Should journalists be seen as heroes?

America puts its journalists on pedestals and accords them star status. Fortunately, says Mary Dejevsky, in the UK there's rather less reverence

The meanest comment you will probably hear about George Clooney's film Good Night, and Good Luck is that it relies excessively on one rather small episode - the dismissal and reinstatement of a junior air force officer, thanks to the legendary CBS television presenter Ed Murrow - to illustrate a very big theme: the iniquities of the McCarthy hearings.

But you will not hear many mean comments. From the film's release in this country last month, it has been compliments all the way. And most of them are richly deserved. Visually, this is a glorious film, shot in black and white, spare and elegant. It is highly atmospheric, too. The frenetic quality of a news operation in the minutes before going on air is captured perfectly, as is the professionalism of a mainstream television network: everyone knows what they have to do to the fraction of a split second. The number of people thronging the studio at all times is a reminder of how many people it used to take (and in some organisations still does) to make a half-hour of broadcasting. You can almost smell the pervasive cigarette smoke, even though it seems a relic from a bygone age.

So, yes, this is a splendid film. But there are other reasons, I fear, why Good Night, and Good Luck has luxuriated in compliments. The first is that it shows us, and our profession, as the heroes. Ed Murrow, who forged his reputation reporting from Europe during the Second World War, especially from London during the Blitz, returned to the United States a star anchorman. And he used that status, with enormous courage, to expose the techniques of Joe McCarthy in slurring, intimidating and persecuting ordinary, blameless Americans. He was instrumental in having the junior Senator from Wisconsin exposed by his peers and ending a shameful episode in American history.

The second reason why criticism has been so sparse is that this film, for all its period feel, was conceived as a message for our time. Clearly, but without overt signposting, audiences are encouraged to draw parallels between the paranoid and repressive climate of the United States in the early Fifties and the post-September 11 sense of vulnerability that produced the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq. Brave journalists saved US democracy then, we are told, against venal politicians and weak presidents; brave journalists can save us now.

So we journalists can all go home feeling extraordinarily good about ourselves and our noble calling. Such warm feelings, however, have a downside: they risk cosseting us against the less savoury realities of journalism, especially journalism as it is practised on the other side of the Atlantic.

In the United States, a small journalistic élite, across broadcasting and the press, enjoys a cult status that, for the most part - thank goodness - they do not enjoy here. It is possible in Britain to be respected as a reporter, presenter, editor or broadcaster without also being regarded as a celebrity or a saint.

The pedestal on which outstanding American journalists are placed, the money they earn and the awe in which they are held by politicians and by their peers, raises them into national heroes. They become inviolate.

Ed Murrow may have been the first journalist-god; Bob Woodward of Watergate fame is surely another, along with the late Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. Bob Woodward, who now earns a fortune from under-edited books based on privileged access to the political élite, remains on the staff of the Washington Post even though he last year admitted to holding back an important story in order to break it in his latest book. Dan Rather's fall - after fronting a programme based on compromising documents about George Bush's military service that turned out to be false - was all the greater for the exaggerated esteem in which he was held.

Undoubtedly, in taking on Joe McCarthy, Ed Murrow showed tremendous courage. But he had certain advantages as well. His star status gave him a leverage at CBS and a political leeway. He was also a very rich man: rich enough to fund his hardest-hitting broadcast when the advertiser that funded it, Alcoa, pulled out rather than jeopardise the political patronage it enjoyed from the government. In every respect, Murrow was an exception. But it would be quite possible to leave Good Night, and Good Luck with the impression that most American journalists were political dissidents of a similarly heroic stamp.

Yet this is patently not so. Murrow is the subject of this film because he was the exception, not the rule. The extended inquest at the New York Times over its mostly uncritical coverage of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction revealed how even the most august upholder of media freedom and liberal values had been in thrall to the pervasive post-9/11 paranoia, and was timid about criticising the Bush administration. Further down the line, its support for Judith Miller, the senior (and well-connected) reporter who went to prison rather than divulge a confidential source, showed a similarly exaggerated respect for the cult of the journalist.

The Miller case was a classic example of confused values. Although New York Times editors apparently believed they were upholding the sacrosanct principle of confidentiality of sources, they were actually protecting the Bush administration from the damaging charge that it had leaked the identity of a CIA operative in order to damage her husband. A less reverential attitude towards the journalistic calling, fewer pedestals and a more questioning attitude across the board might have served the paper's readers better.

As a species, journalists are not necessarily any braver, more noble or more independent-minded than other people. We can only be grateful that some are, and that the rather less reverential public attitude towards journalism and journalists on this side of the Atlantic forces most of us to keep our feet firmly on the ground.

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