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Don't believe all you write

A HACK'S PROGRESS by Phillip Knightley; Cape pounds 17.99
Because journalists need something to occupy their declining years - most don't believe they truly exist unless they can see their names in print - and because publishers are often rather kindly souls, the catalogues are crammed with reporters' memoirs. Very few are worth reading. The best books about journalism are novels: Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning, Peter Forster's The Spike, Amanda Craig's A Vicious Circle. Fiction brings out the essentials of the trade: that journalists are insecure egotists who write for colleagues and editors, not readers; that desperation for a story makes them absurdly credulous; and that their opinions are usually mere affectations.

"Never believe what you write in the newspapers," was Malcolm Muggeridge's advice to the young Simon Hoggart and, when you read Waugh or Frayn, you can see what he meant. Harold Evans famously said that newspapers offered "a first rough draft of history". I have always thought this was a rather pompous way of expressing the truth, which is that all journalism is (and probably has to be) a botched job.

Human self-aggrandisement, to say nothing of the law of libel, normally prevents the straightforward memoir from yielding such insights. Phillip Knightley, however, is by nature an iconoclast and a sceptic - the journalist who challenged the myths of Gallipoli and Lawrence of Arabia, among others - and he manages to be almost as detached and questioning about the holy cows of his chosen trade as about anything else. Knightley was one of several itinerant Australians who worked for the Sunday Times in what is now regarded as its heyday, from 1963 to the Murdoch take-over in 1981, and he played a leading role in some of its most famous campaigns and investigations, such as the Thalidomide scandal and the Kim Philby story.

Knightley questions even these celebrated triumphs. The Thalidomide children, he suggests, might have done better if he and other journalists had kept out of their case, because the publicity only made Distillers, the responsible company, more determined to stick to its guns. As for Philby, he believes that the entire Sunday Times investigation was probably controlled by British intelligence, as were most spy stories.

This is a large admission from a man who has devoted much of his life to writing about espionage, and who flourished in an era when spy scandals were regarded as the hottest of all journalistic properties. But it is characteristic of his willingness to tell the truth. The book includes a shocking scene from a Royal tour (which Knightley found himself covering by accident) when the press corps holds a conference on the bus to agree on what Diana was wearing and on what Charles said. Then the journalists file more or less identical reports to London. This kind of thing happens with every specialist group - political correspondents, education correspondents, sports reporters. The reason, as Knightley discovered when he tried to write a "Royal tour a failure" story on the same occasion, is that journalists and their editors are terrified of stepping out of line. The dictum of many editors, Knightley observes, is that "news is not news until someone else reports it".

All this connects with another curiosity that Knightley's book highlights: that while journalists often invent facts to give a story a good "angle", all sorts of absolutely fascinating things that also happen to be true go entirely unreported. On the Melbourne crime beat, for example, Knightley didn't report that the police quite gratuitously beat up an old drunk; later, covering an Australian Rugby League tour of Europe, he didn't report how the players started a brawl in a French brothel. Why? Because if you are a specialist (however temporarily), you have to live with the people you are reporting on and to report the truth is to risk being frozen out.

So, yes, despite the disgraceful omission of an index, I would put this charming and absorbing book in the same class as Waugh and Frayn and recommend it to any aspirant reporter who wants to understand what the trade (not, please, profession) is really about. But a question remains. Could a youthful version of Knightley start again in 1997? Can anybody hope to repeat the great days of Evans's Sunday Times?

I fear not. Rather like county cricket, investigative journalism of the sort pursued by Knightley and the old Insight team was never an economic proposition. When I was a union representative at the Sunday Times in the late 1970s, it was almost impossible to get a sensible list of who was on the staff and who not. Evans recruited promiscuously - at parties, on squash courts, in lifts - bringing ex-antiques dealers, ex-aircraft pilots, ex-vacuum cleaner salesmen and numerous others into the paper because they happened to have some expertise that was useful for a current story. He made all sorts of ad hoc agreements with them, and they hung around, often writing nothing of consequence for months, even years. To me, some of them (though certainly not Knightley) seemed half-mad and more than a little dodgy.

Yet this eclectic, wasteful mixture made the great Sunday Times investigations possible. Reporters might wander off for weeks and many probably were getting drunk or carrying on adulterous affairs. Some, however, would re-appear with a dramatic story, often stumbled upon by accident.

It is impossible to imagine today's efficiency-led newspapers tolerating anything like it. Andrew Neil, who took over the Sunday Times editorship in 1983 (and, in some respects, was just as courageous as Evans), once asked rhetorically if his critics really supposed that he would turn down an equivalent to the Thalidomide story. But Neil's phrasing of the question showed that he didn't understand what Thalidomide involved. Before he started the campaign, Knightley had to spend nearly a year, with a translator, going through three suitcases of documents relating to a German court case. The truth about the Turkish Airlines DC-10, which crashed between London and Paris in March 1974, took four reporters (Knightley was not involved) nearly two years to nail.

Newspapers I have no doubt, will continue to expose dubious individuals such as Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, because individuals are often careless and transparent. But I wonder if, in a world ruled by accountants, they will ever again have the capacity for the painstaking research needed to nail the big, secretive corporations.

Kevin Cunningham's portrait of Phillip Knightley and his wife (left) won 2nd Prize in the 1997 BP Portrait Award and is on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until 5 October (admission free)