Grading performance . . . is Jim better than Fred? . . .
a hilarious conference in London . . . how serious is error? . . .
writing reports . . . the English-lecturer clash . . . a student close to tears .
the fruit-machine addict . .
Comparisons, according to a sweeping assertion that has always puzzled me, are odious. But, odious or not, they are inescapable as far as journalism lecturers are concerned. It’s not good enough, at the end of a twelve-week course, to say that Fred is pretty good, Jim is a bit shaky, Alice is brilliant and Adam is fine when he puts his mind to it. You need some calibration, some reliable sliding scale. Precisely how ‘pretty good’ is Fred? Is he a better or worse performer than ‘brilliant’ Alice? Is the shaky Jim a better bet than the erratic Adam? Sub editors on provincial newspapers recognise the strengths and weaknesses of the reporters whose copy they deal with daily. They can name those whose work is a pleasure to handle and those others whose slapdash prose need hawk-eye attention if court action is to be avoided. But subbing copy is not like marking it. Subs don’t have to assess the writers, weigh, balance and collate them and arrange them in order. Lecturers do. And it’s an endless headache.
Exams are the answer, in theory. If Shaky Jim scores 73 per cent in the journalism exam and Erratic Adam scores 71, Jim’s won. Simple as that. But suppose that Brilliant Alice has a bad day and scores 68. Everybody knows that Alice is better than Jim and Adam. So what’s to be done? The temptation to fiddle the figures is enormous. Such fiddling can even be defended, as a harmless and wholly commendable attempt to ensure that the recorded evidence reflects reality. But that’s a slippery slope - and, in any case, the National Council has a ‘moderation’ procedure designed to sniff out such naughtiness. (Well - it did have in my day. It was a blunt and clumsy instrument; does it still exist, I wonder.) No use trying to explain that the crummy exam result is misleading and that Alice is a real top-notcher. The figures are sacred. The categories are sacred too, which makes these choppy waters even trickier to navigate. Exam results are categorised, with reference to percentage marks, into failures, passes, credits and distinctions. A student whose score is below 50 per cent has failed. A mark between 50 and 64 earns a pass. Anything from 65 to 79 warrants a credit, and a mark of 80-plus means a distinction. Sounds fine, and it probably works well in maths exams. But the grading of journalism-exam performance, by full-time lecturers or by ‘senior journalists’ called in to help with the marking, is inevitably subjective - and I was lucky enough to be present at a hilarious lecturers’ conference in London at which the National Council made a laudable attempt to come to grips with this problem.
The idea was brilliantly simple. The completed exam paper of an anonymous candidate was circulated to the seven British journalism colleges for marking, and representatives of all the colleges then met in London, at the offices of the Newspaper Society on Bouverie Street, to compare the results. No-one foresaw the wild divergences of opinion that were to emerge. In those days there was always a bottle or two of wine at lunch on the infrequent occasions on which lecturers got together, and perhaps the alcohol helped to fuel the afternoon’s heated exchanges. At one stage it looked as if punches might be thrown.
‘And now the re-write question, marked out of 20. Can we have the results, please, one by one, round the room?’ One college plumped for 15 out of 20, another for 12, a third went for 10. Variations of this magnitude were only to be expected, but there was sudden uproar when I announced Sheffield’s decision - no marks at all for this answer. Jeers all round. And, though it pains me to say it, a few rude words.
I rose to defend myself, pointing out that the student’s answer, though well written, was inaccurate. The re-write concerned a road accident in which two people in a car had been killed and a cyclist had been seriously injured, but the student’s beautifully phrased version had not only killed off the cyclist as well (‘Three people died yesterday when . . . ‘) but identified him by a name which was actually that of the police spokesman. That, I said, wasn’t merely inaccurate, it was grievously and inexcusably wrong. If published it would clearly cause immeasurable distress. How could we justify awarding even 10 marks for an answer that would seriously upset perhaps half a dozen people, be recognised as inaccurate by hundreds more and in all probability require an apology in the next issue? Ten marks? The culprit should be horsewhipped, I said. Well, fired, at least. Well, severely reprimanded anyway. I felt the ground shift under my feet.
What do you do about someone who makes a mistake as serious as this? Everyone was speaking at once. It’s not as if it was a real story, for publication, said one, vaguely proffering the familiar theory that Jim and Adam - and Alice, of course - are capable of greater precision in the office than in the examination room. (Maybe they are, but how can you test that?) Apart from the confusion with the names and the fact that there was one death too many, the story was very well put together, said another - it flowed smoothly and demonstrated that the student could convey the dramatic nature of the incident rather than merely stringing the facts together as so many junior reporters did. Yes, I said, but he ‘conveyed the dramatic nature of the incident’ by killing off a third person. And though we all knew that reporters tended to describe mild disagreements as ‘blazing rows’ to give their copy a bit of a kick, we surely had to draw the line at introducing fanciful fatalities.
Supported only by my two Sheffield colleagues, I stubbornly persisted in putting what would nowadays be described as the ‘zero tolerance’ case - one ghastly mistake, no marks. But, as the argument raged, I had to concede that we now had to reach agreement on precisely how wide of the mark a student could be before the axe fell. Little mistakes, bigger mistakes, whopping mistakes, seriously whopping mistakes . . . and ghastly mistakes. (I remember consulting the dictionary for the strict meaning of the word ‘ghastly’ that I had employed. It didn’t help - horrible, frightful, objectionable and unpleasant were on offer, but not a word about how many marks to award if a student’s error fell into any of those woeful categories.)
All this was in the mid-seventies, and I was no doubt influenced at the time by the fact that my daughter had recently become a British Midlands air stewardess after a series of no-nonsense examinations. At the start of one of the written papers, a candidate had innocently enquired what the pass-mark was. The response, from a veteran captain, was that the ‘pass-mark’ was 100 per cent; he had no wish to fly, he added sweetly, with someone who had scored 76 per cent on the ‘emergencies in the air’ paper. I am not fond of flying, and that little story has stayed in my mind until this day. Unlike most men, when I am eyeing the stewardesses I am wondering how they fared in their exams. I also wonder about the captain and his chum at the controls, only more so. Would you want to fly from Los Angeles to Heathrow with a pilot who got 79 per cent in his proficiency test?
I tried in vain to sway my lecturer colleagues with an illustration from the equally terrifying world of dentistry. If one of them, I asked, were to have a tooth drawn after several days of agony only to find a few hours later that the pain was unabated, would he give the surgeon ten marks out of twenty for his careful, skilful and precise extraction of the wrong tooth? Looking back, I’d say I was probably overdoing it by this time, and my simple logic fell flat on its face. I was forced to concede that there had to be a sliding scale against which inaccuracy could be penalised - missing the letter p out of the name Thompson, for example, would warrant only the forfeiture of perhaps a couple of marks. No cast-iron ruling could be agreed, though a vague consensus emerged to the effect that a ‘ghastly mistake’ was one for which the editor would either go to prison or buy his continuing freedom with a swift and grovelling apology. Back in Sheffield, we continued to treat harshly those students who rode roughshod over the facts. So, though I don’t know how it works today, I can safely say that those who scored highly in journalism exams at Sheffield in the seventies and eighties could afford to be pleased with themselves. Come to think of it, the colourful David Icke - a reporter on the Leicester Mercury at the time - was among their number. Make of that what you will.
Law exams, incidentally, were on a much simpler footing in these early days. It was so simple, in fact, that it earned the scorn of serious law lecturers. There was an official list of a hundred questions on legal points with which journalists needed to be familiar. A law exam consisted simply of a random batch of those questions; any student who had memorised the whole lot was bound to pass. This was parrot-like learning said the purists. I rather liked the idea myself.
With the exams completed, students on block-release courses return to their offices where, for a few days at least, they attempt to put into practice what they have picked up from their lecturers or, in many cases, from their fellow students. (Close encounters with other young journalists are an important feature of college courses, especially for the occasional arrival from a far-flung district office who has never conversed with another reporter in his life - it really does happen.) For those on pre-entry courses it’s back home to await a job offer or, for the lucky ones, off to an exciting new job in a strange town.
Lecturers now face a new challenge - they must think up appropriate wise words for the end-of-course reports. What a chore that is. I never met a lecturer who enjoyed writing reports. Words have to be chosen with care, as they are going to be read and re-read by the students themselves, by their editors, by their in-office training officers and by goodness-knows-who-else as the subject’s career progresses. Every time I wrote a report there danced in my mind a vision of Michael Aspel on ‘This Is Your Life’, clutching a crumpled NCTJ report form and reminding some grinning media star that I had dismissed him as an incompetent twit. I was on the edge of my seat when I watched larger-than-life Jeremy Clarkson enjoying his half-hour of glory with Aspel - had I written anything rude about him on his report when he worked on the Rotherham Advertiser, I wondered.
Writing reports about those at the two ends of the performance scale is relatively easy. It’s a pleasure to record that Mary Smith is the most promising youngster you have ever met, and it’s satisfying in a different way to heap scorn on Septimus Crockington who can’t write a dozen words without making two or three errors and should, in your opinion, become a roadsweeper. (Students of media law will perhaps note with interest that I have chosen a highly unlikely name for my bottom-of-the-pile performer in order to reduce the likelihood of being later sued by someone of that name who passed through the college system. But have I, at the same time, laid myself open to an action by roadsweepers? Discuss).
The challenge - as everyone who has ever written reports will agree - is to keep coming up with variations on ‘Not bad but could do better’. Cliches abound in reports. Even lecturers who are passionate about the avoidance of cliches find themselves employing them on almost every line. Some nobly strive to find new phrases - but the best of those new phrases themselves become cliches before you can string together the two names Jack and Robinson. I devised a cunning new system for writing reports. At the end of one of our regular Monday-morning staff meetings we pooled the expressions that we habitually used - conscientious, sloppy, painstaking, tends to cut corners, didn’t show enthusiasm, a poor timekeeper, lacked sparkle, a credit to his editor, shows some potential and perhaps a dozen more. These, I suggested, should be pre-printed on the NCTJ’s report forms and journalism lecturers throughout the country could simply circle the appropriate comments, saving themselves much mental drudgery while painlessly painting a vivid and comprehensive picture of the student. My system, I pointed out, even had the extra merit of what I enjoyed calling ‘positive negativity’, since an editor who noted that ‘shows some potential’ had not been circled could justifiably assume that the tutors thought his student was a dead loss. Useful, that - and not the sort of thing that could rebound on you so easily if the lad who didn’t show potential ended up as Controller of BBC2 or the editor of the Daily Mail. But my idea didn’t catch on. And I suppose that today’s lecturers are still conscientiously spending hours thinking up new ways of describing students who ‘tend to cut corners’ or ‘would be a useful addition to any newsroom’.
It isn’t only journalism lecturers who have a hand in report-writing, of course. Specialists in such subjects as law and public administration supply the appropriate exam results and comment accordingly. No problem there - but lecturers in English used to be called upon to put their penn’orth in as well . . . and that, I recall, often was a problem. Today’s courses, generally speaking, deal in journalistic practicalities, but in the early years - when no-one was really sure what should and should not be in the syllabus - the students’ timetable included weekly lessons in ‘current affairs’ and ‘English’. Just about anyone could take the ‘current affairs’ slot; you didn’t have to be a journalist to stand at the front of the classroom and say ‘Right then - what’s been in the papers this week?’ So nebulous was the subject, in fact, that whoever ran the sessions could rarely write anything more profound on the end-of-term report than ‘Contributed well to group discussion’ or ‘Never turned up’. But English was another matter. Specialist lecturers more accustomed to facing chattering day-release students or cynical youths from local factories were often thrilled to recognise, among the would-be hacks, a new D.H.Lawrence or Thomas Hardy. That was fine - except that the newly-discovered literary giant turned out remarkably often to be someone who struck the entire journalism staff as utterly useless. As a result, on the end-of-term report, 'a perceptive writer who expresses himself with refreshing and startling clarity' would appear in the next box to 'wildly inaccurate, a liability - get rid of him!'
In fairness to the English specialists I should say that I too have occasionally seen impressive essays written by students who seemed congenitally incapable of writing a three-par news story without making half a dozen mistakes. The two styles of writing clearly call for quite different abilities, though it’s hard to pin down precisely what those abilities are. No doubt some career advisers still routinely urge pupils who are ‘good at English’ to go into journalism, but such advice reveals profound misunderstanding of the newspaper reporter’s life and is likely to result in a lot of round pegs trying miserably to fill square holes. It’s not enough to be simply ‘good at English’ - in fact former Daily Mail news editor Jack Crossley is on record as saying that he is amazed how many journalists reach the top of their profession without being able to write.
The archetypal hard-bitten news editor has always been caustically dismissive about any reporter who seems to have so much as a whiff of literary airs and graces - a bow-tie, for example, would certainly light the fuse. One of our graduate students joined a Lancashire weekly newspaper straight from Liverpool University. ‘I understand you’ve got a degree in English.’ said the news editor. ‘Let me tell you right away that the gentle meanderings of academic prose have no place here.’ News editors and subs are well known for airing their idiosyncratic views (I remember being told that the word 'very' was not to be used in any circumstances, as it simply slowed down the story). But this fellow was right, of course. The English degree itself is irrelevant in the general context of the newsroom. The important thing is to say, simply and clearly, what you are trying to say . . . and anyone who has ever marked trainee journalists’ examination papers will tell you that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Entertaining collections of newspaper howlers produced by author Denys Parsons - hugely popular in the sixties and seventies - proved the point. We showed them to the students - ‘A Halifax woman has drowned in a bath for the third time this week,’ ‘The marriage of John Wells and Jean Brown, announced last week, was a mistake,’ ‘The bridge has been repaired and is now in the same state as it was just before it collapsed,’ ‘Police are investigating the theft of two bicycles belonging to schoolgirls left leaning against lamp-posts’ and so on, and so on.
I was distressed one day to find a block-release youngster obviously on the verge of tears and sitting alone in the entrance hall. He’d had a bad morning during which, by cruel chance, three or four different lecturers had handed back to him work that was covered in red-ink scribbles highlighting his many errors. The realisation that he was apparently a total failure had hit him hard. I was already familiar with his work, but this was not the time, I felt, to confirm this dismal diagnosis. ‘It’s just that you need to take more care,’ I told him. ‘I can’t write a single sentence without making mistakes,’ he muttered, almost sobbing. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘if I bet you ten quid that you could write a sentence without a single error, you’d be able to do it, because you’d take great care.’ But his self-esteem had sunk so low that he said ‘I bet I couldn’t. I know I couldn’t.’
This was a tricky one. I had seen the undisciplined stream-of-consciousness style that had got him into this mess. ‘Think about it,’ I said. ‘How could you make sure that you won the bet? Think about it . . .’ He sniffed. And he thought about it. ‘It would have to be dead simple,’ he said. ‘Exactly,’ I said.
We chatted for a few minutes, and I pointed out that whereas he could write 'The note-pad is on the table' with a reasonable chance of avoiding error, he had problems with the technicalities when he tried to incorporate in the sentence the additional detail that he’d borrowed the note-pad, which was blue, from a colleague at one of their district offices who, three years earlier, had been married to a policewoman whose career had come to an abrupt end when she was spotted pinching tulips and daffodils from a flower-seller on the high street whose attention had been distracted by a wasp that had crawled up the sleeve of her anorak. We laughed, he seemed to cheer up, and I swear he wrote more crisply from then on. I count that as one of my successes! I can’t remember his name, but I can see his face. I wonder where he is now.
And where, I wonder, is the lad who still owes me a fiver? He was a fruit-machine addict who had spent all his term’s grant and was borrowing from his classmates. He’d been missing lectures and behaving strangely, so I called him in for a chat and the whole sorry tale came out. He made it to the end of that term and I thought he was cured, but the next term it all happened again. I went to his local bank to plead with the manager to be lenient to the point of lunacy and grant him an extended loan. No success. It was another student who whispered to me that the gambler was now flat broke and trying to borrow money on all sides. I called him in and told him he’d have to leave. He had no money for the coach-ride back to his home in the midlands, so I gave him a fiver. ‘One day,’ I said, ‘you’ll have a job and you can send me the money.’ So if he happens to be reading this . . .