Why juggling the joys of work and parenting should be child's play

A healthy balance between home and work for staff is vital if newspapers are to reconnect with their readers, says Rob Brown

In a recent Q&A session with readers of The Independent, Andrew
Marr was asked whether he thought it were possible to be a good
journalist and a good father. His reply could not have been more
succinct: No.

Having worked with Marr when he was editor of the Indy – not the
most joyful period in either of our lives – I suspect that behind that
apparently curt answer lies many years of parental anguish and personal
regret.

Attaining a healthier work-life balance is doubtless one
of the main reasons Marr is packing in his post as political editor of
the BBC to take over David Frost’s Sunday breakfast show.

Explaining the move, he said he wanted a break from the high-pressure life of covering Parliament.

Marr
is immensely fortunate. As the most successful British journalist of
his generation, he can pick and choose where and how he works. For most
who have to toil in the manic, macho world of the news media it is a
brutal business which often exacts a heavy toll on personal health and
happiness.

Media organisations which have done so much in recent
decades to root out alcoholism in the workplace continue to condone,
indeed demand widespread workaholism, even though this modern scourge
is wreaking every bit as much havoc and damage in our society as any
other form of addiction.

It is a precious irony that the
publications most destructive of domestic harmony are probably those
which prattle on most about preserving traditional family values. I
doubt it is possible to be a good dad and work at the Daily Mail.

So why do we – mothers as well as fathers – continue to sacrifice our families for tomorrow’s fish ‘n’ chip wrappings?

The pompous answer would be that we believe in the power of he press to make a real difference in the world.

And, besides, it’s enormous fun.

There
is a grain of truth in this, although there are notably fewer British
journalists who actually live up to the noble ideal of comforting the
afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

Most are drawn to the media for drama, wealth and power, even if these three temptations elude the majority of us.

The truth is most newsrooms are manned by people who are slightly, if not barking, mad.

Our
condition has been diagnosed by the pop shrink Oliver James, who has
observed: “The media is jampacked with people who suffer from what
psychoanalysts call Narcissistic Personality Disorder. These are the
manic selflovers, people who act as if they are permanently on cocaine
– which, of course, some of them are.”

This isn’t true of
journalists everywhere in the world. For his next book, about
middle-class affluenza, James has interviewed Toeger Seidenfaden, a
newspaper editor in Denmark who leaves work at 4.30pm to collect his
kids from school and cook the supper.

“British editors are usually still at the office long after their kids have been put to bed,” James notes.

Well,
the Danes are different, aren’t they? They can’t boast the most
competitive newspaper market in the world, can they? That would be the
swift response from hard-bitten hacks here.

But one of several
reasons I decided to swap the news media for academia is that the media
is so destructive of domestic harmony, not to mention mental health.

I
should stress this is not a staunch defence of traditional family
values such as you might read in the Mail. Divorced dads, like myself,
have even more need for predictable work patterns in order to negotiate
and maintain strong relationships with our offspring.

I accept,
of course, that big news events cannot be timetabled to suit those who
desire to juggle journalism and the joys of child-rearing. But how many
journalists today are actually engaged in hard news? A hefty slice of
any newsroom is not involved in any form of news at all as newspapers
are increasingly viewspapers and padded out with soft lifestyle
sections.

The unhealthily long hours worked by many journalists
are often inflicted not by the dictates of a relentless news cycle but
by serious under-resourcing coupled with a culture of presenteeism.

Is there really no way news organisations in the 21st century can offer their employees a more family-friendly environment?

I
think they could and should. And they should do so not just out of
enlightened compassion but in pursuit of their own long-term commercial
interests.

Britain’s national press has arguably never been more
out of synch with the public it is meant to be serving. How can
‘successful’ journalists really be in touch with their readers,
listeners or viewers if they spend so little time in the real world,
dealing with the daily challenges of raising children?

If
newspapers and news programmes are to reconnect with their audiences in
any sort of meaningful sense in the 21st century they will have to
employ in key editorial positions people who are grappling with the
toughest job of all in these times – parenthood.

The heroes of
our industry shouldn’t be those who sacrifice their children’s
happiness and well-being for some fleeting stardom but those who, when
asked if it is possible to be a good journalist and a good father,
reply: No, but it bloody well should be.

Rob Brown is senior lecturer in journalism at Napier University, Edinburgh

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