Confessions of a Journalist

 

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Category: Reflections Date: 27 Nov 97


“It is unlikely that the human mind can ever be rid totally of subconscious bias. Nevertheless, where the reporting of news is concerned, the public has the right to expect objectivity as far as is humanly possible and a journalist has a duty to exercise it as far as he or she is able to.”

Modern Newspaper Practice, FW Hodgson

 

When I was studying to be a journalist in London in 1987, Fleet Street was already disappearing. But Max, who always dressed in black and a trench coat and carried a notebook everywhere, seemed unaware that the offices of the Guardian, the Times, the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph were moving to Wopping and Farmington Road. He would walk into the pub opposite our music and journalism rooms at City University and begin every sentence with, “I was on Fleet Street today and I heard . . .”

 

We would huddle out of the cold from the international journalism class, looking like a youthful gathering of the UN, drinking beer and soft drinks and eating crisps. There was handsome Kiriacus from Greece, large Frank from Holland, livewire Liz from Canada, cynical Valerie from France, Bill from America, Sirinai from Sudan, Radwan from Palestine (as he insisted it still was), Zodwa from South Africa, and all the others who are burnt forever in my memory as my student family, the way it happens when you are alone and abroad.

 

We would listen to Max from Sri Lanka with indulgent amusement, loath to shatter his image of a non-existent Fleet Street which was idealised and immortalised in the movies. We were fully aware that journalists no longer hung out there unearthing secret service information, carrying out important investigations, solving murders. It was all in Max’s head. What we didn’t like to admit, wanting to be sophisticated, was that we, like Max, had caught the bug. We saw the bug in the old hacks (sub-editors) who with permanent cigarettes in their mouths were chasing stories all the way to the time they rolled off the press, way after the cleaners have gone home. Once you catch the bug, which is as addictive as cigarettes, you stop caring that for the most part it doesn’t pay your bills, far less a mortgage, and gobbles up spare time, family life and peace of mind. You live off the adrenaline from the story, the deadline, the quotation, a turn of phrase, the scoop.

 

For me, an early addict, Bach’s most delicate concerto could not compare with the cacophony of 50 typewriters pounding out a story. One such exercise was the mock “running” story on Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As fast as we finished one version, new information (retrieved from Reuters files) would land on our desks, and we would have to update with fresh leads. Papers were flung, brows furrowed in concentration and rings of smoke spiralled around the room.

 

En masse we trooped in to a press conference to witness the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, put an intrepid journalist or two in place; and covered an entirely incomprehensible session in the House of Commons, most of which consisted of shaking fists and not very subtle insults. We learned to write news, economically and simply and on the premise that “Dog bites man - no interest. Man bites dog - news.” An American editor put it another way: “News is anything that makes a reader say, gee whiz.”

 

The problem is that although every reporter strives for objectivity, there are no absolutes in news assessment, or an absolute scale of value by which it can be measured. Newspapers in Britain, for instance, take political standpoints ranging from the solid right to the extreme left. At the time there was even a party-aligned daily, the Communist Star.

 

The Guardian was strong on educational matters, the Observer on African news, the Financial Times on technology, energy and development. The Sun on the topless page 3 girl. These were conscious selections on the part of the editorial managers. But we could not possess this power of selection without responsibility. It also meant that we needed to guard this power carefully from those who had something to lose from disclosure, which is the essence of our trade. We needed a central pivot.

 

Some years back during the media awards here Trevor McDonald, the veteran ITN journalist, said the pivot was giving a voice to the weak, the powerless, the downtrodden in our midst. At the time, about ten years ago, the world was no less a mess than it is today. Actual events differ but injustice, acts of terrorism, political tyranny, war, poverty and natural disasters were as rife. To many aspiring journalists around me, political and racial oppression was a reality. Many in my group were direct victims of apartheid, had witnessed their people die because of useless wars, or malnutrition, and lived with the censorship of totalitarian governments. There were also the women who had escaped Islamic countries where they were repressed and denied the right to study or work.

 

We strove for objectivity but were not disseminating news in a vacuum. As the year went on we came to see the power of the published story as enormous. Journalism would eradicate ignorance, expose corruption, campaign for the rights of the oppressed. In short, it would give millions of poor, ill and war-torn people a chance.

 

You smile, and I do too. But for the journalist who gets the bug, even if it gets covered inevitably by world-weary cynicism, the fire never wears out. We picked up much of this from a diminutive but charismatic Reuters veteran who also hammered in the maxim, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” a good way of saying that there are two sides to every story.

 

He also told us the incredible story of how, before technology, birds, beautiful white ones, were trained to carry news from one country to another in their beaks. The creation of a newspaper from start to finish was a high point. We broke up into groups, created editorial policy, appointed editors, sub-editors and reporters, measured copy with em rules, decided on font and point sizes for headlines, wrote editorials and made up letters to the editor.

 

The group “paper” took over our lives. We talked about by-lines over lunch, story ideas while walking back to halls, and everything else while drinking, which we seemed to do a lot of the time. It was only when I became friendly with some actuarial science, business and engineering students that I realised how different our paths would be.

 

These clean-cut aggressive students, some of whom already had jobs lined up, most of whom would never waste time or money in a pub talking about the injustices of the world, would obviously climb rungs fast, do well financially. And just as we thought them dull and reactionary, they thought us useless.

 

We were all wrong. Newspapers (all media houses) require money to operate, and every profession is vital to humanity. The science students discovered that they needed journalists to promote their businesses with press coverage, inform them and mirror the society they live in.

 

To our disappointment, even the most meticulous sub-editing did not yield a perfect newspaper. Names were misspelt, page numbers left out, and there were grammatical errors. We discovered that the fact that newspapers are produced at great speed, often under the stress of competition, and that reporters and sub-editors are working under pressure, is an explanation rather than an excuse for mistakes that creep in.

 

My first practical working experience was as a trainee reporter for the Hammersmith Group of Newspapers, local freebies (giveaways), which mixed in a little local news with lots of advertising. It was there that I first encountered what was then a dying breed - a Fleet Street journalist. Also a nail-like metal object called a spike.

 

I rewrote a story about a group of schoolchildren giving some old people a birdbath nine times. Each time he read it he would disgustedly impale my paper on this nail, and repeat, “Try again. Get it right.” Writing about birdbaths was not what I was fired up to do but classroom journalism is different from real life, where all of us need to pay our dues, if not as office boys and girls, then as birdbath writers.

 

I then began writing for a trade magazine aimed at the hundreds of corner stores around London (still in existence). Although we knew in theory that there was nothing such as true objectivity and that newspapers take various political and social stances, the blatant pursuit of wealth through “journalism” was shocking to a young reporter. Circulation figures were fiddled to potential advertising clients, and advertisers would get the largest write-ups.

 

This was journalism where a business made money out of journalists who re-wrote press releases on baked beans. There were no opportunities to flex my new skills in the “running story”, or write lofty stories of financial take-overs, uncover scams, do eyewitness reports on the rebels in Afghanistan or the Intafada in Palestine.

 

In disconsolate offices in Elephant and Castle, where the owners saved on heating, we rewrote with numb fingers press releases on Heinz soups, cheap Beaujolais wines, canned peas, frozen sausages. My most exciting assignment was the launch of a new processed cheese. I nearly lost my job for initiatives such as a story idea on bad hygiene in the stores and the ridiculously high markup on sagging, crumpled vegetables.

 

Just as I was ready to quit, my second Fleet Street editor joined the company (obviously a casualty of layoffs). This old hack, Basil Morgan, after looking at my first rather flowery prose on new confectioneries, cited Bernard Shaw, saying something along the lines of: go through your story. Take out half the adjectives. Then go through it again and take out the rest.

 

How I hated that spike where so many of my efforts ended up! How he tortured me, saying I could never write, that I should marry young, have babies, work as a salesgirl or tend bars. Then one day, utterly defeated, I handed him my umpteenth effort at a story of two brothers who built up a chain of stores in five years, and this broad smile gathered on his fleshy red face, his tiny cruel blue eyes disappeared and my heart fluttered as it never has again when he pronounced me a journalist. I was ready to stop rewriting press releases! I was ready to save the world!

 

One week later I was working part time in a developmental news agency, Gemini, which collects articles with a developmental journalism angle from around the world and sends them to newspapers everywhere. But I was not writing. My face was flushed with the effort of rapidly putting articles in the correct order under an automatic stapler, stuffing them in enormous addressed envelopes, then into two large garbage bags, heaving them down two flights of stairs, and running to the post office to catch the evening mail.

 

To be continued

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur