Julius Weinberg discusses how he came to join the PINF board of trustees, which he now chairs, and the values connecting his work with PINF, in academia, and as a physician.
Beware of where you sit at lunch!
A few years ago I was at a lunch organised by a foundation which funds a variety of different projects. I sat next to, and had an interesting conversation with, someone who at the time worked with Impress, the press regulator.
This, of course, was Jonathan Heawood, now executive director at PINF. A couple of weeks later he rang me to ask if I was interested in joining the board of a new organisation he was setting up whose remit would be to advocate for and develop high quality public interest news.
It was clear that he wanted a “voice of ignorance” on the board, someone who was not a journalist, or in any way connected with the media, to ask the stupid questions. Something I was well equipped for.
A few years on I find myself chairing the PINF board of trustees, and still the voice of ignorance.
Of course I was really interested in PINF and what Jonathan was trying to do. I had been Vice Chancellor at Kingston University and Deputy VC at City, both Universities with active Journalism Departments, and had been involved in allowing journalism academics time to support “Hacked Off” and engage in debates about the quality of Journalism. I had also been involved in debates about freedom of speech and the role of Universities.
I had been criticised by the then Prime Minister (now Lord) David Cameron and questioned by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee for taking a stance that allowed speakers who had been banned by other Universities. Though I had only allowed them to speak at meetings that were open to all, it was good to see members of the Islamic Society and LGBTQ Community engaging in courteous debate.
I originally trained in Medicine and specialised in Infectious Disease, working in Zimbabwe at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I then switched to Epidemiology and Public Health and worked for the World Health Organisation during the war in Bosnia before moving into Higher Education. As a public health doctor it was clear to me that getting health messages into the media in ways that could be understood was one of the most effective health interventions.
An article in Parenting magazine probably had more impact than one on the Lancet, but was not so good for career prospects. My favourite moments were probably getting the Sun to publish a 'now wash your hands' piece when asked to comment on the health risk of swimming in the mud (and cow pats) of Glastonbury, and being called an expert on kissing in the Sunday Times magazine. Though, as the article was on the health risks of kissing, my children did not need to be quite so embarrassed.
I now chair (besides PINF) a large multi-academy trust. I am interested in how we can engage young people in constructive and informed debate about the world. There are many complex and difficult issues and we need to be able to describe them and help people engage with them without dumbing down, or trivialising.
The skills and attitudes of good public interest journalism are essential, there is plenty of evidence that absence of informed debate is a key factor in the development of demagoguery.
I am delighted to be involved in PINF. As the voice of ignorance, I still get to ask stupid questions, and I always learn from our great staff and trustees. I am privileged to be involved in something that matters and represents much of what I consider worthwhile, underpinning a society where difference is celebrated and difference of opinion is a cause of courteous debate. 'The clash of ideas brings forth truth'.
Julius Weinberg is an Infectious Disease Physician and academic. He chairs the PINF board of trustees and is co-Chair of the Buckinghamshire Cultural Partnership.