Don’t have sex with Roman Catholics

Last Monday I went to see Nick Davies talking at Wolfson College, and in consequence bought his book; quite by coincidence. Kevin Myers’ memoir of life in Belfast Watching the Door turned up on Friday, so I read that too. The take-home message of Davies is that news business in Britain is screwed; the message you remember from Myers is “don’t ever have sex with Catholics”.

I don’t think I have ever read a better told journalistic anecdote than his account of being caught in bed with an IRA man’s wife when the husband returns unexpectedly from the border.1

Nick Davies’ book goes on too long (he wasn’t paid enough to make it shorter) and it contains two distinct and to some extent contradictory explanations for the decline of standards in British journalism. Both can of course be true at different times and on different papers although on the Sunday Times they seem both to have been true at once. Most discussions of his book seem to have missed the distinction, which is a shame.

His first explanation, which I think is entirely right, is that modern managements stop journalists from doing their jobs properly. The discussion of the rise of “churnalism”, where the role of the journalist is essentially just to rewrite copy supplied either by PR agencies directly, or by PR agencies which have managed to get the PA to pick up their copy, is familiar to anyone who worked through the Nineties. The central statistics bear him out: journalists in Britain are now expected to write about three times as many words as they were twenty years ago, and this is clearly a way to measure an increase in unproductivity. Every bad, waffly, unquestioned and dishonest story in the paper is taking up space and time which should be used for better ones which just aren’t going to get written. The BBC’s web site, which none of the BBC executives I know will admit is a hideous, weeping sore on the face of the Corporation,2 expects stories to be up within five minutes of their arrival. The people doing this are by definition not reporters and may not even be journalists. At best they are sub-standard sub-editors. They are also the wave of the future.

On the Independent we were privileged to watch this process, which took about twenty years in the rest of the press, compressed into the five years from 1991 to 1996. By the end of that time the joke, or slogan, was that one phone call was a news story, two made a feature, and three an in-depth investigation. Technology has slightly altered this equation, so that it is now possible to write one of the paper’s full-length “profiles” without talking to anyone even on the phone; just grabbing what’s on Google and maybe, for depth, wikipedia.

Essentially — and here again, Davies is right — this was caused by the rule of the accountants. No spreadsheet can register whether a story is true or increases insight. On the other hand, the men with spreadsheets took us over because we were losing money, which happened at least partly because no one was buying the paper, which was our fault entirely. Although it may very well be the purpose of individual journalists, and even editors, to deliver truth to readers; the economic justification of a newspaper is that it delivers readers to advertisers; and the readers, as is abundantly clear, don’t on the whole care whether what they read is true. Certainly, the readers that advertisers want don’t care because if they did fillet ads for truth they wouldn’t be a very receptive audience.

The market of people prepared to spend their own money for truthful reporting even when it is lumpy and requires thought seems small and shrinking — how many subscriptions to the Economist, and the Financial Times are expensed, I wonder? But my optimistic guess is that there is a outside those circles a penumbra of readers who don’t mind truth, and aren’t allergic to judgement, providing it is expressed with some wit and passion. These people may yet sustain a small industry.

Beyond that, there is the second problem that Davies identifies, in the last part of his book, where he looks at three specific cases of bad journalism, the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail, and the Observer. Within these, the Sunday Times and the Mail have a problem with malevolent management over-ruling good journalists; the Observer’s problem was an uninterested editor appointing a bad journalist to the crucial post of political editor. I’m quite prepared to believe all of these stories, but there is nothing specifically modern or systemic about the failures they reveal. As Alasdair MacIntyre once said, the Times in the 1930s was worse than anything the Mail or the Times does nowadays. Now, he said that a long time before the Iraq war, but the point still holds. You don’t need technology and you don’t need men with spreadsheets to produce damn awful journalism: you just need the natural corruptions of power and weak or inadequate journalists. None of these things are new, and none will stop.

To that extent, and to that extent alone, the critics are right who complain that Davies is harking back to a golden age that never existed. But he is entirely right to point out the way in which technology and greed have produced new corruptions for the owners of newspapers that did not exist before, and to which they have whole-heartedly yielded.

In Myers, the failings of journalism are very old-fashioned. They are produced by drink, by idleness, by arrogance. It’s arrogance that is the most shameful. One way of reading his book — which ends very sadly indeed, so that the memory of all the early, funnier stuff no longer seems very funny at all — is as a long reckoning with the all the reasons that made us want to be journalists: the glamour, the bravery, the drink, the girls. In the end, like any thoughtful journalist, he is appalled by the fact that he does not suffer as the people he writes about must. Then he ends up suffering anyway, and perhaps this is meant as some kind of restitution. He hates Belfast, all right, and with a great deal of justification. But he hates himself every bit as much by the end. He’s a very good journalist.

1 Myers is ecumenical in his attentions to other men’s wives; some years later, he finds himself surprised by a rugger-playing Protestant husband. But that story is neither as grotesque, as frightening, nor as funny.

2 But it is

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6 Responses to Don’t have sex with Roman Catholics

  1. Robert Nowell says:

    I was brought up on the understanding that British papers were cheaper than continental European ones because our papers relied to a much greater extent on revenue from advertising. Meanwhile on the Continent it was normal for newspaper readers not to get their paper from the newsagent but through a postal subscription – with special lower postage rates for newspapers. This meant that the reader was tied into that newspaper for probably at least a year, and quite possibly renewal of the subscription would have been taken for granted.

    Nevertheless, the decline in journalistic standards and practice over my life-time has been pretty appalling.

  2. rr says:

    Very interesting.

    However of your list – “all the reasons that made us want to be journalists: the glamour, the bravery, the drink, the girls” – not one featured among my motivations.

    Of course this merely demonstrates how some of us are not one of “us”.

  3. acb says:

    What were your motivations? Don’t tell me: you were in love with a Catholic …

    Actually, I’m sure they were more noble than mine, which might have some bearing on why you’re not one any longer and I am.

  4. rr says:

    Actually now I think about it I’ve never, as far as I know, been in love with a Catholic. So much for my ecumenism. As to my motivations, “naive” might be a better word. And why I’m not one any longer? probably because I wasn’t very good at it 🙂

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  6. Mrs Tilton says:

    Can’t claim to be a great fan of popery. Still, for a third of my life now I’ve been having sex with a Roman Catholic, and thus far (knock wood!) have been surprised by neither borderhopping chucks nor jaffa ruggerbuggers.

    I think it’s possibly not quite so dangerous as you imagine; but then, I concede that context might have a lot to do with it.

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