I have never been one to deplore metaphorical fisticuffs among those in the knockabout arena of the media. Why, I have been known to applaud even proper dust-ups, on the grounds that journalism is a bruising business and that sometimes in the haze of twilight it is permissible to deliver and receive a lump or two in order to get one’s point across to friends and colleagues.
As regular readers of this column will know, the talented but occasionally undisciplined crew at The Observer are folk heroes of mine. There are those among them who, when over-fortified on Sanatogen or somesuch, feel a punch on the nose expresses far more eloquently than words their views on whether Britain should embrace the euro, or even the ins and outs of Marx and Engels’ theory of dialectical materialism.
Recently, a group of Observer roughhousers even brought their own brand of joie de vivre to a Scottish wake, which is a bit like taking a couple of barrels of Guinness to a Dublin stag night, but commendable nonetheless.
Private skirmishes of any description are okay as long as they don’t offend the local populace, involve the constabulary or frighten pets or small children.
But when journalistic in-fighting becomes out-fighting – thrust into the faces of a public that already thinks practitioners of the trade are hooligans – we need to be concerned.
Regular readers may recall that I have addressed the subject previously, bemoaning the catapults at dawn mentality of Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan and The Sun’s David Yelland, whose feud spilled unforgivably into the pages of both papers. Yet far from hostilities ceasing in the 15 months since I suggested these protagonists should go to arbitration, internecine warfare has spread in all directions.
Morgan, feeling traduced by Private Eye, has used the pages of the Daily Mirror to announce that he will shortly be blowing the gaff on the Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop. Word has it that there is not much of a gaff to blow, but even if the Mirror manages to dig up some tittle-tattle on Hislop, will its readers give a hoot?
Meanwhile, a slighted Andrew Marr is moved to interrupt Peter Oborne’s Blackpool breakfast with abuse, Rod Liddle, resigning from the editorship of Radio 4’s Today after expressing a political view in his Guardian column, is given a thumping by just about everyone other than The Guardian, and Stephen Glover, redoubtable media columnist of The Spectator, seeks explanation of a story from Alastair Campbell and Guardian pundit Roy Greenslade like a gunslinger itchy for a dawn showdown. (Admittedly, Glover’s call for a shoot-out was contained in his media writings, but such belligerence tends to attract wider publicity.)
I am no longer alone in expressing dismay at what amounts to the trade’s potential hara-kiri. In an interview I conducted for the British Journalism Review, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre said: "The way British newspapers – and the so-called quality papers are the worst offenders – so venomously slag each other off, never ceases to amaze me. We have a dismal enough image with the public as it is, without fouling our own nest."
As The Daily Telegraph media page diary acidly pointed out, this did not inhibit the Mail from subsequently sneering at Government "media groupies" – journalists covering the Labour Party conference who also took part in fringe meetings – although Dacre might argue that attacking political sycophancy was not the kind of slagging off he had in mind.
David Aaronovitch is another who has embraced the subject.
In his Independent column, he observed that the "masonic cosiness" that once dictated papers’ wariness of being unpleasant to their own kind is long gone. Aaronovitch concluded that outing journalistic hypocrisy is "becoming a social duty". But what of spite for spite’s sake: the paying off scores mostly of no interest whatsoever to the public and occupying valued space purely through petulance or mischief?
In the current issue of Prospect magazine, John Lloyd argues that those working in the media should take responsibility for how central they have become to public life. The coverage of the media by the media, he points out, "veers between a self-indulgent irony – ‘Aren’t we a bunch of drunken hacks?’ – and a hyperbolic indignation directed at politicians or cowardly media executives".
In a Barnum and Bailey world, there is room for all this, of course. There are now enough newspaper and magazine media pages, complete with minxes and monkeys sinking teeth and claws into fellow hacks, to accommodate every indiscretion, mistake, misdemeanour – real or imagined – and punch-up without alienating readers for whom journalism is far less interesting than their morning cornflakes.
Elsewhere in the papers, the industry’s propensity for navel-gazing should be avoided – unless we really don’t care about attracting even greater public scorn and contempt.
Some of the most generous people I know are journalists. In times of trouble, they will sell you the shirts off their backs. No, I mean give. Give you the shirts off their backs.
They will also buy one another drinks until the cows have not only come home, but are bathed, pyjama’d and safely tucked up in their sheds with cups of cocoa. And even though once upon a time in Fleet Street such largesse often could be regained via expenses sheets, journalists remain among those first to put their hands in their pockets for such good causes as several large vodka tonics.
Except, I have discovered, when it comes to straightforward charity that can improve the lives of the less fortunate among us – those who have stumbled and sometimes fallen on the street of adventure.
Membership of the Newspaper Press Fund, of which I have recently become a council member, hovers below 5,000, even though life membership costs just £50. That’s a couple of bottles of champagne to those at the top of the trade and hardly a fortune to the thousands working on local papers or in the provinces or on one of the magazines that proliferate on news-stands.
The fund helps out journalists and their dependants who fall on hard times and also maintains residential homes in Dorking, Surrey. A VIP party, attended by the industry’s movers and shakers and, if precedent is followed, a senior Government minister, is to be held at Australia House, in London, on 12 November. Tickets cost only £15 for individual members and supporters and that buys canapÅ½s and wine as well as some terrific company.
Get your tickets from the NPF on 01306 887511. And while you are about it, ask them for a membership application form. If you do neither, shame on you.
Bill Hagerty is editor of the British Journalism Review