Developing the instinct for moments of genius

Can you teach genius? Well, no. If it’s really genius, you’re born with it – it’s what the word means.

But that doesn’t stop us educators trying to identify it. And holding up examples in the hope and expectation that young journalists will learn the habits of great journalists. That’s more or less what I was asked to do for a broadcasting festival in Hilversum, the Netherlands.

Trying to identify the great moments of reporting meant listening to a lot of the best stuff and a lot of the best reporters. And realising how tiny are the moments on which Allan Little’s or Fergal Keane’s genius turns. How slender the difference is between the simply good and genius.

Like Brian Hanrahan’s ‘I counted them all out…’line in the Falklands in 1982. Was that genius? I think so, if only in hindsight. With or without the collusion of his censor, Hanrahan hadn’t just achieved accuracy, lucidity and brevity – he also managed to shape an expression that passed into the language. ‘All the British harriers that left came back safely’would have done the same reporting job. But it would not have been genius.

Martin Bell’s astonishing brevity in many of his TV reports from the Balkan frontline, too. One of his most astonishingly brief was the three-word line: ‘And then this”, introducing shot after shot of crazed, explosive mayhem.

And this year, from Iraq, Radio 4’s Hugh Sykes took minimalist genius still further when a piece for Broadcasting House began with two full minutes of uninterrupted wildtrack, recordings of Baghdad dawns, one in 2003, the other in April this year.

At one level madness, at another genius. But among the thousands of words filed from Iraq during the war, Syke’s silent commentary and the sounds of birds, cats, explosions and helicopters sticks in the memory. Infinitesimally small differences; a pause held for a fraction of a second longer; a change of voice tone; a piece of actuality cut there instead of there; an interviewee’s breath or sigh uncut in the edit.

No, you can show it but you can’t teach it. But here’s something you can teach. In each and every piece of reportage I listened to when I was trying to work out this genius thing, the reporter had produced something that no editor could have expected. And certainly not something they could or would have commissioned to fill a slot.

Each piece also had at least one moment – the moment of genius – where the viewer or listener was brought up short. Challenged, expectations confounded. A moment where they might be baffled or even lost.

Risky. And in the increasingly process-driven, formulaic world of broadcast journalism, the last thing many editors need is a reporter offering the unexpected or the unforeseen. Something that can’t be categorised. So here’s what there is to learn – and it’s a lesson for editors and producers who have it in their gift not to create genius but to prevent it getting to air.

Don’t. Just don’t do it. Understand that the value of moments of genius – awkward, off-agenda, risking the audience’s understanding – is immeasurable. Listeners remember and carry with them those moments long after they’ve forgotten what gave rise to them in the first place. 

They can even be defining. And don’t try to ‘improve’the genius, creativity and innovation of journalists who have got it. You can’t and you won’t. Realise that editorial leadership is as much about allowing as it is about preventing. Make it a new year resolution.

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