Another round of the old stories

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Secrets of the press: journalists on journalism, edited by Stephen Glover (Allen Lane, £20, 317pp)

Secrets of the press: journalists on journalism, edited by Stephen Glover (Allen Lane, £20, 317pp)

MY FIRST thought on observing the title of this book was to doubt the plausibility of its bill of fare. Can there be anything that truly qualifies as a secret about an occupation which is, by definition, the province of any generation's greatest accumulation of blabbermouths, people who will write anything for anybody for cash?

My confident expectation of disappointment was deepened by the fact that this collection of essays is edited by Stephen Glover, erstwhile co-founder of this newspaper but for many years a columnist writing about the media for The Spectator and politics for the Daily Mail.

Glover conducts the first of these enterprises with a polished disdain which relies for its effect on the durability of its vendettas and the sharpness of its prose rather than the quality of its insight. It is, in that sense, the very embodiment of Spectator writing. In the suburban sprawl of the Daily Mail, the glow of Glover's writing dims like streetlamps in daylight, and the absence of fresh material proves fatal. He writes about politics like a man who lives in Oxford.

Let me register at once, therefore, that in certain respects this book fails to disappoint. Since your reviewer is not a Spectator-ish type disposed to heed the advice in these pages by one of the magazine's former literary editors, A N Wilson ­ as a matter of principle, avoid reading the book ­ I can report a number of successes.

Lynn Barber delivers reliably to her brief on "the art of the interview". Not only does she offer sage advice to beginners ("all you have to do is be punctual, be polite and ask questions"), but she captures perfectly the exhilarating relationship between the self-denying discipline of the interview itself, and the blaze of creative opportunity which arises when the interviewer sits down, alone, to write.

Fiametta Rocco, an outstanding writer of profiles, confirms this account, which she characterises as a play of two acts: the journalist as listener, "compassionate, attentive", in the first; in the second, the journalist as writer, making the judgments that in well-conducted pieces seldom end in satisfaction for the subject. Although few young writers will be offered the luxury of the weeks, sometimes months, Rocco spends on her articles, all will learn from her reflections on the compelling chemistry that causes one human being to tell things to a second whose purpose is to pass on those things to an audience of total strangers.

As you would expect from a collection of essays edited by Glover, supported by contributors as good as Francis Wheen, Zoë Heller, Michael White and Ann Leslie, there is not much dull writing in this book. Glover also knows that for terrible tales of journalistic derring-do, foreign locations (though a tiny part of British newspapers) work best. But from any other perspective, it was an odd decision to include three pieces about foreign reporting and none on life as a home-based reporter, or as a sub-editor.

There is nothing at all about the journalists who cover science, business, health or showbiz. Nothing appears of the world of magazines (except Private Eye), of newspapers outside London, or of visual journalism. Even Paul Foot's piece on investigative journalism is valuable chiefly as a polemic against old enemies like the "frank and fearless" columnists who dispense "opinion which involves no courage or fear whatsoever", rather than as a primer for would-be emulators.

There is just one, commendable piece on newspapers and the Internet by the estimable Andrew Brown. That scarcely does justice to understanding the subversive forces currently at work within journalism. The worlds of broadcasting and print are in not-very-slow motion collision, with incalculable consequences for journalism.

At such a moment, you have to marvel that anyone still wants to publish loving accounts of Fleet Street's alcoholic triumphs and expenses fiddles. Even the slightest attempt at editing would surely have spared us rival authors' unsurprisingly identical lists of favoured hostelries, or the twice-made revelations that Sir John Junor considered rosé wine a drink for "pooves".

Francis Wheen is quite simply wrong that "you're more likely to find a story while chatting to people in a pub than staring at a computer in Canary Wharf". Since Wheen himself is a freelancer who works from a garden shed in Essex, beyond even the "Antarctic ice floe" of Docklands, some more incisive reflection on the changing physical and emotional geography of journalism is required.

To the extent that these writers have been invited to tackle more demanding themes, like the alleged "dumbing down" of the press, or the triumph of opinion over reporting, they strike only the most glancing blows. Alan Watkins speaks for the majority of these ageing essayists in asserting that journalism is less fun and the papers worse than they used to be. Peregrine Worsthorne, wonderfully, tells us that all today's newspapers are "incomparably more sophisticated, lively and well written" than when he was a trainee in the 1940s. This is pub conversation: diverting, enjoyable and forgotten by the time you wake up next morning with something really important on your mind. Like mowing the grass.

 

Ian Hargreaves is Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University

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