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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 February 2006, 14:16 GMT
Tomorrow's journalism
By Kevin Marsh
Editor, Today

John Humphrys and Sarah Montague on BBC Radio 4's Today programme
Today reaches an audience of more than 6 million each week

Today editor Kevin Marsh is stepping down to become editor at the new BBC College of Journalism - he explains why.

It is, of course, a conspiracy. Take your pick. A delayed post-Hutton head roll; a protest at "Value for Money" cuts; an old warhorse put out to grass after knocking the edge off the BBC flagship.

Or - the best one - a clever plot populated by characters like Andrew Gilligan, Lord Hutton and Ron Neil - of the post-Hutton Neil report - to create a BBC College of Journalism ... and a sinecure for myself.

These - and probably others - have been and will be offered up, often by people who should know better.

But like all truths, this one is more prosaic.

It's impossible to spend three years at the helm of Today without thinking deeply about the state of British journalism; its strengths, weaknesses and directions; its relationship with power; and the gulf between its practitioners' rites and rituals and its citizen-readers and audiences.

The day-to-day - and night-to-night - demands of the job means, though, that it can never be more than a part-time activity, usually pushed to one side by something more urgent.

Opportunity

The offer to do that thinking full-time was simply too good to turn down. Made more attractive by the prospect of the first full night's sleep in over three years.

"I've been in the front-line for a long time; a very long time - beginning with the first programme; "The World This Weekend" on 4 April 1982 - the day after Parliament was recalled on a Saturday to send the task force off to the Falklands. There are journalists working now on the Today team who weren't born then.

As Today editor you are - whether you like it or not - at the centre of every debate over British journalism; what impartiality really means? who sets the news agenda? have we really got room for another item about moles?

Andrew Gilligan
Lord Hutton found "uncertainties" in Andrew Gilligan's evidence
Occasionally, wittingly or otherwise, you find yourself at the centre of much more.

By my calculation, I've been responsible for about 6,000 hours of broadcasting since I became a programme editor in 1989. I am resigned to the fact that of those 6,000 hours, history will recall just six seconds, delivered at about 6.07 on 28 May 2003.

"The government probably, erm, knew that the 45-minute figure was wrong even before it decided to put it in". Andrew Gilligan's early-morning two-way that set in train the stand-off with Alistair Campbell followed; Dr Kelly's suicide; Lord Hutton's inquiry; and the departure of Greg Dyke, Gavin Davies and Andrew Gilligan.

The question I'm asked more than any other is; "what did you really think of the Hutton inquiry." But since I wasn't invited to take part - the answer is; not very much.

I think rather more about its consequences for the BBC which were far-reaching - including the foundation of the College - and what I learnt about British journalism during and after it.

If the Hutton inquiry hadn't turned a rational editor's mind to a more philosophical consideration of his craft, then the press coverage of the inquiry - which was at times execrable - certainly would have. That coverage proved the old adage - that you never know just how bad British journalism can be until you read something about yourself.

Inaccuracies

Reporting the inquiry should have been simplicity itself - it was the most open inquiry ever with almost instantaneous access to all the evidence, verbal and written.

Yet even with this spoon-feeding, simple accuracy was beyond some newspapers and journalists. Emails written before events were reported as if written after them; documents were misquoted, partially quoted and distorted; I had motives attributed to me as if fact ... when the attribution was no more than guesswork or prejudice. Fact and comment were indistinguishable.

At the same time, more thoughtful journalists - John Lloyd, for example - used the Hutton episode to launch broad assaults on what the media had done to politics. The BBC, the argument went, had abrogated to itself responsibility for framing the political debate - when that was properly the role of elected representatives in Parliament, to whom interviewers such as those on Today should defer.

Kevin Marsh
The British citizen ... deserves better journalism than he or she is getting
Kevin Marsh
The extraordinary thing, though, was that in spite of Lord Hutton's searing criticisms; in spite of the best the anti-BBC press could do; and in spite of the broader questioning and criticisms of BBC - and Today - interviewing, trust in the BBC continued to rise ... while that in written press - and elected politicians - fell.

The British citizen is more astute than some in the press think - and deserves better journalism than he or she is getting.

Journalism is an odd, scruffy craft whose folk heroes are misfits. It revels in its laxity; it has no entry requirement, no essential professional qualification, no structure and no (real) regulation. John Carroll - a former editor of the Los Angeles Times - said it was "the constitutional right of every citizen, no matter how depraved, to be a journalist."

The paradox is that this chaotic trade has the most important place in Britain's fog-bound constitution - holding the powerful to account, explaining power to people and people to power, the tribune of the people. Some unseen hand has ensured it's - sort of - worked for a couple of centuries. But with fewer than one in six trusting the word of a newspaper journalist these days, it looks like it's not working any more.

Highest standards

We need to do better and we can do better.

Which is where the BBC College of Journalism comes in - and my excitement at its prospects.

At one level, the College is the simplest of propositions; the BBC intends to uphold its values - accuracy and impartiality chief among them - promoting the highest ethical and editorial standards and developing the strongest craft skills. So it has to offer the best possible career-long teaching to support that - including drawing on and sharing the experience of the best journalists in the trade.

But it aims to be much more than that - and this is what is even more exciting and necessary.

Journalism is a trade that celebrates its independence - rightly believing that it's an essential condition of its freedom. But that insistence on independence does not make it immune to criticism and beyond peer and academic scrutiny, critique and informed debate. Providing that scrutiny, critique and debate will be a key function of the College.

Some will find it uncomfortable. But we're not going to get the British journalism we need - the journalism our fellow citizens deserve - without it.


SEE ALSO
Not "broken, beaten or cowed"
10 Oct 05 |  Notes
Leaving secrets to lie
11 Jan 06 |  Notes
Today editor Marsh to step down
23 Feb 06 |  Entertainment
At-a-glance: BBC post-Hutton report
23 Jun 04 |  TV and Radio

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