'Journalism isn't a profession, it's a trade!" Why journalists love this excuse about our 'craft'.

Ah yes, we are horny-handed tradespeople, wielding our picks and shovels in the grim dark of the content mines.

In a soapy tit-wank of a review for former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s new book, News and How to Use It, for… The Guardian, John Naughton writes this:

Journalism is not – indeed, in a free society cannot be – a “profession”. And, in Britain at least, it is best described as a very rough trade that rides on the back of a fiercely competitive industry. Given that, any assessment of its trustworthiness has to come up with a mixed answer.

Talk to enough journalists — and I don’t advise plunging into such a pool of narcissists without a hazmat suit — you’ll hear this old canard about journalism being ‘a trade not a profession’ often. It is taken as an article of faith and, more than that, a source of pride. That’s particularly true in Britain where being a copper-bottomed shit can get you hailed as a ‘tough’ journalist or a ‘take no shit’ columnist.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2020 found that overall trust in journalism is dropping like a stone across the world and that the UK has some of the lowest trust levels in the world. In January 2020, 28% of people said they “trust most news most of the time”, down from 40% in January 2019. That figure rose slightly in the early months of the pandemic but has sunk again since.

The word ‘trade’ is often accompanied by ‘craft’ when discussing what it takes to pump out news stories in a media environment where fast and frequent are favoured over timely and accurate.

The recent fallacious ‘Woolworths is back!’ story, which I covered in a previous newsletter edition, is a good example of how the endless pressure on young journalists to fill their shifts with many more stories than can feasibly be produced properly is fuelling plagiarism, churnalism, and other absolute crap. That’s the economics at the low quality, high views end of online journalism. People don’t go into journalism to do that work, but they are made to feel they must if they are going to get anywhere, usually with pressure from execs who may never have penned a news story in their lives.

Naughton’s assertion that journalism as a profession is not possible in a free society is ludicrous. In countries like Germany, ‘journalist’ is a profession and one most practitioners take seriously. Of course, Germany has its tabloids, like Bild which was inspired in format by the Daily Mirror and in tone by The Sun, but the general culture of its press is not nearly as red in tooth and claw as the UK’s. Here’s how the German Press Council introduces its guidelines for journalists:

The journalistic principles define the professional ethics of the Press. These include the duty within the framework of the Constitution and constitutional laws to maintain the standing of the Press and speak up for the freedom of the Press.

The regulations pertaining to editorial data protection apply to the Press in gathering, processing or using information about persons for journalistic-editorial purposes. From research to editing, publishing, documenting and storing these data, the Press must respect people’s privacy and right to self-determination on information about them.

These professional ethics give everyone the right to complain about the Press. Complaints are justified if professional ethics are infringed.

Notice the frequency of the word ‘professional’. Do people like Naughton believe that Germany has a less free press than the UK? Possibly. But I don’t.

The British press uses the shield of ‘freedom’ often to act as a bully pulpit. It also, as Rushbridger discusses in his book, operates a kind of omerta that ensures that journalists tend to circle the wagons to protect each other, regardless of whether they march under the standard of the broadsheet press or the tatty redtop flag of the tabloids. You can, as Johann Hari has been, be forgiven for plagiarism and deception but you will never be forgiven if you stand up against the general behaviour and standards of the ‘trade’.

I have nothing against tradespeople. In my own family, there are a good number of electricians, plumbers, joiners etc. But there are two differences between them and journalists — 1) They tend to make a proper living 2) If their work breaks or is substandard, there are professional and financial consequences.

When journalists screw up, deliberately lie, or twist the truth like its a Stretch Armstrong doll, they and most of their colleagues and peers tend to shrug. It’s just “the trade” and part of “the game”. But I can no longer do that and was never very good at turning a blind eye even when I was more firmly ensconced in the bosom of my industry.

Rusbridger quotes Nick Tomalin, who has reached near-legendary levels as a hero of journalism since his death during the Yom Kippur War, in his book. Tomalin listed the requirements for success as a journalist as “ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, a little literary ability”.

Yes, many of my fellow journalists are ratlike in their tendency to scuttle for shadows when the going gets tough. Yes, many have the plausibility of a double glazing salesman and the easy charm of someone trying to sell you a Brolex watch in the carpark of a Yates’ Wine Lodge. And as for “a little literary ability”? Having seen the uncorrected copy of many top columnists, I can confirm that their literary ability is so little that discerning it fully requires access to an electron-microscope.

Rusbridger expands Tomalin’s list to bring it up to date with the modern era of journalism, adding a need to deal with petty officials (bingo!), a steady head, well-placed relatives (well, there’s where I’m going wrong), luck, a hatred of spokespeople (I hate most people so I had a headstart) and “the strength of character to lead a disrupted life without going absolutely haywire.” A brief look around British journalism’s collection of sociopaths, narcissists and assorted basketcases — from which I do not except myself — proves the last rule is failed consistently.

Older journalists like Rusbridger and Naughton cling to a nostalgic notion of journalism as a trade and the act of creating it as a craft because accepting the reality would be too traumatic for them. A good 60% — making up statistics is also a noble journalistic enterprise — of Britain’s journalistic output is opinion, partisan hackery, or pure entertainment. Another 20% is boring.

The final 20%, the golden goose stuff of investigations and revelations, is expensive and paid for by all the flimflam that surrounds it. British journalism is absolutely drowning in awards ceremonies meant to highlight that last 20% and ignore the other 80%, but readers and viewers aren’t, which is why they trust journalists about as a much as a hen should trust a fox who brands himself a ‘coop security consultant’.