One of the most common feature pitches to this magazine is generally headlined along the following lines: Where is the next generation of Pilgers? They usually come from earnest university lecturers decrying the fact that their students are more enthusiastic about the Mirror’s 3am school of journalism than in any sort of campaigning or investigative work.
Perhaps it’s his rugged machismo that leads them all to name Pilger as the one shining example to which the young should aspire. Perhaps it’s that an alternative, and arguably better, question – Where is the next generation of Foots? – sounds so grammatically dodgy. Or perhaps it’s the simple fact that Paul Foot was not on television much.
That’s not to denigrate Pilger’s work. It’s just that it would be hard to find a better journalistic role model than Paul Foot.
There are many words common to all the Foot obituaries that appeared in most national newspapers this week: compassionate, brave, principled, campaigning, unpretentious.
But the one that really shines out is “integrity”. He had it in spades and, as Maxwell and Montgomery discovered, it was an immutable part of him.
His career highlights included some of the biggest headline stories of five decades, yet more telling are the many hundreds of injustices involving unglamourous subjects that he pursued so doggedly.
Telling too was his work rate. In one of the Press Gazette columns he wrote in the Eighties – we plan to print some extracts next week – he describes how a “Mr Edwards” called him with a tantalising tale that he couldn’t explain over the phone.
Foot agreed to meet and was led a mystery dance around London before finally encountering his contact on a park bench.
“Mr Edwards” explained he’d need to get some documents from his flat. The thing is, he didn’t have the money for a taxi.
Foot stumped up £15 – all the money he had on him – and agreed to wait.
A couple of hours later, it finally dawned on him that the man was not going to return.
“I seem to be plagued more than most by conmen,” Foot wrote cheerily.
“And yet, there’s only one thing worse than believing people who are telling lies, and that is not believing people who are telling the truth.
“Scepticism may be the reporter’s lifeline, but cynicism is death.”
Still sound advice for any aspiring journalist – aspiring or otherwise.