Nightmare on Grub Street

14th September 2007 at 01:00

TO SUCCEED in journalism, the late Nicholas Tomalin once wrote, you need three qualities: "a ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability".

The phrase, coined more than 40 years ago, surely holds as good today as it did then. I sometimes think it should be tattooed in mirror writing on the foreheads of some of my students.

Journalism don't laugh is one of the many subjects I teach. Despite the low esteem in which the public holds members of the fourth estate somewhere just above politicians, I recall lots of them still want to have a go at it themselves.

The aspect that tends to catch them out is the one that comes third on Tomalin's list: the literary ability. It's not that he's expecting them to recite, at the drop of a news hound's trilby, Hamlet's great soliloquy on life, death and suicide; rather, that they should have the ability to string together a halfway decent sentence.

Having a "feel" for language is one of those things like the ability to kick a football 40 yards and land it at the feet of a team-mate that can't really be taught. Either you have it or you don't. Unfortunately, a considerable number of those who say they "want to be a journalist" fall into the latter category.

Luckily, though, there are still some aspects of the Grub Street trade that can be learnt with a little application. One of these is "getting your own story". "Think!" I tell my aspiring media stars. "Research. Observe. Line up your own interviews. Go out into the world and ask." To be fair, some of them do.

But others put my words through the tumble-drier of their inner ear, and the result is something entirely different. What they hear is more like the following: go straight to the internet; cobble together, via cut and paste, any crap you find there; stick your own name on it; and serve it up to Jonesy in the hope he's so old and stupid he'll never notice the difference.

"For God's sake," I tell them. "Journalism is not about regurgitating somebody else's pap! It's meant to be stuff you write yourself."

But is it? You see, like the clergyman who's been secretly reading Richard Dawkins, I'm beginning to have my doubts. It started the other Monday morning when I picked up a copy of one of those daily newspapers they give away for nothing. Turning idly to the sports pages, I had a distinct feeling of deja vu. There were three stories about football. All featured interviews with prominent managers and club-owners: Graeme Souness, Stuart Pearce and Mohamed Al Fayed.

Why did they seem so familiar? Because the day before I had heard all three interviews on BBC Radio Five Live. I scrutinised the stories more closely. There was no mention of the radio programme. It looked but didn't actually say as if each of the interviews had been given to the paper, rather than transcribed word for word from Gary Richardson's Sportsweek. The newspaper even had the nerve to stick its reporter's byline on one of the stories.

One of the perils of vocational teaching is that you lose touch with the latest practice in the industry. So maybe in future I'll have to listen to the cut-and-paste merchants, rather than them to me. Either way, we're going to have to add a fourth precept to Tomalin's memorable phrase: the cheek of the devil.

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