John Humphrys: Whatever happened to serious journalism?

'There was a time when the highest-paid hack on a paper was its top reporter'
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The Independent Online

I don't want to claim that serious journalism is on its death bed. I want to look at a few worrying symptoms. Let's look at a very big story we've had recently and ask how we did. The story is foot-and-mouth.

I don't think we covered ourselves in glory. First we were obsessed with the human drama. Journalism is about people and emotions. But too much feeling can get in the way of clear thinking. I have no problem with tabloids filling their front pages with pictures of a muddy lamb or a calf that miraculously survived a cull and they were useful symbols... maybe. But if that obscures the critical judgement of serious journalists then we need to watch out. And I think we all fell for it.

And we were much too willing to accept government propaganda about how it was all under control. It is true that when it became clear that this was not the case, the press was on to it. But only, really, to pillory the hapless Nick Brown; to report that Tony Blair was "taking charge" and so on. In other words to adapt the material to fit the ongoing political soap.

But third, and the most important, we were far too willing to buy the official scientific advice as though it were gospel. Yet we knew that this advice was being given within constraints imposed by the policy being pursued (and a policy in the process of being discredited). We should have been much more challenging... And much more quickly.

The job of serious journalism is to step outside the constraints imposed by the accepted wisdom. Going out on a limb is what it should be prepared to do. And often we may end up looking fools. But so be it.

My next observation is about the difficult relationship between the serious and the popular. Serious journalism for the masses is the highest goal for any journalist. Are the red-tops as serious as they could be?

It is dangerous, I know, to start thinking of golden ages, but there was once more genuinely popular serious journalism. The old Mirror's special editions on homelessness, for example, were classics that we do not see these days.

It is not as if the tabloids do not employ serious journalists. One of the most respected political editors of our times is Trevor Kavanagh, who writes for The Sun. But The Sun is not the old Mirror. Why? I am not sure I know.

Maybe the punters just don't want to read the stuff any more. We have become a society so consumed by consumption, so hooked on seeing the world through the spectacles of entertainment and of our own prejudices reflected back to us, that serious journalism at the popular level has lost its appeal. I am reluctant to buy that but we seem to be heading that way.

I have to say that I am not against celebrity columnists. But there was a time when the highest-paid hack on a paper was its top reporter or its chief foreign correspondent. Not any more. The top money goes to the celebrity columnist. It should be an axiom of serious journalism that what is said is more important than who says it. Journalism is by its nature against authority, but celebrity is just a new and wholly specious form of authority. Television has got us into sex, so to speak. Television is now exploiting sex in a way that is nothing less than the promotion of prurience.

And the serious press has followed suit. The Guardian gloriously combined the imperatives of celebrity and prurience recently in a piece by Martin Amis about the hardcore pornography industry. Amis had been to see the stuff being made. Apparently, in case you are interested, "anal" is where it's at these days in hetero porn, and he gave us a long and very graphic account of what's involved in bringing it to our videos.

I am afraid I couldn't see much serious journalism in it. But I could see why The Guardian printed it, notwithstanding the sound of CP Scott spinning in his grave. Nor could I see any serious journalism – no, let me not equivocate: there was no serious journalism – in an empty, meretricious piece the paper reprinted from Prospect in which Alexander Linklater wrote about the experience of watching his actress girlfriend have sex in the making of a movie she was in. I am not sure whether worthwhile journalism could be made out of such material. It certainly was not evident here.

Look at the masthead of almost any broadsheet any day. You will find at least two showbiz faces up there, or some light lifestyle story trailed, or something about sex to pull you in.

Or take a recent edition of the New Statesman. Inside, the magazine had at least four or five good and serious articles on pressing current issues. But what was on the cover? A glitzy photograph of Nigella Lawson and the headline: "Nigella kitsch: Suzanne Moore on the kitchen goddess." The strap at the top of the cover read: "Peter Tatchell's A-List of Shaggable MPs."

Yes, well... I know that newspapers and small circulation political weeklies have a need to attract readers. But this sort of thing seems to me to convey a message other than one about their cashflow. It is that if you buy the paper, you are under no obligation to bother with the serious stuff. It seems to be saying: "We apologise for our seriousness."

This is a version of the David Watt memorial address given by John Humphrys last week