Blair Jenkins OBE, the former head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland and Director of Broadcasting at STV, visited St Andrews on Tuesday March 20 to deliver a talk on how to improve journalism in the digital age. 16 people attended the talk entitled “The New Accountability: Better Journalism and Better Politics”.
The Domestic Politics Society invited Jenkins to speak about his new Carnegie Trust publication, “Better Journalism in the Digital Age”. In the publication, Jenkins advocates an industry code that would set expected ethical standards in journalism.
“A culture of disclosure helps to prevent a culture of abuse,” said Jenkins. “That is true of newspapers as with any other institute. I think the real significance of this year for journalism in the UK … might be the higher standards of transparency and accountability that will be required in the future of the profession of journalism.”
During the talk he referred to the publication in which he calls for “an agreed industry-wide code that would give much clearer guidance and set much higher standards in newspapers, broadcasting, and online resources”. Jenkins also said that the code should be a living document that is consulted on a regular basis.
“Journalists need a stronger sense of mission and purpose which has been missing,” said Jenkins.
He argued that tougher regulation would not be sufficient, noting that public interest requires positive action in support of good journalism. Further, he said that debate and discussion about media behaviour and ethics should not be limited to within the profession.
Throughout the talk Jenkins maintained that better journalism would lead to better politics. He touched upon the prevalent use of scare tactics used by the media to intimidate opponents, such as media rivals and politicians.
Jenkins referred to competition with different media to explain the decline of ethical standards in journalism. He explained that the decline began as an industrial problem when newspapers began to compete with broadcast journalism. “Print media strived to maintain their attractiveness and edge with broadcasting,” said Jenkins. As a result, tabloids sought to do what broadcasters would not do, such as running more stories on personal lives and becoming politically partisan. The partisanship exacerbated the problem that politicians were afraid to take on tabloid agenda for fear of harassment and vilification.
He continued to explain that in recent times, as revenue shifted to the internet, print media found itself in decline and thus sought to sensationalize stories. As print journalists were challenged by broadcast, as well as current and emerging digital media, journalists felt the need to differentiate their product.
During the question and answer section that followed the talk, one student referred to the BBC’s claim of objectivity in reference to her claim that the BBC has displayed “extremely unbalanced conduct” in opposition to the Scottish referendum. Jenkins answered, “The etiquette of broadcasting is tending not to talk about political views.” He explained, “Usually when things go wrong, it is cock up rather than a conspiracy”.
“At all my time at the BBC even (when) we did employ people who were either married to, or brothers or sisters of people who were active in politics, I never found people to be dishonest or trying to push a political agenda,” said Jenkins.
When asked by The Saint, Jenkins recommended that journalists entering the field should have a strong sense of their own ethical and professional values. Jenkins said, “In most news organisations it is highly unlikely you’ll be asked to do something that conflicts with your personal values, but there are news organisations where that is likely to happen. I think people need to know how to stand up to that.”
Jenkins is currently a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde. He was made an OBE in 2010 for his services to broadcasting.