Brian Viner: Journalism – not so ignoble a trade

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The Independent Online

More than 20 years ago I spent a few days on holiday in Washington DC. At the time I was a local newspaper reporter, and one of my journalistic heroes was Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate exposé.

More in meagre hope than bullish expectation, I had written to Bradlee, explaining that I was on the bottom rung of the media career ladder, and asking whether I could possibly interview him. To my surprise and delight, when I checked in at my DC hotel, there was a message waiting for me from the great man's secretary: I should call to set up an appointment.Before going to see him, I felt the need to mug up on the Watergate scandal. So, this being an era when Google was something only babies did, I phoned the Washington Post's news desk, in the hope that somebody there might at least be able to remind me of the pertinent dates. A woman answered the phone. I explained the situation. "One moment, sir," she said. "I'll connect you to Bob Woodward."

It simply hadn't occurred to me that Woodward, almost two decades after he and Carl Bernstein had brought the Nixon administration to its knees, would still be at his post on the Post. And I am still embarrassed to recall that I promptly panicked and put the phone down, hardly the kind of fearless behaviour that had resulted in Woodward himself being played by Robert Redford in the film All The President's Men. Who would play me in the big-screen account of my reporting scoops? Benny Hill? Still, that little episode, and my subsequent, memorable encounter with Bradlee, taught me that the giants of investigative journalism don't sit back and wallow in the glory of breaking stories that shake the world, but plough on in pursuit of the next one.

Now, it so happens that I am writing this column in the Frontline Club, an establishment near Paddington Station which exists to champion the freedom of the press, and the fierce, uncompromising seeking of truth. At the very next table sits my illustrious Independent colleague Patrick Cockburn, one of the finest of foreign correspondents, while the stairs here are lined with some of the most striking images in the history of photo-journalism, from Robert Capa's pictures of Omaha Beach on D-Day, to James Nachtwey's picture of the smoking ruins of the World Trade Centre.

Somehow these photographs seem more resonant than ever in a week in which the escalating phone-hacking scandal drags journalism through the mud like never before. Like it or not, we are all tainted with the stink, and it is also true enough that the closest my own brand of journalism puts me to a war zone is a press conference with a particularly testy tennis player or golfer, yet it is decidedly uplifting to feel, every time I arrive at the Frontline Club, as if I am part of a noble calling. The Great British Public might currently find that claim hard to swallow, but it is legitimate, none the less. The likes of Bradlee, Woodward and Cockburn make it so, much more than the wretched Glenn Mulcaire undermines it.

When Bridesmaids meets Coronation Street

On Wednesday, I went with my wife to see Bridesmaids, the critically-acclaimed new comedy about the tribulations of a group of women in the run-up to a wedding, a kind of sisterhood version of the hugely successful 2009 film The Hangover, only funnier.

Anyway, about halfway through I realised that the surname of the main character, Annie (beautifully played by the film's co-writer Kristen Wiig) was Walker. That made her Annie Walker, which doesn't signify much in Hollywood, but for lots of us over here powerfully evokes the imperious original landlady of the Rovers Return.

I found this briefly discombobulating. Coronation Street's Annie Walker is now just a ghost, serving Ena Sharples and Minnie Caldwell in the celestial snug – and the actress who played her, Doris Speed, is long gone too – but it seemed downright unnatural to have to apply the name to another fictional woman, especially one who behaves much more like flighty Bet Lynch.

This happens in fact as well as fiction, of course. With the Hogwarts Express bearing down on us again, all the nation's Harry Potters will be bracing themselves for a fresh burst of quips and double-takes. And let's not forget the inconvenient scepticism with which people with famous namesakes are confronted. This newspaper's tennis correspondent is Paul Newman, who as a scruffy student in the early 1970s was once stopped in his car by the police and asked for his identity. "Yeah, and I'm the Duke of Edinburgh," came the response. It was a shame Paul wasn't with a student acquaintance of his, a fellow called Peter O'Toole.

The unacknowledged great who is Alastair Cook

Another man with a celebrated namesake, give or take a vowel or two, is the England cricketer Alastair Cook. A straw poll might or might not show that the mention of his name still makes a majority of people think of the late presenter of Radio 4's long-running Letter From America, but either way, it is mystifying that Cook is not more famous than he is.

This is a man with the looks of the choirboy he used to be, and currently in the kind of form that demands comparison with some of the greatest batsmen of all time, of any nationality. He is so wholesome that he finds relaxation away from cricket by working on his girlfriend's family's sheep farm.

If he were a footballer, his would be a household name in its own right, as familiar to sports agnostics as to enthusiasts. But it isn't. I wonder why?



b.viner@independent.co.uk

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