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

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