Bill Hagerty on the press

Hanging out with celebs has surpassed unearthing news

There was a time when young students planning a career in print journalism wanted to be John Pilger - even the girls. Today, according to a number of regional and local newspaper editors, the collective ambition of many pouring from the plethora of university media courses are jobs on OK! or Hello! magazines. Once trainees had visions of changing the world. Now they itch to rub shoulders with celebrity.

It is depressing for seasoned newspapermen and women to learn that aspirant journalists are driven more by the desire to achieve second-hand fame in Britain's out-of-control celebrity culture, rather than a zeal to exploit it professionally or dig under its surface.

Meanwhile, the role model of yesteryear has edited a collection of investigative journalism that will be devoured by the dribble of students who hold Pilger in awe. Others will doubtless give it no more than a cursory glance. Tell Me No Lies, Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs (Jonathan Cape, £20) is, in terms of Big Brother and Pop Idol, a celebrity free zone. Yet it is populated by reporters whose work elevated them to huge celebrity status within their trade. Here's Martha Gellhorn, James Cameron and Paul Foot, whose death this year left a gaping hole at the sharp end of reporting that half-a-dozen of the most vigilant, perceptive and inquisitive news foot soldiers would struggle to fill.

Then there is Pilger, much disparaged by fellow journalists leaning to the political right and rival reporters stunned by the quality of his writing and documentaries not into admiration, but gnawing envy. I have never worked with anyone who came even close to matching the fire, outrage and descriptive power employed by Pilger when reporting from Vietnam, Cambodia and other hotspots for The Daily Mirror.

In his 1992 book, Distant Voices, Pilger recalled the view of historian A J P Taylor that newspapers are about crusading - "they are part of people's lives". Such sentiments now mostly fall upon deaf ears and are viewed through blinkered eyes in the colleges where the future of journalism is being shaped. Crusading obviously didn't figure in the plans of a student journalist whose declared ambition is to be a 3am Girl.

Not that there isn't a place for the Mirror's formidable late-night trio. There's room, too, for glossy titles dancing attendance on celebrities. But as a journalistic ambition, scratching the backs of publicists and their often talentless charges ranks with the wannabe dreams of those desperate to sell their poor souls on reality TV shows.

Some 13 years ago, Pilger bemoaned demands for privacy legislation, pointing out they had little to do with wanting to safeguard the rights of ordinary people, but were aimed at protecting the rich, powerful and famous. None of us could have forecast the coming domination of print journalism by celebrities who fawn and manipulate when it suits and then bite the hands feeding the nation's insatiable appetite for the kind of pap that gives trivia a bad name. The NUJ says that 75 per cent of journalists earn less than the professional average wage and 80 per cent cannot afford a mortgage, yet still they come - the seekers after fame, not fortune. Money doesn't matter when you've got stars in your eyes.

Fame is part of Boris's genetic make-up

Journalism has, of course, always created major celebrities of its own. Malcolm Muggeridge, the editor of Punch, turned national sage, Michael Parkinson, jack of all trades journalistic and master of several, and Piers Morgan, ultimately a kamikaze pilot of an editor but a highly skilled communicator, spring to mind.

But none have been spawned with quite the same celebrity DNA as Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. I liked Boris from the moment we met, when he turned up for lunch on his bike and in a suit more crumpled, I observed, than Bill Deedes' face. Over lunch he told me that his life was "one of brainless bourgeois domesticity". Not any more, eh, Boris?

Behind the buffoonery there is the keenest of minds and his editorship of The Spectator has been a success. Whether he can retain it and his political career remains to be seen, but if something has to give, I hope it's politics. Journalism needs its eccentrics, especially one lauded on a fan-club website as "a bastion of forwardness, integrity and satire".

Having paid his penance in Liverpool for that injudicious editorial, Boris promptly found himself in the soup once more - it's in his nature - following allegations of an affair with one of his staff. Subsequently, he began his Daily Telegraph column thus: "Can someone just remind me about this Special Relationship business."

Very satirical, Boris.

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