It was only through idly flicking through Twitter that I learnt of Amnesty International’s annual Student Media event that would be taking place in their offices in Shoreditch. I signed up for the event, paying £5 for an event which promised exciting talks from journalists I’ve grown to admire, from Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis to Evan Davis, who is soon to replace Jeremy Paxman as lead presenter of the same programme. It also offered a unique chance to network with other student journalists and talk about our experience in a range of workshops and similar events.
Arriving at Amnesty International HQ, I registered, picked my chosen talks to attend, and soon was welcomed, along with tens of other student journalists, to the 2-day event that Amnesty has put on now for several years, in association with NUS.
The first session was about student media, more of an open discussion about students’ experience with setting up and running newspapers and television stations and the possible conflicts of interests arising from reporting on stories about the very same student’s union that funds such media.
Andrew Gilligan is a former BBC journalist, known for the Hutton report, and is now part of the Sunday Telegraph. He addressed the next workshop with a speech on his career, how journalism skills have changed in the digital world and his extensive investigative journalism. At the end, he opened the floor to questions.
The day’s most enjoyable event was with Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. She started her workshop with a clip of a recent interview she did with the Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev, which had been much discussed on Twitter afterwards. Emily was interested to hear our reaction to what was a fiery exchange, and whether we thought her interview strategy produced some new lines and an engaging few minutes of television. Emily spoke about her short time as acting political editor for the programme, as well as her broader career in the BBC. After the event, I had a chance to speak to Emily for a few minutes, asking her about how a knowledge of several languages, like me, has helped or played a part in her journalism career. Emily advised me to use my language skills as a sort of specialism, and to follow my interests, be they Catalan nationalism or events in Ukraine, as my USP (unique selling point). Having watched Emily for many years on Newsnight, it was a slightly nerve-wracking experience but I was glad all the same to talk with a very affable, talented interviewer and journalist.
The keynote speaker for this year’s summit was Guardian columnist Owen Jones. He spoke about inequality in the UK, bias in the media and the class system in the UK contributing to a media which he says, skews and exaggerates stories like immigration or religion, therefore fomenting ignorance and prejudice. Whether you agree or not with Owen Jones, he has been a very influential commentator on British life and culture, often raising issues that go underreported in mainstream media.
The first day closed with some remarks by members of the NUS, and then it was dinner time, courtesy of Pizza Express. It also gave me a great chance to meet other student journalists that I’d spoken to throughout the day, which was very interesting.
The second day began sorting my luggage from my accommodation and making it to the first workshop of the day – investigative journalism. Antony Barnet is a reporter for Channel 4’s Unreported World and Dispatches. He talked about the money behind the programmes. An episode of Dispatches, for example, costs around £100,000 to make, which is staggering. He talked about how much easier investigative reporting had become with Freedom of Information requests, and how investigations on television differ to print, by virtue of it being a visual medium and thus having to source footage etc.
The mid-morning slot was occupied by a conversation with Evan Davis, Today programme presenter and soon-to-be lead Newsnight presenter. Evan talked about using his specialism of economics to get a career in the BBC, and how he sees journalists as being either story finders or explainers; he was the latter. Evan’s anecdotes and less than conventional start to journalism, a time which he said was spent learning how to take notes and learning pretty much on-the-spot, had the audience very much engaged. Evan really emphasised the importance of having journalism, plus something else. Finding your niche, according to him, was essential. Having economics, Evan said that he has been able to approach a broad range of topics from a fresh perspective. He gives a very sideways perspective of journalism really made you think about how the media works and how print and broadcast thrive off each other.
The audience were particularly keen to hear about Evan’s move to Newsnight. It was a move he said he never thought he’d make. He had planned to outstay John Humphreys on the Today programme for many years. It was through meeting the programme’s editor Ian Katz that the two had spoken casually over a coffee about qualities of a presenter. Evan realised that he was subtly being offered the job of succeeding Jeremy Paxman. He was even asked about whether he would wear a tie, and what interviewing style he would likely take. Evan talked of life outside of his job, and how importantly he values his privacy.
Evan’s down-to-earth, informal manner and passion for journalism really shone through during this talk. The floor was opened up to questions, ranging from his move from television to radio and now back to television, in addition to how he sees the future of radio. I even had a chance to ask him a question. Following recent comments by BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston that the BBC is “obsessed” with the Daily Mail and the right-wing press, to what extent does print influence broadcast media, and can the BBC get too carried away with criticism from the Mail? Here’s what he had to say:
The next talk was by Julia MacFarlane, a journalist with the BBC. She showed us a report that she had shot herself in Lebanon about the huge numbers of Palestinian refugees in the country. She talked through the difficulty of getting a big break in journalism, how to get into and then work in the BBC and the postgraduate degree route of journalism. Despite her young age, Julia’s experience abroad, self-shooting and self-editing and various bits of freelancing show the amount of work needed to get into the industry. It made for a very inspiring talk to see how far she had come from initially being rejected from the BBC’s trainee scheme to somebody with a plethora of skills needed in the digital age.
After the talk, I managed to grab Julia for a few minutes, during which time I asked her about acquiring a camera, experimenting with it, ideas for pitching and researching stories and ways into the BBC.
The next talk was far less interesting for me personally, as comment writing hasn’t really come on my radar before. The following discussion on surveillance was much more interesting, producing some lively debate between those for and against.
NUS President Toni Pearce gave a talk about NUS’ role in student life, its work ahead of next year’s general election and how important student media is in holding universities and other bodies to account.
The keynote speaker to end the final day was Stacey Dooley, whose documentaries I was already well aware of. Stacey has worked for many years with BBC Three, and her most recent series looked at drugs and substance abuse around the world, from South America to Thailand. She was later asked about the planned move of BBC Three online, her “role model” status for many young girls, which produced a huge amount of support in the room. She has gone a long way to empower girls and underrepresented people in the media, and was greeted with such a warm welcome by the delegates. Stacey has gained great popularity for her honest and emotional response to topics such as drugs and sex trafficking. Whilst remaining measured and composed, Stacey has shown that being emotive and compassionate is no bad thing at all. It is her niche.
Stacey talked about her start in the business, making a documentary in her native Luton about the EDL. Her integrity to her home town has never been lost, and really underlines her likeability. Stacey took time to discuss how she has kept relationships with people she has filmed with. It is no exaggeration to say that investigative journalism is more than just a job to Stacey.
With such a passionate speech, and with Stacey very keen to transmit a positive, encouraging message to the audience, the second day of the student media summit was brought to an end.
I never thought that two days could bring my passion for journalism so alive. From meeting lots of people to hearing from some of the best journalists in the business, I was very grateful to all of the members of staff and volunteers from Amnesty International and the NUS who had so obviously worked hard to make sure the event ran as smoothly and enjoyably as it had done.
I’d really hope to return next year with even more interesting talks which made me leave very empowered in my wish to become a journalist in the future.
More information on NUS website: Click here