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Why was Jeremy Thorpe so adored?

We can’t seem to get away from Jeremy Thorpe at the moment. It sometime feels as if we are in a bizarre 40 year time warp with his name dominating the headlines once more.

Some of us may have our own vivid recollections of the events portrayed in A Very English Scandal and the subsequent trial but for many others it is a little piece of political and social history they knew nothing of until the last few weeks.

Several people I have spoken to expressed surprise at the jubilation when he was found not guilty and the adulation in the final balcony scene in A Very English Scandal (also shown from real life at the end of Tom Mangold’s 1979 documentary).

It is hard to explain to people just how adored Thorpe was but I thought this picture of my late mother (nearest the camera) might help.

I took it for her at a Liberal Party conference (or Assembly as we called them) in the mid-70s. She was with a colleague (Sue Skinner) from her constituency (Wanstead & Woodford). As you can see Jeremy was accompanied by Marion.

Thorpe had only met my mother once before. She was just another constituency activist from a part of the world I don’t think he ever visited – Wanstead & Woodford – but within seconds he had recalled her name and where she came from. He was genuinely engaged in a conversation with them, making them feel very special. He had that effect on so many people, maybe not always for the best, but it goes some way to explaining the reaction to the trial.

Many of those people, including my mother, thought it wouldn’t be long before he made a political comeback. His judgement – or Ursula’s in the drama – was that he was finished as a public figure. That balcony scene with Thorpe displaying all his old élan and panache was a sad last hurrah.

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Politically I was a huge fan of Thorpe for reasons I recounted an the Appreciation I wrote after his death. Nothing I have seen in the wonderful BBC drama or Tom Mangold’s documentary has made me change those views.

Quote checks: a growing curse

Over my near four decades as a journalist one of the biggest changes has been the huge growth in demands from PR people – both in-house and external – for quote checks. When I started they were unheard of. Now, hardly an article goes by without at least one request.

They are a blight and that is putting it politely.

They are an insult to professional journalists and a dreadful indictment of the lack of trust PR people have in the people they are responsible for putting in front of the media.

Gather two or three journalists together, mention “quote checks” and they will quickly generate plenty of righteous and totally justified indignation. It isn’t just journalists who are appalled by this curse. Very experienced PR people are too, for reasons that S-J Wrigley of Spotlight Consultancy recently explained in an excellent post on LinkedIn.

I was asked by a publisher to suggest some guidelines for dealing with requests for quote checks – here is what I sent them and which they have largely adopted.

Quote check guidelines

If a journalist correctly identifies themselves as such at the start of a conversation that is clearly aimed at gathering content and comment for publication that conversation is “on the record” unless anything is said to the contrary at the outset.

If the subject of the interview tries to change the status of a conversation part way through that does not mean they can take remarks already made off the record.

This puts the journalist in a strong position as people have no legal or other right to review, amend or withdraw comments made on the record.

There can never be an expectation that an interviewee or the PR team has a right to review quotes. The only exception to this is when one person is the subject of the article, eg a profile piece, and then, legally, they have joint copyright over their quotes (but never the journalist’s context etc). If it is a news article or a feature quoting several people this does not apply.

Requests for quote checks at the end of an interview cannot carry any threat to withdraw permission to use the material. It was said on the record and that cannot be withdrawn retrospectively. This gives the journalist the upper hand in negotiating if that becomes necessary.

Requests for quote checks are sometimes made at the beginning of an interview and the interview is sometimes conditional on agreeing to it. This is an invidious position for a journalist to be placed in.

How should a journalist respond?

This partly depends on whether you need them more than they need you. In general, requests for quote checks should be resisted. The only exceptions may be when the quotes contain a lot of technical information, data, names etc that everyone would feel more comfortable having checked. In these cases you should always stress it is just the facts they are checking.

Celebrity PRs are among the most controlling and will often produce a contract for the journalist to sign before they are allowed to speak to a client. This will make clear that their approval is essential. If you are ever presented with such a contract show it to your company’s lawyers before signing it. If you do not have that luxury then check that they are not exerting control over your words, just over their client’s quotes.

Of course, resisting a request to check quotes might mean that a person or even a whole company might not speak to you for a while. This threat is what PR people are relying on to get you to submit your quotes to them. They are bullying you.

Why should requests be resisted?

They imply a lack of trust in the ability of the journalist to do the job for which they have trained and in which they may have had years of experience. This should be pointed out to people because they often don’t see it from our perspective. Sometimes I have turned it round and asked them if I can come and check whether they are doing their job properly.

Quote check screamThey can lead to unnecessary arguments. What are you going to do if they come back and try to neuter the best comment they made? You have it as an on the record comment (you may have even recorded it), it adds value to the article and you want to use it. They have no right to withdraw it. Stalemate. The journalist is in the driving seat and should drive a hard bargain which might, ultimately, mean refusing the request to change it – publish and be damned. OK, they might be cross and not talk to you for a while but usually there are plenty of other people out there who will speak to you.

They mess up the publishing process. You write an article to a deadline that doesn’t allow time for PR people to poke their noses in and fuss about quotes. The more people you quote in an article, the more chaos quote checks cause. They are often simply impractical.

Quote checks on interviews that are recorded are simply pointless. You are under no obligation to tell people you are recording an interview. This has been clearly established in the courts which only care about whether a journalist has accurately captured what someone said, not how they captured it.

The dumbest requests I get are from people who I have interviewed face-to-face, knowing I was recording the interview. How do they think they are going to dispute what they said?

Ultimately, this is about trust.

Firms need to be able to trust the people we interview to say the right things. They then need to be able to trust us to report that correctly. Relationships with contacts built on anything other trust are usually only transient anyway.

If the person/firm you want to speak to really insists as a pre-condition that you submit quotes for checking and they are so special, have access to the key piece of information, etc that you feel you have to do a deal with the devil, still remind them that they are displaying a lack of trust in our ability to do your job as making them feel guilty might make them less keen to attempt to censor anything they decide they would rather they (or their spokesperson) hadn’t said.

Even if you have agreed to a check that doesn’t mean you have agreed to change anything. Remember once it is on the record, it is always on the record. Publish and be damned.

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The final blog in this short series will suggest some basic procedures for dealing with complaints about content

The earlier blogs covered:

• Editorial standards: values worth striving for
• Reporting Best Practice: facts, sources and comment
• Editorial standards: maintaining trust, authority and integrity

Editorial standards: maintaining trust, authority & integrity

Professional journalists care deeply about about the quality and accuracy of what they write and the way they go about gathering information.

A few years ago, I wrote a booklet for Incisive Media journalists on editorial standards which contains plenty of valuable advice and guidance for journalists. Much of it remains highly relevant and is worth sharing. I remember when writing the booklet how impressed I was that so many other media organisations, especially in the fields of business and financial publishing had similar policies they expected their journalists to adhere to.

This is the third in a series of blogs doing just that with a few minor up-dates.

Mission: It is our aim to produce great journalism that provokes, informs, entertains and educates. Accuracy, reliability and integrity are the key attributes that all writers and production staff should aim for in every aspect of their work. We strive to produce added-value information, whether in print or online, that our readers cannot live without. You should be aware of your division’s mission statement and that of your own brand.

Authority: We write factual and authoritative stories and do not pull punches. We do not write deliberately negative or destructive copy and always go out of our way to be honest and balanced. There is no room for mean-spirited journalism in our pages. Be tough, but be fair.

Independence: One of the most important qualities of a good journalist is independence and our readers must be able to place their trust in us. We are independent of our sources and do not let ourselves be used by them. It is our job to question the conventional wisdom and ask the questions we know our readers would like to have answered. Our editorial pages – whether in print or online – are not for sale.

Accountability: We hate making mistakes. When we do, we correct them. Internally, you are expected to come clean with your editor or publisher when you make an error. Do not withhold any serious complaints you get from readers and/or sources about your work. (A further blog in this series will deal with complaints and how to handle them).

Initiative: Editorial staff must show initiative and commitment, be good time managers and be flexible, ready to respond to the varying demands of their job. They must represent Incisive Media in a professional and conscientious manner in appearance and attitude.

Honesty: Never lie to a source. Never lie to a colleague. Never lie to your editor or manager.

Transparency: Never duck the implications of your relationship to a subject or a story, or to a particular source or sources, if this might have an impact on how we approach a story. If there is any reason why you might not be the right person to do a story because of a conflict, let your editor know.

ipso-green-320Stocks and shares: Simply put, you should never write about a company or business in which you have a financial interest, or write about shares or financial services products in which you or a close relative has a significant interest. You should be familiar with the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s Editors’ Code of Practice which is unequivocally clear on this point.

Advertising features: These are a common feature of modern business publishing and can add value to a publication, its website or to an event. However, it is important that readers are not misled. They should be clearly labelled and, if staff writers are contributing, you should always ask the question: is it clear to the reader what is independent content and what is paid-for content? If there is any prospect of confusion among readers, you should err on the side of caution and use external writers or write under a pen name.

Plagiarism: It goes without saying that as part of your commitment to trust and integrity, you should never attempt to pass off someone else’s work as your own.

Entertainment and paid-for trips: Practice differs sharply in different markets. In the US, most journalists decline all lunches or similar if paid for by a company or a source. In the UK and Asia, it is more usual to accept them. You need to be wary of excessively expensive entertainment: think through the potential obligation to the provider that might result and, if you have any concerns, discuss these with your publisher and editor. If it is a paid-for visit to another country that will result in editorial coverage, you should state clearly at the end of any article who paid for the trip.

Finally, there were a few general words of advice that all journalists, including this writer, should reflect on from time-to-time.

A key ingredient in any successful journalistic career is self-discipline, whether in meeting deadlines, managing your time, making that extra phone call to get the story or checking every fact over again. That can only come from you, although the advice in this booklet will be of great help.

Always remember that excellence is not a one-off event, it is a constant striving for the very highest standards in print, in person and online.

Trust, authority and integrity are hard-won accolades: tough to earn but all too easy to lose.

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The next blog in this series will deal with the growing problem of demands for quote checks.

The earlier blogs covered:

• Editorial standards: values worth striving for
• Reporting Best Practice: facts, sources and comment

Reporting Best Practice: facts, sources and comment

We hear so much about fake news, media bias and suspect journalistic standards nowadays that people might think that journalists rarely, if ever, stop to think about what they do or how they go about their daily task of reporting. My experience is that professional journalists care deeply about about the quality and accuracy of what they write and the way they go about gathering information.

A few years ago, I wrote a booklet for Incisive Media journalists on editorial standards which contains plenty of valuable advice and guidance for journalists. Much of it remains highly relevant and is worth sharing. This is the second in a series of blogs doing just that with a few minor up-dates.

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Sources: All of your conversations with sources are presumptively on the record, provided that you clearly identify yourself at the start of the interview as a reporter for your publication. Many of the people you interview will want to go ‘off the record’. Resist this: encourage sources to be on the record. Remind them that readers place more stock by an attributed quote. If you must, allow them to go ‘not for attribution’ or ‘off the record’ (see below). Make sure that you and the source have the same understanding of the terms used below. Avoid conversations that wander from one status to another: it is generally best to take them off the record and then go through with the source to get his or her agreement as to what can be used on the record at the end.

You should aim to get as much as possible on the record. Do not let sources think they can easily gain anonymity in order to criticise other people or damage competitors; encourage them to go on the record. Never forget that some sources want to remain anonymous because they want to advance an agenda or hurt someone. Do not let yourself be used.

Everything given to you by one source as that you wish to present as fact should always be checked, no matter who they are. You must always be on your guard against being used or too easily accepting something as fact just because it sounds true or is headline grabbing. Unfortunately, journalism is littered with examples of people who have deviated from this simple rule.

Sourcing and status: There are three levels of conversation between source and reporter: on the record, not for attribution and off the record.

• On the record is exactly what it says: sources, by name, being quoted or paraphrased in print.

• Not for attribution is when you quote or paraphrase someone without identifying them by name. “A source in the Justice Department…” “A leading fund manager…”. Two important points to bear in mind when using not-for-attribution sources are: work out in detail how you will describe an anonymous source – the source should not be surprised to see how you have described them – and give the reader some help on how to judge the value of information from the anonymous source by being as detailed as possible in the identification while preserving the source’s anonymity.

• Off the record means you cannot attribute the information to the person you are interviewing and you cannot use it based on that source at all. It does not mean that the information goes into a black box, protected from ever being made public. You can take what you learn in an off-the-record interview and use it to try to ferret out other information, or the same piece of information, on the record or not for attribution using other sources.

• At some events people may refer to the Chatham House Rules. These are frequently misunderstood. Firstly, there is only one Chatham House Rule. Secondly, it does not mean off the record. It is a non-attributable status that means it can be reported: “At an dinner in the City last night top compliance directors slammed the regulator…”. You cannot identify the participants but do not be surprised if some people at the event think they were talking off the record.

Getting comment: No one should be surprised to see their name in one of our publications. No one should be surprised to read an allegation or accusation about them. You should get comment from, or at least attempt to get comment from, people whose names will appear in and are the subject of a story. Be persistent: one phone call is not nearly enough; you should try hard, often leaving multiple messages, to reach key players in a story and tell them when your deadline is.

In most instances, organisations should also not be surprised. For example, if you are mentioning a firm, even if you are not quoting anyone from that firm, you should call a manager or PR representative of that firm to confirm facts or to get comment. You should give people a real chance to respond to an article by contacting them ahead of deadlines when circumstances permit. As with all of these guidelines, there are obvious common-sense exceptions. For example, it is not necessary to get comment when a person’s name appears as part of a contemporaneous court report.

People and companies cannot suppress a story about themselves that they do not want published merely by refusing to comment. In order to protect yourself and your publication you should put allegations to someone and invite them to comment but if they do not respond within a reasonable time or refuse to comment then you can publish. It is best to make your readers aware that you invited comment but did not receive it.

There is plenty of law covering this, much of it now enshrined in the 2013 Defamation Act.

ipso-green-320Representing yourself as a reporter: Do not tell people you are someone you are not. That means, in virtually all cases, you should introduce yourself to potential sources and subjects as a reporter and name your publication. Deception should only be used in exceptional circumstances where there is a clear public interest to be served and these should be discussed with senior editorial staff. The Editors’ Code of the Independent Press Standards Organisation has some sensible advice on this.

Quotes: Do not use quotes out of context. Use an ellipsis (…) when you omit long stretches of quoted material. You do not need to use an ellipsis when you omit odd words from an interview: just be careful not to distort the meaning or take a quote out of context.

Facts: You are responsible for not making mistakes. The best practice is to fact check everything you write formally. That means going through a copy of the final, edited version of your story and questioning every fact: the spelling of names, the names of companies, job titles and so on. Just getting the spelling of someone’s name wrong undermines the authority of a story. A good practical tip is to fact check from the bottom of the story up, one sentence at a time. This will force you to isolate facts and minimise the likelihood of quickly reading past checkable material that you’ve stopped ‘seeing’ because you have read the story so many times.

Online resources: Take care when using online sources. It is the journalist’s job to check sources. Do not take all websites at face value, especially if they contain controversial information. There are many bogus and hoax websites that contain malicious false information about individuals or business rivals that look like the real thing. You should look for an ‘about us’ section and check the contact details if you have any reason to be suspicious about the provenance of a site.

Wikis and collaborative sites: Wikipediea and similar collaborative sites are a very good starting point for research but they should never be treated as a definitive source. There are many examples of inaccuracies, some deliberate and malicious, on these sites. Every fact should be checked.

Beware of social media: The vast array of social media also presents a significant challenge. Social media can be a great source of stories but it is also the means by which most fake news is generated and recirculated. Everything needs careful checking. Remember that the laws of defamation and libel apply to social media in the same way as they apply to everything else that is published.

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The next post in this series will cover some broader topics such as financial interests, hospitality and balancing commercial interests. Later posts will deal with complaints and quote checks.

 

 

Editorial standards: values worth striving for

I recently picked up a copy of a booklet on editorial standards and policies I wrote over ten years ago for Incisive Media which was then at its zenith, employing hundreds of journalists across three continents.

It contains a mixture of practical advice on editorial best practice coupled with some broader guidance on the ethics of journalism as they might be applied in a modern business publisher. What struck me is just how frequently the questions it seeks to answer come up when I am running training courses for new journalists or giving lectures to media studies students at universities.

Over the next few weeks I will share much of that content as it remains so relevant. It may even be thought-provoking for some.

Of course, plenty has changed in the media since it was written.

The digital revolution has gathered pace and changed publishing and the media in ways no-one envisaged 11 years ago (whatever they might say today).

In the UK, we have had the Leveson inquiry resulting in the creation of a new, but deeply flawed, press regulator with pressure mounting for a second phase of that inquiry to be launched.

Across the globe, there are furious debates about “fake news”, where it comes from and how it is shaping public opinion.

Rather than just reproduce all the content in the booklet, I will up-date it, strip out the parts that were purely internal to Incisive Media in 2007 and organise it into a series of themed blogs. I will conclude with some thoughts on quote-checking, which was only a minor irritant to journalists at Incisive Media then but which now looms large in almost every corner of the media. I was recently asked to draft some policies on quote-checking for another publisher and will share those more widely.

So, by way of introduction to the series of blogs here is what James Hanbury, chief executive, and I said were the aims of the booklet at the time:

“Trust, authority and integrity are the three key words that drive everything and everyone at Incisive Media.
“They are words that you as journalists – either experienced ones joining us as the next step of your career or graduates on our training scheme – will recognise as the cornerstones of editorial excellence.
I”ndeed, excellence is at the heart of every publication, every website, every conference and every piece of content we produce.
“Without this excellence the commercial functions within the company would struggle to be so successful. This places a great challenge and responsibility on those in our editorial departments to maintain the highest editorial standards”.

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Some of the history of Incisive Media can be found on Wikipedia, although it is by no means complete.

 

Ermine-clad guerrillas will be empowered by Commons Brexit vote

The fall-out from last night’s vote by MPs to insist that Parliament has the final say on whether to accept whatever Brexit deal the government finally negotiates will be extensive.

This has further weakened Theresa May’s already fragile government, possibly hastening us towards a general election in early 2018.

The prospect will grow more likely once the House of Lords gets its hands on the enormous Brexit Bill.

So far, relatively little has been said or written about how far the over-whelmingly pro-EU peers might push the government on this controversial bill which threatens to remove Parliamentary scrutiny from so much of the Brexit process. But after Christmas the spotlight will fall on the Lords and when it does we are likely to find it emboldened by last night’s vote.

The decision of the elected House of Commons to insist that the terms of the final deal are brought back to Parliament rather than just signed off by ministers will encourage the unelected Lords to be bolder in their attacks on the Bill than they might have been. It offers them a significant degree of political cover for amending the Bill. They aren’t going to vote it down in its entirety – that would clearly be a step too far for an unelected body and would hurl us into a major constitutional row – but they are likely use a sort of Parliamentary guerrilla warfare to pass amendments that will make the government very uncomfortable.

If the government cannot get these amendments reversed in the Commons, something it has surely made harder for itself by its bullying of rebel Tory MPs yesterday, then the possibility of May being forced to the country grows stronger.

 

Back from the Brexit cliff-edge

The best one can say about the stage one Brexit deal hammered out in Brussels in the small hours of Friday morning is that it has pulled us back from the cliff-edge of a hard, no deal Brexit – at least for the time-being.

It has also made it less likely that Brexit will not go ahead.

Of course, there is a vast torrent of turbulent water yet to flow under this particular bridge but, even those of us who opposed Brexit, must cautiously welcome this modest progress. The prospect of an acrimonious no-deal Brexit is not one anyone should desire as it will be hugely damaging to the UK and to our friends in Europe. Let’s be clear: no-one would benefit from that and it is irresponsible of people like John Redwood and Ian Duncan Smith to keep touting it as a possible option.

We need to leave on the best possible terms and Friday’s fudged deal makes that more likely.

May bolstered by deal

The “who blinked first” debate will rumble on for ages but it is remarkable how the once-divided Cabinet has swung behind Theresa May on this, backed by the European negotiators. Donald Tusk’s rather sentimental contribution on Friday morning displayed something of the new desire among the EU negotiating team to keep May in power. Whether this is because they view her as a soft touch – as some British and European newspapers are doing – or because they fear the possible chaos of a collapse of her vulnerable government is by no means clear. But they have done their best to bolster her position.

The deal is either cleverly drafted or badly fudged depending on your viewpoint, especially on the vexed question of the Irish border. This should never have been given such a prominence so early in the negotiations. The issues are too complex, too sensitive and too bound up in a bloody history that few Europeans understand. How it should be dealt with will become clearer once we know what the trade deal looks like. If the UK signs up for a Norway-style arrangement with the EU – which all the talk of “alignment” suggest could now be back on the agenda – then the border issue will largely drop away. Anything short of that will put it back on the agenda, albeit without any obvious solution.

Real progress on citizenship

The deal on citizenship is much better than most people expected and represents genuine progress. It should go along way to easing the concerns of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU. The most remarkable aspect of it is the extended period of jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. This bodes well for the trade negotiations as it is hard to see how it can be peremptorily cast aside from the complex world of European directives and how they will be applied after Brexit.

The Brexit settlement bill does look to have involved compromises on both sides although there seems to be rather a lot of detail missing from the agreement published yesterday. Divorce is never cheap so we should accept that and move on.

The acceptance of a two-year transition period is another welcome injection of common sense, although it is still too short. it is quite possible it might get extended further especially if the negotiations are going well on both both sides.

Leaving now more certain

Despite the noises from hard-line Remainers, this stumbling step forward does make it more likely that we will reach the sort of trade deal that will satisfy sufficient numbers of people to push the prospect of a complete volt-face in public opinion to the margins of probabilities. We are leaving the EU.