Society director’s address to St Bride’s Industry Carol Service

Address by the Society of Editors Executive Director Dawn Alford to the Service of Carols, Music and Readings for the Communications Industry – St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street on Monday 11 December 2023


Ladies and gentlemen, members of the communications industry.

This month we not only celebrate Christmas but also the 180th anniversary of the publication of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, “A Christmas Carol.”

It’s a milestone that reminds us of the enduring power of the Christmas Spirit – and of brilliant storytelling.

And I thought it an apt location to discuss this here as Dickens, a man we so associate with Christmas, must surely have visited this incredible church during the many years in which he was a Fleet Street journalist.

Having learnt shorthand, Dickens began his career as a court reporter before going on to work as a journalist for The Morning Chronicle, often covering stories of London’s poorest and most destitute.

Witnessing and writing the news in Victorian London undoubtedly shaped his understanding of the human condition, laying the foundation for the compassionate narratives that would later define his novels.

It’s known he also found solace and inspiration by the warmth of fire in the Cheshire Cheese Pub just across the road from here, a venue that has witnessed the camaraderie of journalists and communicators for centuries.

It’s a tradition that, I am sure many of us will be continuing after this evening’s service.

As journalists and communicators, I know we all love a ‘hook’ so it struck me we should use the framework of a Christmas Carol – the past, present, and future – to explore the evolution of Christmas in the news industry.

Firstly, let’s consider Christmas in the past.

What is evident in the ink-stained pages of history is that news does not stop for Christmas. Indeed significant events have often unfolded during the festive season.

In 1914 the front pages told the story of how those fighting in the trenches during the Great War called a truce to play a game of football together.

In more recent years, we have witnessed the Christmas Day executions of the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife in 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev the resigned on Christmas Day in 1991. We saw the much-reported death of Charlie Chaplin in 1977 and George Michael in 2016, and the tragic Boxing Day Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

All these stories sent newsrooms into a flurry of activity and the industry remains relentless in its duty to inform, even as the rest of the country parties.

On Christmas Day most journalists have found themselves forsaking family gatherings, trading turkey and all the trimmings to report on events that shape our world.

There are also the stalwarts on the festive news agenda —the Royal family attending church at Sandringham, the Monarch’s speech, usually delivered under embargo to journalists on Christmas Eve, and there has always been the unwavering dedication of foreign correspondents covering conflicts around the globe.

It’s during these times that colleagues, whether by choice or circumstance, become a surrogate family and newsrooms, as many of us can attest, transform into spaces of jovial good humour during the festive season especially.

Usually-serious political reporters have been adorned in tinsel, news editors reluctantly donning Christmas jumpers, and I’ve witnessed even the most Scrooge-like managing editors embracing the spirit of the season by dressing up as Santa and bringing in home-made mince pies and a few bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

In my quick vox pop of members of the Society of Editors, I discovered that the spirit of Christmas saw colleagues supporting each other, editors sending messages of encouragement, and the simple, yet profound, act by the news editor of letting as many reporters as possible knock off early.

The memories shared by our members paint a vivid picture of Christmas Day past; Royal Reporters, decked in their “Sunday Best” and wellies, waiting in muddy fields to report on the Royals arriving for the Sandringham service, having spent Christmas Eve in a pub hotel, filing advance copy, singing carols and enjoying drinks late at night in the hotel bar.

Foreign correspondents in the midst of war, where Christmas brought no ceasefire, but a commitment to carry on reporting. One newsman , who covered the war in the former Yugoslavia told me that, separated from his family on Christmas Day, he used his ‘sat’ phone to speak to his children. His wife then told him their children had asked Santa to bring back their dad for Christmas – and had added into their letter that they wanted the war to end for everyone – and could Santa please arrange for everyone to live in peace and get a special present.

In this hugely inhospitable landscape amid the wreckage of war, this hardened hack told me how he and his burly cameraman broke down on hearing this “and we cried like babies in each other’s arms.”

So, to Christmas present – and we must acknowledge and pay tribute to those journalists who, far from home, are risking their lives today to bring us news from conflict zones in Israel and Gaza, Ukraine, and other war-torn areas worldwide.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 94 journalists have been killed worldwide so far this year and almost 400 others have been imprisoned; 68 journalists are believed to have been killed in two months alone covering the conflict between Israel and Hamas – more than one a day.

It’s a stark reminder that, the pursuit of truth and accountability can come at a tremendous cost.

In the present-day newsroom, journalists today, much like their predecessors in Dickens’s time, play a vital role in democratic societies.

However, there are further threats, and challenges that the industry needs to combat as we head into 2024.

While the public can easily access immediate news and engage in discussion and debates, the rise of misinformation and disinformation continue to pose significant threats. Social media platforms, once hailed for their potential to democratise information, now contribute to the creation of filter bubbles, limiting exposure to diverse perspectives. The media has to fight to be heard as that much-needed trusted voice.

Closer to home we must continue to work hard to ensure that our newsrooms are representative of, and give a voice to society as a whole – particularly those who have previously gone unrepresented.

So what of the future? The landscape is evolving, presenting both opportunities and challenges that demand our collective consideration.

I’m no Mystic Meg – although I did work with her, when she subbed my copy in the 1990s at News International – but it is common sense to predict that the advent of AI will have a profound effect on the communications industry.

Many of the prediction and thought leadership pieces that will undoubtedly flood our industry and trade press in January, will centre around its risks, benefits, and its potential to reshape the news -gathering landscape.

I wonder what Dickens would have thought about this new industrial revolution.

In the spirit of festive curiosity, let’s consider a hypothetical scenario: What if Dickens had a LinkedIn profile? How might he view AI’s impact on writing and storytelling in a post to his followers?

My speculation is that he might view AI’s writing skills with a mix of fascination and caution, appreciating the technical prowess but remaining wary of its limitations in truly capturing the essence of the human spirit and the richness of human creativity.

On the positive side, Dickens might recognise the potential for AI to assist the communications industry in various ways, such as brainstorming ideas, providing information, and analysing data at incredible speed.

However, like all good journalists, Dickens was deeply connected to people – and I think he would be sceptical about AI’s ability to capture the depth of human emotions, nuance, and the subtleties of human experience that are essential to both factual and fictional storytelling.

As a small festive experiment, I asked an AI platform to give me a simple alternative to some of the most notable passages from “A Christmas Carol.”

In this passage Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchitt explains that he believes the spirit of Christmas exists anywhere people observe Christmas.

Dickens wrote: “There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town and yet there was an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.”

CHAT GPT gave me this: ‘The town was awful, and the weather was bad, but there was still a feeling of happiness in the air.’

In this passage Scrooge’s nephew Fred explains to Scrooge why he has felt compelled to visit his uncle and wish him a merry Christmas – despite Scrooge’s unfriendliness.

Fred says, “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time… as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time… the only time when men and women seem, by one, content to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers….”

CHAT GPT writes: ‘Christmas is a good time. We’re all in the same boat.’

Accurate, simpler and to the point perhaps – yet these results, in my opinion, reaffirm the enduring value of Dickens’ writing and journalistic skill, and his ability to infuse narratives with authenticity.

And these AI versions certainly don’t replicate any depth of emotion, of lived experience or the nuanced perspectives that humans bring to storytelling.

To end, I did not entrust AI with the task of rewriting perhaps the most enduring line from A Christmas Carol

Therefore, I will conclude with the enduring words of the narrator, quoting Tiny Tim in this 180-year-old festive tale.

“God Bless Us, Everyone.”