Media development: One way to fix a broken model

Get funding direct to professional and independent news organisations that need investment to stay professional and independent, prioritise the role of in-house media training with local technical college back-up and give a backroom role to NGOs and donors in international media development.

Simple – or so I thought. Nobody else agreed with me, no matter how often I beat the drum. But for the record I still believe it. Here’s my pitch to a UNESCO International Conference on Freedom of Expression and Media Development in Iraq, way back in January 2007. The media’s changed since, of course.

I’m actually here to talk about professionalising the media and institutional development and that’s what I’m going to address today and I’m going to address it by asking a very basic question to start, which is, when was it exactly that donor agencies and foreign NGOs were given the job of making good journalists?

When I trained as a journalist in the UK between 1979 and 1984, I got my training from two sources. The first were my peers. I worked in a newspaper that had internalised the principles of professionalism, then encapsulated as accuracy and responsible reporting. I had an editor and desk sub-editor who constantly questioned my professional perspective. They corrected me, sometimes line by line, and constantly questioned my assumptions about the stories that I wrote.

By working in a newspaper where accuracy, fairness and professionalism were valued, I learned the skills that I needed to make my articles meet those standards. I do not believe that there’s a media-training centre anywhere in the world that could teach a journalist more in the classroom than he or she could learn working day in, day out on a good paper.

The second source was the academic sector. Journalists also need the kind of specialist training that the university or technical college can easily provide. In my day, the classroom part of the training deliberately focused on the law as it affected the reporters’ job and functional skills such as shorthand and typing. My first newspaper sent me to college between working hours to learn these things and how to apply these lessons learned to my daily duties as a reporter.

Today such training would also include ICT, copyright law and ethics in a multi-media web-connected world. The college is also a natural place in which to address the more intellectual matters faced by the media – key issues on censorship, and self-censorship, hate speech and incitement to violence, gender issues, confessional and ethnic relations and the role of the media in conflict situations, as examples.

Such courses are the fruit of cooperation and consensus between the colleges and the media community it serves by taking on some of its training responsibilities.

It’s no surprise to me that the agencies that seem to be most effective in training Iraqi media workers, are the BBC World Service Trust, the Reuters Foundation and the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. These organisations incorporate training in their daily activities as news organisations in Iraq. Their journalists learn at work with classroom sessions for the extra detail, information technology, media law, reporting conflict safely, etc.

To reiterate: To improve the professional standards of the media in Iraq, indeed anywhere, you first need to build the capacity of the editors and the desk editors who are the interface between young reporters and the published material.

You need to develop the capacity to train within the media organisations themselves, not to spend millions on external agencies to do it for you.

You especially need to find a way to integrate the working media with the academic sector. Why should we create new outside agencies to support the training of journalists when we have universities that can be equipped to take on that role? The most effective way to build professionalism in the Iraqi media, is to empower the industry to take charge of its own training and to better use new and existing resources in the universities to support them.

This meeting is far too concerned with laws, with regulation, with codes and conduct and above all, with the punishment of journalists who break the rules of men who think they are better than the reporters they seek to control.

The strength – sometimes the weakness, admittedly – of journalists is that they are a tribe in their own right. They have their elders, their preachers, judges, teachers, keen to defend their traditions and principles and usually – united in the face of challenge from outside. But as with your commitment to your nation or your tribe, your commitment to professional journalistic standards comes from the heart. It’s not imposed on you by outsiders.

Why should Iraqi journalists and academics in their hearts, be weaker than journalists and academics anywhere else? Surely they show more commitment, courage and determination than those in any other country you might name, simply by turning up for work every day.

Trust them.

Put the energy and the funds into support for training inside Iraqi media organisations. Train Iraqi editors to be trainers and build new capacities in Iraqi universities, employing online methods, to serve the training needs of the Iraqi media industry.

I thank the CMC, UNESCO, and UNDP for combining forces to make this meeting possible. It is much needed. I have lots of other comments I could make about the discussions of today and the last few days, but I will limit myself to the subject of one, the subject of investment.

I believe that Iraq needs an independent media investment fund, managed by the UNDP, in partnership with the World Bank, to offer low interest loans to professionally run media organisations and to even offer grants where appropriate.

Such a fund’s purpose would be to make strategic investments in Iraqi media, in management and marketing as well as editorial departments – to support pluralism, the fair representation of minority interests and to support struggling truly independent publications.

In fact, anywhere professional and independent news organisations need cash investment to stay professional and independent.

I hope that this idea will be considered by both agencies.

They didn’t.

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