BBC sends its staff back to school

It's not just entry-level people who will benefit from the corporation's new virtual training college, as its head of newsgathering, Vin Ray, tells Jane Marlow
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The Independent Online

Ray hands over a piece of paper showing that he was in charge of newsgathering on 11 September 2001 and during the London bombings, ran the newsgathering coverage of Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Chechnya, that he personally trained Andrew Marr and Jeff Randall, has written two books on broadcast journalism and is the visiting professor of journalism at New York University.

Of course, Old Master can be substituted for Damien Hirst or Rolf Harris depending on your view of BBC journalism, which, after the recent spat between Michael Grade and the New Statesman, has itself been in the news once again.

While Ray's appointment might change what goes on inside the BBC, he can't control how others represent it, nor the fact that it will for ever be scrutinised. He says: "The whole thing about the BBC relationship with the Government is a kind of newspaper narrative that doesn't bear any relation to what goes on in the building. I'm always fascinated by this notion that people think someone's telling a programme editor 'you have to lay off this because it's a bit controversial'." While independence from Downing Street won't be a stand-alone course, Ray stresses that it will be part of the college's programme in as much that impartiality and "independence from any faction" is a core value in BBC journalism.

The idea for the college of journalism was born out of the Neil report, which in turn was born out of the Hutton report, and called for a fundamental change in approach to journalism training at the BBC. "One thing Neil picked up was a lack of overall strategy about training in the BBC," explains Ray. "One of the ongoing, difficult issues is getting all the staff to understand what BBC journalism is about."

The Neil report outlined five core principles of BBC journalism and, by tapping into the knowledge base of senior journalists and integrating training "into the business", Ray intends to create a kind of self-maintaining training system. "If you were to get one layer of senior staff to take responsibility for training all their newcomers in issues such as ethics and impartiality, you would create a virtuous circle," says Ray. "Not only are you training those newcomers in BBC values but you're also forcing senior staff to confront it in a way that they don't necessarily at the moment. We want to have a core understanding of what it means to work as a journalist for the BBC, so you achieve more of a commonality."

Commonality can bring with it overtones of sameness, but Ray is adamant that programmes will retain their own character. "These things are designed to help people to make the decisions they have to make. You would want a standardisation of values, but not a standardised, generic look."

He is already drawing on established talent such Jeremy Bowen and Europe editor Mark Mardell to help with knowledge-building in complex areas such as the Middle East and Europe. He's talking to special correspondent Ben Brown about making a film on the use of violent images and also intends to make a series of filmed journalism masterclasses. The aim is to use the film-making and reporting skills available at the BBC when producing training material.

Training is being highlighted to the extent that, in future, promotion in some areas will be open only to those who have undergone specific training courses. "In order to further your career and move up through the different stages you will probably get to a stage where you'll have to have done certain levels of training," says Ray, in an attempt to explain the phrase "competency-based promotion". "That will be the first time that training will have been compulsory if you want to further your career."

Given that many joining the BBC, and those currently on staff, will have already undergone extensive training, does this smack of too much hand-holding? Ray counters: "Entry-level people Hoover it up because they see a difference between getting training and development in the industry and getting it from a college course. It's not just about journalism; it's about BBC journalism and what it means to join this organisation. At a senior level, classroom training gives way to discussion and debate. It's fantastic what you can learn from listening to colleagues."

Because this is not a "bricks and mortar" institution but an online presence, the films will be accessed via the internet. The college doesn't exist yet, but Ray thinks the first courses should be available in January and the college itself will launch next year.

Although the concept behind the college might be cutting edge, the idea that the college "aims to mirror the many innovative examples of journalism training in the United States" might not be considered forward thinking. Ray is quick to point out that it is American methodology rather than values that the BBC is aiming to reflect. "It's about the methods of delivery," he emphasises.

"There are fantastic places like the Poynter Institute where they've developed online courses, modules and ways of training that don't involve huge amounts of expense or people. That's all it means."

Online delivery also means that the BBC will eventually be able to open the college "doors" to people outside the organisation. "We'd probably want to get our internal house in order, get things up and running and then the intention is to open it out completely," adds Ray. "If all works well, it could have a profound effect on the entire industry."

When asked if this means the BBC is attempting to set a standard for British journalists, Ray suggests it's not journalism per se which needs an image make-over: "In the last YouGov survey [measuring trust], 'journalist' was broken down into tabloid, broadsheet and broadcast journalist. Whereas the single word 'journalist' was sub-estate agent, when you split them up tabloid journalist was at the bottom and broadcast journalist was almost at the top."

Ray goes on to say that the reputation of a journalist is largely dependent on the openness and accountability of the organisation they work for, and the BBC's revamped complaints procedure and NewsWatch, which allows viewers to challenge editors, means both these areas are being addressed.

With ideas for masterclasses, knowledge-building, a heritage project about the history of BBC journalism, plans to help staff to negotiate the transition from a linear to an on-demand environment and "a million and one other ideas", Ray has big plans for his college.

Fortunately, he also has a big budget. It was announced in June that investment in journalism training would be doubled from £5m to £10m per year by 2008. Given that news is an area targeted by director-general Mark Thompson's programme of cuts, this gives out mixed messages. Ray concludes: "The only thing I can say is that it's a reflection of how Marks Thompson and [deputy DG and chair of the Journalism Board] Byford are prioritising training and development and the inculcation of BBC values into staff."