11 Jun 2017

The 'Sundance' of journalism

From Mediawatch, 9:10 am on 11 June 2017

When terrorism struck London last weekend, hundreds of journalists were in a forest an hour away at an open-air festival dubbed 'a riot of free speech.'  Emily Menkes tells Mediawatch it was an inspiring place to be at a time of bad news.​

The Media Circus big top hosted the big debates at the Byline Festival.

The Media Circus big top hosted the big debates at the Byline Festival. Photo: supplied


The attacks on London jolted journalists in the UK last weekend - nowhere more than Pippingham Park in Sussex about an hour away from London.


About 3000 people had gathered there, some with families in tow, for a media conference billed as “a riot of free speech.”


At the end of day two of The Byline Festival the mood took a dive as news of the London Bridge terror attack filtered through. 


"It was surreal getting woken up in the middle of the night with all the news alerts about it," said Emily Menkes, a New Zealand journalist running two workshops at the festival. 


"It was more sombre the next day. People waiting in coffee lines were talking about it and many of them were London-based, trying to connect with people they knew there. But there was a sense of solidarity and it also reinforced why media is important in getting accurate information out and that it isn't inflammatory," she told Mediawatch. 


Byline Festival logo

Byline Festival logo Photo: supplied


Byline is probably the only media conference in the world which offers hostile environment training in a clearing between a children's activities area and "the fields of mindfulness." A Ska music festival provided the night-time entertainment.


BBC investigative reporter John Sweeney - best-known for confrontational undercover exposes of North Korea and Scientology - endorsed the event’s freewheeling approach.


So did Martin Bell, the white-suited foreign correspondent for the BBC who was famously hurt reporting the war in Bosnia before becoming an MP.


“'I believe that this festival can really start something," said Martin Bell.  

While the festival sounds a bit hippy-ish, serious journalists were there to debate issues of real importance for the media including terrorism and radicalisation.

The debates took place in a big tent called the Media Circus and a smaller one called The Echo Chamber alongside practical skill-sharing workshops.

One of the events biggest names - and biggest supporters - is comedian John Cleese. 


"We've got to have more people out there telling the truth," he said.

"These were people who made a name for themselves by being against the status quo. It was the troublemakers of the old guard that had the most significant voice there, combined with aspiring young voices in journalism," said Emily Menkes.


They were all able to mingle, talk, drink and lie in the grass under the sun, she said - something you couldn't do in a stuffy, windowless conference centre in London. 


"We discussed the short-comings of journalism but it didn't stop there. It was also about how journalism can be made better," she said.


"No debates were shut down and no-one was an expert in everything."


Pointing out the bad to do good


John Cleese at the Byline Festival.

John Cleese at the Byline Festival. Photo: supplied / Byline Festival


The Byline Festival featured two former newspaper reporters prosecuted in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, and members of the lobby group Hacked Off that angered news media publishers by campaigning for greater restrictions. 


The new regulator  - the Independent Press Standards IPSO - was set up with great fanfare after the Leveson inquiry into the conduct of the UK press. But it was condemned as a failure by many at the Byline Festival.


"Rupert Murdoch's 'pie in the face' seems to be where the news cycle ended. Leveson's proposals got watered down and people here want a second inquiry," said Emily Menkes.


Awards for the worst British media reporting of the year - The Trashies - were also handed out by John Cleese at the festival. 


“It is designed to be a celebration of the worst of British journalism which we hope will eventually make money we can spend on encouraging good journalism,"  Byline Festival organiser Peter Jukes told the UK Press Gazette, which said none of the recipients were there to pick up their awards in person.


The Daily Mail came out the overall winner at the “The Trashies” taking out five of the seven awards: the Most Misleading Headline, the Least Accurate Article, the Trashiest Writer, the Trashiest Publication and the Lifetime Achievement Award for editor Paul Dacre.


That was a popular choice as Mr Dacre is currently trying to sue the byline website for claims made about his conduct at the Daily Mail. 

Emily Menkes

Emily Menkes Photo: supplied

Emily Menkes, who’s worked at Fairfax Media in New Zealand and also in the US with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. She also worked with Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson researching the recent book Hit and Run.


She said there's a groundswell of support for independent media in the UK working outside the mainstream news media.  


"Podcasting is telling investigative stories which really labour over details," she told Mediawatch.


She points to the success of Untold, the podcast telling the tale of a murder investigation stretching back 30 years, which has just been turned into a book. 


"It points to a lot of serious issues and corruption in British society. It also links to the phone hacking scandal," said Emily Menkes.