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It’s only words……

March 10, 2010

Describing a poet, Roger McGough once wrote: ‘Words? He could almost make ’em speak!’

We seem to be living in an explosion of words these days. The print media has been overtaken by social networking and instant messaging sites  and the blogosphere, where everyone can have their say about everything  – and often do. However, it is still true that Journalism remains one of the most important of the Estates, and for many reasons.

Of course, everybody knows all about journalism, don’t they? Like teaching being understood by all who went to school, the printed word industry is transparent to everyone who has ever read a newspaper or magazine. Isn’t it?

If we look at how the journalist has been portrayed in the popular media, a fair reflection, perhaps, of public perception, our findings are  strange to say the least. From The Front Page through All the President’s Men to  State of Play , you could be forgiven for thinking that the producers really wanted a detective movie but for some reason made the hero a journalist. Sure, investigation is often at the roots of hard hitting and effective news reporting, but it would be nice to see a portrayal of the craft which focuses on the, admittedly non-filmic, importance of the written word and its influence. Men in belted raincoats running about, risking their lives, saving the girl, and closing down evil empires makes for great action in the cinema, but, in the real world, journalists  can make the most difference with the power of the pen, or, at least, the laptop. No matter what facts they discover through deeds of derring do, it’s how they recount the facts and affect the readers’ opinions that is the true measure of their influence. A poorly or sloppily written piece can undermine all the investigative skill and hard won facts if it fails to attract the reader’s attention or  lacks impact.

Taking a retrospective view of the industry, it is easy to suggest that today’s journalists  fail to reach the heights of their predecessors. In an attempt to conserve falling readership figures, there are many papers that have become little more than celebrity news sheets or mouthpieces for sundry special interests – political or otherwise. In the world of the sound bite – and seemingly a similarly brief reader attention span – even the heavyweight qualities are dumbed down. Compare the content of today’s colour supplements with those from thirty years ago and you could weep.

There are, of course, still any number of journalistic heroes: in Scotland, Ian Bell, Tom English and  Hugh McIlvenney come to mind, with Iain  MacWhirter and Catherine  Devenney, each in their own field, outstanding.

However, often the most effective journalism these days is not shared with millions through a late extra edition but is in the Blogosphere. Joan McAlpine (http://joanmcalpine.typepad.com/) blogs regularly from a Scottish perspective in an international context, the newly launched  Caledonian Mercury (http://caledonianmercury.com/) looks to have quality, and Ken Roy’s excellent Scottish Review (http://www.scottishreview.net/)  still produces thought provoking, high level investigative journalism in well crafted language that never fails to challenge and enthuse. Ken’s latest piece, where he compares the fall of a Russian family and their furniture from the  fifteenth floor of the Red Road flats with the fall of Glasgow Council leader Stephen Purcell , raises many questions about how our media covers the news and the constraints  within which they place themselves when choosing their angles.

I’m currently reading the inspiring autobiography of Harold Evans. His pioneering history with the Sunday Times and beyond reads in places like a call to arms for decent journalism that puts the responsibility to inform first and the  need to do so in an accessible but grand style a very close second. He faced challenges over content, style and political angle, but invariably made the public’s right to be informed, and the journalist’s duty to communicate the news, his benchmark when making his final, crucial, editorial decisions. From Timothy Evans through Thalidomide, Evans’ vision, and the men who brought it to print, had a massive influence on public justice and our self worth as a society.

Journalists hold a huge responsibility: they put the words into our heads that activate our conscience.

Words? They need to make ’em speak!

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