Recent weeks have seen hundreds of wide-eyed and fresh-faced youngsters turn up at universities and begin the process of becoming pie-eyed and two-faced. In other words, they are training to be journalists.
But we hackademics who teach them would do well to remember that the current crop of freshers are very fresh indeed; they were born as recently as 1989, give or take the odd gap year. And most are strangers to a great deal of knowledge that many of us take for granted.
Margaret Thatcher: who she? Cold war: what that? The big miners’ strike is already ancient history and the great train robbery is something from the primordial swamp. Historical reference points, cultural or political, simply cannot be taken as read.
This was brought home to me the day a student wrote about the difficulties faced by reporters during the Falcon war! Wow, I thought, the military censors had been so effective that I didn’t know there had even been a Falcon war. Had the birds of prey declared war on us or had we got our retaliation in first, I wondered? Had somebody counted them out and counted them all back? We will never know because, of course, the misheard reference was to the altogether more serious business of the Falklands war (Veterans are pictured above commemorating it).
More serious, that is, to those of us who were around at the time. However, not only were most of today’s students not born when the Falklands war took place, but most of their parents-to-be had yet to meet.
So we should not assume knowledge. Having said that, today’s crop of students and tomorrow’s generation of journalists should not be allowed to get away with celebrating ignorance. For anyone contemplating working as a journalist, the excuse ‘I don’t know that, because it happened before I was born’simply won’t wash.
Most things happened before even the world’s oldest citizen was born. Luckily, somebody invented the idea of writing it down and putting it in books for future generations to read. Now that we have history-based programmes on TV and radio along with zillions of websites, in addition to books, magazines and newspaper archives, it’s never been as easy to find out what happened before we were born.
Why bother? Because, without knowledge of where we have come from and of what battles we have fought along the way, students will see a mere snapshot of the role of the journalist in society.
Because journalists with a sense of history are more likely to keep things in perspective while all around are becoming feverish.
As Francis Wheen once sagely observed, journalists who lack such a sense of history ‘are incapable of distinguishing between a genuinely significant event and a mere passing frenzy that will be forgotten within a week”.
And, not least, because people who know their Falklands from their falcons are more likely to ask the hard questions when those in power start banging the war drum once again.