Agenda-challenging journalism matters

After a thoroughly enjoyable New Year's Eve in Edinburgh (a ceilidh at St James' Leith, and then a view of the city's fine fireworks celebrations), connecting with the broadcast, digital and print media this morning was a thoroughly depressing experience.

The news agenda on migration from the EU accession states, this time Bulgaria and Romania, is once again being driven by a frenzy of fear, xenophobia, scaremongering and thinly disguised racism whipped up by the tabloid newspapers in particular.

This panic is being ably abetted by populist politicians and by anti-immigration lobby groups like Migration Watch, whose negative spin and selective statistical citation is all-too-easily treated as 'objective' by journalists and producers looking to respond to a hot story.

As someone who has (alongside work in theological education, ecumenical relations, public policy and political engagement) been a journalist for over 30 years, I am frequently depressed by the overall state of the profession, and in particular by the reactionary 'narrative frames' (Paul Krugman) that imprison so many stories from infancy.

Celebrity culture, churnalism, media financialisation, the impact of austerity on the profession, the often unfeasible demands of a 24/7 news culture, the blandishments of corporate PR and the exaggerations of high profile political fear-merchants… These are among the toxic forces exerting a debilitating influence on what you might call 'traditional reporting' – by which I mean, among other things, the patient and difficult attempt to uncover what matters in the face of an abundance of froth or propaganda.

Good quality journalism, both reporting and comment, matters deeply. The narratives we choose and live by are power. When they are abused, scapegoating becomes the norm – as in so much that is written, said and broadcast about migrants, asylum seekers, travellers, disabled people, benefit claimants, trans people and many others today.

The deeper political issues here are about media ownership, development and control, of course. But there is hope. The digital world is opening up spaces for subverting or bypassing the corporate media, as Noam Chomsky recently observed. It's also worth remembering that the road from ruin to reclamation in the matter of decent, truth-telling journalism is paved by the (often uncelebrated) work of countless good people who still go out of their way to discover inconvenient facts, to listen to ignored voices, and to paint alternative portraits.

One exemplar of this, I was happily reminded through a social media exchange this morning, is Katharine Quarmby – a writer, journalist and film-maker specialising in social affairs, education, foreign affairs and politics, with an investigative and campaigning edge.

Her latest book, No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (One World Publications, UK, published in August 2013) is on my must-read list for early 2014.

Katharine has spent most of her working life in journalism and has made a number of films for the BBC, as well as working as a correspondent for some well known newspapers and as a freelance for others.

In 2007 she began to investigate a number of violent killings of disabled men and women across the UK. As news editor of the disability magazine, Disability Now, she was able to put together the first national dossier of such crimes that year, following it up with an investigative report on disability hate crimes, Getting Away with Murder, for the charity Scope and the UK’s Disabled People’s Council, in 2008.

Her book Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people (Portobello Press, 2011), won the Ability Media Literature Award in 2011. In 2012 Katharine was shortlisted for the Paul Foot Award for campaigning journalism, by the Guardian and Private Eye magazine, for her five years of campaigning against disability hate. She and fellow volunteer co-ordinators run the Disability Hate Crime Network.

People like Katharine (who I don't know personally) and many others who I do, show what agenda-challenging journalism can be, and should be, all about. After a deluge of one-sided nonsense on migration this morning, I shall drink a toast to them before launching into my own New Year!

* Disability Hate Crime: http://disabilityhatecrime.org.uk

* Upworthy - one useful source of different, viral narratives: http://www.upworthy.com

* Chomsky on corporate power, the NSA revelations and the media: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/29/chomsky_governments_are_power_systems_tr...

* Alternative perspectives on migration from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/migration

* More about Katharine Quarmby: http://katharinequarmby.wordpress.com

* National Union of Journalists' Code of Conduct: http://www.nuj.org.uk/about/nuj-code/

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He is a contributor to Religion and the News (Ashgate, 2012), among many other books and publications. He has been a member of the National Union of Journalists since 1982, and is currently active in the Edinburgh Freelance Branch.

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