Monday, 16 February 2015

Principles? I have several, though not quite the kind you are thinking off. And who is this Vladislav Surkov? Answers on the usual postcard, please. As for ‘media studies’ degrees, well, stick ‘em up your jacksie (Prof Peter Cole and Prof Roy Greenslade, once, in a saner life when they didn’t take themselves quite so seriously, Pete and Roy from the Pig and Whistle)

It would be misleading – ironically, given who we are dealing with – to claim the print industry – that’s ‘newspapers’ in words we can all understand – and those who work in it don’t have principles. Of course they do. It’s just that their principles are not wholly admirable, but as we generally assume that ‘principles’ are noble beasts, a hack usually keeps his principles to him or herself.

One very useful principle in the life of a hack is: ‘Simplify, then exaggerate’. In that way you don’t confuse the poor reader with detail which they won’t understand – and which you don’t understand, either – but once you have reduced it to primary colours, then given it the necessary spin, well, you have a story. I came across a great example of the principle of ‘simplify, then exaggerate’ the other day when I passed a desk here at work on which a copy of the Daily Express was lying. A day or two earlier, writing in the British Medical Journal Aseem Malhotra, an ‘interventional cardiology specialist registrar at Croydon University hospital, London’ (impressed? I am) said that butter, cheese, red meat and the rest weren’t necessarily the fast track to a quick and early death we have been told they were for the past 30-odd years.

In fact, the data on which that claim had been based was potentially misleading in that it did not cover women. Furthermore, all the substitute ‘spreads’ we had been urged to used instead of butter – I call it crap, and have never given up butter, but that is neither here nor there – might well be more harmful than what they were intended to replace. So far, so interesting and for someone like me who loves butter and cheese, rather reassuring.

 The story was, of course, covered by all the British national newspapers to with varying degrees of responsibility: the Guardian played it straight, the Daily Telegraph – here and here - gave it only the slightest of spin, the Daily Mail managed to sound outraged (but then the Mail is easily outraged on behalf of its readers - outraged readers always come back for more), and the Mirror (formerly the Daily Mirror, and why did they change the title?) also played it straight. What the hell, not much of a story really. But it was the Daily Express which won the cigar in tabloid terms: what was that principle – ‘simplify, then exaggerate’? That is what the Express did, and here’s it’s front page – it’s a classic

Er, not quite. And if you want another a further taste of the Daily Express’s exemplary journalism, try this (at the bottom of the post).

 . . .

Before I took up the life of a sub-editor, ensuring commas were in the right place and that any names mentioned in a news story or feature weren’t misspelled more than once, I was a reporter for six years, first for two weekly papers, then an evening paper, then a morning paper. I mention the papers I worked for because the industry has changed to such an extent here that the usual route to working for one of ‘the nationals’ here in Britain has changed a great deal.

Once you started ‘your career’ – of maybe it’s only mine which deserves the inverted commas – on a weekly paper reporting on flower shows and interviewing crashing bores who own the county’s largest collection of antique beer mats, eventually moved on to the local evening, then a regional morning paper before trying your luck in The Smoke – having made all your awful mistakes by then and learned never to repeat them. These days ‘the nationals’ now seem to take on graduate trainees who are given a brief guide to telling one end of a sentence from the other before joining up and being paid a pittance. Actually, that is probably truer of trainee sub-editors on the nationals. The reporters given shifts by the newsdesk must be reasonably clued up to warrant getting the work so they probably did spend some time as a local newspaper reporter.

I joined the Lincolnshire Chronicle on June 4, 1974, and got fuck-all official training until the following spring when I was sent on a two-month course to learn shorthand and ‘law for journalism’ at Richmond College, Sheffield. Before then I picked up a little on the job, though to be frank that is not necessarily the worst way to go about it. I can’t speak for others, but as far as I am concerned being a newspaper journalist – and I far prefer the term ‘hack’ which doesn’t, as far as I am concerned, carry any negative connotation – is essentially practical, and you can do it or you can’t.

So the bright girls and boys will pick up what they are supposed to be doing in hours, the rest of us took several months to get the lay of the land, and the thickos won’t pick up much at all (and, as a rule, will become the big ‘bastard management’ ‘join the union’ tub-thumpers and full of stories such as ‘they offered me a job on Fleet Street, but we like it round here’ to justify why in career terms they never even left the starting block. Years ago, the thickos who really couldn’t cut it used to drift off into a press officers’ job, public relations and dead-end jobs on trade papers where they would usually die in harness 30 years later. Latterly, PR and press officering has become a damn sight slicker and a great money-spinner if you are any good at it, mainly because the aim is no longer to assist hacks as once it was, but to obstruct them and make sure their pay masters’ arses are covered.

The bright, ambitious ones, on the other hand, were quick on the uptake, seemed to have been around for ages within two days of starting, knew everything that was going on before it had even happened and then were gone and on their way up the ladder within months: bugger if they broke a contract of employment which articled them to a paper for two or three years – the sharper they were, the more contracts they broke: and the news editors they now worked for were glad to get a good operator - good news editors want stories, are never too fussy how they are obtained and if your bright new reporter has fewer scruples than Liberace had wives, who cares?

NB While I was working on the Lincolnshire Chronicle, I got friendly with a hack on the Lincolnshire Echo, the local evening paper, called Peter Kraft. He – I saw them all – had five different driving licences (OK, it was four, but that is gen), all in slight variations of his name. All had penalty points and endorsements.

Then there was the Guardian reporter who arrived in Lincoln in October 1974 to do a piece on the local constituency battle between the sitting MP Dick Taverne and then Margaret Jackson (later the Cabinet minister Margaret Beckett). Taverne had been kicked out of the Labour party the previous year over his enthusiasm for the then European Community – Labour weren’t at all keen in those days. 

Taverne had then formed an independent Labour party in Lincoln and held onto his seat in the February 1974 election, but that October he was defeated by Margaret Jackson/Beckett). The Guardian reporter was Peter Cole, now ‘Emeritus Professor’ in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield, who went on to be editor of the extremely short-lived Sunday Correspondent (September 1989 to November 1990 – will they ever learn?). We both attended a Press conference along with one or two other hacks and I, the trainee scruff from the local weekly was rather in awe of the Guardian journalist from The Smoke and chatted with him.

During the Press conference I noticed that he didn’t have shorthand (and neither did I at that point). So I asked him how he could record what people said – get quotes? ‘Oh,’ he told me loftily. ‘I give a flavour of what they say.’ Well, I now know what he means – and very, very few folk can remember the exact words they used ten minutes ago and if you write a quote they can't remember, well, they cant remember, see, and thats what you tell them – but I did, at the time, think – remember, I was still quite a keen young thing then and had high hopes of making my way – ‘that’s a bit iffy, isn’t it? How can you get quotes if you don’t record exactly what people say?’

Incidentally, others might disagree, but this hack has always felt that turning journalism into an academic subject is grade A bullshit – take note 'Professor' Roy Greenslade, who seems to be forever living off the fact that he once got a tearound in while working at The Sun. (Actually, he was deputy editor for a while, but I make my comments in the spirit of this blog post.) As for a ‘media studies’ degree, the best place for it is as far up your arse as you can stick it without killing yourself.

Notwithstanding that any and every degree course - whether media studies, PPE, history, English Literature, languages or tourism - is most certainly valuable if it trains you brain, mind and intellect to think and gives you the means to tackle almost any job successfully after learning a little bit more about it, you’ll learn as much about reporting, feature writing, dealing with the public and all the rest of what makes up a hack’s professional life from a media studies course as you will be able to learn to drive by reading the Highway Code. Doing it will teach you.

More to the point, they would often rather not know what’s been going on: deniability is worth its weight in gold and not to be sneered at, and as long as you don’t fuck them over. These bright young things used to scare the shit out of me: me sharp? Not in a million years. (I’ve since discovered there’s a lot to be gained by being thought sharp, but that’s another story. The secret is to keep schtumm: if someone thinks you’re a sharp, bright cookie, don’t open your mouth and prove them wrong.)

. . .

One of the first journalistic principles most young reporters hear about – though not all of them seem to adopt it given some of the badly written news stories I occasionally spot in local papers – is quite simple: ‘Don’t let a couple of facts spoil a good story.’ Speaks for itself really: if you have a good tale to tell – and, let’s face it, despite all the hi’falutin talk of the public’s right to know and how the job of the Press is to keep authority in check, all that phoney Lou Grant crap – don’t ruin it.

If a 90-year-old widow has been robbed blind by the local council but the whole matter was at first swept under the carpet but was then eventually sorted out amicably, leave the bit about the happy end until a very short final paragraph, if ‘Council screws widow, 90, rotten!’ is the story you want. OK, you might on the other hand want a hearts and flowers story, because it’s already got out and other papers are carrying it, so that happy ending does go further up the story, but not too far up. The rule is: misery, heartbreak, disaster, grief and all their brothers, sisters and first cousins are hot. Always remember that wise advice: ‘Boy Scout does good deed’ doesn’t sell too many copies and it isn't truth newspapers are after, but big bucks whatever they might tell you.

A reporter for only six years? I hear you ask. Not very long, is it? No, it isn’t. Dear reader, even though I say so myself, I wasn’t a bad reporter, but I wasn’t destined for the top, either. I’ve already admitted that each of the bright, keen-as-mustard young things I worked side-by-side with before they were on their way again before you could even catch your breath scared the shit out of me, and in my heart I knew I wasn’t one of them. Certainly, there are other avenues for a reporter to make her or his way – education correspondent, health correspondent, local authority correspondent – but the truth is I wasn’t interested.

I don’t – and was slowly realising it then – give a flying fuck about ‘news’. My attitude is if it’s important, I’ll hear about it sooner or later, and I consider the standard obsession with ‘hearing the latest development’ a sign of neurosis. So you can see why bit by bit I came to realise that whatever my future was to be in newspapers, it wasn’t going to be as a reporter. There's also the small matter that the public - civilians call them ‘the general public’ - are as a rule dull as ditchwater, never finish their sentences when you need that quote (so you are obliged to make it up), and broadly go on and on an on for hours after you have got what you want and no longer need to talk to them.

Then, of course, there was the little matter of closing down Newcastle airport and grounding all flights all on my own which helped to persuade me that reporting was not to be my long-term future and that I should seek out another avenue - did someone say career path? - in this glorious industry of ours, But that, too, is for another day. But I will say this: that embarrassing matter with Newcastle airport did help me acquire another of my principles, and an invaluable on even though I learned about the hard way, is: Never come clean - ever!

Incidentally, I might perhaps be painting too rosy a picture of our glorious industry. But if you are still intent on making a name for yourself by indulging in all that ‘Lou Grant crap’, don’t bother doing so in, among other countries, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Somalia, Pakistan, Paraguay and Brazil – you might well end up dead long before the fags and booze claim you. So far in 2015 – not even two months old – 16 journalists have died in one way or another. In 2014 it was 61. Take a look here for more information.
. . .

I  mentioned a certain Peter Pomerantsev and his new book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible the other day. (Here is a review of it which appeared in the Guardian.) He was on the radio this morning on a programme called Start The Week (unfortunately this morning presented by Andrew Marr, but that was just a one-off) and he was giving further details of his take on life in Putin’s Russia. Naturally, this is just his views of the situation there, but whether they reflect the reality or not – and, well, I’m going to go for ‘they do’ – Russia seems like a wackier version of Alice In Wonderland. Pomerantsev mentioned a character called ‘Surkov’ upon whom, it’s claimed, Putin relies quite a bit.

Vladislav Surkov is billed here as more or less the author of Putinism and is said to pull many of the strings. According to Pomerantsev even the opposition parties are Kremlin-sponsored to give the appearance of – well, democracy. Who knows? Could be true, Pomerantsev could be just another stooge putting out a set of lies to counteract another set of lies. After all, ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’. There was even the claim on the programme that Putin’s anti-gay drive at the time of the Sochi Winter Olympics was all a sham, a pose, though I can’t off-hand now remember what – if that is true – it was intended to achieve.

I’ve ordered the book from Amazon and it should arrive tomorrow. I look forward to reading it.

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