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December 21, 2023

Ian Birrell says we need ‘strong journalists’ in ‘difficult times’ after Public Service Journalism win

Birrell said it is important for newsbrands to "surprise and challenge" readers.

By Bron Maher

Freelance journalist Ian Birrell has said challenges to the news industry emphasise the need for “strong journalists prepared to push the boat out” after winning the Public Service Journalism prize at the British Journalism Awards 2023.

Birrell, a former deputy editor-in-chief of The Independent who has written regularly for the Mail titles and the i in recent years, was honoured last week for his “incomparable” work on public interest investigations.

Birrell previously won the British Journalism Award for popular journalism in 2018 and was among the UK journalists honoured with the public service journalism award last year for reporting from Ukraine.

‘It does make me worry about the future of democracy’

The judges this year said Birrell “managed to shine new light on the untold stories” from Ukraine, “championed the rights” of same-sex coupled mothers in Italy, and showed “intellectual courage challenging orthodoxies around coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic“.

“His range is incredible and his ability to bring public interest investigative journalism to a mass audience incomparable,” they said.

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Asked what he thought the judges had been attracted to in his work, Birrell said he had “no real idea, but it sounded like they were impressed by the range of stories I’m doing”.

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Birrell was shortlisted in both the Comment Journalism and Features Journalism categories, receiving a commendation for the latter.

Three of the stories he was nominated for across the two categories covered the war in Ukraine. 

Birrell told Press Gazette he often covers foreign stories, and “I personally always get very committed – I see my journalism as a sort of campaigning journalism rooted in human rights. And I think the story of Ukraine is the story of our age.

“It’s a country seeking democracy and freedom, seeking what we want, and I met a lot of people who just want to live like we do up against this horrible, repressive, nationalistic Russian dictatorship.”

[Read more: ‘When I had to stop, you guys carried on’ – Ukraine correspondents honoured at British Journalism Awards]

Birrell has been covering the war in Ukraine since 2014, long before the full-scale invasion which began in February 2022.

“I feel personally very committed to the Ukraine story,” he said. “I have a lot of friends there, it’s a country that means a lot to me. I arrived the day before the shootings in the Maidan. And then I’ve been there through the whole story with Crimea, the attacks in Donetsk, the shooting down of the airline there

“So for me personally, I’ve been very committed to the story. In fact,” he said, pulling up his sleeve to reveal a small piece of steel on a loop, “this is a bracelet that I was given, which is the last bit of metal produced in the Azovstal factory in Mariupol, which actually has the Ukrainian insignia on it. That’s a gift I was given, and it’s a reminder to me of the importance of this conflict.”

There are fears that foreign support for Ukraine may be about to dry up. Speaking on Thursday, Birrell said he had just returned from the country and “I found that people are weary there. There’s a study showing that the average Ukrainian knows seven people in their friends or family who have either died or been seriously wounded.

“But I sense the determination is more extreme than ever. They are so angry at what Russia has done to them. But equally they’re aware that the appetite may be draining in the West and they may be left alone, so it’s a scary time for them.

“I hope the West remains committed, but time will tell if it is. If it’s not then it does make me worry about the future of democracy and the future of the West.”

Newspapers ‘need to surprise and challenge’ their readers

Given its association with social conservatism, some members of the public may be surprised to learn that a Mail title would be nominated for an award for a feature about a “heartbreaking crackdown against same-sex parents and surrogacy” by Italy’s “ultra-conservative” prime minister Giorgia Meloni.

However Birrell said the Mail has “always actually been slightly wider in its coverage of stories than it’s given credit for, [for example] famously the Stephen Lawrence stuff.

“For me, I’ve always found them open to good stories. A couple of years ago, I went to Poland to do a piece on the absurdity of the anti-gay movement there, where they declared villages were LGBT-free – so I went to one of these villages and talked to a gay person living there to show the absurdity of this…

“I think all papers actually do, or can, surprise, and it’s great they can. Personally I think it’s very important, as a former newspaper executive for 25 years.

“To me, I love surprising the readers, and I think if papers are too static and go too much into their bunkers, then that’s bad for journalism – it’s bad for public service journalism, but it’s also bad for the papers and their audiences. You need to surprise and challenge a little bit, as well as tickle what your readers want.”

Asked whether he had any broader messages for the journalism community, Birrell said: “Keep going. Difficult times, but everyone’s finding new ways. I’m fascinated to see all the niche journalism and the new ways of delivering journalism to readers.

“I think it’s both a scary time for journalists, particularly people of my age… But it’s also a really exciting time, and it’s time for entrepreneurial journalism, and I am still incredibly passionate about its importance in the world. And I hope that it will continue to play a really important role.

“Obviously there’s a lot of talk of disinformation, AI, all sorts of attacks on the so-called mainstream media. But I think that just makes it all the more important to have strong journalists who are prepared to push the boat out, prepared to challenge authority, prepared to take risks.”

He referred to his reporting on the possibility that the virus that causes Covid may have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, saying it had been “seen as a conspiracy theory” but is now within the mainstream.

“This is really what journalism is all about,” he said. “I hope there’s lots of room for it to continue.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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