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My views, as a Cambridge professor no less, on politics and the press; not as clear or straight-forward as I expected

Posted on 12 November 2013 | 12:11pm

Never did I imagine, as I drank, fought and very occasionally studied my way through four years as a Cambridge University student, that one day I would be a ‘visiting professor’ no less. Also, given that at the time I had no idea that I would go into the media, let alone politics, even less would I have imagined that the reason for this role would be my alleged expertise in both.

I do a lot of speeches. I did three yesterday alone, one – paid – to a private sector company that wanted its staff advised on how to do strategy; the second at the Irish Embassy where the Ambassador was kind enough to host the London launch of my ‘Irish Diaries,‘ and where there was a great turnout of politicians, diplomats, media, business people, writers, everyone from Edna O’Brien to the head of MI6; and the third at the Albanian Youth Forum, a gathering of young Albanians in London who meet to discuss issues facing their country, most pressingly the decision facing the government on whether to accept the US request to allow the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons on Albanian territory. It is of course a tough call, but provided the safety issues are all addressed properly, and real and lasting international support forthcoming, it would be a sign of how Albania is trusted as a NATO partner and international player. It would also be quite something to see Assad disarmed without US military action.

All three speeches I was able to make without too much preparation as all the issues are pretty familiar to me. But the Cambridge Lectures, the first tomorrow and the second on Thursday, have taken up a lot of time and thought. Indeed there have been times I have wondered why I agreed to do it. I started working on them during the summer, and ended up writing close to 30,000 words in various streams of consciousness and, with the help of a researcher, more fact-based analysis to go with my long held views. I wanted to find at least something to say that I had not said in my two long statements and long evidence sessions to Leveson. I also wanted to avoid simply ranting against the Murdoch-Dacre excesses of the age. And I wanted to reflect on the impact of social media, and go into some of the problems it gives to journalism as well as the opportunities. 30,000 words would take around five hours to deliver, so cutting and editing and rewriting and honing have all taken more time than I imagined. But this morning, going through them for the nth time as I twiddled on the exercise bike, I was finally happy, and sent them off to the organisers. I will post them here in full after the event.

The speeches are open to the public, though I expect academics and students will make up the bulk of the audience.The details for anyone wishing to attend are here. After the speech on Thursday, I will be doing a book-signing, not just one of the new one, but the other nine I have written in recent years.

For now, I thought you might like a few little snippets from the 11000 words that have survived. Together the speeches are called ‘A Life at the Nexus of Media and Politics.’

Lecture 1 – ‘why journalism, and why it matters in a world of flux?’

– The Murdoch-Dacre generation of owners and executives has failed, cannot change their ways, have had their day. Hope of recovery has to rest with the next generation; of journalists and technology.

– We need a new system of independent self regulation as proposed by Leveson which, contrary to the lies told about it in their papers, should give journalists little to fear, and much to like, if their interest truly is good journalism having its place at the heart of democracy…The post Leveson debate suggests owners and editors believe they are above politics.

– The impact of ‘tabloidisation’ has created two perspectives: the first camp champions celebrity culture as a populist force for democratisation, classlessness, engagement with serious issues through reality TV. The second camp sees a lament for cultural decline, where TV and press conspire to create fabricated personalities, and political debate is reduced to the emotive, personal and trivial.

– If I was starting out again, would I consider journalism, and if my children wanted to be journalists, would I welcome that? The answer to both is yes.

– The question – who or what is a journalist? – is a live one, made real by social media.

– Until there is a truthful debate within the media about the media, the standards expected of it and agreed by it, then they will in my view continue to decline in terms of respect and with it, a positive role in shaping change.

– If education is important, so are the moral choices individual journalists make, and that notion should be part of their training.

– The scale of the media means we need more not fewer good journalists.

– Power – that is another answer to the question ‘why journalism?’

– The quality press has always had influence through reach to the elite, not to be underestimated. But it is at least arguable that the influence of tabloids has been greater, certainly culturally, perhaps politically too.

– The papers are generous to the point of ridiculous with their favourites, or where their own interests are concerned, vicious and disproportionate about hobby horses or people who cross them. The same approach is moving into TV. Fox News. Fair and balanced my backside, and a good reason why whatever the criticisms of the BBC, it should be supported, remain central to our culture and having had the Murdochisation of the press, we should resist the Foxisation of TV news, which this government almost allowed, and certainly wanted to.

– Alongside the myth of non interference we have the myth of press objectivity.

– The reason why newsrooms should not be seen as factories, why there should be spare capacity, why there should be time to check and challenge, is precisely because the balance has shifted, that the faster rhythm of news, and the greater sophistication of PR, has increased the power and influence of the PR at the expense of the journalist.

– plenty more besides.

Lecture 2, on Thursday, is called ‘Journalism and Democracy: grounds for optimism in the face of the future?’ (the question mark is to deal with any suggestions I may be naive!) In addition to addressing inter alia (there has to be Latin in a Cambridge lecture) the issues of regulation, ownership, social media, Snowden and Wikielaks, I suggest why, despite all the bad in our media, and the lies they tell about Leveson and the Royal Charter, I remain an optimist about public debate, and how I have perhaps surprised myself in wanting to speak up for journalism, despite despising much that the Murdoch-Dacre generation has done to our culture.

  • Ehtch

    Alright Ali? Frank Skinner, the HARRUMPH!, the WBA supporter, drank his way all the way to an MA in English Literature or something. But I suppose it does take it out of you, when you get older, fooling yourself you can use it for success in bit more older years, using it to carry on anaethetising(sp) yourself from life for further success, until it bites back, eventually. It is like going through University comatosed from real life events. But you can do it for a few years, but then, reality catches up, and no amount of drink and substances can recreate that creative and pure feeling then

    It is a repeated story. Look at Tony wotsisname, forget his full name now, ummm…. search… shit, Tony something he was, went to Oxbridge, went nuts in his London flat, cocaine and shit – name might come to me later, ey Charlie Chuck?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22q_EWBPV0g

  • dan1.smith

    No journalist I know was ever party to an illegal war through words that the great AC doesn’t like.

  • Michele

    Whose ‘conspiracy’ was the fuss around Plebgate?

    Who created, wrote and published all the fluff (the word ‘details’ doesn’t seem apt).
    Who sold waste (2b) paper and was probably paid bonus?

    Is Keith Vaz going to pump himself up panto-dame style again and demand that any of those poor beleaguered toilers on the rags make apologies to Mitchell? As very IF.

    Is anybody setting good examples to yoof?

  • It’s good to see that you’re so positive about proper self-regulation. I can’t understand why so few journalists appear to see through the distorted campaign against it.

    And the post-Leveson debate suggests to me that owners and editors think they’re not only above politics but above Parliament and the law.

    Will the text of your lectures be published, or do you know if there’ll be a podcast or video?