A stab in the back

Collection of essays from 'Secrets of the Press' gives behind-the-scenes insight into journalism profession

Saturday, September 27, 2008

By Hajrah Mumtaz

Journalism is the dark side of professional life, a mugger waiting for you in an alleyway with a sock full of sand -- before you know what's what, you're crawling around looking for your teeth. It's also like the mob: once you're in, you can never truly get out. The work constitutes a tide of words and information that can drag you helplessly along like a leaf in a whirlpool. But if you're good, you can surf the crest, finding balance on the edge of the catastrophe curve where a journalist thrives.

Everyone reads the newspapers, but few know what goes on behind the scenes. What really makes journalists and their profession tick? Secrets of the Press lifts the veil -- or rather, clears a path, hands waving, through the fug of smoke and alcohol, secrecy and cynicism -- to reveal the bones: the excitement, the frustration, the adrenaline rush of the scoop and the pressure, but most of all, the sheer fun. Edited by Stephen Glover, one of the founders of the Independent and the founding editor of the Independent on Sunday, the book is a collection of 27 essays by some of the grandest old hacks of British journalism. Don't be fooled by its rather sensationalist title -- that too is in the best traditions of journalism, after all. Secrets of the Press presents the murky, heady world of journalism as understood by those on the inside; insightful, colourful and nearly always irreverent. This book is a must read for anyone who's worked in or been interested in the field.

Let's start with the editor, the enigmatic, often bad tempered, caustic face of any publication. Freelance writer and the London editor of Vanity Fair magazine Henry Porter estimates that he has worked with some thirty different editors and his views on the breed are recorded in the brilliantly titled essay, 'Editors and Egomaniacs.' There are two types of editors, we learn. First, the "shirt-sleeved, seat-of-the-pants technicians" who rise through the ranks of sub-editors and rely on a sure, experienced eye and a sharp news instinct. Then there is the other sort who "sees himself as an altogether more rational creature." Porter dismisses this lot as having little technical experience but secure in the belief that they "offer something supposedly much grander -- leadership, a world view, an intellectual analysis, a moral compass." It seems that seminal to the job is the ability to form unshakeable opinions and stick to them. "A newspaper editor must be opinionated," writes Porter, "if only to give his paper direction and identity. His views may add up to little more than a collection of prejudices, but they are better than no views at all, or an outlook which is just too reasonable or too damned nice."

Being the editor is a dance with the devil, for it is at this Valhalla that the buck finally stops -- and as an editor-in-the-making pointed out, few things are as likely to generate a god-complex, with its associated evils. "Once an editor has served in the job for a few years, his grip on reality tends to degenerate," writes Porter. "The unhinging is in part due to the excessive preoccupation of an editor's mind, which churns endlessly with the business of the paper, but also with the insatiable appetite for novelty. All life is raw material for his publication and when it doesn't quite match his Technicoloured expectations, he is liable to demand that his staff do something about it... Cut off from normal life by the rigours of the job and surrounded by people who almost never tell him the truth, the editor is liable to form some very strange ideas about his own abilities and importance."

As for the idealists who want the press to create a better world, Porter has a single, caustic comment: a newspaper campaign can only succeed if it has a definite goal which there is some hope of reaching. A newspaper agitating to save the dolphins or increase deciduous planting is hopelessly misguided, he states flatly, "because there is no natural end to the mission -- an editor can never declare that there are enough dolphins or oak trees in the world." Only start a newspaper crusade if you can be seen to win it and win it well.

Turning to the increasing demand for women in journalism, Secrets of the Press has Zoe Heller -- a prominent features writer and columnist -- warning new entrants about the "ghetto" of "women's writing." This, she says, is comprised of three categories: "the good-humoured 'home front' column in which a woman writes in a jolly, eye-rolling way about her accident-prone kids and lazy husband. ('Mum -- Johnny's stuck a marble up his nose!') There is the stern comment piece, in which public affairs are examined from an admonitory, feminist point of view. ('When was the last time the Foreign Secretary changed a nappy?') And then there is the daffy 'girl' piece, in which a youngish, single female confides the vagaries of her rackety personal life. ('Never try shaving your legs in a moving taxi.')"

The problem lies in a male-dominated field trying to ascribe areas of female interest. "Why is a woman columnist honour bound to write about abortion rights?: asks Heller. "The problem with writing 'as a woman' is not just that you are inevitably burdened with the world's views on how you should represent your sex," but that editors (mostly male) will hire women to write 'as a woman' or from a female perspective. And if you take on that role, Heller warns, "you are required to pretend that your femaleness is all -- that every one of your opinions is refracted through the lens of gender."

Petronella Wyatt presents a similar view -- and this is a woman who, as one of her first assignments in the mid-1990s for the Sunday Telegraph, was instructed to repair to a London gentlemen's club and pinch the members' bottoms. (Her editor had this brainwave after newspapers splashed a story about a male hospital patient who had been sued for pinching a nurse's bottom.) Wyatt observes that for many female journalists, early dreams of, say, political reporting, are aborted simply because their physical appearance deems them, in the editors' eyes, better suited to other tasks. "Being a certain sort of female journalist can be a blessing and a curse," she writes. "A blessing because it undoubtedly opens doors; a curse because the doors frequently open on to a cul-de-sac."

Young reporters, even in the University of the Punjab's journalism curriculum, are taught the 'five Ws' of the game: Who? What? Where? When? and Why? The cliché was given a twist in a sketch on the 'Spitting Image' TV show: three pigs with 'Press' cards, crying, "Whose round is it? What are we havin'? Where's the pub? When's it open?" and "Why don't we have another one?" It's true that traditionally, a hack without a drink is like a wingless eagle -- or, if you prefer, a hairless dog, as Francis Wheen writes. And Secrets of the Press reminds one of the glorious days when the Prisoners of the Fleet drank at places with names such as Stab in the Back.