Kurt Barling is Professor of Professional Practice at Middlesex University London. He is the BBC’s Special Correspondent for London.
In the third in the Series of Broadcasting Debates Professor Barling was joined by undergraduate Georgiana Tudor in conversation with the Guardian’s diary editor, Hugh Muir.
Hugh Muir is always keen to burst a bubble, dispel a myth and he began by reminding his audience that journalism is about delivering stories not acquiring degrees. He spoke candidly from his own experience having decided during his A Levels at school in East London he wanted to be a journalist.
He and a friend were so curious about what that career might entail that they organized a day shadowing a local newspaper journalist. It introduced him to the cut and thrust of dealing with ordinary people and the journalists who are supposed to turn their stories into readable copy.
He decided university was a distraction and signed as a trainee with the local newspaper. He believes that grassroots training and experience has kept him rooted in the traditions of story getting and story-telling.
Of course a quarter of a century down the line it is much less likely that opportunities to make this kind of transition still exist, and if they do, progression to be a major figure on a national title will surely be harder to secure.
As a prodigious writer of the diary column and the Hideously Diverse Britain output Muir has been amongst the most prominent writers in the past decade dealing with race, social policy and London government.
He says he realized early that dealing with difference would be part of his contribution to making a change in the world. The inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence certainly helped transform this landscape in Britain.
There can be little doubt that issues which were seen as peripheral to the national agenda involving minorities twenty years ago are now mainstream agenda items partly because of the recommendations of Macpherson for major public institutions to deal with the issue of “institutionalized racism”.
Interestingly he says his column ‘Hideously Diverse Britain’, which took its title from the former BBC DG Greg Dyke’s quip about the corporation being hideously white and turned it on its head, may be overdue for a revamp.
The joke is beginning to wear thin. Context is everything and there is a danger people might begin to take the title seriously. That would never do for the Guardian.
Building up a contacts list and cultivating those relationships is a key part in keeping the flow of ideas coming to keep his diary column alive and relevant to the hard news agenda. Muir reckons his contribution to hard news is the injection of humour which the dairy allows him to indulge in. It is a reminder that the key currency in journalism is the story and they will only come from sources willing to share new information with you.
Even on an issue like immigration it is imperative that a liberal paper like the Guardian doesn’t suppress the inconvenient but very real concerns that may not reflect the views of its core readership.
The journalist’s job is to try and give people things to think about that they may not have considered before. Although Muir recognizes that his current job on the Guardian can be less constraining than when he worked at the BBC as a Correspondent where impartiality was sacrosanct. Taking a line is instinctive for him but it still remains rooted in verifiable facts.
He was at pains to remind people that the consequence of getting things wrong when you criticize individuals is a possible appointment with a High Court judge. The Guardian’s lawyers are always at hand to focus the mind on getting facts right.
Trust remains a key concern for all practicing journalists because there has been so much adverse publicity over the past twenty-four months. But the reality is a vibrant democracy needs critical journalism and most of what the Guardian does, Muir contends, would not fall foul of any regulator and therefore there is little to fear from regulation per se.
He added a note of caution on the police having the right to arrest journalists and force them to reveal contacts and seize their notebooks. He believes this would be a retrograde step and should be resisted.
Muir sees himself as an optimist for the future job prospects of Middlesex students. He says that the fragmentation of the industry and the new avenues for publication mean there are many more first points of access.
It will be just as difficult to navigate a pathway to success, but breaking into journalism should not necessarily become more difficult.
And as for advice on making your Middlesex studies work for you. Stories, resilience and a “stalker-like” persistence are the essential ingredients to convince people you are worth a try-out.