Max Hastings: Of cads and bounders

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The Hutton Inquiry seems unlikely to do much for the image of Tony Blair, but the first week of evidence also produced a cringe-making portrait of journalists in action. There were the flimsy reporter's notes; wisps of speculation shaped and conjured into a substantive story to grab a headline; bullying and feckless executives willing to go to any lengths to cover their own backs - and that of the BBC. Never mind what Lord Hutton thinks; the public is unlikely to be impressed.

Like many journalists, I would like to claim that this picture is unrecognisable, but I cannot. It has been said that British journalism is founded in a literary tradition, while American journalism has its roots in political science. The British media are incomparably livelier and more fun than great suet puddings such as the New York Times. Yet some British journalists take far less trouble to get their facts right than their American counterparts.

One of the most pernicious trends in recent years has been the extension of the Private Eye ethic, "that story's too good to check", to mainstream national titles and broadcasters. Pressure to entertain, to produce novelty, has partly displaced responsibility to in- form accurately. There is far too much published comment on issues about which the public has not first been told the facts.

An ambitious young woman whom I was interviewing for a job once asked me if journalism was a gentleman's profession. No, no, I answered, it is a trade for cads and bounders. I was not altogether joking. Many reporters and editors would be unfit for employment in more rigorous businesses. I have been a journalist for 40 years yet I have never learnt shorthand and cannot type properly. I use a tape-recorder only for formal interviews. My notes are incomprehensible to anybody but me.

The critical factor in managing or editing journalists is a knowledge, or at least an instinct, about which ones can be trusted. On responsible newspapers, it is remarkable how clever and diligent, fair and responsible the good people are.

Others are not. Some famous prize-winning writers possess reputations among insiders for making it up. Everybody in the trade knows who they are. They flourish and remain in steady work, because they are brilliant "wordsmiths". But they are not to be relied upon. If we were really doing our duty by the public, we would stick a star-rating on all reporters' by-lines, to give readers a clue about which ones we ourselves believe.

The ways in which some of us identify the sources of material would not commend themselves to any decent academic. To this day, when I quote an official source who I know would be embarrassed to be identified in print, I give misleading clues to his or her identity - describing a military source as a diplomatic one, or an intelligence acquaintance as a service one. This seems a matter of common sense. If I were quizzed by Lord Hutton either about my reporting technique or methods as an editor, both would sound whimsical, arbitrary, and utterly undisciplined intellectually.

Now, the case for the defence. There are two strands of journalism. First is fulfilment of the "notice-board" function: publication of huge masses of information - television schedules, sports results, records of council meetings and parliamentary committees, court hearings, financial data. Most of the people who work in the media are engaged in gathering and recycling facts. Their task is made easier by the fact that all concerned share an interest in disclosure.

The challenging part of our trade is the other bit: attempting to discover things that people do not want revealed. It is the business of those who rule our lives, whether in government or commerce, to put the best possible gloss on their doings, whether these concern school exams, health service waiting lists, company results, the national finances, or weapons of mass destruction.

Piercing the flim-flam and wilful deceits, trying to tell the public what lofty pronouncements from our rulers might actually mean, is not a science. For their own interpretation, the media rely upon instinct, patient research, snatched conversations with acquaintances at parties, hints at political lunches, and occasional deliberate leaks. Unattributable conversations with insiders are vital.

Laymen sometimes suppose that in journalism the choice is between getting it right and getting it wrong. That may be true about the winner of the 2.30 at Doncaster, but not about reporting public affairs. Given the difficulties of extracting full and frank information from official bodies, the media do well to get into print or on to the air, say, 30 per cent of the truth on any given issue.

Usually, the editorial choice is whether to give the public that 30 per cent, or nothing at all.

"Virtuous journalism is a weedy growth," an American journalist named Michael Kirkhorn wrote wisely a few years ago in British Journalism Review. "It tends to be weedily unsystematic. Virtuous journalists are much more likely to hang around ... than to practise any form of 'precision journalism'. Journalism is not art, it is not science - journalists practise the art of the scavenger."

Neither side in the tug-of-war between government and media possesses a monopoly of virtue. Because the parliamentary Opposition is in receivership, media scepticism and stridency have shifted up a gear. The media believe that if they do not call the Government to account on the public's behalf, no one will. That is true up to a point, but sometimes causes reporters to consider that they have an absolute duty to disbelieve a minister who tells them the time.

As a journalist, and one who worked for the BBC for some years, I blush at the picture of our rackety trade that emerges from evidence to Hutton. Some reputations will never recover from the mauling they are receiving, and will not deserve to.

Yet out of the jungle of speculation, half-truth, dubious sources, shaky note-taking, inadequate fact-checking and extravagant personal ambition in which the media work, the public gets to learn many things that, if government had its way, would remain concealed.

A very rough justice call must be made. On whom would you prefer to rely for your information about what our masters in Whitehall and at Westminster are doing to us: the BBC, or Alastair Campbell? I am still confident of my own answer to that one.

Max Hastings was editor-in-chief of 'The Daily Telegraph' and then editor of the London 'Evening Standard' between 1986 and 2002. His book 'Editor' is published by Pan Macmillan, and appears in paperback next month.

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