My career (if one can call it a career, which I rather doubt) as a journalist can be traced back to when I was at high school in the 1940s. One day, one of our teachers who had undertaken to coach aspiring athletes after school, remarked in passing as we stood around on the open field, that he had been reading The Observer, a London Sunday newspaper, and he remarked, in an idle kind of fashion, “those fellows can really write.” Somehow, that made an impression on me, already in the first stages of contemplating becoming a journalist, and established for me a sort of bench mark worthy of aiming for: not just to write for newspapers, but to be able to “really write”, which meant that I would have to strive to write really well.
I left school in 1945, at the end of my fourth year, and took a job as a copyholder in the reading room of one of the two local dailies, the lowest job in the hierarchy as laid out in the collective agreement of the New Zealand Journalists’ Association, that started me off at the princely sum of thirty shillings a week, rising in slow seven year increments to 10 or 11 pounds a week. It was not a spectacular prospect, but I showed some aptitude for the job, and managed to make the seven-year journey in two and as half years.
Although I had no reason to object to how I was treated by my employers, I was already an enthusiastic socialist, and it was not lost on me that every newspaper in the country stood irreconcilably against the Labour government that I supported. The reasons were obvious: the newspapers were owned by wealthy people, and wealthy people, as far as I was concerned, were the enemy.
I worked for newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Canada for 27 years as a daily journalist, and the same facts applied everywhere. From time to time there would be an outburst of ethical concern about standards, but I always regarded these as claptrap.
I started this blog in 1996 as it became obvious that my formal working life was wearing down, and I had only one objective, namely, to provide a sounding-off board in which I could write what I liked without my stuff being interfered with by editors, sub-editors or other gatekeepers. (I know there are good editors, but my experience of newspapers did not turn up too many, if any, of them).
In the 21 years I have been writing the blog I have sounded off on almost every subject under the sun, but one subject I have steered clear of is journalism itself, and its pretensions. The reason is that one of the higher levels of journalism is the writing of editorials, to which many, almost one might say most, journalists aspire, but my experience has led me to believe that the people who do this job are paid liars for their bosses, so this was something I never aspired to.
All this is to explain my silence on this subject, in case any readers might have noticed, a silence that I have clung to in spite of the fact that journalism, its honesty, its pretensions, its cowardice and hypocrisy, its meretriciousness, its occasional outburst of courage, has recently been under immense pressure. What has persuaded me to set aside my silence is a six-page article in the last issue for 2017 of the Guardian Weekly, the only newspaper I subscribe to, by Katherine Viner, the current holder of one of he most illustrious jobs in journalism, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, the modern version of the fabled British newspaper The Manchester Guardian.
She begins her article on the day in 1819 when a vast crowd of 60,000 gathered in Manchester to agitate for parliamentary reform. These were the days when Manchester, a crowded city, had no member of Parliament, while Old Sarum, a hamlet in the south with one voter, had two. At the demo, the armed cavalry charged the crowd, hacking away with their sabres, killing eleven and injuring hundreds. This became known as the Peterloo massacre, and was later described by historian A.J.P. Taylor as the event “that began the break up of the old order in England.” Two years later, a 28-year-old journalist who was present at the massacre, John Edward Taylor, and who had taken his job seriously, reporting for months to London papers on the fate of the wounded, thus bringing the incident to national prominence, decided to start his own newspaper, and so, with financial backing from eleven donors, The Manchester Guardian was born in a surge of hope and faith in ordinary people, and bearing Taylor’s belief that “in spite of Peterloo and police spies, reason was great and would prevail.”
This part of the history I did not know; what I have known about the newspaper dates from when a 25-year-old man called C.P.Scott became editor in 1872, who, during the 57 years of his editorship, took unpopular stances in favour of Irish Home Rule, and against the Boer war of 1899, where he allowed a brilliant young woman writer to expose the concentration camps set up by the British military for captured Boers. This was extremely unpopular in an age of intense jingoism, and almost finished off The Guardian, which lost readers, but established that it was a paper, as one observer remarked, “that cannot be bought.”
As a kid in New Zealand journalism, I developed an admiration for this newspaper. I began to pummel it with short items of news and comment, some of which were published. During my four years in England in the early 1950s I never rose to anything higher than an ancient weekly in Coventry, but I developed an enhanced admiration for The Guardian, even though I did not agree with its Liberal party politics, which led it to oppose establishment of the National Health Service --- probably, as Ms. Viner confesses, because the editor of the time A.P.Wadsworth, disliked Aneurin Bevan, the Labour minister who created the NHS. My admiration was further enhanced when I spent eight years in London as correspondent for The Montreal Star, and could compare the seven or eight dailies that were delivered to my doorstep each morning. At that time I got to know Guardian reporters, who tended to be men of gravitas and deep experience.
Ms. Viner is a serious woman, and she believes, as her headline says, that journalism needs a new mission in its current crisis. The crisis has been caused by the technological revolution carried by the creation of the Internet. This has led to the collapse of the model by which selling advertisements could cover the costs of journalism, and as a result newspapers are biting the dust all over the world. Also, the hopes for a bright new dawn from the Internet were exaggerated: just as with many other startling modern inventions, “our digital town squares have been mobbed with bullies, misogynists and racists who brought a new kind of hysteria to public debate.”
I had developed an admiration for Ms. Viner’s predecessor as Editor, Alan Rushbridger, who led the paper for twenty of its most difficult years. He attempted to elevate the readers into a more central position, embraced the Internet, published, against intense official opposition, such stolen revelations as were provided by Edward Snowden from official secret sources.
Truth to tell, I have not been especially cheerful about how Ms.Viner has handled the newspaper. Although she pays tribute to its left-leaning past, I found appalling the paper’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. With a couple of exceptions, Guardian writers went after him like a pack of ravening dogs, denigrating and abusing Corbyn as a man who had no hope of selling his old-fashioned leftist agenda to the voting public.
Corbyn did have problems, but they came from the fact that although his election as leader was greeted with an outburst of subscriptions to the party that made it the largest in Europe, most of his MPs in Parliament were chosen by Tony Blair, whose outlook with his so-called New Labour, was closely akin to the Thatcherism that he succeeded. The attacks on the Labour leader were relentless, pitiless and in my view entirely scurrilous. All of this was brought to a halt when Corbyn campaigned on his leftist programme with such spectacular success in the recent election.
Ms. Viner says that some 800,000 readers now support The Guardian in response to her frequent appeals for donations in addition to simply buying the newspaper. She has dedicated the paper, still owned by the Scott Trust, which was set up in 1936, to expressing the public interest which she defines thus:
“…our guiding focus… will be to challenge the economic assumptions of the past three decades which have extended market values such as competition and self-interest far beyond their natural sphere and seized the public realm.”
The new Guardian mission will be, “to constantly examine our assumptions, our biases, how the world is changing, what it means.” She lays out five principles:
*we will develop ideas that help improve the world, not just critique it;
*we will collaborate with readers, and others, to have greater impact;
*we will diversify, to have richer reporting from a representative newsroom;
*we will be meaningful in all our work;
*and, underpinning it, we will report fairly on people as well as power, and find things out.
I hope, but cannot say for sure, that these objectives are not what I used to call claptrap, the customary pious hopes for good journalism that I very early began to discount.
Only time will tell, I guess.