15 September 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 17 2004

I was supposed to spend last weekend decorating the hall, but I got sidetracked by reading Andrew Marr’s new book on journalism, My Trade. It’s an odd confection, part hilarious anecdote, part history, part “how to” guide. But it’s strangely addictive, not least because it contains some of the best sustained critical thinking by a practitioner that I’ve read for a long time on the state of British journalism.

Marr, currently the BBC’s political editor, has been consistently ribbed by Tribune in recent years because he was a bearded badge-wearing paper-selling Trot when he was a student at Cambridge University a quarter-of-a-century ago. (I think he was there at the same time as Martin Rowson, cartoonist and Tribune columnist, but I could be wrong.)

Now, I’m all for reminding the great-and-good of their youthful leftist foibles. I have enjoyed the recent spate of recycled anecdotes about Alan Milburn, in years gone by one of the mainstays of the Newcastle far-left bookshop Days of Hope (aka Haze of Dope), and Kim Howells, who might or might not take a sympathetic view of student occupations of campuses against top-up fees given his role in the famous Hornsey art-school sit-in in 1968.

But, hey, we all move on, and the real saddos today are the 40- and 50- and 60-somethings who have learned nothing in the past 20 or 30 years and are still peddling the same Leninist snake-oil — the Tariq Alis and George Galloways, the Andrew Murrays and Lindsay Germans.

By comparison, Marr’s journey — if not Milburn’s or Howells’s — has been one from darkness into light. These days, he is meticulous about keeping his politics to himself for professional reasons (just as he should be). But before he joined the BBC he was, both in his newspaper columns and in his book Ruling Britannia, published in 1995, an enthusiast for all the causes espoused by the thinking democratic left (or what remains of it): Europeanism, redistribution, the welfare state, devolution, proportional representation for the House of Commons, radical reform of the House of Lords.

Whatever, his new book has more than its fair share of moments. It is worth reading just for his hilarious account of his time at the helm of the Independent in the mid-1990s, which should be studied by every wannabe editor. He was pitched into it even though he had no experience as an editor since his school magazine. And he struggled from the start against almost impossible odds. His proprietors were clueless about the nature of the business they were running and, despite promises, cut his budgets (which meant job losses, which meant he lost it with the journalistic staff). Eventually he was sacked after one too many run-ins with the chief incompetent megalomaniac among his bosses, David Montgomery.

There’s also some well-told history here (albeit with a few sloppy factual mistakes). And some of Marr’s descriptions of how journalism works today are as good as any. But what’s best in My Trade is his take on the state of British journalism.

Like other left-of-centre practitioner-critics of the recent past — notably John Lloyd of the Financial Times and Martin Kettle of the Guardian — Marr is less than impressed by what he reads, hears and sees every day. He makes well directed swipes at the hackneyed emotionalism that has crept into every newspaper, the cult of celebrity and, particularly, the decline of reporting of politics and serious discussion of policy.

Unlike Lloyd and Kettle, however, Marr doesn’t consider that the problem is simply (or even largely) that journalists have been overcome by an all-pervading cynicism about the political class that renders them incapable of doing the job required of them in a democratic polity. Although he says that politcal journalists “have become too powerful, too much the interpreters” and that “the political story has become degraded”, he argues that the reasons “have as much to do with politics as with journalism”. The Labour government’s current troubles with the media are as much a deserved reaction to its strict news management regime as they are of hacks acquiring a permanent anti-politician sneer. “Central control and manipulation created, within a few years, some of the worst press coverage any government in modern times has suffered,” he writes of Alastair Campbell.

Marr identifies the real enemy as an “idle, office-bound, marketing-directed copycat culture in modern news which is turning off readers and viewers”. What journalism needs now, he says, is fewer columnists and more reporters getting out of the office and talking to real people. At the risk of giving Tribune’s new editor, Chris McLaughlin, a good excuse to get rid of me, amen to that.

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