When a Family Fortunes TV screen appeared with Lord Leveson’s head stuck onto Les Dennis’ body, I knew we were in for a treat.
Richard Best, the editor of the West Briton, was speaking on ‘Regulation and Ethics’ during the NCTJ’s Journalism Skills Conference yesterday and lightened the mood with his PowerPoint.
He decided to ask readers – all non-journalists – for their views on the press industry’s standards, and this is what they said…
Should we call at people’s homes after a death?
• A murder victim: our survey said… 92pc ‘No’ (complete with ‘nu-nuur’ sound effects)
• Child with meningitis: our survey said… 93pc ‘No’
• Mayor in car crash: our survey said… 76pc ‘No’
• Child in care: our survey said… 82pc ‘No’
• Vicar, old age: our survey said… 64pc ‘No’
Snatch photos – do we or don’t we?
• Alleged child sex offender: 84pc ‘No’
• Convicted child sex offender: 74pc ‘Yes’
• Mother of teenage truant: 71pc ‘No’
• Benefit cheat playing tennis: 73pc ‘Yes’
• Dodgy banker’s wife: 82pc ‘No’
When do we name sex offenders?
• Allegation: 96pc ‘No’
• On charge: 52pc ‘Yes’
• At trial: 74pc ‘No’ (this one seemed to confuse them)
• On conviction: 97pc ‘Yes’
• On acquittal: 70pc ‘No’
Should we identify victims?
• Common assault: 64pc ‘No’
• Domestic violence (where not doing so means the attacker remains anonymous): 74pc ‘No’
• Attempted murder: 71pc ‘No’
• Consenting elderly burglary victim: 82pc ‘Yes’
• Beating a child (where not doing so means the attacker remains anonymous): 83pc ‘No’
Are subterfuge, hacking, wires and leaks OK?
• Leaked – plans to close a school: 76pc ‘Yes’
• Hacked – revealing fatal negligence of social services: 65pc ‘Yes’
• Wired – a councillor’s backhanders: 82pc ‘Yes’
• Disguised – drug dealer: 76pc ‘Yes’
• Email leak – hospital’s shameful treatment of patients: 71pc ‘Yes’
Best admitted this was not quite up to MORI standards with thousands taking part, his research being more of a straw poll with just over 80 readers.
But his approach was fun and went down well, sparking all sorts of thoughts about what readers find acceptable or not.
We all consider death knocks an integral part of our trade, but they just didn’t seem popular; and readers seemed to find immorality more repugnant than illegality.
And yet we all claim to see sales lifts when we splash on emotive chats with bereaved families or named, shamed and pictured culprits.
Best concluded: “Newspapers are like sausages: people love ’em, but don’t want to know how they’re made.”
Press standards dominated conversations in the bars and cafes in Belfast too, with one recurring theme among trainers being: “Should we create a formal examination in ethics?”
Cathy Duncan, deputy editor of the South Wales Evening Post, told me: “What’s the point? Students might get an ‘A’ in exams, but could then act differently in a national newsroom under pressure.”
Others seemed to feel that refresher training in standards for seniors was an interesting concept.
Tony Johnston, head of Press Association Training, said: “CPD – continual professional development – is a self-evident issue for Leveson.
“In a self-regulating industry, it’s important that people making content decisions are absolutely up to speed on the latest regulatory and legal issues.
Johnston added: “The NCTJ does great things in terms of trainees, and there are some parts of the industry that do CPD very well…”
“I’m not sure about formal training,” said Alan Geere, editorial director for Northcliffe South-East.
“It strikes me that we should be discussing and debating ethical questions that come up every day in the newsroom with staff.”
Geere then expounded on a recent debate on when his team should death-knock the sister of a woman who’d been murdered.
“Should we go straight round or leave it for a day? Journalists shouldn’t always do things just because they can – readers do not always want us to shine too bright a light into much-loved local corners.”
Geere – only Geere! – reckons he occasionally wears a sandwich-board to Tesco with a prospective page one pinned to it to find out what readers think.
“A recent one was about an old guy killed crossing the road showing a picture of the car that hit him, the ambulance and him lying in the road, dead, covered with a sheet.
“I asked people, are you offended? The clear answer was: ‘No, you ought to do it. It’s sending the right message about the state of that junction and speeding cars.’
“So we went ahead, and when a few people called to complain that it was disrespectful I was able to tell them about the decision with more confidence than if it had just been mine.”
The Crown pub opposite the Europa Hotel in Belfast became the watering hole for many delegates.
Former Manchester Evening News hack Steve Panter – now lecturing at the University of Salford – was said to have had a tank-full on Tuesday night before conference even started.
He missed breakfast but dragged himself out of bed for a 9am NCTJ annual meeting and was heard to moan in whispers: “Isn’t there anything to eat?”
Panter was then ribbed by fellow committee members when they saw how he was described in the annual report.
“Experienced journalist and author,” read his citation, whereas Independent News and Media editor-in-chief Edmund Curran, The Guardian readers’ editor Chris Elliott, Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell and the above-mentioned Geere were only given their official titles.
Elliot – pictured below deciding between two drinks with (from left) Geere, Best and Satchwell – was heard to mutter: “I want to be an experienced journalist.”