Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

New Institute President calls for ‘Constitutional Journalism in an age of uncertainty’

Professor Tim Crook took over as President of the Chartered Institute of Journalists 12th March 2020.

His acceptance speech at the handover event was made when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to tighten its grip on UK society and economy.

Within days of the lockdown he said:

‘We can perhaps live with super-market shelves being cleared of toilet rolls, hand sanitizer and dried pasta.

But it’s the fear, prejudice and panic that seems so demoralizing; something that all professional journalists have a duty to counter with truth and perspective.’

New Institute President Professor Dr. Tim Crook (right) with his colleague at Goldsmiths, University of London Linda Lewis who heads Television Journalism. Image: Linda Lewis.

Here are extracts from his speech.

Lessons to be learned from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year and the diary of Samuel Pepys

“And so we gather successfully and socially in a club called Hospital- so appropriately named at a time our profession seems to be narrating some kind of pandemic apocalypse.

Are we in the middle of Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Journal of a Plague Year’- a fake documentary concocted by a sensationalist journalist in 1722 about something that happened in 1665?

It is true that Defoe had lived in London during the Great Plague as a very young child.

Or should we rely on the words of a true journal writer of 1665, who reported fact and not fiction- though he wrote only in shorthand and went into a double-code of French, Spanish, Latin and Greek when exploring matters of disgraceful intimacy that he feared his long-suffering wife Elisabeth would discover by reading when he was out during the day cavorting in Westminster, or trying to manage the supply and building of the King’s Royal Navy at Greenwich, Deptford and Harwich- where for a time he was the Member of Parliament.

The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) by John Hayls. Image: Public Domain.

I am, of course, talking about Samuel Pepys- the great diarist.

Samuel Pepys revealed an everyday account of human paradox- the kind, generous and compassionate contrasting with the selfish, hateful, indifferent and agonisingly cruel.

Over the last two years the age of uncertainty seems to have been defined by the murders of journalists Daphne Caruana Galicia in Malta, Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland, and Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

The late Lyra McKee- the much respected journalist murdered in Northern Ireland in April 2019. Image: PSNI & family of Lyra McKee.

The Institute has always been campaigning against the physical intimidation, assault, torture and murder of journalists everywhere and at all times.

The campaign to protect journalists’ sources

The Institute has also been prioritising the protection of journalist sources so terribly violated by publishers, judiciary, and government in recent years.

We have done all we can to support former Belmarsh Prison officer Robert Norman in his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.

We contributed a 22,000 word affidavit and hope for a ruling that declares his conviction and jail sentence for providing public interest information about failings in the prison system as a grotesque and appalling breach of his freedom of expression human rights.

We hope that it will extend the duty to protect journalist sources to publishers as well as government bodies and the courts.

We have led the way in challenging secret government surveillance and interception of journalists’ confidential material by stage agencies.

With regular and polite questions and repeated challenges our scrutiny of the operation of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office have resulted in improved reporting by the Judicial Commissioners- and been a huge encouragement to their decision to apply a double-lock of Judicial Commissioner evaluation of any application for a warrant that identifies a journalist source.

That has been a clear result of our campaigning. And there’s also a written commitment for greater detail and accountability in future reports of the IPCO.

We have followed publication of the 2018 report with 20 further serious questions for more accountability, more clarification and future improvement that no other journalistic organisation has done.

Challenging the absolute exemption in Freedom of Information access to the historical archives of security bodies

We have made significant legal breakthroughs in challenging the absolute exemptions blocking journalists from applying for information held by security bodies such as MI5 or MI6.

In a ruling on 17th February this year, Judge Hazel Oliver said Journalistic and historical researchers do have a legal remedy to challenge under freedom of information law any refusal by security bodies and that this can be adjudicated for Article 10 freedom of expression rights.

And as a result of one of our several continuing challenges bases on my research projects it is now clear at First Tier Tribunal Information Rights level that we can also make English common law requests backed by judicial review- yes a potentially expensive legal process, but an actual remedy for those writers and journalists fortunate to have large budgets and legal resources.

A story of protecting a journalist’s source from the past: hitherto never told

There are still many battles to be fought and won, but this Institute is putting in all the hard work and fighting the good fight with human rights advocacy in Tribunal, Upper Tribunal and courtrooms here and abroad where and when we can.

On the subject of protection of and indeed access to sources, I thought I might share with you something never published before- something that had absolutely no outcome in publication.

It is a story that still has to retain key characteristics of confidentiality.

Between 30 to 40 years ago professional journalists were able to communicate with background sources at the highest levels of public life- perhaps they can still do so.

In my case it was a judge at one of the senior levels of the judiciary.

He was 40 years older than me and a vital inter-generational guidance. We hardly ever agreed on anything.

He never inappropriately revealed or disclosed anything he should not have done. But he explained things and gave me an insight and understanding of the legal system I needed as a journalist and public service/interest communicator.

His ideas on justice were way ahead of his time and his ability and power to rule…and indeed much in advance of my own thinking.

He was of the generation that had fought valiantly in the Second World War and lived with the psychological and physical scars.

He might have been 40 years older than me, but he certainly knew how to party.

In the middle of a fraught, complex and stressful case costing many millions of pounds and the night before he had to make a significant ruling on law which would be a key turning point, we went out and the Judge substantially exceeded any government recommendation on safe drinking limits.

His clerk would often accompany him on such jaunts, but being a family person and perhaps knowing more than I did, left early to tuck up his children in bed and quietly whispered in my ear…’Look after Harry’- yes we shall call him Judge Harry- ‘make sure he gets home alright. We’re relying on you.’

Long after pub closing time and with much less than half an hour to get Judge Harry to the last train on the end of one of those long suburban underground lines…Judge Harry was descending a very dangerous and steep stone stair-case taking three or four steps at a time and holding his umbrella like a lance in the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava.

He lost his footing two thirds the way down and, somehow, I caught him before many millions of pounds worth of judicial brains and skull would be fractured and spilled onto a highly polished mosaic floor somewhere in the City of London.

‘Thank you, Tim…’ he slurred.

‘Do lead the way’, he invited…

We waited on the kerbstone at a very busy road junction with late night taxis speeding past at 40 to 50 miles an hour.

I was sure his Lordship was going to leap ahead with umbrella in full thrust to an untimely death underneath the wheels of a black Hackney carriage.

It was the first and only time I have ever collared a member of her Majesty’s judiciary…just in time.

‘Dear me Tim, the standard of driving…Taxi drivers…must have a word with the Magistrates about this,’ he murmured.

Having negotiated and survived this near-death experience, his Lordship’s makeshift lance and attention turned towards two six foot plus police officers on the beat whom he was about to chastise about laziness, failure to arrest vagrants and the drunk and disorderly, and I was pretty sure there was a real risk he would batter them.

Half carrying and directing him, raising my voice to discuss the winners of the Grand National to drown out his shouting about the failings of the police and inadequacies of politicians, we eventually got to the nearest Tube station and I propelled Judge Harry into the last carriage of the last train just as the doors were closing.

The following morning, I was first in the press room at 7.30 a.m. and waiting for me on my table was a beautifully hand-written note in fountain pen ink from Judge Harry thanking me for the previous night’s hospitality.

That morning at 10 a.m. he proceeded to give his ruling and a case costing estimates of 7 to 10 million pounds would go ahead to completion.

I had protected my source, and I think I made a contribution to the public interest that will never be recognised, but for which I am more than happy had been achieved without scandal, misfortune, disaster and tragedy.

The moral of this story could be that journalists do much more than anything they actually write about, and which anyone will ever really know and that it could be contributing something good and useful.

Aims and objectives for the Institute

What am I hoping for in the next two years?

Well, we need more constitutional certainties for journalism.

We should push for things we have already been campaigning for.

A statutory declaration of media freedom;

Winning hearts and minds on the future of the BBC;

Restoring, valuing and expanding public service principles in all forms of journalism and professional communication- newspaper, online, broadcasting, government and corporate public/media relations.

We need to inspire and advise on improving the Political-economy:

The Cairncross Review, government and industrial hand-wringing about continuing newspaper closures and job losses are not delivering the solutions.

The bleating and lip-service of a generation of editors who have failed the profession has not helped.

It was on their watch that the phone hacking took place and protection of public official journalist sources abandoned.

One billion pounds has been diverted from professional journalism in legal fees and compensation to mainly celebrities who some say could have afforded to have had much less.

Just think what a billion pounds of investment, research, innovation and development could have achieved for local and regional newspapers over the last 20 years? Or for that matter in so many other levels and dimensions of the profession?

The Journalism industry needs consensus, conciliation, humility and solidarity to face everything that threatens it.

Less of the arrogance of those newspapers who think they are so good and worthy that they can regulate themselves.

How can we have ‘independent regulation’ if the likes of the Guardian, Observer, Financial Times, and Standard do not participate?

We shouldn’t be teaching new entrants to the profession about the madness and absurdity of two regulators for the newspaper/online industry.

There should be one regulator that has the confidence and participation of all the mainstream media institutions, as well as the micro-publishers, the radical, off-beat and unorthodox.

We should continue with our education on the good things that journalism does:-

The value and constitutional role of news journalism, community reporting of record with public service imperatives locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

Quality journalism of all genres in all platforms whether print, broadcasting or online- people will read and pay for and advertisers will sponsor and invest in.

Journalism is always evolving in creative and exciting ways. Podcasting has been a social, cultural, and entertaining enlightenment and indeed revolution.

Institute President Tim Crook presenting acceptance speech at handover event March 12th 2020. Image: Fatima Luna

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a podcasting committee of the Institute advancing the pay, conditions and opportunities in this brilliant and inspiring new industry and medium of sound production and communication?

Reviving the local and regional newspaper industry

Another big question and challenge is how we can retrieve the way local newspapers of record operated as a binding community cohesion giving our society a sense of local and regional identity, a feeling of pride and communitarian security- indeed a constitutional certainty.

It was the micro-community and local level reporting of the weekly Wigan Observer from 1951 that enabled me to find out how and when my grandmother Sarah Hannah Rigby died. I was able to read about her funeral, who were the mourners, how she was remembered and indeed find where she was buried.

Banner title of the weekly Wigan Observer and District Advertiser. Image: British Library.

It was the weekly Wigan Observer that reported my grandfather’s retirement from 40 years of local government- starting as a 14 year-old clerk- progressing to sanitary inspector and then eventually the Urban District clerk of a council serving a Lancastrian mining community.

If we fast forward another 50 years, when my mother died from a terrible illness, at the Inquest held in Westminster Coroner’s Court in Horseferry Road, I gave evidence of identification but also a long and heart-felt tribute to her local authority and health service carers.

There were no journalists in court that day and what I had to say was never reported and indeed my mother’s inquest has no public media record.

What will happen in another 50 years’ time when a family descendant might want to find out about their great grandmother?

Journalism is the first draft of history and becomes the archive and memory of the nation and human society.

Without it, we lose the archive, the memory, the heritage, the identity and the necessary relationship between the present and the past that can be so educational and reassuring in times of crisis like the present.

In the next two years we will do our best to research and advise on how to rediscover the necessary investment and revival of local and regional media and their audiences.

We will need answers that will no doubt draw upon entrepreneurial, parliamentary and governmental incentives and the sorting out of economic raiding by global online corporations.

Institute Presidential handover event took place this year at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden, March 12th 2020. Image: Philafrenzy. CC BY-SA 4.0

Improving pay and conditions and reducing the threats to freedom to report

If journalism is truly a profession, those entering it should be experiencing security of employment, an industry with career paths and real professional development opportunities. The journalism workplace should be thriving with a constant striving for equality and diversity. All forms of bullying must be eradicated particularly in high pressure competitive environments.

Parliament and politicians need to problematise less and look to their own constitutional obligations rather than waste time plotting revenge and clipping the wings of the messengers that give them the power of voice and representation in our democracy.

We are all interdependent and mutually relying points of power and responsibility.

When politicians and governments bully journalists and intimidate and threaten the media, they diminish and undermine democracy and liberty.

It is one of the first steps on a wicked and despicable path that all too often leads to horror and degradation.

The endgame is the killing and murdering of journalists such as Lyra, Daphne and Jamal and the many others across the world. Such atrocities strike at the heart of humanity and civilisation.

The Institute like all its compatriot organisations around the world such as Index on Censorship and the Committee to Protect Journalists will do its best to sound the warning sirens and advocate for justice and deterrence.”