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Journalists need to be more unhelpful

Published Apr 02, 2020 – By Martin MacConnol


Back in the day, in what feels now like a galaxy far, far away, I was a Fleet Street journalist.

In fact, my colleagues at Wardour tease me that if I don’t manage to mention my three years at the FT at least four times in any pitch, I am not on form.

But my experience was wider than that. I started on the Bath Evening Chronicle, which in retrospect was a dream job. It spanned everything from cats falling from trees to ministers falling from government, all set in a honey-gold city.

I then moved on to the Daily Express, which basically fired me after six months because I just didn’t get their modus operandi – using phrases like modus operandi didn’t help.

Being let go is a badge of honour I wear with pride to this day. They called me Dougal because, quotes, they thought I was off the fucking magic roundabout. There was a lot of swearing at the Express, or at least a lot around me.

Each experience was valuable in a different and cumulative way and taught me a great deal, not just about the vagaries and peccadilloes of human nature and business, but about the role of the press too.

I keep coming back to that experience as I listen to the radio, watch the TV and look at Twitter during this crisis. I keep thinking the reporters seem like an unhelpful lot – what of public service broadcasting, don’t they know there’s a crisis!? Take Piers Morgan (love him or loathe him) who provokes a storm with every Tweet. Sometimes I read his stuff and think ‘really, can’t you see the government is doing its best, do you really have to be so unhelpful’?

But then that of course is the point of good journalism. Journalists are only being helpful when they are being unhelpful. It’s why I was never brilliant at it, I wanted to be on the inside of the tent, a supporter, not a continual sceptic. A journalist to a politician, as the well-known phrase puts it, is like a dog to a lamp post. We really need them at this time.

This morning as I listened to a report predicting that one in five small- to medium-sized businesses would fail, I felt my stress levels rising. I know Wardour will not be one of them, we have cash flow to see us through for many, many months to come. But the news still felt unnerving: what will happen next?

Similarly hearing that a thirteen-year-old had become the youngest, seemingly healthy, victim of the virus in the UK I thought: great here comes another wave of fear. But that of course is what good journalism is all about. If not exactly causing fear, then at the very least it’s about holding politicians to account and in ensuring that everyday people get important messages straight between the eyes.

If one in five small businesses do fail it will turn our prime minister’s and chancellor’s promises of ‘to do whatever it takes’ into a joke. Hopefully news items like today’s will keep them focused. Similarly, if it takes publicising a thirteen-year-old’s tragic death to wake up millennials to the need to stay indoors (and I know a few who still don’t get the message properly), then that is a very valuable service. Uncomfortable though.

Yes, we all need to work together to get through this crisis, but it’s worth remembering that journalists are doing their role well when they look as though they are pulling in the wrong direction.

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