US Scribes Thrash UK Hacks Shock!
When I was a teenager I decided I wanted to be a journalist. As luck would have it, I knew a couple who worked on the Mirror and the Mail (when it was a broadsheet), but they warned that the face of British journalism was about to change. The era of hot-type was coming to an end, and in London Fleet Street and the printing presses of Tudor Street would go, initiating a bloodbath.
But I was infatuated with the idea. Watergate unfolded while I was still at school, and as the writers of the Washington Post became the most famous journalists in history I was filled with admiration and read every Watergate book that got published over the next few years. Even Gordon Liddy’s. Even Rose Marie Woods’s.
As for UK journalism, when I was growing up the Sunday Times’s Insight investigative team broke the horrific story of the Thalidomide scandal, a catastrophe that deformed 20,000 babies and killed 80,000: war apart, it remains the greatest manmade global disaster. Journalists were detectives. They were expected to develop and cultivate sources, especially if they regularly covered a specific topic, known as a “beat”.
But then came a change in the way sources provided information in the UK. Instead of two sources corroborating, one source was allowed to provide the story, and if anonymous, unscrupulous reporters could simply make stories up. UK news became a projection of a paper’s political stance. Pages filled with nonsense and ‘celebrity’ columns, nearly all of them ghosted by hacks.
It quickly infected everything, especially spreading into the film world, where I earned my crust. For example, a certain national journalist (still working) called me to confirm that Hollywood had start sexing up a slew of Shakespearean films – he had heard this based on a rumour about one film. I told him it was not at all the case but he reported it anyway, using my name, and dared me to retract it. This was the new face of British journalism. Reporters stopped having to spend a year handling court reporting – a course which required them to sit in on local cases and develop their intuitive skills – and instead began working from press releases at their desks.
It got worse. Speculation, supposition and outright fantasy became the norm. Rupert Murdoch’s lazy celebrity-gossip style replaced the genuine detailing of news. However, America had been able to set a different course, partly because of its size, partly because of its history of proactive reportage and the sanctity of the press. The rubbish writing which had infected our national dailies remained firmly locked in their gutter press, creating a two-tier system.
And there was the Pulitzer Prize, established in 1917 and formed of 21 separate categories. It could still be earned for fine reporting. I read a Pulitzer-winning article about racing cars – a subject I have zero interest in – and was thrilled by the power of the writing. Recently the New Yorker wrote a fascinating piece about who owns what in London called ‘House of Secrets’ (a subject which no British newspaper has really dared to dig deeply into) and proved that proper investigative journalism is alive and thriving across the Atlantic, uncovering a story on our home ground that nobody here had managed to unlock.
The tragic part is that it shows the stories are still there to be uncovered, but the limited market for hard news in the UK largely turned press papers into PR-recycling centres (I except the Telegraph, the Independent and the Guardian). Magazines like the Modern Review – which should have proved hugely successful as the only intelligent reviewer of modern culture – failed and folded.
On television, though, the situation was reversed. UK reporting is excellent, if lacking in depth, while US TV news continues to blur the line between opinion and data. But if we think that Fox News is the only face of US journalism, we’re wrong. A raft of superlative reporting is available from America – in addition to the above I regularly read the New Yorker, the Washington Post and the New York Times (along with the Independent and Al Jazeera from here) when I want to get real facts about what’s going on in the world. The once brilliant Sunday Times has vanished in a welter of celebrity obsession, Little England materialism and speculative ‘soft’ news, reducing it to the level of the Daily Mail. Journalists are poorly paid for the hours they work, and there’s no gold standard to what they produce. The UK Press Awards often hand out gongs to a limited gene-pool of poor quality opinion-piece writers while our US cousins continue to shame us with superbly balanced in-depth reportage.
Over here we still have a handful of star reporters but nothing like the staff of the New York Times or the New Yorker – and we don’t buy periodicals for their intellectual stimulation unless they’re aimed at very narrow academic sub-groups. Our economic model for producing clear, empirical reporting is broken. When American journalism is misguided it’s astonishingly so, but when it soars – and on the page it does so regularly and frequently
– it leaves our journalists far, far behind, and reminds me why I wanted to be a journalist.
NB The image is from a New Yorker Halloween cover.