Lessons from Buffalo Bill

Travelling way out west in the US during the opening innings of the Hutton Inquiry, I was behind the game until one morning in a hotel in Denver, Colorado, a copy of The New York Times was dumped outside the door of my room. Well, one could hardly expect the goings on in the Royal Courts of Justice in London to interest such papers as the Cody Enterprise (“Founded by Buffalo Bill in 1899” – true), which knows its Wyoming audience is far more concerned with the price of horse?esh than political squabbles in Britain.

This particular issue of The New York Times devoted a half-page to the story. A lengthy chronology clearly presented the sequence of events from early September, when the Prime Minister announced the impending dossier on Iraqi weapons, and Warren Hoge wrote an additional 1,000 or so words on the BBC report that “called the integrity of the dossier into question and led to the death, apparently by suicide, of the source… the weapons expert Dr David Kelly”.

Andrew Gilligan did not rate a mention in a piece that described the Government’s “frantic manoeuvring” as being the kind of activity that “normally takes place under deep cover in Whitehall, the complex of palatial Victorian and Georgian government buildings in downtown London where secrecy is the traditional norm and modern freedom of information practices have never taken hold”.

I can go only halfway with Hoge.

Secrecy may be the traditional norm, but the present-day norm downtown is for even the most con?dential government material to leak like air from a punctured tyre once it escapes the con?nes of whichever department has stamped “TOP SECRET” across the title page. As for verbal classi?ed information, to borrow from Samuel Goldwyn, its chance of concealment is not worth the paper it’s written on.

But Hoge was right about freedom of information. The present Government promised much, but intends to deliver little. The Americans are far ahead of us where accessibility is concerned, even if more often than not they employ gums rather than sharp teeth when biting on some of the juicy stories they unearth.

Students of the US press are aware it views British journalism askance, rather like a staid professor looking over her spectacles at a pot-smoking, dreadlocked student. Occasionally it clucks its disapproval at what it sees as the effrontery of British newspapers.

So I was interested to ?nd evidence that in the US, the relationship between legislators and the press, and the public perception of both, is not so much different to here.

In the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, I found a stack of heavily discounted copies of a book entitled Right in the Old Gazoo – a horse’s rear end, according to the author – by local resident Alan K Simpson, a former Wyoming senator and assistant leader of the Republican party.

Simpson’s work is subtitled “A lifetime of scrapping with the press” and over more than 250 pages, he sticks his spurs into newspaper journalism more viciously than any cowboy would ever treat his steed.

Many of those working in the US media are “lazy, complacent, sloppy, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, cynical and arrogant beyond measure”, claims Simpson. Does he think they are okay apart from that? Not really.

The press consistently manipulates the public, he believes: “Many of the stories in your morning paper did to the truth what a funhouse mirror does to a person’s appearance – warped and twisted it out of shape.” Simpson blames this “lazy, dishonest and downright dangerous” reporting largely on the use of anonymous sources – BBC take note – and concludes that the media’s “shoddy work” is harming democracy. Both journalism and the legislature are held in low esteem, he observes, and something needs to be done.

Despite much good ol’ boy ranting, some of Simpson’s arguments and ideas are valid. For example, he supports the idea of forums where politicians and journalists can address moral and ethical issues, although he wrote his book several years ago and I am not aware that there have been signi?cant moves in this direction.

There are here. Among a ?urry of such activity at this year’s party conferences, the British Journalism Review, sponsored by several national newspapers, has organised fringe meetings – free admission and glass of wine! – to discuss the questions “Is the media destroying democracy – and who cares?”. All are welcome at both the Labour conference at Bournemouth (Hilton Hotel, 1 October, 7pm) and the Conservative conference at Blackpool (Renaissance Room, Winter Gardens, 7 October, 5.15pm).

As even Simpson acknowledged, not all American journalists are irresponsible blackguards.

The day after I arrived in the US, the broadsheet Denver Post reported at the bottom of its front page the death from cancer of its editorial page editor, Sue O’Brien.

Following experience in radio and television news and spells as a political press secretary and campaign manager, she became professor of journalism and an associate dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder, before joining the Post only eight years ago. Such was her professional standing – “She left three decades or more of her ?ngerprints all over Colorado,” said Post publisher William Dean Singleton – that the paper saw ?t to continue its report of her death, at the age of 64, and review of her life over most of an inside page.

The main leading article that day was also devoted to O’Brien: “She was our boss, our friend and, in many ways, our moral compass,” it began.

Ten days later, passing through Laramie on a Sunday, I picked up a copy of that day’s Post to ?nd its “Perspective” section dominated by a further piece about O’Brien, written by the editorial page staff, and an entire spread of appreciations and reprints of two of the 250 columns she had written for the paper.

Railing against ageism earlier this year, she wrote: “Even at 64, I still need to know there are women in the world I can aspire to be like when I grow up.”

Alongside this, publisher Singleton led 62 tributes from journalists, legislators and the public: “I’ve often said Sue was the conscience of the Post,” he wrote. “But I’d carry that further: she could be called the conscience of Colorado.”

I report this because it set me wondering if there was a print journalist in Britain who would receive such adulation, and command even half as many column inches, upon his or her death. The answer was, of course, yes – while I was away the, thankfully, gentle death of Sir Edward Pickering at the age of 91 resulted in widescreen obituaries and, in Rupert Murdoch’s Times, further deference to a man whose Fleet Street career is unparalleled.

Cliché that it might be, Pick was almost the last of a line. There are few remaining with us who will be waved farewell with such genuine affection and respect. The demise of many at the scurrilous end of the trade, from hacks to editors and even proprietors, is far more likely to be greeted by public dancing in the streets.

Among the more vituperative pieces that greeted the news of Alastair Campbell’s decision to leave his Downing Street post – most papers acknowledged his skill and dedication even if they disapproved of him – were two that re?ected especially badly on their authors.

In the Daily Mail, Stephen Glover’s spiteful description of Campbell included reference to him as “a former redtop tabloid reporter who had enjoyed only limited success as a journalist”.

Campbell’s limited success included becoming political editor of the Mirror and then Today (a bluetop) before joining Tony Blair’s team at the age of 37. Those who worked with him believe he would have gone on to greater things in journalism.

In The Sunday Telegraph, (Sir) Max Hastings commented on Campbell’s “uncouthness”: “This legendary bully would never drink tea out of a cup when a mug was available.” Horrid redtops. Tea from a mug.

Such pitiful snobbery makes what Hastings called Campbell’s “contempt for snootiness and elitism” wholly admirable.

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Alison Hastings

by Bill Hagerty

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