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Friday, April 25, 2008 

Scratch my leg with a rusty nail.

Once upon a time, your humble narrator felt that a career in journalism would be a wonderful idea. So much so that he applied to take a BA in journalism at university, and was meant to take up his confirmed place, only to decide not to due to previously discussed ill-health. To come out of the third-person, I had much the same dreams as probably most of the others at 18 have when they decide to take a degree in journalism: I wanted to muck-rake, scream about injustice to a wide audience, generally shake things up, in that teenage, upper-sixth right-on spirit of combustion yet to be strangled just after birth by cynicism and reality.

As you can probably tell by the fact I've been writing this sad glorified open diary for almost three years, I haven't entirely abandoned some elements of that dream. If I had taken that course I would now be fast approaching the second anniversary of my graduation, and more than likely be now either unemployed or installed at the very lowest rung of the journalistic ladder: thrashing out churnalism for a local paper, writing copy about young footballers or the opening of a new shop, the amazing success of a charity event, or if I was really lucky, about a pensioner being mugged for their fish and chips, earning a pittance while not having a minute to breathe or to actually do anything approaching what I would have been taught during my 3 years of relative instructional tranquillity.

Strip away the sexiness and glamour of the select few that make it on a national stage, which in itself is about as a sexy as Rod Stewart and as glamourous as Jodie Marsh, and no bones about it, being a journalist is really ignoble, irredeemable, and ultimately unrewarding work. In actuality, this is deceptive: by direct comparison to "showbiz" and "entertainment" journalism, local journalists are among the veritable salts of the earth, providing a service that many would miss horribly were it to suddenly disappear. If the entire staff of Heat, Closer, and all the rest of the gossip mags and newspaper equivalents were to be found dead in their beds tomorrow, it wouldn't be a time for sadness and reflection; it would be time to declare a national holiday that would easily surpass St George's Day in popularity, and what's more, it would be genuinely British, unlike the mythical Palestinian. The Mysterious Death of the Scum Day, decreed as a bank holiday by the Supreme Leader himself.

How better to illustrate why no would mourn the sudden death of the paparazzi and showbiz hacks than today's Mail (and Express) front page, featuring one of the few snatched snaps which doesn't have Billie Piper with her top off, with the paper implying that Piper might be pregnant. Not that it has any evidence whatsoever that she is with child; it just thinks she may be because her stomach looks slightly bloated and because she's patting it. This is the sort of thing which is the meat and potatoes of such hackery: female celeb looks slightly more rotund than usual; she's pregnant or becoming a porker! Female celeb looks like she's lost a slight amount of weight; she's anorexic! When there's no stories of celebs shagging each other to fill the front pages of Heat etc, this is just what they fall back on. When the Daily Mail, a supposed newspaper, has nothing better than to splash such bilge on its front page, it's just undeniably tragic of how far journalism in this country continues to fall.

The press do have unpleasant form in this area for either getting it completely wrong or breaking the news before the individual themselves has told anyone. Anton Vowl relates the recent story of Lisa Marie Presley who had to admit to being pregnant after the Mail accused her of getting fat. Back at the beginning of last year, Charlotte Church complained to the PCC after the Sun published reports of "rumours" about her being pregnant, rumours which it knew for a fact were true because Church's PR had told them after they enquired about it. Their request was that they not print it until Church had been for her 12-week scan and her doctor said that it would be OK to tell her family and friends, due to the risks of complications or miscarriage. The Sun instead printed the "rumours" anyway, with the PCC adjudicating in Church's favour:

The Commission has recently made clear that newspapers should not reveal the fact of someone’s pregnancy before the 12 week scan without consent and when the information is not known to any significant degree. The newspaper’s defence in this case was that it had merely reported rumours that the complainant was pregnant because of a change in her behaviour. But the newspaper had provided no evidence of any rumours, and had not denied that it had known for a fact that she was pregnant when it published the piece. In these circumstances it seemed to the Commission that the newspaper had simply tried to circumvent the privacy provisions of the Code by presenting the story as speculation. This was not acceptable within the spirit of the Code. The complaint was upheld.

Similarly pathetic and intrusive behaviour is in evidence tonight involving Amy Winehouse, who is becoming one of those being serially offended against. This time however it doesn't involve the usual suspects but the usually above the fray BBC. On the Ten O'Clock News a reporter had the pointless task of standing outside a police station, informing the nation that La Winehouse was inside and apparently not likely to be questioned until the morning because she was currently "not in a fit state" to be interviewed. Why he needed to be there if that was the case, why the report was on the news at all, and why anyone other than the most sickening obsessives care that Winehouse had been arrested in the first place are all questions that the BBC or anyone else for that matter will never be able to answer adequately.

Nick Davies' conclusion in Flat Earth News is that his profession is one that is rotten to the core, not because the majority are corrupt or lazy, but because a distinct minority that have all the power and the loudest voice are. The same could be said for vast layers of numerous professions, but few of them have such a role in informing and educating as the fourth estate does. The saddest thing is that most of even those that are rotten are not so out of choice; they too had the same dreams I did, but are either slaves to their editor and what's expected of them from their news organisation as a whole, or slaves to their bank balance, or, in an even smaller minority, their snorting habits. Cynicism shouldn't really enter in to it: the reality when you open your eyes is enough to want to journalists and all those, including myself, to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead we shall continue with ever more glazed over and despondent expressions.

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Having read Andrew Marr's My Trade, my view is that it is journalists themselves who are the problem. They ARE cynical. But they also perpetuate a cultural trend - and I doubt Marr mentioned this - where now is eternal and stories such as Palestine are reported without historical context. There are a few journalists whom I admire - Fisk, Pilger, but even they are not above partiality, most recent in Pilger's case by supporting a crooked friend in Bangladesh whom he presented as a hero. Sod journalists, I say - become an academic. Think of Chomsky!

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