Isabel Hardman has just brought out an acclaimed book called Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, liked the title so much that he has commissioned me to write a piece entitled Why we get the wrong journalists.
Being a journalist, I have not yet had time to read Hardman’s book. I note, however, that in her introduction, she says that “while there are some venal politicians, there are many more who are decent human beings”. The same astonishing claim can, in my experience, be made of journalists.
But in the eyes of the public, journalists are down there with estate agents, bankers and politicians as one of the least trustworthy groups in our society.
And it appears to me that there are better reasons for this low esteem than serious-minded journalists are willing to admit.
Journalism is intrusive. In Scoop, the journalists Shumble, Whelper, Pigge and Corker know each other well, for “they had loitered together of old on many a doorstep and forced an entry into many a stricken home.”
On the comment side of journalism, the ability to take one’s opinions more seriously than they deserve to be taken is almost indispensable if one is to keep going for column after column, year after year. Great pundits are often self-important, and either remarkably repetitive, or remarkably inconsistent.
On the news side, the ability to be over-excited by whatever story one is covering is a valuable quality. Great reporters are often naive. The news editor, and indeed the readers, would far rather hear that the Government was last night plunged into the worst crisis since the Second World War, or at least since Suez, than that this is the 56th worst crisis since the war, or to be strictly accurate, not a crisis at all, but a bit of nonsense which will be forgotten by lunchtime.
We are all of us, readers and journalists, to some extent subject to the tyranny of the story. Just now the story which dominates us, and drives out other stories which may prove more important, is Brexit. We are always in danger of barking up the wrong tree.
And journalists, like politicians, often find themselves obliged to present partial knowledge as if it were the whole picture.
Behind the idea that we get the wrong politicians lies the unfounded assumption that if only we got the right ones, we could have a perfect politics.
And behind the idea that we get the wrong journalists lies the unfounded assumption that if only we got the right ones, we could have a perfect media.
There is a kind of high-minded journalist who longs to believe that this is true. Let the facts be checked. Let the correspondents all be experts in their fields. Let no dubious or disreputable source ever be used.
But the best sources are often dubious and disreputable. That is why, after a few drinks, or in order to do down a rival, or perhaps for sordid commercial motives, they are prepared to divulge secrets which they are under a professional obligation not to divulge. Could one cover the Trump White House without using such sources?
High-mindedness and high education are not always accompanied by good judgment. They can just as well lead to the unselfconsciously conceited assumption that one knows better than less moral and educated people, so is better able to judge what is going on and what to do about it.
Geoffrey Dawson, Editor of The Times in the late 1930s, who had edited that mighty organ of opinion for most of the period since 1912, was a Fellow of All Souls, and liked to employ other Fellows of All Souls.
The atmosphere was high-minded and the noble aim, shared by the British Government and public, was to avoid war with Germany. As Dawson explained to his friend Lord Lothian on 23 May 1937:
“I should like to get going with the Germans. I simply cannot understand why they should apparently be so much annoyed with The Times at this moment. I spend my nights in taking out anything which I think will hurt their susceptibilities and in dropping little things which are intended to soothe them.”
In other words, Dawson doctored the dispatches of his correspondent in Berlin, Norman Ebbutt, who warned that the Nazis were intent on war.
It may be retorted that if only Dawson had been a more scrupulous journalist, this would not have occurred. But the idea of a totally objective journalism is as absurd as the idea of a totally objective history. Editors know what they want. That is what they are there for.
We all have preconceptions – prejudices, if you prefer – which help us to decide what is interesting and what is dull, what matters and what doesn’t. Claud Cockburn, who in his newspaper The Week took aim in the late 1930s at the policy of appeasement has a wonderful passage in his memoirs about the “factual heresy”, drawn to his attention by one of his early mentors, Wilmott Lewis, correspondent of The Times in Washington:
“To hear people talking about the facts you would think that they lay about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days waiting to be picked up – arduously, it is true, but still definitely and visibly – by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market.
“Such a view is evidently and dangerously naive. There are no such facts. Or if there are, they are meaningless and entirely ineffective; they might, indeed, just as well not be lying about at all until the prospector – the journalist – puts them into relation with other facts: presents them, in other words. Then they become as much part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel. In that sense all stories are written backwards – they are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist’s point of view from which the facts are subsequently organised. Journalistically speaking, ‘in the beginning is the word’. All this is difficult and even rather unwholesome to explain to the layman, because he gets the impression that you are saying that the truth does not matter and that you are publicly admitting what he long ago suspected, that journalism is a way of ‘cooking’ the facts. Really cunning journalists, realising this, and anxious to raise the status of journalism in the esteem of the general public, positively encourage the layman in his mistaken views. They like him to have the picture of these nuggety facts lying about on maybe frozen ground, and a lot of noble and utterly unprejudiced journalists with no idea whatever of what they are looking for scrabbling in the iron-bound earth and presently bringing home the pure gold of Truth.”
Lewis also warned Cockburn that good journalism needs in some way to grasp the attention of the reader:
“I think it well to remember that, when writing for the newspapers, we are writing for an elderly lady in Hastings who has two cats of which she is passionately fond. Unless our stuff can successfully compete for her interest with those cats, it is no good.”
That is a high standard which has nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with life. A few months later, Cockburn submitted a piece on which he had worked hard, and of which he was extremely proud, for Lewis’s approval before it was dispatched to London. Lewis read it twice with close attention, nodding appreciatively, and then said, holding the piece between his finger and thumb:
“Old boy, this piece is not only informed but erudite. Its material is solid and accurately observed; its style polished – and in my estimation, witty. In fact it is everything which one imagines to oneself an article in The Times should be. Yet I’m afraid – my instinct tells me – that,” he opened his finger and thumb and the pages dropped into the wastepaper basket, “the cats will have it.”
Cockburn, it may be retorted (an American in Berlin once said this in a fury to me), was a Communist. And so he was. But he was a brilliant journalist, who perceived, as did Tories such as Colin Welch, Michael Wharton and T.E.Utley, the limitations of the liberal point of view.
We get the wrong journalists because in order to report on this fallen world one needs a fairly comprehensive collection of defects oneself.