Speech given to the Society of Editors - What makes a good journalist?
Tuesday 19 October 2004
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
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
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?
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.
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.
An individual and collective sense of responsibility
for journalism's purpose in making government and institutions work
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.