Understanding the ‘Global News’ Paradigm

Birkbeck’s William Richards reflects on this School of Arts event exploring the evolution of English-language journalism.

In an era of ever-increasing digital compartmentalisation and division, what really is global news?

This was the question asked by Dr Justin Schlosberg, Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media & Cultural Studies at a fascinating talk entitled ‘The Global News Paradigm’.

Hosted online by the School of Arts on Monday 25 January, the event began with the hypothesis from Dr Schlosberg that global news is in flux and in content evolution. For better or for worse, broadcasters steeped in the Western liberal tradition of professional journalism have faced increasing competition from English-language news channels around the world.

Throughout this talk, the hegemony of the BBC and CNN was analysed in the context of its rising challengers; the likes of Al Jazeera English and RT (formerly Russia Today). Indeed, says Dr Schlosberg, this raises all sorts of complex and critical questions about the nature of journalism as a fundamentally truth-telling practice, and the potential impact of disinformation and counter-disinformation on global news agendas.

Seeking to evaluate these questions, Dr Schlosberg carefully examined and discussed the ways in which international news stories have been covered by competing English-language news channels.

It is often very easy to get carried away by buzzwords of ‘Fake News’ or ‘bias’ when discussing the media in this day and age. Nevertheless, what constitutes stories of importance within the contact of ‘Global News’ remains open to to debate and interpretation.

A recording of this event is available to watch on YouTube.

A big thank you to the School of Arts and Dr Justin Schlosberg for his presentation. We look forward to hosting similar, thought-provoking talks in the future.

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The Windrush Betrayal

Zeljka Oparnica, PhD student in the Department of History, reports on journalist Amelia Gentleman’s talk about the Windrush Scandal that took place as part of the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology’s Discover the Past lecture series that welcomes Birkbeck students, alumni and guests.

The Empire Windrush in 1947.

The Empire Windrush in 1947.

Amelia Gentleman’s reportages in the past two years covered a series of immigration issues that became known as The Windrush scandal. In this talk, she covered the background of both her reporting and the results it had provoked.

Professor Jan Rueger, Head of the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology Department greeted the audience and introduced the speaker and her book, stressing an important historians’ credo: “People’s voices matter, individual lives matter, and persistent research and adept covering of injustice can make a difference.” Amelia Gentleman began by reflecting on her background in history. That was a great introduction to the talk that followed the storylines of individuals leading to the discovery of a systematic fallacy, showcasing the background of “big history.”

What led to the series of reportages was a single case which came to Gentlemen through an NGO in November 2017. It was a story about a woman who came to the United Kingdom in her early childhood and was detained and about to be deported to Jamaica at the age of 61. For about two years prior to her detention, she had been receiving letters from the Home Office warning her about her illegal status. What at first glance seemed to be an oversight by the Home Office, turned out to be just the first among many isolated cases. The day when the article was printed in the Guardian, Gentleman received a call from the son of a man in a similar situation facing deportation. The individual cases started to line up and it became evident there was more to the series of what seemed like lone, disturbing cases. Her emphatical but sober writing, followed by amazing photo portraits, incited readers’ reactions and brought the well-needed attention.

Amelia Gentleman with her book 'The Windrush Betrayal'

Amelia Gentleman with her book ‘The Windrush Betrayal’.

Beyond talking to a number of affected individuals, Gentleman also referred to immigration lawyers, law centres, and PMs from areas with high immigration rates. As the stories received ever more publicity and caused a public uproar, the Home Office reacted to individual cases, and ministers offered half-hearted apologies. There was a rush to resolve the most prominent cases, and it was difficult for all the people invested in helping to connect the dots.

After months of research, Amelia Gentleman came to a true historical revelation. Behind the dozens of comprehensive individual reportages were around 500,000 cases of undocumented people who were born in the Commonwealth countries and came legally, as imperial citizens, to the United Kingdom in the period between two Immigration Acts, namely 1948 and 1973. The lack of personal documents, such as passports, went hand in hand with what Gentleman called “the general British papers distrust.” Namely, even today 17% of British citizens do not possess passports, and in the previous decades, the number was much higher. It became apparent that the trigger was the so-called Hostile Environment, the Tory anti-immigration policies that came to power in the early 2010s. It became apparent how the citizenship of thousands of people depended on the unjust context of the present.

The stories reached their peak in 2018, overlapping with the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Essex. Since those affected by the new Hostile Environment policies were the descendants of the people who arrived in the same period, and it seemed like an appropriate name for the scandal Gentleman’s reportages.

However, Gentleman still feels bitter-sweet about the outcomes of her work. As a direct result of the stories’ publication, Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned in April 2018 and a public promise was given to all affected that they could claim compensation from 200 to 572 million pounds. Up until today, over eight thousand people affected by the scandal have been granted citizenship or papers that confirm their full legal status. The number of detainees in deportation camps has also decreased. However, only 32 people have received some compensation, and many of those who have a right to compensation have either died or are very old. The Hostile Environment policies have not been repealed nor debated. With this sobering overview, Amelia Gentleman ended her talk by underlining that the list of tasks is long. For both journalists and historians.

In the well-established Birkbeck tradition, the talk sparked a comprehensive discussion that lasted for another hour.

 

 

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Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.

 

‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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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.

Find out more

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