Moment of affirmation out of sadness

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The Independent Online
Like all cynical people, journalists are a sentimental and occasionally tearful lot. So writing after Ruth Picardie's memorial service yesterday is a hazardous thing. Such prose can easily slobber into a mound of rancid schlock. After all, quite a lot of readers won't remember our 33-year- old wit and word-juggler, who died horribly early of cancer.

And she was only a journalist, after all. And this is not another obituary. But after an intense hour-plus of celebration and memory, I left thinking that there were things to say about journalism which could best be said via Ruth.

First, there are still lots of good ones. The people who make newspapers have not been much admired of late. The self-image of linen-suited crusaders has been replaced by the popular idea of a profession of moral vultures, picking over the bones of real achievers in other fields, a clique of North Londoners pecking heartlessly at human tragedies - wheezing with disbelief at success - and growing fat, sleek, well-feathered as a result.

Well, there are reasons for that, God knows. But very many good people have gone into journalism, and still do, not in order to make a pile of money or fiddle their expenses, but to describe the world in new ways, hoping to interest themselves and emancipate their readers.

Ruth was one, but not unique in that. Listening to her being described, sung about, read to, were very many journalists who are a million miles from ``Street of Shame'' or ``Drop the Dead Donkey'' - hardworking, watchful, thoughtful, sometimes underpaid people, as good as any group of journalists we had in the past.

Another thing is that Ruth was a good journalist because she was a good person. ``Good'', eh? (A bit shlocky, Marr.) I mean she was an inquisitive, passionate, larger-than-life, intellectually honest, generous and democratic personality. She was, as someone said at her service, allergic to authority. She laughed a lot. She was curious. She was rude. She asked awkward, embarrassing questions, including about herself, and didn't flinch from nasty answers. And embarrassing questions are good, the lifeblood of journalism. Without them, we are duller, stupider bipeds.

These Ruth Picardie qualities are the opposite of what our accountancy- dominated culture, and indeed some politicians, seem to want journalists to be - obedient, emotionally-controlled and humble little information- processors with no life outside the profession, reliably mincing factoids into munchable, pain-free, sesame-coated pieces. And Hell, where's the pleasure in that? You might as well write a novel.

So when journalists say goodbye to a good journalist - and the trade has lost a number of good ones lately, to cancer and heart-attacks - then it is also a moment of affirmation, and one which it seems appropriate to share with readers.

This isn't yet a rotten trade, or one where stroppy individualists can't succeed. Everywhere there are the rancorous nostalgists, telling readers that the great days of journalism are past, that there aren't enough characters.

Hooey. The stranglehold of the Rupert Murdoch machine isn't yet total. And Ruth's great days were still ahead of her. But other girls with lopsided smiles, awkward views and a nervy prose-style, will amble into other newspaper offices and bewitch new readers. We have lost a spectacular person. But everything will be fine.