I notice from the recent missive by the Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian (about which I had something to say previously in Chronicle 10 on January 4) that the diversity of her newsroom has become a major concern for her. I belong to probably the last generation of reporters who were able to get a job just by, as it were, walking in off the street. No journalism schools in those days, so one could expect to meet any sort of person, from whichever income or social group, colour or creed, treading the newsroom, whereas now attendance at journalism schools (most of which appear to be financed at least to some degree, by newspaper proprietors ) is apparently the essential part of the preparation.
It has long been my theory that journalism schools are designed for brainwashing (at the extreme) or certainly for homogenizing those who are to be entrusted by the owners with the task of reporting to the general reader what is happening in society. And it is this that Ms. Viner is talking about, because in this world in which diversity is more prized than it used to be, she has become ever more aware of the limited range of white middle-class guys and gals who comprise the overwhelming number of her reporters.
I remember when I got my first job in Canada in 1954 in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, that we were a rare mix of reporters: a guy from Jamaica with no particular schooling that I ever heard about; a young South African whose ambition was to write thriller-novels; an English blue-blood, descendant of the poet Wordsworth, who had been cozzened by the finest education and social upbringing money could buy; me, a rough old half-educated colonial boy fresh from the wilds of New Zealand; and our photographer was Fred Bruemmer, just learning the job after having been a miner in Kirkland Lakes gold mines. But Fred was a Latvian who became famous for his later career as the photographer and chronicler of Inuit life across the Canadian Arctic, and whose earlier education came as an inmate in Nazi concentration camps. We were not an especially talented group, but two of us received the Order of Canada in later life.
The only disadvantage I ever spotted from this right-off-the-street method of hiring reporters was that quite a few of them couldn’t write for sour apples, although there were always the occasional few to whom writing was their purpose and meaning in life. I fell halfway between these two: although not temperamentally ideal for the job of sticking my nose into other people’s business, I never had any trouble hammering together a newspaper article in a few minutes. So I always ended towards feature articles on subjects that were of interest to me, rather than the daily grind of following the latest happening, whatever it was. Still, I was thrown in off the deep end, as it were, immediately given assignments which in larger newspapers would have taken me years to graduate to. I was pretty shocked when I arrived at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1957 to find that an apprentice reporter could expect to spend at least 18 months doing nothing but listen to the police radio. And even after that he could be confined to the obituary desk.
I never really enjoyed covering meetings, not after the first one, an all-day meeting of the Southland County Council, an element of local government, always comprised of elected farmers, whose bailiwick covered an immense territory at the south of the South Island of New Zealand. The farmers lit up the moment they sat down, and continued smoking all day until the room was clogged with smoke and my throat was protesting, an experience that might have had something to do with my never having become as smoker.
The farmers, of course, came from the Southland plain, originally a damp, low-lying, swampy area, but one that had been transformed by hard work into some of the most productive farming land in the country. They also had jurisdiction over the superb fiordland, a virtually uninhabited area of lush rain forest, mountains, and deep sounds and inlets. I have often thought of the impact that the very existence of this wilderness might have had on my own outlook on life. The area had at least one well-known inhabitant, a hermit called Arawata Bill, who had been seen by very few people from outside, and talked to by even fewer. We had a family friend, an outdoorsman, who had spoken to Bill, and who, when I was nine, took me and another boy on a bicycle trip into the foothills of this wilderness. I have never forgotten it. We rode our bikes as far as we could up the gorge of a swiftly flowing river, before leaving the bikes and branching off up tributary streams, in one memorable moment coming upon a hillside entirely covered with mint: the scent from this was overwhelming, and completely unforgettable. Later, as a reporter, I occasionally had to go up to the edge of this wilderness to await the arrival of rescuers who had gone in in search of lost trampers, who usually emerged bedraggled, and sometimes injured. So this fiordland could be a place of life or death.
Another assignment, much less dramatic, built into the very nature of our landscape, was to cover the agricultural fairs that each of the many farming villages held every summer. These were certainly pleasant events, but they were a hell of a lot of work for me. My job was to collect the results, and it seemed like every farming family in the district had entered some member in one or other of the competitions. There were competitions for every variety and class of animal --- among sheep, for example, Merino, Dorset, Leicesters, Southdown, with different grades --- lambs, hoggets, two-tooth wethers; among dairy cows Holstein-Friesians, Jerseys, Herefords; among horses, the lordly Clydesdale took pride of place, and then the jumping horses, the fancy trotters. I recall one mistake I made which caused great hilarity among the farmers: I mistook a bull for a bullock (I’m still not sure what the difference is.) Then, the kids were into Highland dancing with their reels, hornpipes and jigs, and woe betide me if I confused any of these categories. Never to forget the he-man events, tossing the caber, the underhand chop, single-handed sawing….in that part of the world we had world champions, the famous Fraser Brothers, with the double-handed sawing. Real hard men they all were, out of the forests or off the farms, and I had to get all the results and record them for Monday’s paper, for if I missed one, all hell would break loose. I still have the smell of those fairs in my nostrils, long after I can no longer smell anything.
My Saturdays were from the first devoted to collecting the scores from all the games played. I had been a competitive runner, and in addition, played cricket and Rugby regularly at weekends in season, but this job put an end to all that.
When I first stepped into a court of justice I had no more idea of how they worked than of the man in the moon. But it was from the courts that I began to realize there is a class of people who simply can’t handle their lives, and are always getting into trouble. I felt sorry for them, falling into the hands of the police. I knew one of those police detectives: he was a fast bowler on one of the cricket teams I played against, and, hearing him give evidence in court, I began to think of him as the ideal example of someone I would always want to stay away from: keep away from the police became a rule in my life.
The Stipendary Magistrate, Rex Abernathy S.M., as we characterized him in print, was a man who kept himself aloof from the community, who never spoke in a companionable way to anyone in the court, whether onlooker or functionary, and who could be depended upon to give fair, but always rather severe judgment. I only once made a severe mistake in my reports of court cases: that was when I reported that a man charged with murder had pleaded guilty, when, in fact, he had pleaded not guilty, rather a significant error. Of course, I knew he had pleaded not guilty: it was just one of those aberrative errors that everyone makes from time to time, a simple typing error that I had not picked up, which earned me a severe bollocking from the editor, who, when he calmed down, said, “Oh, well, at least you can spell.”
When five years later I covered the courts in the tropical town of Mackay, in northern Queensland, Australia, the atmosphere was completely different. The magistrate, Mr. Baker, was a hail-fellow-well-met Aussie, who had gotten to know his customers quite well. The working class in that part of the world were mostly canecutters in the sugar fields, a tough-as-hell job which wore them out to the point they could no longer do it, and then they were tossed aside. That was their time for appearing in court, charged with being drunk in a public place: I remember one fellow who was making his 278th appearance on that charge, and was so well-known to the court that, after passing the usual sentence, the magistrate would come down into the court and chat amiably to the accused, as if they were old friends. We would never have put up with that kind of informality in New Zealand, certainly not in the Scottish south of the country, anyway.
From the very first I was aware that newspapers used the disadvantaged as fodder for stories, but never showed any real interest in improving their condition. This brings me back to Ms. Viner’s complaint about the lack of scope of her homogenous band of reporters: you need all sorts if they are to know something about, and sympathize with, all sorts of people out there.
A curious thing I noticed during my years as a journalist is that in most meetings that are held, the outcome of the subject under discussion is usually known well in advance. This seems to be true even when weighty subjects of great importance are being discussed. I cannot remember a Parliamentary debate, for example, in which the outcome was not evident from the first. (I do remember one, however, on some delicate subject like abortion, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke in favour of the motion, but voted against it. Ah, democracy, we all loves you!)
In all my many years of following politics I can recall only one genuinely democratic debate on any subject: it took place at an annual meeting of the British Labour Party in the early 1960s, and concerned whether the party should pledge Britain to nuclear disarmament. The argument was spirited, the leaders of the Party (all of them university-educated) naturally arguing for the status quo, while the leftists, always the rogue element in the party as in society, passionately argued for disarmament. In the event, the disarmers won the vote.
Not that it made any difference. Three or four years later, Labour came to power in Britain, but the Wilson government carried on with the old policy just as if their party membership had never spoken.
And today, more than half a century later, Britain has recently decided to continue hosting the American-made Trident missile, which the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has always opposed, or simply keep it for eventual use against --- well, who was that again? Why, Russia, probably, even though it is now so weakened compared with the grand Soviet days.
The military-industrial complex, that President Eisenhower warned us against in the 1950s, and that still dominates the economies of the Western powers, has apparently decided never to allow Britain to withdraw from the nuclear standoff, no matter how pointless and dangerous it may be.