When You Talk To Journalists, Keep Your Mouth Shut

Christopher Fowler

If You Enter The Ring, It'll Get Mucky

Over the years I've told some true stories about journalists here and elsewhere, but I've always kept myself patient with them because I began my career (like most authors) connected to the press. Just as the fearless wade into the Facebook cesspool to pass on un-news, it's also possible to use social networks with decorum. Twitter (at the moment, at any rate) can be curated to contain the thoughts of some of the world's best minds. However, some journalists would like to convince you that tasteless tale-telling is merely the right of the public to know and the fulfilment their job. But really they're more like the punchline of The Scorpion and the Frog; 'So I hacked a dead child's phone and lied to their family. I had to do it; it is in my nature.' It's an easy Get Out Of Jail Free card, but there have been a great many brilliant crime reporters who remained honourable. They had come up through provincial press and court reporting, a system whereby you covered provincial courts for a year filing human interest stories about arguing families at weddings, corrupt chip-shop owners and pensioners' punch-ups at funerals. By the time they graduated to bigger criminal cases they acquired the experience required to understand the root causes of cases.

But who is a journalist now?

The answer is - anyone. Since the nineties the line has become blurred in the 'paper' press, so that minor celebrities might be given flash-in-the-pan columns (many of which are ghost-written, even this minor skill being beyond them) and then withdrawn. I get bugged every time I read 'my fellow journalists' in the London Times when it's written by a feature writer. Feature writers are not journalists; they are there to write about temperamental stars releasing tell-all tales to coincide with whatever they're selling, they're commissioned to cover new entertainment with the approval of American PR teams, or write vaguely comedic pieces about bad neighbours and argumentative husbands that retread accepted heteronormative opinions. I have a writer friend who was forced to remove a bottle of Coca-Cola in an academic exhibition on drugs, despite the fact that it did indeed once contain cocaine (then a legal drug). A feature writer is a word monkey who can turn out an article in 10-15 minutes. Happily this is not the case in the more demanding of the US broadsheets (but see also the other end). I've had a UK newspaper commission me to write about, say, the American police in the 1920s (it should take ten minutes on Google, tops; we're all experts now) and hide from me the the fact that it would be used to promote a crappy new TV show as advertorial. Editors have carte blanche to change whatever you wrote because they know the industry watchdogs are not only toothless but run by their own kind. I no longer accept commissions. Talk to readers about the art of the newspaper lie and you'll be staggered at their naivety. Happily, an ever-growing number of websites are peopled by women and men of integrity who run what amounts to an alternate news service. This reading list does not include the Daily Mail or the Express (I just checked; it's still running), but it does feature Tortoise, Hindsight, Bellingcat, The Conversation and Al Jazeera. I exempt the Telegraph because it is so peculiar, like a dying family-run business of top hat makers on a high street, fully expecting the fashion to come back. Right now I have first-hand knowledge of a media story that could destroy careers. It happens from time to time with writers, who are carelessly handed information they know nothing about. That's true of this case, but I'll keep it to myself because once I accidentally let something slip to a hack and it came back to bite me badly, and why would I do that now? Information has value, but cui bono?

Who are the new hacks?

They're confident and camera-ready, unscrupulous and slippery, the first generation to have grown up in the full glare of the infinite reflecting lens. They're not going through dustbins anymore, but they're still hanging around the back doors of the internet. Luckily, they're usually stressed and not very well organised. But a small detail in one story can be pulled out and spun into a big story, and as we have little control in them once they're out it's best not to talk at all. So how do you drum up publicity for a book now? Perhaps you're on TV all the time so you don't have to do anything, or you can warp the market by throwing disproportionate amounts of budget at it. Of course you could simply trust a few known independent professionals and let the book speak through them. I'm lucky enough to have a developed a readership that has integrity and intelligence. (I often feel like the least educated person on here.) But if there's anyone I suspect to be a latent troll, they'll get nothing from me. In this piece you may sense there are a few names I could add for veracity, but then I'd have stepped across that line.    


Ian Mason (not verified) Fri, 28/10/2022 - 18:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

> I’m lucky enough to have a developed a readership that has integrity and intelligence.

Flattery, dear Christopher, will get you absolutely ... anything you want.

Jo W (not verified) Fri, 28/10/2022 - 18:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

# Ian Mason
Well, I don’t think Chris can be talking about me and ‘imself. By the way, Ian, how are you both keeping?

Chris, that’s a great still of Edward Judd in The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Was that just before the roll on the typewriter melted?

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 28/10/2022 - 19:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Bravo! Well said, indeed. But neither Bellingcat nor The Conversation are high on my list for integrity. The former has been exposed as a mouthpiece for US Defense and State departments. The latter has descended into ... words fail me.
Best wishes to you and Pete..

SteveB (not verified) Fri, 28/10/2022 - 20:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You’ve been Americanised Chris that’s an alternatIVE news service ;-)

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 29/10/2022 - 06:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I'd have just crossed that line.
Knowing that there is a line is an important thing and knowing where it lies even more important. Given the estimated average age on this site I'd say that most of us grew up knowing the word ethics and knowing that no matter what your job the word applies. I become quite nervous when I hear/see someone talking about the public's right to know. Just because someone is unaware of the insecurity of cell phones does not give anyone else the right to hack the line and then publish the content of the call. Digging dirt is only journalism when the public good is served; if the dirt reveals malfeasance or other crime, if that is, there is a point to it.

David Ronaldson (not verified) Sat, 29/10/2022 - 10:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I use apps from Al Jazeera, South China Morning Post, Euronews and others; the Truss Omnishambles placed the UK briefly in an embarrassing spotlight, but otherwise we don't much matter much on the world stage other than as an eccentric and flatulent Great Aunt

Granny (not verified) Sat, 29/10/2022 - 12:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@ Helen and Martin
I looked up the hacking business, about 68 journalists came under suspicion, and about 20 odd were prosecuted, cost of investigation £43m
Investigative journalism is few and far between. I once checked out an MP who supported fracking in her constituency, despite the locals and the council refusing it. Their decision was overwritten. Husband of MP set up an engineering firm, checked out the area for safety, took payment and then closed company. Took me and a friend about an hour to chase this down but journalists are not paid to investigate, they just read a ticker tape, put their House Style on the news and go home.
I have liked John Pilger since he covered My Lai Massacre in the 60's. Past few years, since COVID, I read The Guardian and more recently watched YouTube like Gary's Economics, Politics Joe, Led by Donkeys.
Really good to see another Blog, wish the Zeitgiest was more positive for you.

Brooke (not verified) Sat, 29/10/2022 - 14:54

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Granny makes an important point: follow the money.. "News/Journalism" is a business, owned by a few very rich folks.
It's not just digging dirt anymore, it's about purveying ignorance. The COVID pandemic is just one example. In US, headlines constantly honed a meme "black and Hispanics hit hard by COVID." So folks ran back to crowded malls, saying "We're not that demographic." Even as medical researchers were trying to get the point across that it was working people who could not isolate, e.g. low income, non college educated, that were hit hardest by COVID. Police, fire, ambulance and hospital workers, postal, retail and food workers. You get the picture.

Christopher Fowler Sat, 29/10/2022 - 16:21

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well this paints a deeply depressing picture of modern living.
In one area I have sympathy for the few journos I know who've kept their integrity - like actors, they live in a sealed world that admits few outsiders - and that's where anything you wrote causes a trophic cascade. If it's that hard to write about something without starting riots you can only publish anonymously or not at all.
But that's where 'woke' discussions founder - banning words out of sensitivity is censorship, plain and simple. There is nothing in 'Huckleberry Finn' or '1984' that will trigger mental collapse in readers.
There has been an argument about the use of the word 'fat', a legitimate descriptive which, like many other words I grew up with, adds to the knowledge of the noun.
When I delivered my vast, complete short stories to an editor (young, hip) at a cool pub house, he asked, 'Is there anything in here that's going to come back and bite you in the arse?'
And I thought, No, they were written over the changing decades with a changeless sensibility. Some of my language choices were crueller then than I would use now, but when it comes to respecting others my attitude hasn't changed. I am my own censor far more now, but I was raised in transgressive, experimental times.

Gary Locke (not verified) Sat, 29/10/2022 - 18:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's mid-term election time here in the states, so journalists here are covering both sides extensively. This is particularly true this year because one side prefers not to debate the other formally. Too many unpleasantries might come up. Sedition, for example. Unfortunately, journalists are simply letting each side spout off without challenging the veracity of their statements. This results in scabrous lies and unchecked bullshit coming across as truth. It's painful to watch and dangerous for the future of democracy.

Peter T (not verified) Sat, 29/10/2022 - 18:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Years ago, I would read a newspaper article on a subject that I knew something about and, most often, be disappointed and feel frustrated. The journalist might well have reached sound conclusions, but based them on confused evidence and with a total lack of insight. Those were the good old days, when facts were as relevant as a good story. Now, I don't bother; I'm sure the writer doesn't. Just decide the conclusion and throw some words at it. So long as it keeps the super rich sponsor happy, it's fine. Let's not be unfair on news writers; politicians and lawyers are no better.

Roger (not verified) Sun, 30/10/2022 - 11:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

And, of course:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there's no occasion to.

Brooke (not verified) Sun, 30/10/2022 - 12:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"...nothing in ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘1984’ that will trigger mental collapse in readers." Yet schools boards in US continually try to ban both from curricula and libraries.

" ... banning words out of sensitivity is censorship, plain and simple." Ye? .

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Sun, 30/10/2022 - 13:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Banning books is a good way to erase unpleasant events from history, Brooke.
We need to remember them to understand what life was like for some people, don’t we?
If current readers find it upsetting, they need to imagine what it was like for the people experiencing it, and try to ensure that it isn’t repeated, rather than hoping that if it isn’t mentioned it will disappear.
I’m reading Take Six Girls (the Mitford sisters) and although the parents of many of my school friends came to England via the Kindertransport, so I was well aware of the Holocaust, the acceptance of antisemitism in the 1930s by people who considered themselves educated and enlightened never ceases to amaze me.
Perhaps the banned books should be compulsory reading instead.

Brooke (not verified) Sun, 30/10/2022 - 13:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cornelia, well said. The American Library Association's holds an annual banned books week to encourage reading such books. Interesting that publicity about a book banning lifts sales of said book, sometimes off the charts.

snowy (not verified) Sun, 30/10/2022 - 14:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Not Ye I think; I suspect this is a reference to Ms Swift.

She has produced/directed a music video to accompany a song about her lack of self confidence. One scene very, very briefly showed the word 'FAT'.

This was too much for all the Tubbies on Twitter, in a blizzard of crumbs and chocolate wrappers, they wheezed into action, and began whinging on about being 'oppressed'. [Nuance not being within their lexicon - it doesn't come with chips!]

[The video is called AntiHero, it's trying very hard to be clever/arty, but the song is really not strong enough to sustain the ideas. It's not terrible, just meh.

If you want terrible, then may I suggest looking up Jessica Mitford and Maya Angelou's rendering of 'Right, Said Fred', which they essay complete with 'Cock-er-nee' accents.]

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Sun, 30/10/2022 - 14:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think they attended the Dick Van Dyke school of accent coaching, Snowy.

Brooke (not verified) Sun, 30/10/2022 - 19:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hi, Snowy. Actually I was asking Mr. Fowler if he considers banning Ye censorship.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 30/10/2022 - 22:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The problem with forbidding the banning of books is that as long as a writer can persuade a printer to make the work available to the public it is available. I'm just into "Information Hunters" which tells of the actions of a group of researchers sent to Europe by the Americans to remove Nazi materials from libraries, schools, and other collections, to restore looted materials to their owners if possible, and, oh, yes, to gather up materials of use to American research libraries. There's a whole lot of conflicting interests in there and a lot of judgement calls. Learning that it came about along with Mr. Donovan and his efforts inspires a considerable amount of curiosity about this group.

snowy (not verified) Mon, 31/10/2022 - 02:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brooke, that is a much, much more intelligent question, [that's probably why it went waaaaay over my head].

Helen, once you fall down that rabbit-hole there are all sorts of strange units running about:

30 Commando - set up by a knocker-out of pulp-fiction called Fleming and Phantom Units - 'A' Squadron was headed by a very thin moustache, behind which hung David Niven.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 31/10/2022 - 10:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'In a blizzard of crumbs and chocolate wrappers, they wheezed into action' - brilliant, Snowy

Please write a comic novel

Brooke (not verified) Mon, 31/10/2022 - 13:14

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Information Hunters author lectured at the US National Archives; you can find the lecture on YT. And more about Wild Bill Donovan.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Tue, 01/11/2022 - 02:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cheers for the heads up on the version of Right Said Fred Snowy, I've heard worse. I remember someone did a parody called Right Said Reg, it involved said Kray in a comedy torture, it was a lot funnier than my description, sadly the website it was imbedded in is no longer there.

Brooke the Ye doesn't refer to Kanye West, does it? He sounds like a lost soul. I hope he gets the help he needs.

The press are as bad or as good as the past, less local sadly, although I am a subscriber to The Mill a local online/e-mail, news source. I still read/follow the BBC, I know where they come from and so know how the bias there works, no site/newspaper/network/podcast is free from it no matter how hard they try as they have to pick the stories to follow from all the news that is there, The World Service is still a gem. But I do read, listen and watch differing sources.

In fact no source is free from bias, when I was at school we were taught about Lamarckism, I never new why because they debunked it, although it now appears genetic memory is a thing just not as pronounced as Lamarck thought, Darwinism still being the main reason behind genetics and evolution, even if some of the details were unknown and some of the later tinkering was wrong. I later found out the USSR backed Lamarckism so even basic biology teaching was effected by the cold war thinking and ethos. Smacks a little of the poisonous mushroom indoctrination.


E Bush (not verified) Wed, 09/11/2022 - 13:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I always make it a point to read or re-read a few banned books during our library's banned book week. There's strength in numbers. If we keep reading it's maybe a bit more difficult to oust the books.