Journalism's public image

Polls show that the public's answer would almost certainly be no. And now Society of Editors grandee Bob Satchwell, right, thinks it's time journalists faced up to reality: too often their readers take a pretty dim view of their conduct. Interview by Chris Arnot
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The Independent Online

There would be other queries, similarly obscure, from members of the public who evidently regarded the NoW as the oracle on such matters. "And these are often the same people who tell anyone within earshot that they don't believe a word they read in the papers," Satchwell sighs.

What he sees as the "incredible ambivalence" of the public towards the press is just as prevalent among the chattering classes who he believes wouldn't be seen dead carrying a red-top tabloid. "At dinner parties, guests are slightly guarded at first when they find out what you do for a living. Then they start the 'nudge-nudge, better be careful what we say' routine. Before long they want to know every detail you can possibly tell them about every story ever written. That's been true throughout my working life."

Satchwell's career has taken him from the Lancashire Evening Post, where he was voted Journalist of the Year in the 1977 British Press Awards, to Fleet Street and then to the Cambridge Evening News. Under his editorship, the paper won a succession of awards from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, when he became executive director of the Society of Editors.

By his own admission, he is "partial" on behalf of journalists in general and editors in particular. And now Satchwell, 57, is gathering his thoughts for a lecture that he is to give at Coventry University this week on why our trade is held in such low esteem.

Those thoughts are wide ranging but they can, perhaps, be edited down to four Ps - the Public being influenced by Politicians, [television] Producers and the Press itself. The press? "Yes, tabloids attacking the BBC and the posh papers, and vice versa. We sometimes forget that the commercial success of popular papers pays for journalism that informs the public about important issues." Politicians? "They bang on about newspaper inaccuracy, sometimes complaining loudly about stories they know to be true in almost every detail. Yet they fight to get their own words on the leader pages. When I was at the News of the World, we kept a wedge of opinion pieces sent in by MPs on spec."

And producers? "With very few exceptions," he goes on, "journalists are shown on TV dramas as part of a media scrum, making unreasonable demands while often drunk. One episode of Coronation Street had a reporter and photographer breaking every rule you could think of. I remember writing a tongue-in-cheek letter to the Press Gazette, threatening to take Granada TV to the Press Complaints Commission. Back came an equally light-hearted response pointing out that 'this is fiction.' Well, it was certainly out of date as a fictional portrayal."

Racking his brains to recall a recent drama that captures journalism as it is, he comes up with State of Play, Paul Abbott's gripping saga about the downfall of a New Labour politician, shown in 2003. John Simm played a dynamic investigative reporter and Bill Nighy his editor. "They were believable characters," Satchwell muses. "Part of a team doing a professional job, but not perfect by any means. We don't want to put journalists on a pedestal like they've tended to do in America. Mind you, our national psyche is much more secretive than that of the Americans. We're told from a very early age not to tell tales, but that's what journalists do. We must expect some odium. On the other hand, I also expect some acknowledgement that we're essential to a democratic way of life. You're better off having a media that sometimes makes wrong judgements than having a media that's not powerful and free."

Sitting across the road from his office in Cambridge, nursing a pint - a rare lapse into lunchtime drinking - Satchwell can recall the days when a reporter ordering sparkling water in a pub was a social oddity worthy of an H M Bateman cartoon. And isn't that one reason why our trade is ranked even lower than politics and estate agency in polls of public popularity?

The beery-breathed hack in the ale-stained mac may be an outdated stereotype, but it's kept alive by middle-aged newspapermen spinning yarns about the disreputable characters once found in every bar just round the corner from the office. Only the other day, the eminent columnist Alan Watkins was reflecting in The Independent on Sunday that Charles Kennedy's intake of alcohol seemed comparatively modest when compared to some of the denizens of El Vino's in the Fleet Street of old.

Satchwell prefers to talk initially about Kennedy himself and his downfall as leader of the Liberal Democrats. "It wasn't just that he was a heavy drinker but the fact that, asked a straight question, he told a lie. It may be that his consumption was less than some of the hacks of old Fleet Street but hacks, past and present, aren't setting themselves up as fit to run the country. Anyway, the mix of the media has always been that it doesn't cling to the straight and narrow, and that's no bad thing. It shouldn't be too straight-laced. We're not a public service like the NHS."

No, but reporters have been known to impersonate doctors and nurses to intrude on somebody recovering in a hospital bed. Satchwell can't deny it, but he does argue that such cases are rarer than they were. "Looking back," he admits, "there was a certain amount of arrogance. We did things because we could do them and nobody was going to gainsay us."

He evidently believes that the code of practice, which he helped to draw up for the PCC, has made editors think twice about how they can justify intrusion. "The idea of reporters pulling out of stories like Soham or Dunblane to respect the wishes of bereaved families would have been unthinkable at one time," he maintains. "There's been a huge improvement in behaviour." In standards of accuracy as well, albeit for different reasons, he suggests. "I remember What the Papers Say looking back at how Prince Charles's first day at school was covered in 1953. Every national paper had a different take on the colour of his cap and blazer and what the car was that he stepped out of. You wouldn't get away with that now because so many see these events live on Sky."

Bob Satchwell will talk on why journalists are held in such low esteem at the Ellen Terry Building, Coventry University, at 1pm on Thursday. Details: 024 7688 7169