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Kate Adie’s 4 Golden Rules For Good Journalism

7 February 2016 No Comment

In early February 2016 I was fortunate enough to meet Kate Adie OBE, a well known BBC journalist.

Addressing a room of about 200 people, Kate gave an excellent account of how she progressed from being a relatively ordinary student, to her role in BBC local radio and then BBC regional television, before securing her mainstream position at BBC News. On moving from BBC local radio in the North East to what she thought was another radio job with BBC West, she was astonished to learn (on day one at BBC West) that she had become a TV reporter! Emphasising the fact that she thought she was still with BBC local radio she regaled her audience with this story.

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These may not be Kate’s precise words, but this is a good representation of what she said:

“The job of a journalist is not glamorous, we all filed into the news room to find out what our assignments were for the day. It’s very much a case of join the queue and you are given the next item on the list. When my turn came, I was told to go to an old people’s home in Taunton as there were some newsworthy shenanigans going on.

I went and picked up a tape recorder and a microphone, and headed for the door. As I walked to the door I was joined by another man . . . I’m going to Taunton I said . . . So am I . . . To an old people’s home . . . So am I . . . What’s that big thing under your arm . . . It’s a CA-ME-RA!

At which point it dawned on me that I had become a TV reporter!

And, I hadn’t even thought about my attire, nor my make up, and there I was . . . doing television for the first time!”

Kate has an enviable ability to tell a good story and shared a dozen fascinating insights from some of the major assignments she’s had, framing all of them within her own Four Golden Rules of Good Journalism. As she was keen to point out, there was no such thing as “Media Studies” in her day, and she was never taught how to be a journalist. Her own system The Four Golden Rules of Good Journalism is something that she has personally established by trial and error, and this may or may not be the way that things are taught these days.

Rule 1 – Get there!

You cannot get a story by listening to others who have been there. You have to go there yourself. And in the specialist field of war reporting that’s easier said than done. With conflicts, (or earthquakes, or floods) there is an abundance of transportation heading away from the disaster zone, but very few people who want to head towards it. War zones often mean that you can’t fly to the desired airport because miltiary forces want control of that airport. Likewise, the military always commandeer the best hotels for their headquarters. Enabling you and your team (in total, four or five people) to “get there” can often be the toughest part of the job. On one occasion, the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, Kate and her team had to fly to the nearest operational airport which was in neighbouring Georgia. Barely overcoming language barriers, the only transport they could find was a bus (for 55 people) which they had to buy, and then hire a non-English-speaking driver. Sleeping each night on the bus, buying whatever food and water they could, they travelled for 5 days, regularly saying “Armenia” to their non-English-speaking driver!

Rule 2 – Get the facts!

Meet people, press the flesh, talk to the locals. You’re not going to get the facts from the military commanders who only want to present their side of the story. Big companies similarly employ the PR machine to put their spin on any discussion. You have to talk to the people. In the streets, and especially in the local market place, talk to as many as you can and get as much information from them as you can. Be delicate, be sensitive. When you encounter somebody shy who seems to have something they’re afraid to discuss, you may be on to something.

“Did you see what happened?”
Nod.
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
Shake of head.

Often these people have the best insights, and you need to be cautious and gently help them to share the facts.

Rule 3 – Verify the facts!

This is not always easy, but in every case you need to cross check what you’ve been told with some other point of reference.

There is no general purpose method for “verify” and the journalist needs to be resourceful. Indeed, for every different situation there is potentially a different way to verify the facts. In 1989 when Nicolae Ceaușescu was deposed as the leader of Romania, the BBC team arrived during that interim period where it was clear that the leader and his cronies were gone, but there was no government to take their place. That meant that the military and the state police were unsure of their role and which side of the revolution they were supposed to be faithful to. At the same time, the main “facts” presented to journalists (by everyday citizens) were “thousands of people have been killed”.

The information appeared to be so forceful, so dramatic and so current, that it was easy to believe that pro Ceaușescu supporters were killing thousands of revolutionaries. The only way Kate and her team could verify this was by visiting the five main hospitals in Bucharest. And not only that, it meant persuading (or bribing) hospital staff to let them into the morgue, to open the fridges, to inspect all the corpses, turning them over as required, looking for bullet holes.

After a day of “verifying the facts” the team had found evidence that just five people had died from bullet wounds!

Rule 4 – Transmit!

Transmission has become very much easier with the advent of digital technology. Back in 1988, having obtained first hand news of the Armenian earthquake, and having prepared old celluloid film, they then had to get it back to a studio where an editor could work on it before it could be broadcast. That took time. And in the old days, that’s why news could take a week or two to get into the UK press.

It’s easier now that satellites allow live transmission from around the globe. Easy that is, if your local military commanders (and the like) permit it. And that was when Kate told us that the commanders of allied forces are not necessarily keen on journalists. Live broadcasts of military manuovres are a risk to the lives of the soldiers involved. Generals don’t like it when you’re telling the enemy what your side is planning to do!

In the first Gulf War, when TV crews were first equipped with satellite dishes, the Generals had to make instant decisions about what they would allow. The BBC proudly turned up in Saudi Arabia with their van, fitted with a 3 metre dish, costing around £3,500. Whereupon CNN et al said “hey, we’ve got three of them!”

The moment the US teams went to a briefing with General Norman Schwarzkopf he saw the satellite dishes and decreed that “they’re gonna be allowed nowhere near my troops”.

When the BBC team had a similar briefing with UK General Peter de la Billière he asked them “what are you going to say when you and your satellite dish are captured by the enemy?” Kate’s response was “look, we’re not armed, we’re part of the catering division, and that’s our wok!”

General de la Billière’s response was “carry on, carry on!”

Hence the only live transmission’s coming out of the first gulf war were on the BBC (and Sky and ITN with whom all the costs had been shared, and thus they had equal syndication rights).

Conclusion

It is sometimes said, in this day and age where smart phones are ubiquitous, that we are all journalists now. Or at least, anybody who chooses to publish something, can! But that doesn’t make you a journalist. There’s a further rule that underpins good journalism, and it builds on the four rules set out above. You have to be fair! Anybody can see something and share their opinion of it, but that does not necessarily mean than their report is fair. That’s why “get the facts” and “verify the facts” are so important to good journalism. And you can only do that by speaking directly to the people who have first hand knowledge of the situation. Kate Adie said so!

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