Even reporters have hearts

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In recent weeks Alex Renton, chief foreign correspondent of the London Evening Standard, has announced he is going to work for Oxfam in Bangkok; Paul McCann, media correspondent of The Times, is leaving to join the UN in Gaza; Jon Barton, former editor of Newsnight and Radio 4's Today, has moved to Christian Aid as head of media, and John Davison has resigned as editor of the Pandora diary on this newspaper to work with him as news editor.

All of them are relinquishing expense accounts and taking a substantial drop in salary – in Renton's case, a drop of 75 per cent, leaving him on less than a London teacher. Their reasons are a combination of a perceived drop in standards throughout the industry and a desire to drop rock-throwing for something more substantial, more creative and longer-lasting.

Renton says his 15 years in newspapers have been "great fun", especially the past five, since Max Hastings appointed him to his own old job as foreign "fireman". But on the verge of 40, he started asking himself: "Where does this go? Where am I going, and where is journalism going?"

He was in Sierra Leone when the war reporter Kurt Schork was killed at a spot where Renton himself had been ambushed and his driver hurt. "I got one of the best stories of my career there – that the British were arming child soldiers – but still, when someone gets killed, you ask yourself: what is it worth? What are you actually achieving?

"It's also very hard for everybody who has reported conflicts to settle into the humdrum routine back home. You look at the petty concerns that drive this apathetic democracy and you have to be a real pro to adjust. At the same time, you wonder if you want to be churning out the same stuff in 10 years' time.

"I didn't go into journalism in order to change the world. I was a broke playwright who needed to find a way to pay the bills. But if you aren't hoping to make a difference, why are you there, getting shot at?"

Renton is taking up the new position of Oxfam's regional media and advocacy co-ordinator, covering 17 countries in east Asia. "A lot of people have said I am brave, but I think the more honest response is from those who call me a lucky bastard for having found an honourable route forward. I feel really liberated. The only thing I'm worried about is missing the newsroom jokes."

John Davison, 43, who did investigations for The Sunday Times, then wrote news and features for The Independent, before agreeing to run Pandora for a year, traces his frustration to his perception that all newspapers are seen increasingly as a product like any other, so that resources are directed towards marketing and presentation, rather than the journalism. "There seems to have been less and less opportunity to do what I call 'proper journalism': finding things out, running campaigns and doing investigations. So much of the effort goes into turning things over for the daily agenda, and no one has the time or the money to do the things I like doing," he says.

"I think at Christian Aid I will find things I can get my teeth into, spend some time digging for information about and organise campaigns on. I don't think that just because newspapers are concentrating on celebrity stuff and ever-larger cooking supplements to flog the product, it means people aren't interested in meatier issues any more. It's just a question of where the priorities have gone. I hope that if we can come up with sufficiently good material, then people will use it."

It is not just newspaper journalists who feel the urge to do good. Peter Laverock, 44, spent 13 years with the BBC on the World Service and local TV and radio before cut-backs, multi-skilling exercises and dwindling quality of output drove him to quit a year ago for a job as a media officer for the evangelical Christian charity Tearfund. He says it is a different world. "I couldn't imagine it being more different. People here are aware of doing something significant, whereas journalists are always one step back from the issue. Not part of the story, just observing it from the outside.

"As a journalism student, I saw myself raising all the issues I cared about and making a difference. Twenty years on, I realised I wasn't doing that; I was just on a conveyor belt of news without even understanding why we chose the stories we did on any particular morning.

"Here, I'm at the beginning of the conveyor belt, putting the stories in there. The cut in salary is worth it for the feeling you get at the end of the day that you have controlled something, made something happen, maybe even done some good. Sounds corny, I know, but it's true."

Few journalists take to aid work on the scale of John O'Shea, a sports writer for the Irish Press, who set up the Irish relief agency Goal in 1977. Most gravitate toward the press office, publications department or campaigns section of an agency, but a significant number work in a field where journalistic skills prove surprisingly relevant. A number of former journalists work at Amnesty International, including Richard Bunting, one-time news editor of a Northern daily and recently appointed the charity's head of communications, and Brendan Parry, who was a reporter on a daily paper in New Zealand.

Parry, 31, says the main culture difference between a newsroom and a charity office is that the latter is a gentler and more encouraging place to work. "A newsroom is a pretty rough place. People are far nicer to each other here," he says. "The command structure of a newspaper, in which someone yells instructions at you, then stands over your typewriter, as it was when I was a reporter, whipping the copy out page by page, doesn't exist.

"Also, in journalism your stock rises and falls depending on what you have in the paper, so you have to prove your worth day after day after day, yet the highest expression of appreciation you get, if you're lucky, is a grunt. Here you get a huge amount of recognition if you do good work."