NCE is fast approaching and for hundreds of junior reporters around the country a lot hangs on this. A pass means they become senior reporters, and for those in training contracts it traditionally means the freedom to ply their trade elsewhere. A pay rise often accompanies elevation to senior status too. So you can see why it is taken seriously.
It’s a tough test though, with a number of different papers and a portfolio of work to complete as well. There are lots of opportunities to mess it up.
For about four years I was chief examiner for the NCE newspaper practice – which is a test of legal and ethical knowledge as well as your reporting skills.
Here are my 10 tips to junior reporters facing the exam, I hope they help.
1. Watch the time. You only have one hour for the exam. There are 50 marks for the law question and 25 each for the two practice questions. So, logically you might allocate 30 minutes to law and 30 to newspaper practice, but keep your eye on the clock. It is very easy to get carried away with the law question and not allow yourself enough time for the practice. If you really nail the law, that might just be ok, but you will really need to nail the law. I saw far too many papers with a rushed final question that hardly got any marks at all.
2. Know your law. The NCE when I was writing it anyway, focused on mainstream legal issues – contempt, libel, mags court restrictions, children, sexual offences and the PCC code. There might be other items such as privacy, confidentiality and copyright thrown in, but those main items should get you through.
3. Don’t confuse your defences. A favourite question of examiners features the defences for a court report. All too often candidates claimed absolute privilege – a libel defence – as a defence against contempt of court. There’s a simple mnemonic I invented to avoid this. “Banksy says remember your ABC – Absolute privilege has Bugger-all to do with Contempt. The defence against contempt for court reporting is S4(1) of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 which says a fair, accurate contemporaneous report of court proceedings cannot be in contempt of court, sop long as no order has been made under S4(2) postponing the report.
4. Don’t scattergun. You might want to play on the safe side and put down every single thing you know about the law, but that just tells the markers that you can’t spot the problem at hand. Keep the law relevant.
5. Be specific. If you think the problem in the question is libel explain why. Many candidates lose marks by simply saying: “The problem here is libel…” then going on to explain the defence that might apply. There will be marks available for explaining exactly which words are libellous and why. The same goes for any other legal issue, analyse why it is a problem, then go on to explain the defence that might apply.
6. Know your PCC Editors’ Code. Go to the PCC website, look at recent cases. Know the code inside out. It’s in your contract of employment, you’ve probably been given it a few times during your traineeship, it’s on the PCC website, there really is no excuse for not knowing it. In the current climate I would not be at all surprised if it features more often in NCE exams than it has before.
7. Be realistic. On the practice questions, where you are explaining how you would handle a story, make suggestions that you would expect to work every day. You might like to talk to the Prime Minister on the issue at hand – he would not return your call.
8. To vox pop or not to vox pop. This has become a standard part of many candidates practice answers. Sometimes it is a relevant idea, very often it is not. If you think it is, then do please tell the examiner what you would ask and how the responses would add to the story. The same goes for the digital equivalents of a telephone or internet poll.
9. Check your answer. Build in time to check your answer. You are not marked down for spelling on this exam, or at least weren’t when I was examining it. But nevertheless, checking your copy might avoid some terrible howler being submitted that might cost you marks.
10. In the unhappy event you fail, stump up for a failure report. It will certainly help you get through it next time and so it is worth the money.
In any event, I hope the above is useful, and good luck on the day.