I've just finished Andrew Marr's My Trade, a “short history of British journalism”, and it has cheered me enormously. Especially since it is another miserable, too-dark January day.
Marr is one the UK's best journalists. He has worked as a reporter and a columnist on a wide range of publications including The Express, Observer, Economist and Independent. He was editor of the Independent. He became an extremely popular and successful political editor of the BBC, and has done plenty of other work on TV and on radio – where he can now be found on Radio 4.
The book is a really interesting read. It comes with his trademark affableness, self-deprecation and lack of pomposity but also with following some significant legwork and serious thought attached.
Unlike Roy Greenslade's Press Gang, which is a comprehensive but incredibly difficult and dense read, Marr offers just the right amount of depth on the newspaper trade for a book. It is a skill of judgement that more than anything has marked him out as an exceptional journalist.
But it was, pleasingly enough, his epilogue, the very last few pages, that gave me the biggest lift (clearly some of the columnist skills rubbing off).
In these pages, Marr argues convincingly that journalism isn't doomed to become the endless rehash of corporate PR machines or the mindless invention surrounding so-called “celebrities” – themes that are never far away from my ranting tongue and, sadly, every form of current publication.
Instead, he argues: “Journalism needs the unexpected. It needs the unpredictability and oddness of real life. This it means it needs real reporters.” He points out that the current desk-bound hacks and endless sensationalism are there while there is a fall in newspaper circulations and a fall in news viewing figures.
Society is becoming more educated, not less. People are not becoming less interested in news, they are becoming less interested in nonsense news.
This may sound like wishful optimism but reading through the book and the historical threads and patterns it reveals lends it significant weight. At a time when I am frankly beginning to despair about journalism, plus am taking several months off the day-to-day grind to finally write my book on Sex.com, this considered review has helped gladden my heart. Plus, one national news editor recently stressed that his focus from now was to be on journalism in deciding commissions – not sexiness or hype or cleverly spun mundanities, but the good stuff – only achieveable by getting out there and sticking your head round doors.
The other element that I particuarly enjoyed was the tale of Tony Leonard at The Star, which I have to confess I hadn't heard before.
In December 2003, the Daily Telegraph ran a terrific piece entitled “Another scoop from the man who wasn't there“, which Marr uses as an jump-off point to explain the banality and blandness of modern media.
Tony Leonard it seems doesn't exist and was no more than a “house byline” which the Star used to make it look as if it had a reporter on the scene when in fact it was simply piecing together snippets of news from other sources.
The Telegraph story runs: “Evidently, the Star is often at a loose end, if Leonard's productivity is anything to go by. In the past year, he has racked up an eye-popping 818 stories, including eight in one single day. He has been particularly busy in recent weeks, leaping traditional newspaper divides to cover everything from the rugby winners' parade for News to a supermarket take-over bid for Business.
“Tony has even managed to land a couple of 'exclusives', including Justin Timberlake's shopping spree at Harrods. Not bad for someone who never gets out of the office.”
It's a good article and it was just what you need at the end of another long day. So read the article and buy Mr Marr's book and then read the stories I will start pumping out as soon as I've written my book – probably around mid-April.