Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Dirty doorsteps (or why Johann Hari deserves to be harried out of journalism)

In the '50s and '60s, my mum was a Guardian journalist.

That sentence has been spun for maximum impact, although it's essentially true (we'll come back to that in a bit). In fact, she was an old-school reporter - assizes, inquests and children’s page - on the Middleton Guardian, and an occasional stringer for the then-Manchester Guardian down the road. She told me that, as far as she knew, the only other woman reporter ever seen in a coroner's court outside London at the time was one from the Sheffield Telegraph. That was Jean Rook.

My mother's career path followed the only possible route for non-university-educated women back then: start in the typing pool and hope for the best. She eventually got to take letters for (rather than to) the editor, who, having noticed that she had a knack for turning a phrase after she'd knocked his rambling dictation – he enjoyed a drink – into some kind of usable shape, started sending her off to cover the occasional inquest. (He was very much a deep-end kinda guy. "Anything juicy?" he’d ask when she came back in. "Pfft," she’d reply. "Misadventure again. Sorry.")

One fateful day (as she would certainly never have put it), the editor assigned her to cover a Conservative party meeting before some local elections, an event that all the full-fledged reporters had managed to find an excuse to avoid. A local organiser, Mrs (Name Lost in the Mists of Family History), spoke at soporific length about how to get the most out of the chore of canvassing. "At some houses you needn't waste your time," she told the eager faithful after an hour or so of precise leaflet-folding instructions. "You can tell they vote Labour before you even knock on the door. Just look down. If you see a dirty doorstep, you can forget it. Try next door instead."[1]

My mother couldn’t believe what she'd heard. Well, she could, because she'd been taking the whole speech down verbatim in her erm-and-ah-perfect shorthand.

Front-page splash in the paper the next day: LABOUR VOTERS HAVE "DIRTY DOORSTEPS", TOP LOCAL TORY CLAIMS.

Mrs NLMFH rang the editor shrieking that she’d said no such thing. The local party chairman rang the editor, calling for the head of the "recklessly irresponsible young lady" who’d had the temerity to invent such a terrible slur.

The editor stood by his reporter, much as Simon Kelner stood by Johann Hari, except in this case not only was she able to show him her shorthand notes, she’d also had enough nous to take the contact details of a couple of other people who’d heard what Mrs NLMFH had said and would be willing to confirm it.

The local Tories lost the election, my mother was promoted to the newsroom proper and the paper got a healthy blip in its circulation.

The lesson my mother learned that day was one she passed on to me: "Say what you like, and be as shrill and sensationalist as you like, but always, always make sure you’ve got the facts right or it’s back to the typing pool for you, and you won’t get another chance."

It was advice I followed when I worked as an advertising copywriter. Yes, I polished every selling point so hard it gleamed – not unlike a Tory doorstep, in fact – but anyone checking up would find that although it had been spun with Hotpoint-like vigour it would always hold up under scrutiny.

It occurred to me over the last couple of days that Johann Hari has fallen foul not only of my mum’s standards as an old-school journalist but also of mine as an old-school copywriter. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, he’s essentially just as much a copywriter, propagandist or PR for Noble Causes as he is a journalist. (In a 2004 interview he said that his view of a columnist's role was "a sort of paid political campaigner for the causes you believe in," which explains quite a lot, really.)

So, if you met your interviewee on the terrace of a hotel beach bar, don’t say it was a Starbucks. If a psychologist is a flaky fringe figure, don’t call him a distinguished social scientist. And if Hugo Ch├ívez said something to someone from Newsweek, don’t claim he leaned forward, patted your knee, shifted in his chair, took a sip of his coffee, looked out of the window and said it to you several years later. Because if you do, when you’re called on it – and some day you certainly will be called on it - you won’t be able to pull that little ring-bound notebook out of your handbag and point to where it says, in perfect shorthand, "dirty doorstep".


1. Or, as Johann Hari might have put it but for reasons best known to himself never did, words to that effect. The notebook and my mum's cuttings scrapbook haven't survived and the Middleton Guardian's online archive doesn't go back that far. Don't think I haven't checked.

1 comment:

Bob said...

"It's in my NOTES, Gus! Every word is in my fucking notes!" [flings (blank) notebook to the desk in a rage]

I wonder if Johann Hari has seen season 5 of "The Wire", and if so, I wonder how he felt about the character of Scott Templeton. Because the more I see of this, the more I'm reminded of everyone's least favourite Pulitzer winner.