By Christina Zaba and Paul Breeden
‘Newspapers used to be the mass media. But this is the mass media now,’ declared Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade at Bristol’s Watershed last Friday to a packed audience of bloggers and journalists.
He added: ‘There are only eight owners of the UK national press – that’s why we need the blogosphere. We need a plural media, in which the truth comes out because we police each other.’
The wide-ranging two-hour event, part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, covered matters of anonymity, political ghettos, audience and prejudice, authority, accountability and verification, as well as the possible role a trade union such as the National Union of Journalists might play in the new mass media world.
Sunny Hundal, editor of the Liberal Conspiracy blog, took issue with the idea that blogs just create ghettos. ‘We need a space for the left to have a conversation with itself,’ he said.
Bloggers in the audience pointed out that the blogosphere didn’t need the mainstream, and often ran parallel to it, or ahead.
Palestinian exiled journalist Iqbal Tamimi, creator of the Palestinian Mothers blog, described how she had supported the mothers of Israeli refuseniks on the other side of the political divide, and how her blog had become a lifeline for many women and men.
And Will Gore of the Press Complaints Commission said that the regulator was willing to examine complaints on matters of fact whether they were published on blogs or in print.
The event was a milestone in Bristol and beyond, for bloggers, journalists, and everyone interested in how we communicate.
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Saturday morning workshop: Blogging Hell! Finding common cause across borders: Planning for international action on media standards
Heavy criticism of existing methods of regulating the British media at the following day’s morning workshop in Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio broadened into exciting new ideas for using the blogosphere to expose bad practice.
The PCC was attacked for being unable to stop regular abuses by tabloid newspapers in perpetuating racial stereotypes, often about Muslims.
And the NUJ’s Code of Conduct, which sets ethical standards for all NUJ members, was held up as something for bloggers to aspire to.
But Kevin Arscott, who blogs as Angry Mob, said: “I find the Code of Conduct really amusing. Most of its clauses are broken by 90 per cent of the Daily Mail’s content so what recourse is there for anyone there?”
Others called for mainstream journalists to take more notice of expert opinion, for example on climate change, and pointed out that bloggers’ exposure of newspaper gaffes may not lead to apologies but does result in positive changes to stories and to headlines.
Sunny Hundal, who runs the Liberal Conspiracy blog, pointed to the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, whose campaign against the Mail’s anti-Polish bias was widely covered by blogs and led to a PCC-negotiated truce between the Poles and the newspaper.
Will Gore of the PCC said this was an example of the PCC working behind the scenes on many occasions to reach settlements for complainants.
The power of bloggers to achieve redress was illustrated by Anton Vowl, whose blog Enemies of Reason commented on the many tabloid stories stating that pubs were banning football fans in England shirts during the World Cup.
The ban was non-existent, said Anton – and because his blog was widely read and passed around on Facebook and other media, it now comes top of a Google search for “England shirt ban”.
This means that anyone trying to find out about the issue will find out the truth before they see a tabloid website’s version of the story.
From this discussion emerged an agreement by several bloggers to work with MediaAct’s newsfutures website to explore setting up an online resource to quickly debunk similar media myths.
Several bloggers who comment on media affairs, including Jamie Thunder of exclarotive, agreed that tabloids recycle the same myths time after time, such as stories about Muslims being offended by the smell of bacon, or the recent unfounded story about Muslim-only public toilets.
The bloggers found them easy to disprove – but agreed that having a pooled website where knowledge of the myths is shared would make it easier to disseminate the real stories.
Mike Jempson, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of the West of England who chaired the session for the charity Mediawise and the pan-European MediaAct project, said the “media myths” initiative would show how bloggers are working by the best principles of journalism – to make efforts to check their facts and to show where the evidence came from.
Saturday afternoon workshop: Jo Bloggs: but is it journalism?
An intense 90-minute discussion of how print journalists and bloggers both challenge and support each other in the worldwide electronic mass media resulted in a set of three aims for the NUJ.
First, bloggers and journalists discussed framing a motion to the union’s forthcoming Delegates’ Meeting formalising the union’s support for bloggers doing journalistic work, and extending membership options to bloggers.
Second, it was agreed that the blogosphere and bloggers could do more to promote, as well as keep to, the NUJ’s Code of Conduct.
Finally, that same Code of Conduct, or some other seal of approval, or kitemark, could be used to give authority to blogs which kept to journalistic standards, to the benefit of all parties: bloggers, readers, and the union.
Session chair Christina Zaba pointed out that trade unions were devised to cope with the abuses of workers during the first Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, and that they could well prove be the best way of organising, protecting and supporting workers in the Information Revolution too.
The weekend’s joint mainstream and blogosphere expose of the Iraq war documents by Wikileaks was one example – “an extraordinary moment in journalism” according to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.
The NUJ’s Vice-President Donnacha DeLong had already explained that bloggers are eligible to join the union subject to the usual criteria.
Emotions ran high when a blogger accused journalists of selling out by working for Rupert Murdoch. Susie Weldon of NUJ Bristol Branch retorted: “Just because a journalist works for Rupert Murdoch, doesn’t mean they agree with everything he stands for. It’s the public who really support – by buying his papers. Don’t blame the journalists!”
Simon Chapman, south west regional representative on the NUJ’s National Executive Council, said that a central concern of any trade union is the economic welfare of its members, their pay and conditions at work. The union can also advise on freelance pay rates, late payment and copyright.
Blogger Tom Rawlings said: “Membership of the NUJ for bloggers could have a commercial use – the union could represent people who have journalistic ambition, and if the NUJ kitemark became widely accepted, that might lead to a new kind of online collective bargaining, with higher ad rates.”
Journalist Elisabeth Winkler, who writes the RealFoodLover blog, said: “Blogging gives me the freedom of expression I seek; but it would be good to be able to gain legal representation if I needed it, by being a member of the NUJ.”
The NUJ does not provide legal assistance in respect of libel, slander, malicious falsehood and any other area relating to defamation of character. However, a deal has been negotiated for freelance members that gives a good discount on insuring for both Public Liability and Professional Indemnity, including libel.
And the union is also a community of colleagues who can help with many different kinds of problems.
Mike Jempson, who is working with EU-wide MediaAct research project, promised to take the conclusions forward into its ongoing research.
Next Branch meeting: 3rd November. See you there!
Twitter discussion at #newsfutures