Pirates of the shadows

As the awards season gets into full swing, it is sobering to remember that, outside a business that takes great delight in pinning medals on one another’s chests while simultaneously directing knives between the shoulder blades, journalists are not the flavour of the month. Any month.

It is possible that second-hand car dealers are looked down upon by the public from an even greater height than they view journalists, but it’s a darned close-run thing.

Each week the man and woman in the street – well, in their front rooms, usually – stay glued to their TV sets for longer than is sensible if brain and digestion are not to be seriously impaired. They still devour newspapers by the millions, too. Yet they believe representatives of the media are about as reputable as massage parlour hostesses, and much uglier.

So potent is this loathing, expressed daily on radio phone-in programmes where listeners blame "the meejah" for most of society’s ills, that often it is the one absolute truth that emerges from surveys on the role of journalism and journalists. As anyone who has ever been involved in research knows, those who agree to answer questionnaires or become members of focus groups tend to provide the sort of measured and responsible answers they believe those dredging for information want to hear. Their often mundane tastes, habits and opinions remain locked away, like pairs of old flared trousers at the back of the wardrobe.

The Leeds University research into The Public Interest and Media Privacy, commissioned by, among others, the BBC, ITC and the Radio Authority, and written about on this page last week by Ian Reeves, is a case in point. On the questions of privacy and public interest, those taking part – some media professionals, but mostly 1,049 individuals and members of eight focus groups – were remarkably sagacious.

However, "the survey revealed that the public’s attitude to the role of the media was equivocal. On the one hand, most people rely heavily on the media for information about a wide range of social and public affairs and feel that the media do a good job in informing them. On the other hand, most of them distrust the media’s motives and operational methods, feeling that they are driven by circulation and audience figures and often deliberately sensationalize stories. This affected all media, but mostly the press, the tabloid press in particular."  What the press, and in particular the tabloid press, does to clean up its act, I don’t know. The crass stupidity of editors who continuously flout the Press Complaints Commission code of practice by intruding on privacy and then arguing, like petulant children, that photographs of a soap star’s bum, taken from inside a rose bush bordering private property, is in the public interest, doesn’t help.

Nor do the demands of proprietors and chairman whose closest brush with journalism has been writing cheques, and whose obsession with massive personal gain and keeping greedy shareholders happy has resulted in the decimation of staffs and dumbing down to kindergarten levels. Monsters of the Fleet Street deep, Lord Northcliffe called these money-grabbers, and I have yet to read a better description.

But journalists being considered about as socially acceptable as lepers is nothing new.

Philip Gibbs, whose The Street of Adventure was the inspiration for generations of young journalists, observed in another book, Adventures in Journalism: "When I first entered the street…the social status of pressmen was much lower than at present. The old-time reporter…was often an ill-dressed fellow, conscious of his own social inferiority, cringing in his manner to the great, and content to slink round to the back doors of life, rather than boldly assault the front door knocker."

That was written in 1923 and whatever improvements in the status of journalists had been achieved at that time obviously didn’t long survive. Gibbs’ description of the "old-time reporter" is familiar to anyone who has hung out in Fleet Street pubs and Soho bars and exchanged anecdotes and insults with these pirates of the shadows.

Will the new breed, often recruited on lousy pay and tossed too early into a business more cut-throat than Sweeney Todd’s razor, be viewed any less ignominiously? Despite those back-door cring-ers, Gibbs revered journalism and honest journalists. In that same book he wrote of the trade: "It was, after all, a great game! It is still one of the best games in the world for any young man [sic] with quick eyes, a sense of humour, some touch of quality in his use of words, and curiosity in his soul for the truth and pageant of our human drama, provided he keeps his soul unsullied from the dirt." Remain unsullied, ladies and gentlemen. And perhaps the public might invite you home to tea.

 

Writing in The Spectator, Anne McElvoy, executive editor of The Independent on Sunday, recounts how she went to New York "to discuss a magazine commission" and took her one-year-old baby along for the ride and a meeting at the 21 Club.

How talented freelances who turn in immaculate copy following a ten-minute telephone briefing from an executive with a cotton wool mind must have laughed.

Ms McElvoy reported that her host told her "Nobody ever brings their kids into Manhattan". Patent rubbish. New York is infinitely more child-friendly than London, as our eight-year-old, who has been hitting the city, from Broadway to Coney Island, since he was in a pushchair can testify.

I understand Ms McElvoy is moving from the IoS to the Evening Standard following protracted negotiations between her baby and new editor Veronica Wadley in the Savoy Grill. The kid especially liked the fact that since Ms Wadley’s elevation from her role as Paul Dacre’s deputy, the Standard is known in Kensington as the Baby Mail.

 

Richard Desmond decided that his newspapers and the journalists working for them would not be entered in this year’s British Press Awards.

Desmond himself did feat- ure prominently, however, in the list of Britain’s richest and most powerful men and women published in his own papers.

I have managed to get hold of an advance copy of the Daily Express report of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, which makes interesting reading, not least because the Oscars have yet to be handed out.

Here’s a small extract to whet the appetite:

Best actor: Richard Desmond; Best director: Richard Desmond; Best boy: Richard Desmond. Best film: The Richard Desmond Story.

Sports news extra: latest World Cup result from the Express: England 8 (R. Desmond 5, Rothermere o.g., Murdoch, o.g., Black o.g.) Argentina 0                     n

 

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