Media Column: From storybook heroes to villains: how did it go wrong for the press?

The men who described journalists as "a lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys" did so lovingly. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur laid into the Chicago newspapers of the late 1920s with powder-puff punches - and the result was that young men and women were so fired by
The Front Page that they sought to become buttinskis themselves, no matter what a buttinski might be.

The men who described journalists as "a lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis, swelling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys" did so lovingly. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur laid into the Chicago newspapers of the late 1920s with powder-puff punches - and the result was that young men and women were so fired by The Front Page that they sought to become buttinskis themselves, no matter what a buttinski might be.

Similarly, in Britain in the early decades of the last century, those with a vague idea that a career in journalism might be better than working turned to the books of the war correspondent and novelist Philip Gibbs.

Gibbs was honey compared to the vinegar of Hecht and MacArthur. He loved the romance of newspaper work, and in Adventures in Journalism wrote of the "magnet" that drew him to Fleet Street: "...the lure of adventure... The thrill of chasing the new story... sometimes behind the scenes of history... the meetings with heroes, rogues and oddities, the front seats at the peep-show of life..." I bet that had aspiring Fleet Street hotshots beating down doors from the Law Courts to Ludgate Circus.

So what recent works of fiction will be enthusing today's students and helping them to overcome the public distrust of national newspapers, especially the tabloid press?

Here's a line from My Name Is Legion, the new novel from the eminent journalist and author AN Wilson: "Whatever has happened, it won't be made better by getting mixed up with journalists. Whatever is true, they will twist it into a falsehood." In Wilson's plot - not solely about journalistic ethics but set in and around The Daily Legion - a store manager fearful of upsetting the proprietor's wife worries that the paper will "infiltrate reporters... posing as members of the human race". The Legion's editor, hired from "an extremely downmarket Sunday tabloid", is "brutal".

Elsewhere, journalists on TV soap operas are depicted largely as skulking reprobates, while bustling on to a London stage this week comes Damages, an intriguing extension of the privacy debate that intermittently sideswipes the press and those who work in it. The Front Page it isn't.

"There's no such thing as impartial reporting," observes the night editor created by playwright Steve Thompson, who carried out his research at The Times. "The people that print the news are exactly the same as everyone: self-centred, vindictive, full of their own prejudice." The content of the paper is excrement, confesses the revise editor; "We all know it's excrement."

Should any honourable potential recruit to the trade still be with me, here's the view of a contemporary columnist. Writing in The Guardian, Martin Kettle deplored an "aggressive self-righteousness" that is getting out of hand and complains that "within increasingly elastic limits, a journalist is entitled to say pretty much what he or she likes, whether or not it is precisely true, without being subject to any outside sanctions or professional penalties".

In calling for a royal commission on the press in a piece so self-righteous you could practically spot the self-crocheted halo, Kettle joins the growing number of journalists who have moved outside the tent and are pissing in. Permanently seething with indignation, they ignore journalistic history and the necessity for a press that can step over the line, kick over the traces and from inside the tent piss on the frauds, liars and pompous asses who have and always will scar public life. As for "outside sanctions", the law would, I imagine, qualify - just ask those journalists who have been on the wrong end of libel or contempt.

That the national press needs to seriously address its failings is beyond question. Outside sanctions, meaning statutory controls, or professional penalties, such as heavy fines, are not the answer. A readiness to admit mistakes and apologise for them - witness last week's New York Times review of its misguided coverage of the build-up to action in Iraq - is essential. So is a curbing of the excesses that have made the word "tabloid" so dirty it demands washing out of the mouth.

Self-regulation through a more muscular Press Complaints Commission and a press prepared to wash its soiled linen in public will enhance the public perception of the trade better than any sanctimonious ranting. It might even restore the kind of affectionate fiction that led Ben Hecht to observe that in The Front Page he and MacArthur were writing "of people we loved and of employment that had been like no other was ever to be". That's the kind of stuff to attract talent for the right reasons and secure the future of journalism.

'Damages' is at the Bush Theatre, London W12 (020-7610 4224) from 2 June to 3 July

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan