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Ed Miliband speaking to City students at Westminster
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Ed Miliband, Emily Thornberry and Michael Howard speak to City students

Experienced parliamentarians and journalists offer their wisdom to students during five-day course

by Chris Lines (Senior Communications Officer)

Two former Leaders of the Opposition and the Shadow Foreign Secretary were among an impressive roll call of high-profile public figures to speak to City, University of London students during an intensive five-day political journalism course.

Former Leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband, the Rt Hon Emily Thornberry MP (Shadow Foreign Secretary and MP for Islington South), and the Rt Hon The Lord Howard of Lympne all gave students on City’s MA Broadcast Journalism and MA Television Journalism courses the benefit of their years of experience in dealing with political journalists.

Other Westminster personalities to chip in with pearls of wisdom included: Ian Blackford MP, SNP Leader at Westminster; Barry Sheerman MP, one of Labour’s most senior MPs, currently celebrating 40 years in Parliament; Hilary Benn MP (a Cabinet minister under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown); former Agriculture Minister George Eustice MP; and Lord Kerslake, former Head of the Civil Service.

But it wasn’t just leading political lights that students heard from across the week. Guests from the world of journalism were equally impressive.

From the BBC, Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, Political Correspondent Chris Mason and Today programme presenter Justin Webb all contributed.

Sky News Political Correspondent Kate McCann, The New Statesman’s Political Correspondent Patrick Maguire and Political Editor Stephen Bush, Financial Times Political Editor George Parker and The Spectator’s Political Correspondent Katy Balls also all gave talks and/or took questions from students eager to learn the inner workings of Westminster.

There were also talks from former ITN and BBC political analyst David Cowling about local government – well timed with local elections taking place the same week – as well as legendary political documentary maker Michael Cockerell, who talked students through clips of some of his award-winning films.

Justin Webb advising students on how to conduct a big interview

A day at Westminster

The Political Headlines course is a key part of the MA journalism programme. It is run twice a year by Barney Jones, the former editor of Breakfast With Frost and The Andrew Marr Show, now a visiting professor in the Department of Journalism at City.

While much of the course took place at City, the third day was spent entirely at Westminster.

Twenty students were treated to a breakfast briefing with The Guardian’s Defence and Security Editor Dan Sabbagh and MP for Barrow and Furness, John Woodcock, after which they were joined by the rest of their coursemates for an intensive day of talks, debates and Q&A sessions.

The students hugely enjoyed the week and the incredible array of insights they were able to benefit from.

Laura Cain, an MA Broadcast Journalism student, said: “I found the course fascinating. In particular, I enjoyed the full day at Westminster where we received some razor-sharp advice from Lobby journalists and heard from MPs across the political spectrum.

“I feel much more knowledgeable about how to navigate the political landscape now.”

What they said

A selection of the insights that guest speakers gave to students across the week:

  • Ed Miliband on Prime Minister’s Questions: “Not having to do PMQs is my favourite thing about not being Labour Leader anymore. It is such a grind. It doesn't do much as an advert for politics."
  • Emily Thornberry on international politics: “It is in British interests to uphold the world order, especially in the face of a US President who is behaving irresponsibly. It feels like he’s just crashing around, tearing things up. We should work with our allies, not just throw up our hands and say ‘this is hopeless’.”
  • Lord Howard on the fallout of his infamous interview with Jeremy Paxman, when Paxman asked Howard the same question 12 times in succession: “I felt pretty awful both afterwards and during the interview. It certainly had an impact on my leadership prospects. But the silver lining was that William Hague became Leader and had a hopeless task trying to compete with [then-Prime Minister Tony] Blair.”
  • Sky’s Kate McCann on life as a Lobby journalist: “It's like a little Fleet St in the Lobby. People genuinely like each other. It's not clique-y or full of old men. The camaraderie and sense that people have got your back is great."
  • Justin Webb on big political interviews: "You need to know your stuff but we're often too detailed in what we do. The softer stuff is often more revealing and more interesting."
  • Hilary Benn on Brexit: “A no-deal Brexit would not honour the result of the referendum, because the Leave campaign said they’d get a deal.”
  • Lord Kerslake on Brexit: “The public are sick to death of Brexit. A lot of people simply switch off now. This building [Palace of Westminster] fascinates journalists but the public are fed up and don’t want to hear about it anymore.”
  • The BBC’s Chris Mason’s advice to student journalists: “A decent percentage of the stories you cover in your career, either with a big 'P' or a little 'p', will be in some way political."
  • Stephen Bush on the Prime Minister’s sacking of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson the day before: "It would absolutely not be correct for journalists to assist the government in finding out who a source was."
  • Katy Balls on Twitter: "The line between news and comment has blurred because of social media. You should tweet to inform rather than making it about your opinion."
  • Ian Blackford on the SNP’s increased role at Westminster: “We’re now the third party in Parliament; that brings its own strains. We have to put up parliamentarians for every Select Committee and so there’s an awful lot of MPs having to step up to the plate.”
  • Patrick Maguire on treating all MPs equally: “Try and understand parties and politicians that are on the fringes. Get to know them and their policies. Cover them as you would any other party or politician. You never know when somebody might suddenly become really important.”
  • Michael Cockerell on making political documentaries: “It is so hard to get beneath the layers of varnish that people put on. Often it’s not what people say, it’s the way they say it.”

An audience with the Speaker

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow MP with MA Television Journalism students during their visit

A week and a half after Political Headlines week, MA Television Journalism students returned to Westminster a second time, for a selection of special meetings arranged either side of Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs).

After a morning briefing with former Sport Minister Tracey Crouch MP and Daily Mirror Associate Editor Kevin Maguire, students enjoyed a tour of the Palace of Westminster, before being ushered into the State Rooms of the Speaker's House for a talk by the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow MP.

There was also a talk from Press Association Chief Political Photographer Stefan Rousseau, who discussed his career and talked students through some of his most iconic political pictures.

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