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24 September 2014
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Kevin Marsh

Editor, Today programme

Speech given to the Society of Editors - What makes a good journalist?

Tuesday 19 October 2004
Printable version

I don't think we can answer this question any more just by listing what's necessary for a good journalist... though I don't think there'd be too much discussion about the main characteristics.


Contacts; the ability to make and keep the right ones.


Curiosity. Persistence. Toughness.


The ability to grasp the big truths – with the humility to let them go again when the facts don't fit.


Ruthlessness with fact. Accuracy and the craft skills to deliver it.


In broadcasting, a good journalist needs a few other things.


Writing for the voice and to pictures are vital. As is the ability to speak accurately off the cuff.


And good teeth.


They're all necessary to make a good journalist. But they're not enough. Not any more.


Perhaps they never were – but perhaps there was a time when journalists understood and were able to articulate their purpose better than now.


Perhaps there was a time when the principles and beliefs of a free press hadn't been stretched beyond limits of what those ideas can mean.


Perhaps there was such a time. But it isn't now. And British journalism finds itself in both a crisis and a paradox.


We've got to a position where a free press, ostensibly underpinned by tried and tested principles is, at best, failing to support public institutions. At worst undermining them.


Including – and here's the paradox – the press itself. Journalists are among the least trusted members of society.


Unlike John Lloyd, I don't believe the press alone is to blame for the crisis – though I do think it's connived too readily at its own debasement.


We've reached the point where – at the top end, if you like... political journalism - no-one can be sure whether a 'fact' has been dug out by a diligent journalist or handed to a compliant one by a spin doctor or PR agent.


It's hardly surprising that the public wonders what journalists' priorities really are. Or what the press is really for.


And so should journalists.


Is any one British journalist content that Charles Clarke can say of the press: "parts (of it) have done their best to bring democratic politics into disrepute."


And The Sun, in a 2002 editorial, can say of politicians: "too many are sad, sordid, pathetic inadequate wimps with private lives that make ordinary people's stomachs churn."


This isn't a good place to be. And whether we like and realise it or not – our future is chained to the health of our public life and institutions.


So what needs to be added to those necessary characteristics to make a good journalist now - a journalist who wants to be part of the answer and not a cause of a deepening crisis?


First; toughness.


The toughness to resist the hypocrisy of so much of the press that wants a scalp - a result - while at the same time denying the press should be concerned about its effect on public life... or even acknowledge it has one.


Second; belief.


Belief that finding the truth and telling it is a public good. Belief that journalism is the essential bridge between the government and the governed.


Third; responsibility.


An individual and collective sense of responsibility for journalism's purpose in making government and institutions work better.


Fourth; accountability.


Accountability for the results of your trade. The realisation that journalism isn't something you just do and walk away from.


We need a profession built on values; fairness, impartiality, open mindedness, inclusivity.


The public deserves – and our system needs – journalists who read from both sides of the balance sheet and who understand that a partial truth is more lethal than a blatant untruth.


Journalists who separate reporting from advocacy; who have the honesty not to let the second parade as the first.


And we need journalists who refuse to pervert and trivialise the highest ideals of the craft to the basest ends. The right to know can never be translated as the right to peep.


So does all of this make a good journalist?


More or less - but most of all the good journalist now has to know that that the British press has to get its act together. To re-think and restate what it's for.


And he or she needs the commitment, as an individual, to help bring that about.



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