Max Hastings: 'Newspapers need unbalanced people'

Former Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard editor Max Hastings has condemned the current culture of multiskilling in journalism – describing it as like making a chef at a restaurant also wait on tables.

Delivering this year’s James Cameron Memorial Lecture at City University in London last night, he also condemned many of the current crop of national newspaper owners for seeming to hate journalists.

He said: “They want the power and influence which possession of a newspaper confers, the access to political leaders and sense of owning a private rifle range, while regarding their journalists as mere trained circus animals who should jump hoops to order.

“They fail to understand that in the media, as everywhere else in life, mutual respect is indispensable between those who pay the bills and those who deliver the goods.”

Praising the Daily Mail-owning Rothermeres as the “most enlightened owners I have ever worked for”, he said: “They believe in journalism. They invest generously in their titles. They give editors extraordinary latitude.”

He added: “The Rothermeres like journalists. Rather than make or break governments, or pursue self-aggrandisement, they simply want to own successful titles. As an industry, we would be in much better shape if there were more like them.

“The proprietors and managements which lack regard for journalists and bound to fail. It is bewildering that so many people aspire to own newspapers, while despising those who produce them.”

Hastings also hit back at politicians who “denounce the deceits of newspapers and journalists”, saying: “We would get it right more often if our rulers deceived us with less frequency.”

He said: “When Britain’s prime minister has just restored to the cabinet that monarch of mendacity Peter Mandelson, it becomes much hard to wax indignant about the excesses of our trade.”

Hastings edited the Telegraph for 11 years from 1985 and then the Evening Standard for five, but he said that he was most proud to having been a reporter and that he was concerned journalists were not being given time to do this job properly in modern newspaper set-ups.

He said: “Many reporters are now required to deliver news to readers and viewers through multiple outlets – podcasts, blogging, TV soundbites. Yet their proper role is surely to gather information and translate it into publishable prose.

“They should be trawling Britain, lunching and dining. One of the most important parts of doing our job is simply to hang around. Ignorant proprietors dismiss this as sloth.

“Yet talking, listening, watching are our lifeblood. If newspaper reporters and, worse still, specialist writers are instead chained to a 24-hour, seven-day treadmill, servicing their organisation’s customers by land sea and air, or rather by print and blog and broadcast, devoting hours of each day to technical delivery functions, it seems as if they were being required to cook dinner in a restaurant’s kitchens, then hasten out in waiter’s aprons to serve it at table.

“I cannot see how on these terms reporters can have time to acquire the information that enables them to have interesting things to say.”

In a speech that was broadly positive about the future of print journalism – and complimentary about many current national newspapers – Hastings said: “Let us banish nostalgia.”

He added: “The Daily Express may be dreadful now, but it has been pretty dreadful for the past 40 years. The old Times and Telegraph may have been pillars of respectability, but they were infernally dull. They often published unsceptically the deceits of those in high places, and sometimes deliberately colluded in them.

“Although Harry Evans’s Sunday Times produced some of the great scoops of the century, in between there were plenty of longeurs. Quite large parts of the paper were less inspired than their modern counterparts. The same might be said of David English’s Daily Mail.

“Today, in their different ways the Financial Times, Guardian, Mail and Evening Standard have never been better. The Sunday Times and Observer feature some of the finest journalists of their generation.”

Hastings on being a reporter:

  • ‘I can never understand the mania to become columnists among journalists, most of whom are much better employed doing other things. As a polemicist, sure one gets a big picture byline and fixed platform. But to be a reporter, a purveyor of information rather than comment, is the vital role. Those who find out and publish things which are not already known, and which those who hold power do not wish to be known, together with men and women who can paint word portraits of scenes and events, appear far more worthy of respect than the commentariat, even though these days I myself am a part-time member of it.”

Hastings on editors who become media pundits:

  • “A year or two ago, the Guardian media pages used to phone, inviting me to hold forth. When I refused for the fourth time, the adolescent at the other end inquired why. I asked: ‘Can you name one ex-editor who pontificates about newspapers whom you respect?’. He giggled. I said: ‘I rest my case’.”

Hastings on editing:

  • “I have never been a wilful iconaclast, breaking china merely for the pleasure of hearing the noise. I counted several Tory ministers as friends. But no halfway decent journalist is bothered by the crash of porcelain. We can go further, and say that any of us wholly trusted by the prime minister of the day is not doing their job properly.
  • “When I became an editor and set about interviewing job candidates, I was chiefly interested in discovering whether they possessed that fanatical craving for a career in print which is much more important than brains. Newspapers need a quota of normal, balanced human beings; but a larger number of definitely unbalanced people, who believe that getting the story is the most important thing in the world. At 23, my own prose was pretty dire. I sought to compensate with a manic commitment to producing splashes.”
  • ‘I did my utmost to make our good people feel valued, and the bad, idle, or drunken ones feel sufficiently unloved to go away. William Rees-Mogg criticised me in print for being ‘a sacking editor’. Yet Rees-Mogg was a notably unsuccessful editor because he saw himself as The Times’s chief leader writer, and cared little what went on at the back of the boat, in steerage. Although I never wholly convinced my own staff that I read sports pages properly, I strove to persuade them that I cared mightily about every corner of the paper.
  • ‘If my own editorships were flawed by the fact that I am not a political animal but merely a journalist who happens to have some political views, I suggest that obsessive political animals are generally unsuited to running newspapers. People like Harry Evans, Paul Dacre, David English, Charles Wintour- acknowledged as the great editors of my time- have always pursued journalistic agendas which merely sometimes happens to be political.”

Hastings on pack journalism:

  • “In those years on the road, I learned to despise pack journalism. To be sure, it is necessary to know what the pack is doing – but only in order oneself to do something different. I once found myself in a flaming row with a rival correspondent in the Falklands who thought it unfair that I was catching a ride on an army helicopter to which he thought himself entitled. He said, among less quotable things: ‘it’s my turn’. I said that I recognised no turns save devil take the hindmost.
  • “It will always suit some journalists to pool a story, to share goodies around with the lads and ladettes. But anybody who wants to prosper, to reach for stardom, ploughs his or her own furrow, and accepts the price in unpopularity.”

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