Deborah Hill Cone: Pressing on in a hostile world

I know all the surveys show the public holds journalists in low regard. We understand that. There is a noble tradition of self-loathing in the newsroom. Journalists are "full of jeering, tittering emptiness", as Yeats said. And in those empty moments, for example when writing a story about Nicky Watson or Bongo the rare blonde hedgehog, we find it hard to kid ourselves that what we do is worthy or Woodward & Bernstein-ish. "Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive," as GK Chesterton said.

The election campaign has only been going a few days but already we are feeling the jeering and the tittering. The only proper long-format interview programme on television, Agenda, has hired political studies students to research politicians' claims on the campaign trail. "Hey, that's the job journalists should be doing," Herald on Sunday editor Shayne Currie spluttered on Agenda. He could say the same about Agenda's citizen journalist experiment: it is calling for submissions from punters who see politicians out and about on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, the Herald on Sunday was shown up by bloggers who revealed the true Labour colours of Rochelle Rees, who organised the google-bombing of John Key and claimed to be apolitical. The message being: journos are lazy sods.

But it is not only academics and bloggers who are journo-bashing. We are doing it too.

Journalist Deborah Coddington has seen the error of her ways and written a heartfelt mea culpa. "I do know I've been guilty of upsetting others unnecessarily, and I hope my apologies have been accepted as genuine and not offered simply to make me feel better." But since journalists are the giant pandas of the media world - at least as endangered, if not as cute - we should stop bagging ourselves. If we are going to survive we need to put an end to this disturbing outbreak of obsequiousness. Niceness is the enemy of good journalism.

An editor friend of mine said she finds it hard to get young journalists to ring up reluctant interview subjects because the young 'uns worry they are being "rude". Well, kiddo, you are. But without some bad manners we would never have had Watergate, or the Winebox or any story of note. And we would just accept Winston Peters' abuse, meekly.

Trying to explain why journalists need to be nasty is like a lawyer trying to answer the facile question: "How can you defend someone who is guilty?" The system needs defence lawyers and it needs nasty journalists. Although there is some debate over which form of life is lower.

Auberon Waugh said: "Generally speaking, the best people nowadays go into journalism, the second best into business, the rubbish into politics and the shits into law." This whole free press thing, it may not be perfect, but it's the best system we've got. But never mind, the more we journalists are loathed, the more bright young things sign up to media studies courses wanting to become one.

deborah@coneandco.com

- NZ Herald

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