall Street Journal.

But I, we at Channel 4, have used twitter to gather documentary evidence: “Anyone out there know of rogue landlord exploiting tenants: visit Landlords from Hell.com.” That edition of Dispatches attracted an audience of 2.5 million.

• Viewers used Twitter to raise issues with the housing minister following programme
• It stirred viewers to share their own housing horror stories via a dedicated YouTube site
• It had real political impact – it triggered a Charity Commission investigation into housing charity, the Meridian Foundation
• It led to a major debate in Parliament – MPs called for action to ensure tenants are protected from rogue landlords.

I recognise the power of Facebook too – for me it’s too cluttered and I rarely use it – but I know others are making it work for them and for their journalism.

We are deploying the social network both to gather and to disseminate in ways our journalist forefathers could not even have dreamt of. Google too is playing an undreamt of role in our journalism.

So how do we make money out of our dawning Golden Age? Well not by selling newspapers, that’s clear. I believe it unlikely that many people will be turning paper pages in a decade’s time. But the brands will live on in our Golden Age.

Anyone seen what I regard as one of the emblematic documentaries of our day – Man on wire?

The twin towers in the Man on Wire are a metaphor for the difference between the old media and the new media. We are on a tightrope between the two at the moment.

Alan Rusbridger has spoken candidly of the Guardian’s trail blazing journey and vast challenge of costings and income amid the transition from old to new.

One final thought. I have one final element that I believe will augment and diversify our Golden Age.

The speed and pace of what all of us is doing is starving, television journalists in particular, of the opportunity to develop the stature and presence of our forebears. These were people who had days in which to prepare their stories, dominated a tiny handful of channels, and became iconic figures in the medium. It is much, much harder for journalists today to ascend the same ladder and preside with their kind of authority and we need to afford talent the time, the space and the working experience to develop the authority that
our medium depends upon.

Time in the real world – bosses must carve out time for journalists to get out of the newsroom. If I’m any good as a journalist, it is not only because I have travelled to more than a hundred countries to report, it is in part because I am rooted in the New Horizon
Youth Centre. This is a day centre of homeless and vulnerable young people. The Centre is located in Kings Cross. I can make a confession here tonight: Over my 35 years with ITN and Channel 4, have stolen time from my employers – a lunch hour here, a diversion on my way back from a story there: a half hour here and hour there to go the Centre and carry out my duties as chair. I was director there before I became a hack.

It is fortunately ten minutes from my home, and ten minutes from my workplace, and it is a completely uplifting thing every time that one goes there. It is also, of course, a very humbling thing, and a thing that reminds you that there are people who are deeply
excluded from the world in which many of us live. Leveson should recommend many of the people and institutions that have been before him find a way of allowing their staff to get stuck into the real world, it will vastly improve and deepen their journalism. We journalists are not a breed a part – we must be of the world we report. The hacking scandal reveals an echelon of hacks who removed themselves from the world in which the rest of us live – they took some weird pleasure in urinating on our world.

So what now?
As we look at this wonderful new media world in which there are ever more people of every age who need and search out what we do: online, on air, The driver is the ever-expanding hunger for news and information – we can count on it, we can invest in it. We have to hold our nerve and we have to be open with the world about what we are doing. We will survive by doing it better, and in concert with our consumers than anyone else – if we fail them, they will leave us -that’s the market. If we get it right they will join us in ever greater
numbers – the money will most assuredly follow the numbers – if it doesn’t we really have seen the birth of a new capitalism!

As never before, rafts of new journalists are emerging from our Colleges and Universities. The human potential is as vast as the technological – we are well placed to seize this Golden Age. Let’s go for it!

You can follow Jon Snow on Twitter @jonsnowC4



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