Ian Burrell: Bill's new mission: to show the world the force for good that is a free press

Media Studies: Hands-on skills training comes from a pool of 200 British media experts

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The Independent Online

Of all the celebrities and media titans who provided evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Bill Gates wasn't among them. It's a shame. The nerdy Microsoft founder, who has been chosen by Jonathan Dimbleby to give the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture in London tomorrow evening, is not a news man. But he has shaped the modern media landscape and, as a philanthropist who operates around the globe, he has learned that news journalism needs to be encouraged and not curtailed. "The world has not yet fully tapped the power of the media as a force for good," he said recently.

Admittedly the latest news doesn't raise a smile. Murdered hostages in Algeria; war in Afghanistan and now Mali; the fragility of the countries supposedly liberated by the Arab Spring; and above all the nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea. Every bulletin and newspaper reminds us that the world is a scary place.

But it's that very instability which Gates and like-minded thinkers believe demands the soothing balm of brave and uninhibited news services. It's a different narrative from the popular one in Britain, where the "I blame the media" mantra is recited for so many of society's shortcomings.

Gates is now working with the London-based Thomson Foundation in training journalists in Kenya and Ghana. The Africa Means Business project, which he funds, builds bridges between economists and reporters so that business stories are covered accurately in language the public understands.

The Thomson Foundation, situated near Fleet Street, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It is currently working in Bangladesh to train local reporters in investigative techniques so they can expose corruption in public life. It is also planning a conference in Libya to map out a new television industry in a country raised on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's state propaganda. And it is helping the Egyptian online citizen journalism platform Hoqook, which came to prominence at the time of the Tahrir Square uprising, to build a lasting business model.

The foundation was established at the height of the Cold War by Roy Thomson, a Canadian newspaper magnate who owned The Times and The Sunday Times before Rupert Murdoch. Thomson hoped to spread the best practice of the Western news media to authoritarian regimes.

"If he was alive today he would be astonished to realise that in some countries the work is only just beginning," says Nigel Baker, the foundation's chief executive. "But 50 years on there are thousands of journalists who want training, the issue is the funding and capacity to do that."

One might think autocratic states were wary of calling on the services of western media advisers. But Baker claims the North African uprisings have alarmed a lot of hardline governments. "The Arab Spring has sent shudders to neighbouring countries and restrictive regimes all over the world," he says. "They realise they now have to reform their media before it reforms them."

For the past 28 years, the foundation, which supplies hands-on skills training from a pool of 200 British media experts, has been working in China, encouraging modern journalistic practices in the state news agency Xinhua, which operates a network of more than 100 bureaux around the world. "I have been to China every year for 12 years and seen enormous changes with the subjects that can be reported," says Baker, a British veteran of the global Associated Press agency.

The Foreign Office is another body that recognises the socio-political benefits of a free media. It is supporting a "sensitive" Thomson project in an Arab country where "there is a desire to reform their media on all its platforms in print, TV and radio" in the light of the Arab Spring.

It's not simply a question of passing on advice on how to use the latest digital technology available in Britain. The media requirements of every country are different, says Baker. "In many countries where state media existed there are people who are called journalists – but even the basic skills of asking questions are alien to them. They have been used to just processing the information handed down to them from government."

While all this work has been going on, the Leveson inquiry has been playing out in the background, challenging the authority of these British instructors by exposing the ugly side of the industry they represent.

"Nobody would condone some of the excesses of the British media, however, our news media is looked on with envy by a huge part of the world and during the whole Leveson process we heard a lot of concern from countries ranging from South Africa to Ukraine that if the British Government took a heavy hand on control of the media it would ricochet around the world and be a process that was distorted and abused by repressive regimes for their own ends," says Baker.

As politicians Oliver Letwin, Harriet Harman and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Wallace this week continue to debate the model for a future British press regulator and whether it should be backed by statute or Royal Charter, the rest of the world is paying attention – especially those trying to set up their own news operations in countries with no tradition of a free media.

"We tend to be concerned about our domestic issues but it's vital it's seen in a wider context," says Baker. "A large part of the world still looks to the British media and the fact that these [phone hacking] issues have been exposed by the media and to a certain extent policed by the media tells its own story. There are many places in the world where that couldn't happen."

A collision in a stairwell, and an editor in the dock

Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, has chosen not to respond to damning criticisms of his management last week by the specialist employment judge Lindsay Hall-Smith.

The judge was deeply unimpressed with Barber's handling of the dismissal of Steve Lodge, an experienced money reporter on the paper. Lodge was fired in December 2011 after accidentally bumping into Alice Ross, currencies correspondent, while he was carrying a crate down a steep stairwell at the FT.

Barber chaired a formal disciplinary hearing himself, alongside his deputy Martin Dickson. The pair also gave evidence at Lodge's industrial tribunal, after which the judge castigated the FT editor for his approach and ruled that the reporter, who is seeking £200,000 in lost earnings, was unfairly dismissed.

After expressing surprise that the "most senior individual at the FT" should become involved in such a matter, the judge said Barber had "elevated the matter into both a verbal and physical confrontation" and "had failed to consider any other explanation for what had occurred".

Judge Hall-Smith added: "I found that Lionel Barber failed to adopt either an open minded or objective approach at the disciplinary hearing." Accusing the editor of exaggeration, he said: "There was no physical injury, and I was unable to accept, as Lionel Barber alleged, that the incident was unprecedented."

Barber was not alone in being criticised. Ms Ross, who was not injured in the incident and had made a previous unsubstantiated claim against Lodge over alleged "sexism", was said by the judge to be "very largely responsible for the collision", having ascended the stairs while Lodge was coming down with his box. She had then "deliberately chosen to elevate the incident into something far more serious than in fact it was".

The judge also censured Caspar de Bono, managing director of B2B at the FT, who considered Lodge's appeal. Rather than being independent, he had "endeavoured to justify Lionel Barber's approach".

None of this is any good for a newspaper which reports on the employment practices of the business world, or for an editor who likes to be regarded as the embodiment of a modern boss.

But the paper remains silent on the matter. As its famous slogan nearly says, "FT. No comment."

Twitter: @iburrell