The Professor of Professional Practice, School of Media and Performing Arts at Middlesex delivers his inaugural lecture.
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Should journalism be subversive?
George Kennan wrote that Journalism is 'a history of the present'. Journalists are charged with being eyewitnesses to that history. Unlike historians, however, journalists cannot deploy hindsight to craft their narrative. A journalist must work contemporaneously using a mixture of forensics, critical thinking, instinct and sound judgement to reach credible conclusions from the facts before them.
Yet, as they craft their narrative, and publish or be damned, contradictory forces are at play.
Often powerful interests will distort or withhold evidence to skew or kill the story. There will be inaccurate facts and competing interpretations, half-truths and lies.
A patient goes in for a hernia operation and loses a leg; a citizen dies in police custody; an oil spill pollutes a coastline; exam boards make significant errors with A Level grading boundaries; a newspaper publishes a defamatory story, facts unchecked.
Marshalling credible evidence to deliver confident description and sound analysis is the bedrock of longevity. Prescription and prediction is a shredder of reputations.
The sources of fact-fixing are often at the interface between public or private institutions and the media. Comment is free but gathering the facts can be prohibitively expensive. Powerful interests can draw on manifold resources to create persuasive cases that their own narrative is the most legitimate.
In this increasingly challenging and competitive journalistic space, young journalists need resilience and tools to cut through this powerful assault from spin and misinformation.
Back in 1927, Ernest Hemingway identified the characteristics he believed made a great writer. I will argue these attributes are essential for great journalism today. He said: 'in order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector'. This requires the preservation of an honourably sceptical mindset. Universities should be in the business of cultivating just such people; experts at crap detection.
Facts are sacred, truth an ideal. Journalists should start by disassembling the facts presented to them in order to establish an empirically plausible version of events; a narrative that can stand the test of publication and public challenge. Journalists are always struggling to negotiate pathways to the truth.
In order to subvert implausible narratives, journalists need the skills to check the sources of their facts for robustness, in the same way an accountant checks a balance sheet or discrepancies.
Facts are the instruments of counter-subversion.
Kurt Barling graduated with a PhD in International Relations and MSc in Government from the London School of Economics, where he lectured in the International Relations Department. In 1989 he moved to the BBC where he has worked on the most prestigious news and current affairs programmes including Across BBC News, The Money Programme, Assignment, Correspondent, Black Britain, Today, the World Tonight and From Our Own Correspondent. Kurt has also worked on Radio 4’s Money Box and Inside Money.
In 1996 he won his first reporter of the year award and subsequently more Commission for Race Equality media awards for his reporting and documentaries in 1997, 2003, 2005, 2006, than any other British journalist. In 2010 he was awarded a Justice Link award by the UK Attorney General. In 2011 he won a Best Writer Online, Media Award from the Press Association. He has won and been shortlisted for many more awards.
From 1997-2000, he was BBC News Correspondent. Since November 2012 he has also been a Professor of Professional Practice in Journalism & Television in the Department of Media at Middlesex University London.
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