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.

Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Morrissey pictured in 2013
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Data Analytics Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading organisation...

Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Insight Analyst Vacancy - Leading Marketing Agency

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency have won a fe...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine