Inside Out – April 06

Dear Frontline Readers,

A small group of us from The Frontline Club retreated recently to Vaughan Smith’s family enclave, Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, to think, among other things, imaginatively about how to build on the dramatic success of the Forum and produce a more thoughtful and challenging series of programmes.

One of the things we talked a lot about was whether to try and create Frontline USA in hope of sparking the kind of debate about journalism that we like to think we are helping to do here in London. Not that any of us are deluded into thinking that we occupy some moral high ground at 13 Norfolk Place, but we can take pride in making a contribution to journalistic debate and discussion in our community.

Judging by what passes for critical journalistic debate these days in the United States, I have no doubt that The Frontline Club would be welcomed by many thoughtful practitioners and observers living in New York, the most obvious city for a Frontline USA, though some favour Washington.

Celebrity dominates discussions about American (and, all too often, British) journalism these days. The big news recently was the long-awaited announcement that Katie Couric, the star anchor of NBC’s “Today” programme (long on features and short on news, especially international news) was jumping to CBS to become the anchor of the CBS Evening News as well as a contributor to other news programmes such as “48 Hours” and “Sixty Minutes”.

The most quoted figure of what she will earn is $15 million dollars a year. But what I was missing – perhaps I haven’t scoured the blogs sufficiently – was a debate about the continuing downgrading of international coverage, the closure of foreign bureaux, and the increasing tendency to package news – remote reporting – instead of sending news teams into the field to cover the story. It’s an issue that Tom Fenton, a contributor to this month’s newsletter, explored cogently in his excellent and controversial book, Bad News, a lament at the decline in standards at CBS News and its competitors in his waning days as a CBS correspondent.

What would have made another instant Frontline New York debate was the controversy surrounding the criminal investigation into a New York Post “Page Six” gossip columnist Jared Paul Stern’s alleged bribing of a wealthy businessman. Stern is accused of shaking down the businessman, offering to keep his doings out of the column in exchange for regular payola.

But we were reminded on Monday by Media Guardian that most of the hotshot journalists working for US supermarket tabloids, and a now-deposed editor of the National Inquirer, were “handpicked from Fleet Street.”

Finally, a thank you to my old boss, Chris Wells, and my old employer, The Freedom Forum, for allowing The Frontline Club to help itself to equipment and furniture that was left at my old European Centre at Stanhope House. The premises are now being vacated, but the spirit of The Freedom Forum is alive and thriving at 13 Norfolk Place.