Media: Don't put your daughter into newspapers, Mrs Worthington
Monday 29 September 1997
Recently a scary survey asked students what career they would most like to pursue. Half - yes a half of all British students - declared they would choose to be journalists if they could. Media, journalism and communications studies courses are booming - (many of doubtful value to would-be hacks, but that's another story.)
The National Union of Journalists reckons that there are about four times as many accepted to such courses, wanting to become journalists, as can possibly hope for a job, even on the remotest fringes of the industry. A quarter of its members are now freelances, often something akin to being a "resting" actor: the union reckons many of those have lost jobs or never found one, but want one. The Independent, no doubt like every other newspaper, is inundated with the dazzling CVs of bright, keen, gifted young people begging for a chance of unpaid work experience.
What is the charm that draws so many to this usually not very honourable trade? After all, in terms of public esteem, we are down there rightly among the debt-collectors and politicians at the bottom of the heap, with a dirty-raincoat, foot-in-the-door paparazzi reputation. The great boom in student interest in journalism began after Watergate, the irresistible glory of the Woodward and Bernstein story - when two humble local reporters on the Metro section of the Washington Post toppled the most powerful man in the world. Many young would-be hacks hope they too will be investigators, rooting out wrong-doing in high and low places, outing cash for questions or defence procurement scams, the scourge of all back-handers and back- sliders. Or maybe it's the serious mission to explain, to analyse and illuminate the great policy debates of the day. Of course there's the chance of a bit of minor stardom or maybe the sheer vicarious pleasure of being there where it's at when great events take place.
These days, answering letters or talking to young people wanting advice on how to get into national journalism, I'm afraid I give them a caustic lecture. Yes, by all means have a go, but if within a reasonable time you haven't found a bolt-hole in one of the few reputable newsrooms, give up. Do something else. The world is full of better occupations for bright brains than fetching up on most of the rags that call themselves newspapers. Do not imagine that starting on the Daily Grub or the Sunday Scum is a first rung on a ladder to something honourable. Unless you are exceptionally lucky, it is only a training in grubby and scummy journalism. What's more, for anyone with even a few ideals it will be humiliating and probably shameful. Unfortunately, many of the scarce and desperately sought-after training schemes are on the Scum or Grub. Your dreams of campaigning journalism and investigative crusades for truth and justice may get no further than snooping into the sex lives of the not-particularly-famous, or bending a story to the political flavour of the editor.
Talking to hopeful students, I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that I have been remarkably lucky. I only ever worked for the Observer, Guardian, BBC and Independent, so it's easy to sound sanctimonious and smug. But I listen to the tales of what beginners (and many much older) reporters have to tell of tabloid and some other news rooms and hope I wouldn't have been tempted, but I admit I was never tested.
Only the other day a journalist told me not of any great scandal, but just an example of day to day newsroom life on one rag. They'd been sent out to interview greengrocers near a football ground to find out if bananas had sold out, when it was rumoured fans were throwing bananas at black players. No, no one had sold any bananas. But the reporter was made to write the story anyhow. Newsroom tales of this sort are a dime a dozen. Get the story, don't come back til you've got it, and the story is what the news editor says it is. Every day stories are bent and twisted to suit proprietors' interests, or warped to the taste of editors: it becomes second nature and some journalists stop noticing they do it.
These things are rarely said on journalism courses, where tutors are desperate to get their students in anywhere, to prove their college has a good employment record. So they learn the Code of Conduct, study something called journalistic ethics and are encouraged into high-minded thoughts about their chosen "profession". Rude awakenings follow.
When I started out in journalism, we used to look down our noses at PR as a debased occupation compared with ours. I now think PR is a great deal more honest, reputable and productive than most of what passes for journalism, (except in all the non-Murdoch broadsheets).
I say to young hopefuls, think carefully exactly what it is you want to do in journalism. Don't do it if you can't find somewhere to work that reasonably matches up to your expectations. Of course many may have no particular ideals. Many may love the sheer wickedness and raciness of the game, never mind the content. Fair enough. But for the would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins, if you don't at first succeed, give up and do something worthwhile with your life. If you are clever enough to get a coveted place on the Daily Grub, you're good enough to do something better with your life. I know too many middle-aged journalists who sorely wish they'd done something else.
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