Friday, November 20, 2009

Hacks, hackery, a deluded public and why we are the scum of the Earth

It would be technically true to say that I have worked as a journalist for the past 35 years. I started my first job, working for the Lincolnshire Chronicle as a reporter, on January 24, 1974, and except for the almost obligatory sabbatical many hacks take in their 30s - I decided to retrain as a photographer; others go off to run an antique store or take off to the Greek islands to write ‘my novel’; all, sooner or later, return to the fold with their tails between their legs, sadder if not wiser and with considerably more debt - I have only ever worked as a reporter and sub-editor. Yet in one important and widespread understanding of what a ‘journalist’ is, to say that I have worked as ‘a journalist’ is complete nonsense.
To those who never actually get to meet the species, we journalist are noble fellows whose role is to expose the corrupt, root out the truth, protect the little man and generally fight on the side of the angels. We are those for whom facts are sacred. Those who have never met a journalist imagine that he and she dines daily at the top tables of the great and good, that we invariably have an in everywhere, that we know what is really going on, that our counsel is sought, that we are not only intelligent and quick-witted, but charming and cunning. Those who have never met one of my kind are only to happy to mythologise the journalist, and will gladly forgive him and her their peccadilloes because they suspect we are, somehow, other. They are only too ready to believe that we are at once at home in the sleaziest brothels as in the loftiest chancelleries of the world, that we are on intimate terms with statesmen and artists, courtesans and billionaires. That we can drink the best of them under the table and still turn out 1,000 words of crisp, scintillating, informed, informative and entertaining copy by dawn. And it is, of course, all complete rot. Yet, somehow, the myth survives. People will regale each other with tales of the most horrific behaviour by journalists and still, in a corner of their hearts, acknowledge a grudging, secret respect bordering on admiration for such cavalier behaviour. The profession - and it is only a profession in the most literal meaning of the word - is still seen as glamorous.
Yes, there are journalists who are, in every sense, as professional as barristers, surgeons and economists and who, metaphorically share private dinners with presidents and prime ministers and are privy, or partly privy, to secrets of state. And, yes, there are members of the public who become millionaires after spending £1 on a Lottery ticket. But the man or woman who writes captions for the tit and bum pictures in the Daily Star, those who compile surveys of bras in the women’s pages, those employed by Trout And Salmon, Tunnels And Tunneller, Floor Covering And Carpet review - and those last two do exist - are also entitled to call themselves ‘journalists’, and characters who are as far from the popular view of what a journalist is and what he or she is engaged in could be hard to imagine.
Every tinpot polytechnic turned university in the country offers a ‘media studies’ course, and these are always oversubscribed. But tell would-be media students that not one editor in the country gives a flying fuck for a media studies qualification, they will refuse to believe you.
In the 35 years I have worked as a ‘journalist’, the broadcasting media have expanded enormously, and it is now misleading to talk of ‘the Press’. Weekly papers and regional morning and evening papers are having a very tough time indeed, most recently because the internet has devastated their classified ad revenue, and getting a job ‘in television’ or ‘on the radio’ is now seen as the goal. But in essence those who choose to earn their living working as a ‘journalist’ have not changed a jot. Many of them, especially those who are not too bright, also believe in the myth of the journalist fighting the good fight, and do not see their behaviour as impertinent intrusion into private lives, but as a sacred duty they have to uphold the public’s ‘right to know’. But the truth is not just far simpler, it is unbearably more banal.
It is an irony that having a free Press is most cherished in countries which do not have one. In these countries - Burma, the former Soviet Union and other former Eastern Bloc states and in other countries caught up in a totalitarian system - exceptionally brave men and women do risk their lives by following their profession. Here in the Western world we do, nominally, have a free Press, but you wouldn’t know it. (I say ‘nominally, by the way, because increasingly the courts can be used by anyone with enough money to pay the fees to muzzle a journalist and shut down a story, and the most sinister recent development as been the ‘super injunction’ which prohibits a journalist from even reporting that an injunction has been taken out. Such ‘prior restraint’ is not possible in the U.S. whose courts take the view that redress, if needed, is available a posteriori through the libel laws.)
My work at the Daily Mail involves ‘early revision’, the early referring to the time of day we turn up, not the ‘first’ revision. Once pages have been laid out and sub-edited, I and colleagues read the proofs, make changes, re-scheme pages if the ad shapes change and generally prepare the pages for the printers. On Sunday’s I am the only ‘early reviser’ and my first task when I turn up - invariably late - is to read the puzzle pages for errors, check that the answers are right, check that the right cartoons are going in and ensure that the enjoyment of those readers for whom the puzzle pages are the most important pages in the Daily Mail is in no danger of being spoiled. My next task is to do the same on the ‘promotions’ pages, where readers can snap for a bargain price of £5.99 (PLUS ten of the tokens printed daily, is the whole point of the exercise - the public must somehow be induced to buy the bloody paper) a perfume by Princess Di’s favourite designer which is ‘usually for sale at £99’. And don’t believe the ‘serious papers’ don’t do the same: what is on offer will vary and be tailored to the pretensions of a particular paper’s readers, but the schtick is identical. Sun readers can to to France ‘for £1’. Telegraph readers can get ‘fine wines’ with a 50% discount. Guardian readers can get a good deal on the latest trendy novel.
When do I - a ‘journalist’ for the past 35 years - ever engage in serious journalism? Never.
To round off, here are a few quotations from people who have come into contact with journalists and who might thus be thought to know what they are talking about:
‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.’ - Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht became a famous playwright and screen writer and wrote The Front Page. But before that he spent several years as a crime reporter in Twenties Chicago and most certainly knew what he was talking about. More quotes tomorrow.
Oh, and by the way, I hope I don’t sound outraged. Journalism? I love it. And if that sounds hypocritical after all I have written here about hacks, there’s another useful insight for you.

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