Paul Mason on the art of telling stories and capturing the “unadorned truth”

July 28, 2011

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By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

Paul Mason, the music teacher turned Newsnight economics editor, shared some trade secrets at the Frontline Club last night as part of its Reflection series in association with the BBC College of Journalism.

Mason, whose first live report for the BBC was on 9/11 in 2001, told interviewer Matthew Eltringham, editor of the BBC College of Journalism website, that as well as being driven by explaining "people, planet and profit", his reporting was about "learning all the time".

Mason grew up in Leigh, Greater Manchester and attended a Catholic grammar school where a big focus was brass band. "I was a child musician," he said, which is why it seemed natural for him to study music at Sheffield University.

In a bid to escape music and try something new, Mason studied politics as a second subject. It was some time later, after years of teaching and writing music, that Mason discovered a passion for journalism. "I never liked teaching. I loved telling stories," he said.

Even before he started at Reed Elsevier during the 1990s, Mason already had an idea about what good journalism should do.

A reporter has to record detail. Whether or not at the time it seems relevant. I love the observation of detail. You can’t do that in a one-minute package, though the best of my colleagues can.

To illustrate the point Mason chose a clip from an early report by the journalist Ray Gosling on life inside the Whittingham Hospital asylum in Lancashire.

When we were kids in Greater Manchester, Ray Gosling was the most brilliant reporter. When I first became a journalist, I thought this is what you should be doing.

What Gosling shares with two other journalists Martin Adler and George Orwell, is an "unflinching gaze" and the abilty to capture the unadorned truth, said Mason.

Mason chose a short clip Adler shot in Iraq, whch showed the fear and confusion that clouded US solidiers relations with ordinary Iraqis. "That’s the kind of journalism you should aspire to. It confronts you with lots of things at once." 

When asked, Mason said such work could be created at the BBC and challenge "group think" culture. That is why there are so many layers, with programmes like Panorama, Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today, he said.

"One of the reasons is so you can bring the whole pallet of reaction."

While fascinated by the craft of reporting, Mason is also enthusiastic about the way social media is changing news reporting.

When the internet came along it was like Christmas to me. Long before I was a journalist I got what it could do.

He was the first BBC journalist to start a blog, despite being told by bosses that such things were "not in the BBC’s universe". Since then Mason has built a huge presence throught both his blog and on Twitter, where he is followed by more than 18,000 people.

Engaging with his audience online "informs my journalism", Mason said. But, he added, the rise of 24-hour-news and social media also means journalists have to raise their game. Instead of just news bulletins, "we have to have instant analysis, instant Panorama".