Breaking the News: Insider News like you’ve rarely known, from a British Institution.
This is me. I’m off to the British Library for an event that’s had many waiting in anticipation over the months as a team of curators, advisers and designers assemble an epic exhibition.
If you know London, the British Library is that sprawling building in Kings Cross. It is one of the UK’s revered institutions.
For the last two years and a bit I’ve been one of eight experts drawn from British universities serving on an advisory board for the British Library. Its exhibition ambitiously looks at 500 years of news. From 17th century pamphleteers to modern day coverage of Ukraine. Its archive goes back further in the earliest surviving printed news report in the Battle of Flodden in 1513.
This thing that’s become inseparable from our daily lives. How did it come about? How has it been fashioned and panel-beaten into a form that commands attention and a righteousness akin to religion?
Today is its preview event. I have my DSLR with me to capture events.
The Library’s chief executive Roly Keating opened the preview pointing to the work the library and designers had undertaken making use if its vast collection of news archive. Amongst attendants were Bill Thompson, Lucy Pilkington, Nick Cohen and Rebekah Brooks.
Keating handed over to the chair of the advisory board Samira Ahmed, a much respected journalist who fronts the BBC’s flagship Radio programme Front Row, and NewsWatch. I’d briefly worked on the same programme as Samira when she was a presenter at Channel 4 News. I was one of its producers regularly working alongside Jon Snow (see here).
Samira paid tribute to the expansive range of material gathered for the Library’s Breaking the News, from the Civil War to the enduring work of Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr on Cambridge Analytica. She commented on concerns and the perils journalists increasingly face in conflict areas, and how the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong has led to journalists facing imprisonment.
“I think you’ll revisit stories from your own time”, she told the gathering, “which you might find give you a bit of a shudder”.
One of those was a running story in the 70s about a US national in the UK Joyce McKinney, and an alleged accomplice Keith May, charged for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a young American Mormon Kirk Anderson. The case became known in the British press as the Manacled Mormons and attracted widespread coverage. McKinney and May were never tried for the alleged crime as they left Britain before the trial date. There was no extradition to have them returned.
There’s a story call the Manacled Mormons in the 70s which still has the power to shock, and I think there’s a question that we should be asking and that is how much do the news media give us what they want, or what we want? There are villains and heroes and heroines and I’d single out Carole Cadwalladr, I don’t know if she’s here, but what a woman.
This is Kurt Barling, now a Professor at Middlesex University, and a former multiple award-winning journalist at the BBC. He was one of the advisory board members. He’s speaking to fellow board member Jackie Harrison and co-editor of the library’s accompanying book Breaking The News: 500 Years of News in Britain.
More on the book Breaking the News in a moment.
War, social issues, politics and celebrity scandals to mention a few themes are captured.The exhibition mixes journalism artefacts, such as original prints, an encased prison uniform worn by a jailed editor, The Guardian’s hard dive smashed to bits to resolve the conflict with security services over the paper’s the storage of Edward Snowden’s files. And then there’s a number of impressive electronic visual displays.
News Breakers signals important news figures such as Baroness Lawrence and environmental’s Greta Thunberg. It’s something any broadcaster would envy in their foyer.
There’s copious photos, videos, cartoon strips, an electronic board explaining how a photo op became a faked hospital social media story — all well presented, designed and categorised — from Conflict, Chaos to Verification.
What you’ll learn is how, for instance, news in the English Civil War (1640s) mirror events of today in Brexit. New types of media and a lack or regulation gave way to multiple view points and chaos.
The multi-faceted essence of the exhibition goes beyond providing knowledge that helps attendants understand the news but also rather to question it. The tour through its labyrinth of material could take an hour and in which questions like this appear: “Can the news ever be objective?” How IS truth and trust framed in stories?
Impartiality is seen as the DNA of news reportage. What impact does it have on journalism’s lens in seeing and reporting the world with diversity at its centre. This is a recurring theme for me, both as a journalist who’s previously worked across several mainstream outputs e.g. BBC and Channel 4 News, and being Black — living in Ghana, Apartheid South Africa and Britain.
This double consciousness best captured and expressed by Du Bois can be viewed in work from the BBC Radio 4’s documentary First Time Voters in 1994 to co-creating the Leaders’ List.- a collection of some of the the UK’s Black and brown talent working as TV and film producers.
Perhaps then, unsurprisingly, as the British Library fashioned its output and book its lead curator Dr Luke McKernan would suggest a piece on Black Lives Matter and the Power of Language.
I’d previously accepted a commission to write a story around news and social space that would lean into Habermas, but Dr McKernan is (and he’ll chuckle seeing this) a highly skilled editor. Thanks for letting me play a wee part.
The BLM piece allowed me to explore how any attempt to understand the movement should take account of previous ones in Dr King and Malcolm X. BLM is a coin featuring the aforementioned on its side. In language, BLM’s activist could engage media and followers in a way previously unimaginable in the power of the hashtag.
Another board member and I George Brock shared some thoughts as we reached the end of the exhibition. “Truly well designed and put together”, we said. A sizeable part of that credit must go to Dr McKernan’s firm vision. It’s quite something talking about it in meetings, it’s another see it come to fruition.
The exhibition runs until August 2022. Well worth a visit.