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June 29th, 2011

Does Television Need Charity? – By Marcus Ryder

By admin

Two of my best journalists are currently working on an investigation into a possible miscarriage of justice. It is still in production so I can’t write too much about it… but we are investigating whether an innocent man could be serving time for a number of murders that he didn’t do. In plain English: An innocent man may have been wrongly convicted as a serial killer.

As you can imagine, it’s a big story. But behind the headlines I hope will follow the programme’s broadcast however is another story that could serve as a crucial lesson for people interested in increasing diversity in the media.

The “miscarriage of justice” story was first brought to our attention through the work of a UK charity working with prisoners. Charities obviously have their own agendas, so as journalists we have to be careful not to just take their work at face value. Hence, much of my team’s work has been to make sure we report the story as objectively as possible and subject it to the same level of journalistic scrutiny we would to any other investigation.

However investigative journalists using charities and NGOs seem to be a growing trend. In October 2010, two Guardian front-page investigations originated from NGOs, while BBC Panorama’s recent investigation into e-waste being dumped in Africa relied heavily on the charity Environmental Investigations Agency. So many documentaries on Al Jazeera now seem to rely so heavily on NGOs that I regularly play “spot the charity” when watching the channel!

This trend seems to generally be associated with shrinking budgets in newsrooms and conventional media. According to Paul Lashmar, the Acting Head of Journalism at Brunel University,

NGOs have started hiring investigative journalists to provide the media with material that they are no longer willing to fund”.

But the trend is no bad thing. In fact, I believe that when it comes to increasing diversity in the media we could learn from the charity model. In the last six months, the one investigative story that covered BME issues that really caught my eye was how British teachers are failing black middle-class pupils.  It was reported in both the Daily Mail and The Guardian. This investigation didn’t come out of any work journalists did directly, but arose out of the hard work of academics and researchers working at the Institute of Education. And yes, you’ve guessed it – the Institute of Education is a registered charity.

This suggests that as we move forward, instead of always looking at directly changing large media companies in order to increase diversity, it could be more productive to try to influence charities or even set up charities of our own – with the agenda of uncovering great stories around disability, race, ethnicity, sexuality or class.  In this way, rather than seeing smaller media budgets as an obstacle to increasing diversity – we could be using it as an opportunity.

In the next few weeks my current affairs team will hopefully deliver a great programme based on initial research by a charity into a possible miscarriage of justice. If an NGO out there is ready to give me a great story that also increases diversity on-screen, I’ll be more than ready to commission it – and that won’t be out of charity.

Marcus Ryder
Editor Current Affairs BBC Scotland
Twitter.com/marcusryder

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