The Alternative Hugh Cudlipp Lecture

Yes, you might say ‘in my dreams’. But then at a time of Martin Luther King’s biopic, Selma, I’m reminded of the power of dreams. And in that spirit of King and the fall out from the Oscar nominations, here’s my own dream — that one day diversity will not be an issue in British journalism, and social journalism will instil a greater determination towards social good.

I’m speaking principally about broadcast and videojournalism, the profession where I started my career. That would be some dream. And by diversity, I don’t just mean ethnicity, but the act of pooling journalists from wide social groups.

This talk is entitled the alternative Hugh Cuddlip lecture. Hugh Cuddlip was a giant in British journalis6 and yes, I’d jump at the opportunity to have worked under an editor with his craft skills.

But I have had my own fortune, by benefitting working under respected editors, such as:Tim Gardam when he edited BBC Newsnight; Google’s Peter Barron when he was at Channel 4 News, BBC Reportage’s Jane Marsh, BBC Radio 4’s Joy Hatwood and BBC’s London’s Gloria Abramoff — all of whom gave me a break at some point in my career.

And then there’s Sir David English whose vision would result in a pioneering UK journalism experiment. Its legacy resonates today. I’m speaking of videojournalism and Sir David’s pet project, Channel One TV, where 30 videojournalists like me, young back then, with different views and outlooks to the Westminster’s journalism village ambitiously rode a future. The evidence today shows this.

The late Sir David English gives a pep talk to Channel One videojournalists before launch date. Standing next to him is Dimitri Doganis, now a BAFTA award winning documentary maker and Managing Director of Raw TV.

The Present and Future.

If anything then, this lecture implicitly underlines the power of youth, ditching the fear of failure and the benefits, perhaps unusually, of entering a profession like journalism from the broadside.

So why alternative Hugh Cuddlip lecture? Well, do I need to spell that out the obvious? I’m not a Cuddlip nominee, but also that my notion of alternative frames a non-traditional lecture theme to that which Cuddlip honourees brilliantly deliver.

This supposed new discourse that envelopes journalism plays heavily on what is considered traditional and conventional versus the postmodernist and irreverent. And even these categories are porous, because you can be digital today and be conceived as conventional.

Two days ago, I was at one of the UK’s biggest comedy outlets, working alongside an Associate who is forging an exciting new platform with comedians. The comedian’s hour piqued my interest. If John Stewart can dot it, this is journalism satire.

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Social Experience

And for some of my former Masters students, this is an expression they’ve become used to with days coding and death marches. The death march — a term I learned in Soho during the dotcom days occurs when a project needs to be delivered to deadline. So defacto, this self-appointment, I daren’t say is, meritocracy at work, and indeed mischief.

In a couple of weeks I am due to present at the Apple store in London. No this is not a plug. The Apple talk is an opportunity to engage with a wider diverse audience. It’s also a validation of sorts from a tech pioneer about this collision of evolving technology and my chosen subject videojournalism.

It’ll be the third time I have spoken there. In 2005 fresh from returning from the US, from the awards at the Press Club in Washington, I spoke about how I perceived the future.

It was rather daring, if a little foolhardy, and not unlike previous points in my career which might be greeted with muffled coughs. One of the technologies around 2005, which has since been ceded by coding languages, HTML5 and CSS, was Flash.

Flash was an animation package purloined by creative journalists. It allowed me to create or, be part of a creative teams, building visual schemas similar to Abel Gance’s 1927 tryptch Napolean. To the broadcast industry it was a mystery.

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I still remember my meeting with BBC3s Stuart Murphy, who was curious, but that’s how far our meeting got. At Ravensbourn College, I’d applied for a senior lecture position; the head of the department had been a recent appointment from the BBC’s creative department. His words still chime in my ears. ‘Why do you keep going on about Flash?’ I didn’t get the job.

But through Flash my colleague and I were runners-up in a Channel 4's Digital Award in 2001 creating a story around boxing and as a result of that and my insight into videojournalism in 2002 I was invited into the Lennox Lewis camp to witness and document the fight of the decade: Lewis vs Tyson.

If it wasn’t one piece of tech it was another, HTML in 1998, building websites in 2002, and blogging in 2005. Blogging was not a universal practice amongst journalism students back then. At the University of Westminster, where I was teaching it was.

Outside of the Westminster, one student stood out for me, a ferocious blogger from City University, whose light has continued to shine and today Adam Westbrook is a serial innovator and considered an exemplar in multimedia. I would urge you to watch his Delve.TV essays.

There’s a point in all this framing I’m doing, which in a long-winded way underpins the themes for this lecture –this tech-art of journalism, but again my approach is left field and in part it’s shaped by own experience and recently completed PhD examining videojournalism by delving into three subsets.

That is a deep look at videojournalism, its cognate fields and influences, if any, of Sir David’s experiment ‘Channel One’ on the UK and a look at the contemporary pioneers who are shaping the revival.

Somehow, and aware that I risk self-aggrandisement, it is that technology and the social need each other to continually shape journalism, but I would argue perhaps before the 1960s this relationship was well contained, who could forget if you haven’t seen it already ‘Cameraland’ — a foray into the celebration of the pre-YouTube world on the US’s popular Ed Sullivan Show.

The audience, if we look back on the cinema world on films like the Phantom Carriage in 1929 — which was an early incarnation of Nolan’s Inception (2012), was no less intelligent. However broadcasters had different views. Is an audience grasping at the opportunity to create its own media really such a novel idea?

In 1994, 3,000 people apparently applied to become videojournalists at Channel One. Before then the opportunity to film — even on a moderately cheap Super 8mm or take pictures with a Kodak camera — had been a feature of the UK. Snappy snaps mere existence is testimony to this and the BBC’s programme: The Great British Home Movie Roadshow too showed the depth of personal shooting decades before the digital bug.

So my talk evolves around video –the rush for journalism gold. But first some personal framing that might help understand me a little better.

Reflection

The news was for me a buffer, interrupting the brilliant Marine Boy — a Manga comic character who could hold his breath indeterminably by chewing gum, Captain Scarlett who was indestructible and whose arch enemy’s aim was to ‘destroy London’ and Crossroads, which my mum watched religiously.

In the 70s, as many children of African parentage would experience, I was sent back to Ghana — partly to receive a traditional education, like learning your times table or face the rod. From my boarding school which was one of Ghana’s respected schools, Prempeh college, whose alumni include the former Ghanaian President, John Kuffor, I would listen to the World Service.

Media was this colossal thing. Newspapers and magazines were accessible. Television and radio more distant. I dabbled in writing for our school magazine The Stool and my first piece ever was based on the apocalyptic effects of the Neutron bomb — which was featured in a Time magazine article.

However, media as a profession was never a consideration. In my house, as I have learned in many Ghanaian households, doctoring, accountancy and lawyering were the preferred career paths. And unsurprisingly I pursued the sciences, continuing my education back in the UK with a degree in Applied Chemistry.

But in my first year at university I was bitten again by the media, writing for our magazine and freelancing at BBC Radio Leicester where names like Charlotte Smith, Ian Pannel, and Julian Worricker were making their mark.

There were many highs and excessive lows trying to carve a career: working in South Africa, reporting from the townships. I moved their to find work. And scraping by living on the couch of family and friends in the UK when there was no job in sight. The life of a freelancer, its risks and all, as many freelancers will testify leads to the acquisition of many skills.

When in 1994 Associated newspapers advertised videojournalism, I was fairly confident I could do this. I’d been a radio presenter at GLR, a TV producer in South Africa, a researcher for the BBC, and a freelance reporter for the BBC World Service.

How do you report news, direct and producer the film and do sound at the same time holding a beta camera, the size of a small suitcase? This is what would confront Channel One videojournalists. It was a long worn out battle, which many VJs came to master.

But the industry remained highly sceptical if not hostile too. If you ever wanted to understand how the levers of power within traditional media were slowly lowering, yet the media remained stoic and hardened to change in this burgeoning world of new media, this was it.

Newspapers peeking at the changes ahead, the effect of cable, the Internet and early predictions of falling profits formed the British Media Group. In 1994 the Internet came on stream for British newspapers and Channel One too could boast of performing the first net broadcast from the now defunct Cyber café off Charlotte street.

Understandably, I would say, this nascent emerging media form, videojournalism, was viewed as a blip. It would be self-contained by the industry. ITN, Stewart Purvis tells me, he used it to help them out of a financial sticky wicket, Channel 4’s Alt World embraced it for its series, as did Channel 4 News where I undertook the odd story, and the BBC would later adopt it within news Nations and Regions.

Videojournalism though was media made on the cheap. Oh yes! Because, in spite of its fanfare, it would still need to follow the methodology of news as laid down many years ago by BBC Television pioneers, such as Grace Wyndham Goldie.

In Wyndham Goldie’s biography Facing the Nation, we learn of the structures and concerns facing television news and media in particular as it’s about to be birthed. If in the 1920s, the onset of television’s technology could embrace a symmetrical exchange of data, committee policies and custodians of the new medium were not in a position to push for this.

Mass Communication studies from the likes of the Frankfurt School testify to this in models like the ‘hypodermic needle’ model and user and gratification thesis. The audience wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand the media. This feeling persisted into the 1960s, 1980s, 2000s and even now.

But a new distribution platform, without regulatory oversight has demonstrated the converse. And even if we’re still not considered sophisticated, damn it! It’s a free for all. In a sense there has been no formal cut-off point to audience engagement, so perhaps that’s why it caught traditional media off guard.

In video journalism we see another interesting phenomenon. Firstly when it arrived, we couldn’t possibly do sound and vision at the same time because one or another would suffer. This is in spite of the practice being performed by journalists, US journalists in particular, in provincial stations in the 1960s.

Video journalism became a by word for shoddy filmmaking. In spite of the term video journalism appearing as early as 1954. In the 1949s there was Captain Video — a US superhero. In 1960s video journalism featured prominently again. So the term is not so new afterall.

But in 1994 to claim you were a videojournalist was to admit you had halitosis. Even more suspect, Wyndham Goldie had expressed a frame work for television journalism to be a team activity, and it was to pare down any notion of cinematic activity, any use of the camera to express an idea was not tolerated by the industry. News had to be done on their terms.

In any other profession, within cinema, design, fashion, the whole purpose of a new movement was to upend the status quo, to move on the language (the discourse of the profession), to undo something because it did not best suit emerging times or otherwise was inadequate at making sense of new findings.

We see this best illustrated in the documentary form, transitioning from Bill Nichol’s taxonomy of the poetics of Humphrey Jenning’s films to the Voice of God approach which Grierson popularised and Ed Murrow expanded, to observational doc forms in Robert Drew and Associates’ Direct Cinema. There are more contemporary forms today. But the perception exists that walls of journalism are still fixed and no amount of trumpeting was going to make it fall.

Until…

Until…we’ve acknowledged what the new so called pretenders of journalism or the audience can bring. Not, much of the same, but a defacto epistemological engagement, some times, many times, turns the product to something else. Is it still journalism?

These are questions traditional journalism wrestles with, but there are some fundamentals both traditionalists and the audience adhere to — that if it can be believed to be true and is an honest representation of events, the audience will absorb it — its fidelity and all.

So the new kid on the block, Vice or Buzzfeed, is doing something that a different audience to the traditional broadcaster’s want. But wait a minute, hasn’t traditional journalism been delivering something akin to the aforementioned?

I worked on Janet Street Porter’s BBC Reportage. It unmasked school kids swapping discs with porn, merceneries working in the city, and how electronic gangs were taking money from cash points with non-bank cards. Reportage petered out, with no equivalent taking its place. Vice has been going for 20 years. Sometimes longevity and holding on to an idea, and reforming what you have, is as powerful an elixir as reinventing the wheel.

The framework that appears in Vice is choosing items that are neither on the consciousness of mainstream, or if they are their production treatment follows an alternative convention. There approach is designed to make the audience go “fuck, did you see that!”

And I intentionally must use that word to illustrate this point. In analysing Vice’s text, the The Pessimist’s guide to David Cameron’s big Conference Speech by Simon Childs offers another style guide. Simon Child’s says this of David Cameron.

A man who’s spent his term in government enacting policies that have repeatedly fucked over the poor, the young and the vulnerable is now patting all of those people on the head and going, “Just kidding, mate,” making out like he’s suddenly a friend of the working man. And he did that very convincingly.

Now how many outputs would offer an assessment of the prime minister in kaleidoscopic language. This is a style of writing that’s always been there. And in its filmmaking Vice too goes off piste; it doesn’t want the professional reporter, it wants you with character who the audience may have something to say about.

I would go so far as saying Vice, as many other new journalists on the block are doing, and there will be more, are creating cinema, or to be more precise cinematic experiences.

Don’t be alarmed, cinema had the opportunity to collide with journalism, but there were many reason it didn’t. It was not objective, it was expensive, it required training, management were fearful of it. Today in the digital world, where fictional films in cinema search for true stories to attach their wagons, Youtubers have found that fictional film techniques can arouse the audience when undertaking factual stories.

This is not an either or, and that’s the mistake many make. That somehow one system will obliterate the other, that a future of news is more buzzfeed than the Telegraph and traditional systems must be rendered obsolete. Whilst the longtail more than guarantees an audience, importantly, as if we needed reminding, Jean-Francois Lyotard long expressed this breakdown in the grand narrative.

In our digital age, the text has become polysemous. It’ll never be able to please all of us, at all of the time, because the world has got smaller bridging Western, Eastern, Northern and Southern ideologies into one melting point. What constitutes freedom of speech in developed democracies is considered offensive in other developed or less developed political systems.

This enlightenment is circular. In the 1900s futurism — technology, speed, youthfulness was the antidote. Today, you can’t turn a journalism corner without an outfit purporting to have seen the future.

That technologist appear to have raided the cupboard of journalism could be merely a blind spot that was unattended to in a long term analysis. The wins were there for the taking, but when you’re running a business with comfortable profit margins, why oh why do you need to change the game plan.

So meanwhile, some smaller outfits have snuck into the tent and innovated themselves into mass popular culture, whilst some larger outfits have benefited from their size and legacies to withstand a rope a dope before recalibrating their newish approach. This has led too to journalism turning its crossbow on outsiders and sometimes itself embracing a new sport by attempting to find the future of journalism.

These conferences, which cost a pretty euro, usually take two forms: the first hosts successful players who display their wares as scions for others to follow. Others proclaim in their conference brochures that they have successfully seen the future and you too can in 5 hours and a small mortgage.

These futures are fractured. The research shows there are multiple possibilities. I know what my experience is saying; I know how that experience has been used to set up the Press Association’s Videojournalism program training the UK’s first regional newspaper journalists into video journalists.

How it led to sharing ideas with the FT.com. How near the border of Turkey and Syria working with young Syrian Videojournalists we could devise story forms to get their stories out. I also, from my PhD can see the shape multiple forms of journalism practice may take. But I know it’s not the future, perhaps it forms one of the several tapestries that is impacting journalism.

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The tech wave will continue. My HTML5 and CSS skills require deeper Java oiling. In journalism, the boundaries between cinematic factuality and traditional news is untenable. The patterns are there and widening to a critical mass. The artisan, forced into the corner from the 1920s is experiencing a new lease, this time alongside the mass communicator.

I’m reminded of my conversation with the great late Robert Drew a couple of years ago. He has since passed away, but my hour talk with him delved into his accomplishments and how they enveloped what I was perceiving.

Television took his equipment, but not his ideas. Television news did not understand the richness of a visual and textual language, which the audience wanted. And slowly imperceptibly a Drew 2.0, a contemporary form of journalism storytelling is re-configuring itself back into our psyche.

But what will help shape our societies, will be as much the core elements of what we choose, who we choose to help us make it, and how we engage in discourse that embraces identifiable audiences. That in a sense is what I would tell my own Masters students in lectures. Not so left field after all.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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