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Journalism: the mistake I nearly made

29th August 2011 - Steve Newman


The News of the World scandal is just the tip of the iceberg as far as falling standards in journalism go, suggests Steve, who once dreamed of being a journalist himself.

 

Nick Davies doesn't know who I am. As far as I know he doesn't shop at Foyles, drink in the Archers or hang out at Brisbane Road, so the chances of us meeting are pretty slim. Even so I owe him a big thank you for beating some sense into me.

In life there are the opportunities you take and the opportunities that you miss. When I was at university, I dreamt of being a journalist, the next Charles Wheeler. Bad grammar? Not an issue, I'll just get a job at the Guardian; they used be lenient about that.

If only it was that simple. A 2:2 in History and a year on the student paper doesn't mean a thing in the big bad world of journalism. Disappearing local papers, universities dishing out media degrees like candy at a sweet shop convention, media companies that expected their starters to work for free (it was called volunteering) and needing umpteen years experience, at least a Masters and knowing a few senior people in the office to work in Fleet Street all meant the likely hood of a working-class lad from the Romford area succeeding in attaining his dream was slim at best.

So after over 300 letters sent with no response - I'd like to say rejections, but given that most didn't even bother replying, so I'm not even sure I reached that far - three years of bashing my head against a wall, several notable moments, including no response from the Romford Recorder, who really do prefer 18-year-old A-level students to 29-year-old graduates because they're cheaper, a really nice and apologetic editor of a local paper who took the time to phone me and lament the demise of the traditional of the local paper, and a row with a woman in an HR department about the semantics of a politics degrees (don't ask), I reached a point where I thought I'd better give up. So it became an opportunity lost and every so often I would beat myself up, as I do with regrets.

Flat Earth NewsThen one day Nick Davies entered my life and hit me around the head with a big stick called Flat Earth News.

Despite my frustrations the media has always held me in awe and not in a 'It would be really cool to be on the One Show' way. (A quick aside: if you do think that be aware that you may end up presenting on the Shopping Channel, that late-night poker programme or Daybreak... you don't think television doesn't have dead end jobs?) It was more along the lines of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman brought down President Nixon and it'd be cool to be like them.

Except it's not like that. Deep down in my subconscious there was a small voice saying, "This isn't a nice industry." It had been there when I studied history and Peter Hennessy, who taught me the British Constitution after 1945, was regretting the fate of the Times after Rupert Murdoch had bought the paper. He was the former Whitehall correspondent for the paper and he was not a fan of Murdoch.

It grew when Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were jailed for hacking into Prince Williams's phone. Then I bought the book and the voice became a shout.

In Nick Davies' world, journalism isn't working. What it should be doing is asking hard questions of our intuitions and running a critical eye over important stories; what it's actually doing is running a critical eye over Jordan's love life and cheerfully accepting what our political leaders were saying without actually asking any questions.

His point is simple: journalism is the prism through which we see society and how we understand what our leaders are doing. Yet it is a prism that has been clouded by declining sales, cutbacks, the collapse of the regional press and prioritising stories that sell papers over stories that inform. All of these points were crystallised by the ten rules of production, five to cut costs, five to increase revenue and none for informing the public the truth about what our governments get up to. After the last page I wiped my brow and for the first time I wondered if my dream would have swallowed me whole.

Nick Davies though hadn't finished and decided to follow his book up with an example. And what an epic it is.

Final cover of The News of the WorldIt began in 2009 when everybody was beginning to forget about Clive Goodman and Glen Mulcaire. Nick Davies revealed in the Guardian that News International had paid out over a million pounds in out-of-court settlements relating to claims of phones being hacked.

One of those who accepted payment was Gordon Taylor, former Chief Executive of the Professional Footballer's Association, whose phone details were found in Mulcaire's notes. The News of the World's defence was that Clive Goodman was a rogue reporter using unauthorised methods. So back in the summer of 2009 both Nick Davies and I were wondering why royal correspondent Clive Goodman interested in the messages of somebody involved football? As far as I know Prince William has never had a secret life as a goalkeeper.

In truth most experts and even casual observers viewed the rogue reporter defence as unlikely and I had read enough of the Press Gazette and books on journalism to have some idea of how a news room worked. Yet the allegations were dismissed by the police and Press Complaints Council and denied by the News International, so both journalists and readers found themselves in it for the long haul.

For me, this wasn't just a growing scandal but an insight into a former dream world that I couldn't enter but the insight was double-edged. It confirmed to everything that was wrong with journalism. By cutting corners, using private eyes and illegal methods for obtaining stories that were more often about nothing more than who was sleeping with whom, it became a perfect example of Nick Davies' rules of production in miniature.

Yet good journalism endures: the Guardian's coverage proves that. (If you doubt me, it's worth noting that even Conservative MPs were praising the paper after the Millie Dowler revelations). But it's shrinking. For me and the dream it comes down to this: there are the opportunities you take, the opportunities you miss and the opportunities best avoided.

 

Read more about the current state of journalism with the books in our special offer selection, The Press Under Fire.

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