Last week I took another trip to St Bride’s to honour an old colleague and friend. I had known David Watts and we had taken the piss out of each other for 20 years or more, between and during our shifts at the newsface.
On The Times foreign desk there was a saying: “As told to David Watts.” It was sung out when stringers and freelances won awards for their journalism – often from television, the medium of entertainment.
Watts was one of the desk men who had patiently updated from agencies and painstakingly recrafted their copy and made sure they spelled their own names correctly before it was passed for a final polish to the subs. From there it went into the paper. Often they were hurried accounts from places and events that had surprised the newsdesk, and a freelance on the spot had been hastily recruited to cover the story.
Their displays, invariably given more rewriting attention than the average reporter’s, would be carefully collated by a secretary and nominated for awards that regular hacks serially scorned or simply had no time for.
Watts shepherded several authors of these pieces into fleeting stardom and in doing so, inadvertently massaged more than one inflated ego.
I didn’t spot any at his memorial service.
The old warhorses who were there were mainly retired, more than several with redundancy packages bolstering their pensions: testaments to a changed industry, some listening to accounts from the still-employed about how poor the trade now was, and how few resources there were, and how cut were corners.
Like many old hacks, Watts had kicked about the world a bit and could knock out copy on demand without the histrionics.
The gathering was a reminder of how things have changed.
When the days of hot metal ended, journalists looked to a future where, instead of going to greedy printers, money could be channelled into newsgathering.
Newspaper owners kept it and then set about raking in even more by cutting staff.
Then came the internet and social sites from which lazy journalists could copy gossip and pass it off as news.
What would have been pub chat, if the nerds had possessed the balls to go into a bar, was now on screen and did not have to be checked.
Emails were repeated as quotes without even their true sources being checked. Fictional film clips from YouTube were, in some cases, used to justify real stories.
As I sank my couple of pints in a street where the Punch tavern had been cut to a third of its size and the King and Keys had become something like a renamed wine or snack bar (sorry I couldn’t be bothered to check), I reflected with two old mates on lost times and the now.
Maybe I am a sad old has-been. But I think that we have lost something special, and Watts was among that happy few.
Now, journalists at a very high level are badly-trained and poorly-paid.
The wise old sub-editor who once questioned hasty absurdities, prevented faux pas and helped harried and pressured reporters has been replaced by computer mechanics.
Academia has gained a sizeable foothold in the industry with the result that secondhand information becomes the norm and the journalist on the doorstep has lost his job to the latte-sipping computer buff with a degree in media studies who cuts and pastes wisdom from Twitter.
There are now more highly paid PR people, spin doctors and advertisers than honest journalists can cope with.
Add to that the hidden political agendas, PC bullies, bankers, businesses and global conglomerates and just plain megalomaniacs, war criminals, psychopaths and thieves and the equation becomes clear.
Then factor in the editors who are simply selling newspapers to make a profit for their masters.
With these people, even page designers take precedence over wordsmiths, and why pay for a journalist when a slickly-written PR piece batted through by a compliant newsdesk can be pasted straight into the page?
Then there are the jollies and bungs and courtesy presents to sweeten things and the late call from the one who must be obeyed saying that a piece crafted in Langley, Virginia, or Tel Aviv, or even occasionally London, must go in the foreign section.
The profile for obtaining cash and influence is ever variable.
After I got off the train back in Cambridge, I walked straight into a coincidence as I passed the evening faces in the street.
“What are you doing here?” said Liz Gerard, who I had expected to be at the service and I hadn’t seen for years.
She said she had not been told of it and was going to see Wilko Johnson at the Corn Exchange.
We drank in the Pint Shop and time fleetingly stepped backwards for the second time that day.
Well, Wilko came back from the dead, so maybe our real trade can take off again?
Picture credit: The Times