Sunday, March 11, 2018

The lowdown on hacks (or, at least, my lowdown, but if you come across others, remember: taste it, don’t swallow it)

It is often the little things which get you thinking, and a slight tiff with a colleague – an insignificant tiff at that – got me thinking about the many comments I have made about journalists, hacks, reporters and sub-editors. But first of all a little background.

A few posts ago, I wrote about my tendency ‘to rush’ (you can read it here, and looking it up just now to get the web address, I was surprised  by a long ago it was) and how it has caused me all kinds of problems, not least professionally. The essence of the job of being a sub-editor (US copy editor) is attention to detail, and a tendency ‘to rush’ mitigates against any such niceties. To be blunt, throughout my career – I like to think ‘career’ would be more appropriate as it has certainly not been a case of my diligently setting about climbing a professional ladder and the quote marks will make the word more honest – I have dropped bollocks, a great British phrase whose meaning, even though you might not be acquainted with it, I’m sure you can guess.

The practical upshot is that at work – on the features subs’ desk of the Daily Mail – those in charge have taken to treating me with caution: I am apt to introduce literals into copy as easily as spotting them and removing them. And that, I’m sure you will have gathered, is a professional Achilles heel. The irony is, however – and please bear in mind that I am making the claim, so I might well be kidding myself – I am in some ways a better, often far better, sub than many I have come across. The trouble is that all too often I shoot myself in the foot which obscures the good work I can do. Ah well.

It is down to ‘rushing’, and as I pointed out in the earlier post, that is to this day, to this moment writing this entry, ‘rushing’ is a tendency I have to fight all the time. All the time! It is ongoing. It is not just in the matter of writing – I am inclined to try to do everything sooner rather than later: when I walk, I now consciously try to slow myself down, because – well, what’s the rush? When I look up the chords to a song and set about teaching myself a song, I am again apt to rush it all, which means I create difficulty for myself and the process seems harder than I thought.

The ‘why’ I rush is irrelevant – perhaps it has to do with being the second-born. Perhaps there is another reason entirely. What is relevant it the fact of ‘rushing’ and how, when I am doing something I want to do well (such as writing) I very consciously have to work against it. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. An example: I have just finished writing 1,800 words and thought it would be a good idea to read through what I have written to make sure it all hangs together. But, Christ, was it a struggle not to ignore that admirable suggestion and just post this crap.

The tiff, the disagreement, is rooted in the suspicion that although I might be good at some things, in others I can be – which means I am not necessarily always – a liability. There was a little more to it than that, but that, too, is irrelevant here. But that tiff got me to thinking and finally led to me sitting down and composing this blog entry.

. . .

We hacks, and by the way, on April 4 I shall be working my last shift and then finally retiring so come April 4, I shall no longer be one, I have often suggested are a strange breed. But now I shall come clean: I suspect we are no stranger than doctors, lawyers, accountants, office workers, dockers or anyone else. What, I think, marks us out is the nature of our work and industry.

For example, I have heard colleagues jokingly, of course, refer to members of ‘the public’ as ‘civilians’. By referring to them as such they are implicitly setting themselves apart from other members of the public and suggesting that they are, in some way, special, even though the description of the public as ‘civilians, is pretty much a joke. But the fact is hacks do in an odd way see themselves as apart and something special.

For example, a newspaper consists of many departments doing certain jobs, of which the editorial department – us – is just one. (I can only pontificate about newspapers and the newspaper industry because that is the one I know. I suspect journalists – hacks – in the broadcasting media are very similar, but I have never worked in radio or television so I shall refrain from generalising too much.)

Apart from the reporters, writers, sub-editors and photographers who supply copy and pictures or work on copy and pictures supplied, every newspaper depends on many other departments doing their job well: the advertising department, promotions, the circulation department, those in production further down the chain. Then there are the editorial assistants, the wages department, the personnel department and these days ‘systems’, the bods who make sure the computer system is working 100 per cent. And the whole operation would, to a greater or lesser degree, grind to a halt if something goes wrong in any one department.

If it were not for the adverts the paper carries, there would be no paper. The cover price brings in a comparative pittance. The ads bring in the money which pays for the whole shooting match. Related to them are the bods working in promotions. And if the computers go down, well watch out, and watch out well. It spells disaster. The Mail, for example, but this will be true of every other national paper, has contingency plans to move as much of the operation elsewhere if and when, for example, there were a terrorist attack on Northcliffe House.

To get to the point: all departments – though especially the advertising department, the money-bringers must work efficiently in tandem, must do its job well. But the editorial department has this odd, very odd, conviction, that it is the beating heart of the newspaper, without which, well, sine qua non. This is taken further and lead to the conviction that if the editorial department, or a member of it, wants something done, who is doing the doing is expected to drop everything and attend to the request from editorial. ‘We’, the bloody-minded conviction is ‘are in a position of primacy’. ‘We are what keeps this whole shooting match going. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Producing newspapers is, if only my colleagues would see the light and agree with me, a symbiotic process.

Without advertising, for example, there would be no papers. Certainly, there would be news sheets of a kind as some folk are addicted to scribbling – I am a case in point - but their circulation would be minimal and the price asked of the public to buy that news sheet would hardly cover costs.

What this editorial conviction that ‘we are the beating heart’ has means is that many, though not all – I propose myself as an exception – hacks are oddly self-centred. The profession, by its very nature, also seems to attract mavericks, and here I don’t claim to be the exception to the rule. Organising hacks is akin to trying to herding cats. Try it. Try herding four, five, ten cats. You will get the feline equivalent of two fingers (US one finger).

Hacks also have a tendency – the self-image they have is part and parcel of it – to what I can only describe as ‘bullshitting’. (NB It was an example of such bullshitting which caused the tiny tiff earlier tonight, but it would not just be pointless but boring for me to go into detail.) Now I am the first to admit that I love, just love bullshitting. But I must also add that one of the few principles I have, and one which is important to me, is ‘bullshit for fun, not for real.’ The trouble is that many journalists do not share that principle.

An example: journalism, journalists insist, is ‘a vocation’ and somewhere along the line was introduced the idea that we ‘break into journalism’, that it is supremely hard to land yourself a job working as a journalist (another NB: I have to this day never described myself as ‘a journalist. I always say, when asked what I do for a living, replied that ‘I work for a newspaper’. Just saying).

Well, tell me, do nurses ‘break into nursing’? Do plumbers ‘break into plumbing’. I don’t believe they do, but using the phrase ‘breaking into journalism’ is useful in that it somehow marks out the journalist as ‘something special’, something out of the ordinary, folk who are not like the ordinary joes who sells us bread, legal advice, bus tickets or who bandage a broken leg. We are assumed by the public to be ‘more in the know’ than they are, and as that assumption adds a welcome sheen to the otherwise drap life of many hacks, they are not inclined to contradict is and set the story straight.

. . .

I began a previous paragraph by promising to get to the point. Well, now I shall.

Journalists – some of them most certainly – to do a vital job, the job the world thinks we all do. They are most certainly not all ‘bullshitters’. A reporter visiting a refugee camp and reporting on the awful conditions there; a reporter trying to get to the bottom of a civic scandal, a story of bribery in political circles; a writer inveighing against the corrupt regime he or she is living in, the reporters ‘merely’ chronicling the doings of the local council, parliament, what really happened to cause a disaster deserve our respect. And many, many the world over often die trying to do a vital job. Take a look at this website, which I have often highlighted and drawn attention to.

But then there are the rest: the writers compiling lists of the newest ‘must-have’ espresso machine, face creams, sub-editors writing punning captions to a series of photographs demonstrating how some celebrities resemble this


or that vegetable (a favourite of the Daily Mail). There was talk on the desk today – and to be fair we were horrified – of how the Mail has published pictures and stories of a former soap actress who has fallen on hard times and taken to the bottle in a big way. She is a mess, but, the paper has decided, a mess which would entertain its readers.

The story even mentioned the several awful strokes of fate which have recently befallen her, but the paper had no compunction whatsoever in still parading her misfortunes for the benefit of many of its – let’s call a spade a spade – brain-dead fuckwits.

So tell me, how do the journalists working on this ‘story’ of an alcoholic actress stack up against their colleagues working in authoritarian and totalitarian states – in Russia, China, the Caucaus, some South Americn counties, in the Middle Eatss – who are often quite literally risking their lives trying to get ‘the news’ out? Answer: they don’t. But tell that to the hacks prepared to turn someone over without a second thought.

. . .

To be honest the main point of this entry is to allow me to let off steam. Actually, that is not the main point: the main point is that despite my poking fun at others in my profession, I want to make it clear that I do have a lot of respect for many earning their crust as members of ‘the Fourth Estate. They, though, seem to be working elsewhere in the world.

As for ‘earning their crust’, claiming working in journalism is ‘a vocation’ is all too often used as an excuse to pay provincial hacks working in Britain a piss-poor wage, and that practice has now spread to the national papers when it comes to re-imbursing newly recruited staff. Given London rents and costs, £20,000 a year is fuck-all, but that is what many of my younger colleagues are paid when they start. In years gone by landing a job on ‘a national’ was rather lucrative, however lowly your editorial position was, but no more, no more, no more.

So there you have it: a soon-to-be-put-out-to-pasture hack lets rip. Oh, I shall carry on with the bullshitting but please remember one of my few principles: bullshit for fun, but not for real.









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