Tag Archives: Film Media and Culture

Arts Week 2016: Can Journalism Change the World?

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer in Birkbeck External Relations. On Tuesday 18 May, Andrew attended the event ‘Can Journalism Change World’ run by the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research as part of Arts Week 2016.

The event also marked the launch of the new MA Investigative Reporting, which commences in the 2016-17 year this autumn. It also highlighted the Google Investigative Fellowship (applications close on Friday May 20).

JournalismA panel of top journalists, commentators and academics came together on the second night of Birkbeck Arts Week 2016 to discuss the power and responsibility of journalism at a time of great change for the industry.

“Journalism is on the brink,” Dr Justin Schlosberg told the gathered audience of students, practitioners, scholars and members of the public. Across the course of the evening, we heard lots of evidence to back this up: Traditional revenue streams are thinning, digital technologies are morphing, socio-political structures are

adapting, audience attention spans are waning. All this and more makes for a very dynamic playing field of opportunities and challenges for people reporting the news.

The Fourth Estate was once heralded for its ability – and indeed duty – to question power structures, and to look beyond the status quo. But with such a changing landscape for today’s media industry, can – and should – journalism change the world?

The following panellists made their individual responses to the main question at hand:

Peter Barron (vp communications and public affairs, Google)

Peter Barron

Peter Barron

Peter began by responding that he believed yes, journalism can change the world. Citing recent revelations as the Hillsborough disaster and Panama Papers leak, he said both proved how the profession is still changing the world. The flow of free information and expression, he said, is key to making the world a better place.

He went on to describe that Google aims to be a positive force where freedom of information is concerned. He referenced three current initiatives of the global tech organisation which he said aptly demonstrate this particular mission, namely: Google’s product development (such as the Accelerated Mobile Pages project); its training and research activities; and its €150m Digital News Initiative innovation fund.

Ewen MacAskill (defence and security correspondent, the Guardian)

Ewen McAskill

Ewen McAskill

While he admitted journalism is facing an extremely challenging financial climate, Ewen took a broadly optimistic view, noting that the profession is much better than it has ever been in terms of the public accessibility to journalism, and also in terms of the professions two-way communication with audiences.

Dr Schlosberg then pitched Ewen the more direct question of whether he thought whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange – both of whom Ewen has reported on – have changed anything. Ewen responded that, in terms of increasing public awareness of government surveillance, yes, figures like Snowden and Assange have effected changed. Politically, however, very little has changed. On a whole, people just aren’t as worried about privacy, especially in the UK.

Owen Jones (author and columnist for the Guardian)

Owen Jones

Owen Jones

Owen began by stating he didn’t consider himself a journalist. He is a writer; one that doesn’t particularly enjoy writing, but as a political activist he sees it as a means to an end. Change, he went on to argue, happens with collective action. And further, journalism is at its best when “punching upwards”.

A major problem that stands in the way of the UK media punching upwards, he said, is that it has increasingly become “a closed shop for the privileged”. There is no such thing as “objective journalism”, he said – only journalists and writers such as he who openly disclose their bias e.g. in the form of opinion columns; and those who try to hide it, dressing their reporting as objective news. The rise of unpaid internships in the media is compounding this picture, leading to a situation where “if you can live off the bank of mum and dad, you can afford to be exploited. So we discriminate not on the basis of talent, but on your parent’s wealth”.

The UK media industry therefore is populated by – and predominantly reflects the tastes, biases, prejudices and life experiences of – the white upper-middle class i.e. the status quo.

“The press aren’t doing the job they’re meant to be doing,” he concluded. “We need journalists who see themselves as part of a broader collective struggling to bring power to account”.

Peter Jukes (author, screenwriter, playwright and investigative blogger)

Peter Jukes

Peter Jukes

Peter, who said he identifies more as a blogger than a journalist, highlighted the importance of social media in challenging power structures. Rather than see the likes of Twitter as “an echo chamber”, he believes in “the strength of the crowd” that come together through social media.

“People out there are witnessing and giving testimony,” he said. “It’s a revelation in the way people get and share the news.”

On the flipside, one aspect of the digital era does worry him: monopolies. The power holders which worry him aren’t media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, but rather digital giants such Google and Amazon. The kind of power they have, he said, corrupts.

Professor Natalie Fenton (Professor of media and communications, Goldsmiths)

Prof Natalie Fenton

Prof Natalie Fenton

Prof Fenton said she would try to “put academic bones” on the points which had been raised during the evening. Two major archetypes of modern journalism had emerged during the discussion: the “heroic journalist” and the “delinquent jackal journalist”. Whether a practitioner veers towards one or the other depends in large part on their work conditions.

She cited “Journalists in the UK” – a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism – which highlights some worrying statistics on the conditions today’s journalists are increasingly working within, including that:

  • 61% of journalists say public relations material has increased in their publication
  • 76% say the pressure of advertising considerations has increased on their work
  • 52% say pressure towards sensationalist news has increased

Increasing workloads, falling numbers of stable employment opportunities, and a lack of legal protection for journalists, are also significant factors.

“When you have a confluence of all these types of factors, you have to look critically at whether journalism can change the world. There are some real problems we are facing,” she concluded.

Dr Benjamin Worthy (lecturer in politics, Birkbeck)

Dr Benjamin Worthy

Dr Benjamin Worthy

Dr Worthy rounded off the panel session with three reasons for optimism:

  • There is far more information and ways of getting it today than 20 years ago
  • There are more ways to distribute this information today
  • There are more ways to be involved in the conversation, both formal (e.g. online petitions) and informal (e.g. social media)

And also three reasons for pessimism:

  • Information on its own isn’t enough. It is merely the first step
  • The attention cycle for news is short. For journalism to maintain a strong campaign for change, it needs to find a way to hold waning attention spans
  • The State is very powerful, and it will stomp down attempts at disclosure of information

The panel session was followed by an open Q&A with the audience. Among the points discussed were:

  • The issue of public apathy and waning attention cycle
  • The question is we are destined to see investigative journalism moving into the philanthropic arm of the industry, rather than remaining as a sustainable profession in its own right.

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Bringing Sergei (back) to London

This post was contributed by Ian Christie, Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck’s Department of Film Media and Cultural Studies. Prof Christie has curated a new exhibition, Unexpected Eisenstein, organised by Kino Klassika Foundation and GRAD London. The exhibition which runs until 30 April at GRAD, sheds new light on the life and achievements of pioneering Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Here, Prof Christie gives an insight into the formation of his new exhibition.

EisensteinHeartbreakHouse2Every biography of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein will tell you that he visited Britain during his sole extended journey to the outside world in 1929-32. But few give much detail about this brief six-week visit, other than noting that it allowed him to see the film that had made him famous, or notorious, The Battleship Potemkin, accompanied by the rousing music score that had made such an impact in Germany three years earlier.

Sad to report, Eisenstein was not impressed. He found Edmund Meisel’s score too dominating, and he was even less happy about the accompanying film, John Grierson’s Drifters, which he thought had stolen quite a lot from him. But such disappointments didn’t prevent him from making the most of a visit to the land he had known from childhood, through reading all the juvenile classics and much else.

The more I thought about this visit, I realised we could make it be basis of an exhibition of Eisenstein’s extraordinary drawings, long planned as a joint project between GRAD Gallery, specialising in Russian art and design, and the Kino Klassika Foundation, set up to foster awareness of Russian cinema’s rich history.

So our exhibition traces what had made Eisenstein so famous by the age of thirty; what impact he had on Britain, then and since; and how memories and enthusiasms connected with England stayed with him, influencing his own work back in Stalin’s Russia. When I was in Moscow last year to select work from the archives, I realised that following this thread was actually leading me in new and surprising directions, even after have already mounted a big Eisenstein exhibition back in the 1980s – which led to us deciding to call the show ‘Unexpected Eisenstein’.

Although he never made a straight Shakespeare adaptation, motifs from the plays – especially Macbeth – run through a surprising amount of his work, especially the scandalously confessional ‘Death of Duncan’ drawings he made in Mexico soon after the visit to England. Likewise, he never filmed George Bernard Shaw, despite Shaw giving him the rights to Arms and the Man, but he made stage designs for Shaw’s ‘fantasia in the Russian manner’, Heartbreak House.

Perhaps most intriguing of all was a set of drawings we found in the Russian State Archive for an episode of Ivan the Terrible (1944) that was never filmed. This would have shown the first Tsar paying hopeful court to Elizabeth I of England through his ambassador. Eisenstein got as far as screen-testing his fellow-director Mikhail Romm as Elizabeth – which seems like an eerie anticipation of Sally Potter having Quentin Crisp play Elizabeth in her time-traveling fantasy Orlando (1992). Needless to say, that idea never got past Stalin’s deep suspicion of where his star director was taking Ivan, which led to its second part being firmly banned until after the deaths of both the director and the dictator.

But with the drawings in our exhibition, and clips from both Ivan and Orlando playing, I hope we have created a space for visitors to speculate and enter into Eisenstein’s extraordinary, often mischievous, imagination.

MarkCousins1Some of these must remain open to speculation. Why did Eisenstein make a series of drawings of the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine in the mid-1940s, writing ‘London’ on one of these? Was he thinking of their scandalous elopement from Paris to London in 1873, when they lived together in Royal College Street in Camden? The house has since acquired a plaque, but surely it was known to few in 1929?

Some other points of contact are better documented. Everyone interested in the future of film want to meet Eisenstein, and he found himself giving lectures in a room above Foyles’ bookshop to an audience that included many future leaders of the documentary film movement. He even made a guest appearance in the Film Society’s group film, playing a London bobby with obvious relish. He visited the Tower of London – there’s a tourist photo of him posing with a Beefeater – and he went to Cambridge University. Memories of dining at Trinity College and attending a student party apparently stayed with him sufficiently to help shape scenes in Ivan the Terrible, as did his trips to Windsor Castle and Eton College.

Having intuitively structured the exhibition around ‘Eisenstein and England’, I realised that I was perhaps unconsciously following several current trends in historical research. The biographical thread has revealed intriguing aspects of Eisenstein’s complex personality and links across his wide-ranging interests. And like all micro-histories, this snapshot of a month in 1929 turns out to stand at the centre of a web of themes that are still resonating today. Our show finishes with a specially-made short film by Mark Cousins that explores Eisenstein’s longstanding fascination with D. H. Lawrence, against the background of contemporary Moscow.

Unexpected Eisenstein runs at GRAD Gallery, 3-4 Little Portland Street, London W1W 7JB until April 30. Closed Mondays, free admission.

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