Media: How we got too smart for facts

Newspapers have wised up: they are more sophisticated and lively than ever. But has journalistic accuracy been sacrificed to art?
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Shortly after the Second World War, the Newspaper Proprietors' Association persuaded the Glasgow Herald to introduce a two-year training scheme for Oxbridge graduates who wanted to become professional journalists - then, unlike now, a rare breed. It was my good fortune to be chosen as the first guinea pig. But not once throughout the whole two-year period was I allowed to write a single sentence of my own. Instead, the job consisted of sub-editing the writing of others - checking and, if necessary, correcting their facts, their spelling and their grammar. Even that description aggrandises the nature of my task. For at least the first six months it consisted of nothing more - apart from making tea for the other subs - than copying out from the Radio Times the BBC programmes, the weather reports from the Meteorological Office, the tides and lighting-up times, details about the moon, the sun and the stars and, if I was particularly unlucky, the cattle market prices, all of which duties, as an aspiring foreign correspondent, I found somewhat infra dig.

Eventually, my cavalier attitude to accuracy got me into trouble with my immediate superior, the late Alastair Hetherington - who went on to become a legendary editor of the Manchester Guardian. Too busy one evening subbing the next day's lead story, he had farmed out to me, as a great privilege, the birthday honours list. This meant having to check the ages of all the new barons and knights by looking up their dates of birth in Who's Who. Even this piece of research proved beyond me, and I got some of their ages a year out, as Hetherington furiously pointed out when I came into the office the next day. "Unless you take accuracy more seriously, there is no future for you in journalism," he warned.

Time to move on, I concluded. Fortunately, before going to the Glasgow Herald, I had applied to The Times for a job and been told to try again in two years time after completing my apprenticeship in Scotland. I did; and I was lucky enough to be taken on as a junior in the foreign subs' room, where I spent another year without being allowed to write a word.

In those days, of course, The Times was prized all over the world as the international paper of record. So its obsessional concern with accuracy was understandable. Its readers cared desperately about these details - as if their lives depended upon them, as indeed in some cases they well might have. The Times in those days was not read for entertainment, but for essential information needed by the then governing classes to carry out their official duties.

The most important qualification for being a journalist when I began, 50 years ago, was not an ability to write. That was even a disadvantage, because literary facility could so easily tempt a journalist into embroidering a tale which needed above all else to be told plainly and unvarnished. Nor was it only literary facility that aroused suspicion in those days; so also did any tendency towards intellectual sensationalism - fondness for paradox, for turning arguments on their head so as better to make a point. Intellectuals were frowned on, as well as writers, and not only by The Times. When I went to the Telegraph, then owned by Michael Berry (later Lord Hartwell), I ran into the same attitudes. Viewy young men were discouraged, particularly if their views were radical. Of course this was partly because the Telegraph, then as now, supported the Conservatives' cause. But another reason was that all the quality newspapers of those days, including the liberal Manchester Guardian, felt a real responsibility for not rocking the ship of state.

Recently I heard Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, say in a lecture that "the exposure of corruption in high places is at the very centre of what good journalism is about." Fifty years ago, an editor, even a radical one like CP Scott, Rusbridger's great predecessor, would have said that muck-raking was unworthy of the quality press. While any hack can expose what the powerful are doing wrong, it takes real experience and skill to discern what they are doing right. Upsetting the apple cart was easy; much more valuable was the journalist who accepted a duty to provide support, as well as constructive criticism, for the authorities.

In those days, Britain was still a great power with a great empire, the hub of the universe, with the kind of quality newspapers that such a role required. If you want to know what they are like, look at the New York Times, which is the nearest equivalent today. Nobody would read it for pleasure. It is dull, prolix and full of details - domestic and foreign (there are unabridged G7 communiques) - which no British newspaper would dream of printing.

With the end of Britain's great-power responsibilities, even the most educated newspaper readers began to look for gossip, rather than news; for pleasure rather than business; for speculation rather than facts; and, above all, for human interest stories rather than public interest stories. As the needs of the consumer have slowly changed, so have the skills required of the producer - which has suited the playboy editors. Personally I have nothing to complain about. But what about the quality of journalism itself?

Both the tabloids and the broadsheets in Britain have become incomparably more sophisticated, lively and well-written, as well as much more adversarial, mischievous and irresponsible; this has attracted an avalanche of new recruits. In theory, such an influx of the brightest should have had the effect of raising standards; so far as the quality of writing is concerned, this has indeed happened. But what about reliability of the news, accuracy of the reporting, and the balance of comment - have these improved as well? Most certainly not. The journalist as aspiring writer or intellectual, rather than as hack, has little concern with "mere" facts, as Coleridge called them, if they get in the way of a more "comprehensive" truth that he is trying to make. The journalist as writer or intellectual fancies himself as an artist - that is, someone who has a skill which enables him to improve on nature, as much in words as in paint, clay or music. There is an element of trickery in art - sublime trickery, at best; but trickery nevertheless.

Not surprisingly, the journalist as writer-intellectual is not content to report a train accident straight - so many dead and injured; so many carriages wrecked - but must fill out the picture with speculation and colour, most of which tells us more about the author - what a good writer he is - than about the train crash. The newspaper's writer-intellectual aspires to find the facts behind the facts: as feature writer to add a bit of colour to the facts; as columnist to explain the facts; as leader writer to say what the reader should make of the facts. Nowadays reporters are too busy reading between the lines to bother with the lines themselves.

I ought to know about all this, having been one of the earliest offenders. I remember in the Sixties being dispatched by The Daily Telegraph - on which most of my journalistic life was happily spent - to report on some coup in an African capital. Instead of keeping my eyes open in the bus on the way from the airport to the city centre, I had mine buried in some learned tome about the country's history, with a view to showing off my new-found knowledge in the next day's paper. As a result, unlike other reporters on the bus - few if any of whom, in those days, had a degree - I failed to notice the decapitated corpses lying by the roadside. Doubtless my learned dispatch reached hidden depths about the causes of the crisis lacking in those of my tabloid rivals, but in overlooking the corpses it failed to give the readers the essential here-and-now facts that it was a reporter's duty to include. The Daily Telegraph was not pleased. In those days it was a newspaper which had no time for opinionated reporters, or indeed for opinionated leader or feature writers who were more interested in dazzling than informing the reader.

My point is that in the media today truth is sacrificed to art (or at least artfulness); reporting to literature. This is not a matter of dumbing down; rather its opposite, wising up. Newspapers are far more sophisticated, far cleverer, far better written than they were before; incomparably more entertaining and readable. But therein lies the danger: the picture of the world presented by the media is both much more beautiful and much more ugly, much more eye-catching and much more dramatic. If the facts are stranger than fiction, they will be included. But if they are dull, out they will go. Journalism for journalism's sake, that is the new rule, the highest imperative, under cover of which everything else can be excused and justified.

What Rupert Murdoch has done to and for journalism towards the end of this century is what Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) did to and for journalism towards the beginning of the century. But whereas Harmsworth pioneered a new journalism designed to meet the needs, aspirations and social insecurities of the first generation blessed by universal state primary and secondary education, Murdoch has done the same for the first generation blessed by mass state higher education. Thus, today's Sunday Times, with its sophisticated debunking of national institutions, is the equivalent of the much more puerile fun and games favoured, a century earlier, by Harmsworth's Tit Bits. But I fear that this second transformation will prove more damaging than the first. While Harmsworth only exploited the credulity and aspirations of the barely literate masses at the bottom of the pile, Murdoch is doing the same for the new educated elites at the top; first the young Thatcherites and now the young Labourites. Dumb they are not. If only they were.

From `Secrets of the Press: Journalists on Journalism' edited by Stephen Glover, Penguin, pounds 20.