Battle for hard news blurs edges of reality;Another voice;Opinion

24th April 1998 at 01:00
THERE is a clairvoyant in Blackpool's Winter Gardens. You had to walk past her booth to get into the National Union of Teachers' annual conference last week. It is a shame that no one asked her to predict whether anything would actually come of the motions demanding strikes that were passed there.

For whatever she saw in her crystal ball would almost certainly be more accurate than the impressions most people gleaned from the media.

When I returned from the conference, I met parents who really believed their children's education was about to be disrupted. Once again, they had been convinced that all teachers were strike-hungry militants despite the evidence to the contrary at their own children's school.

I was tempted to put up a health warning at the conference entrance: no events portrayed here have any connection with the real world. To enter from the Winter Gardens concourse was to pass through a "reality checkpoint".

Inside, delegates passed motions calling for "action up to and including strike action" in protest against a variety of Government policies. In the world outside most teachers were taking a much-needed Easter break unaware of what was being demanded in their name.

Of course, none of this would matter if the conference were a private session for letting off steam. Regrettably, it gets more publicity than it merits. Education correspondents have their busiest time at Easter, just when it would be better for everyone if we laid down our notebooks and took a few days holiday.

It is precisely because journalists cross the "reality checkpoint" without noticing it that so much damage is caused to the public image of teachers.

It may be tough to blame journalists. They are reporting what they have seen and heard. (Despite what conspiracy theorists believe journalists rarely make things up.) But it is the context and interpretation that matters.

Reporters can write honestly that there were calls for strikes, work-to-rules and "action weeks". It all happened. Yet they also know that very little ever comes of these demands. A conference vote for strikes rarely results in a ballot and there will be no strike until a ballot takes place. These hurdles are conveniently ignored or underplayed.

Teachers may be angry over many things, but there is no evidence that they are keen to go on strike. Even the recent ballot for limited action in protest against bureaucracy and paperwork only prompted 28 per cent of NUT members to vote.

Yet, every year the conference demands strikes, the media report impending chaos in schools, editorials lambast the militants, the education secretary ticks off the hotheads and then nothing happens.

It has become a media game. The delegates and the journalists know the rules, but do the readers and viewers? Put crudely, strikes make "good copy" and get big headlines. The 17th paragraph of the story might explain that it will probably all come to nothing, but not all readers get that far and the damage is done.

The huge amount of air time and column inches devoted to education each Easter is explained by three factors: the dearth of other news over the holiday weekend; news editors who get excited by "hard news" words such as "strikes", "clash", and "militants"; and the fact that all the education correspondents are cooped up together, creating collective anxiety and competition over which one of them will get the biggest and best showing in their newspaper the next morning.

It is a widely acknowledged truth in journalism that newsdesks always trust someone else's correspondent more than they trust their own. So no reporter likes to be out of line from the rest. When one newspaper reports that teachers are about to go on strike for a four-day week (a very loose interpretation of what really happened), many others will follow.

The result is that a tiny minority of just one union is allowed to create a damaging public image of the entire profession. Think of the contrast with the media coverage of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference. Stories there concentrated on issues - drugs, special needs, children's access to the Internet - while at the NUT the debate over issues was ignored for coverage of strike calls and internal union conflict.

There is one solution: move the NUT conference away from the Easter weekend. This would immediately reduce the flow of stories to a trickle. Unfortunately, the union activists, who are deeply conservative about conference rules, would never allow it.

So, if the conference will not change, we journalists must try to report it with a bit more context and bit less sensationalism. It will not be easy - no journalist likes to "knock down" their own story. But we would be providing a better service to our readers and viewers if we did.

So, all those in favour of less media coverage of the NUT conference, please show now.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent.

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