Journalism is not a profession

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Nevertheless, just because it isn’t a profession and just because its business model has been shot to pieces doesn’t mean to say journalism lacks importance.

Journalism is not a profession – there are no qualification letters after our names. I’m not even sure if it’s a calling or even a trade. Sure there are many journalists on a mission, like a priest, but then so is a dog in search of a bone. One should, anyway, mistrust journos on a mission – they tend to ignore inconvenient truths that refuse to fit in with their world view. The best journos err towards scepticism rather than zealotry. For those remaining who are entirely economically reliant on journalism, however, it must be more than a pastime. It is what it is: telling stories for a living.

In Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Scoop’ the hacks aren’t terribly ‘professional’, more a mixed pack of feckless, unprincipled and cunning scribblers, hacks and ink-slingers. It’s a mark of their acknowledged lower standing – but not necessarily low self-esteem – that journalists often quite happily call themselves hacks which is defined as ‘a writer producing dull, unoriginal work.’ Call a lawyer a hack and you’ll see him in court.

A mark of a profession is a barrier to entry. You cannot remove a gallbladder without your FRCS or audit BHS without your ACA. The general idea is that these letters signify you have undergone training and reached a certain level of proficiency in the trade and – if you fall short of the required standards – you will get struck off. That’s the theory, anyway.

However, there is a reason why Adam Smith made the point: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Smith was, incidentally, writing in a largely pre-profession era with many quack medics, dodgy lawyers and bodging master builders. It’s in the interests of professions to put up barriers because it means they control the numbers who share the pie.

You have to pay to get access to a lawyer, a doctor – usually via your taxes – or an architect. And, if you are unable to sort your problem out yourself – as is the usual reason for seeing one of these professionals – you’d be well advised to take their expert advice. You wouldn’t really want an amateur to take your appendix out. (The fact that within a few years the procedure will be conducted by a robot with lower failure rates than a human surgeon is another story.)

Always a low entry-barrier activity, in journalism things have turned quite ugly since the arrival of the digital world. The hurdles are now the lowest they have ever been – blogs and vlogs are easily creatable and accessible. The fact that the vast majority are comprised of unmitigated pap, never mind ‘fake news’, is neither here nor there. They get the eyeballs and the ‘likes’ that The Independent didn’t. Facebook and Google have got rich and Rupert Murdoch got (relatively) poorer. The Guardian lost £45 million last year which doesn’t look very professional at all.

You no longer require a journo, professional, trained or otherwise to tell you what’s going on in the world. So the digital world has ripped journalism’s business model apart. Newspaper and magazine sales have plummeted, old fashioned ad revenue has done the same. And it hasn’t been replaced by digital cash because so much is available free.

Nevertheless, just because it isn’t a profession and just because its business model has been shot to pieces, doesn’t mean to say journalism lacks importance. There’s a counter-argument that, with a wave of populist fervour sweeping across the world,  fact and reason plus their twins News and Comment have even more value among lies and the irrational. Eighty-one per cent of the public say they know fake news when they see it and one would hope that among proper, discriminating journalists that figure is even higher. There’s some evidence that ‘serious, heavyweight’ publications that won’t allow you access unless you pay for them are enjoying a minor renaissance – more information here (behind a pay wall) on the Trump Bump in online subscriptions. No three-hundred-and-fifty-quid a year for your, no serious commentary on what’s really going on.

The tricky economics are one thing. But the best thing about journalism is its freedom. As an activity, journalism cannot and should not be licensed by the state or any professional body, any more than art or political protest should. The reason for this is the same freedom-of-expression argument that means pontificators on any street corner, never mind just Speaker’s Corner, must be allowed to mouth-off without the interference of the state, providing no laws are being broken.

There is a rather good Huffington Post piece by James Anslow on why journalism isn’t a profession. Anslow writes: “Journalism is an activity which, when pursued with vigour and executed with skill in a spirit of disruptive yet creative mischief, should represent the antithesis of ‘professionalism’, of regulation. It should be the enemy of any contracted code of behaviour outside those codes imposed on all citizens and enforced by criminal and civil law.”

And the criminal and civil law does, on occasion, catch up with journalists. The News International hacking scandal may have led to the complete, costly waste of time that was the Leveson Inquiry but collars were felt and scalps had. (And the process, via the civil courts, isn’t finished yet.)

Many Americans would think journalism is a profession and treat it very seriously. Some even liken it to taking holy orders. That’s why they still – despite their straitened circumstances – believe in employing hoards of fact-checkers. To sin is to err from the facts. This seriousness is also why they watched the possibility of the press being regulated by government here in the UK with absolute horror. Leave that kind of repressive, anti-democratic behaviour to the Chinese, Turks and Russians.

Deep down, every US hack wants to be Woodward or Bernstein. You only have to watch the recent BBC documentary series on the pious and driven members of the New York Times Washington bureau in their daily battle against Trump to see this. The problem is, however, more the NYT huffs and puffs, the more the red-necked gammons of middle American cling to their hero. Much journalism is now an echo-chamber – nobody changes their mind.

Over here, by contrast, there are still many practitioners who regard journalism as a bit of a caper. What is The Sun if not a bit of a ‘larf,’ at least until you find yourself the undeserved subject of its violent attention. But it is a caper that does on occasion speak truth to power. “News is something someone wants suppressed. Everything else is just advertising”, said Lord Northcliff. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”, said no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson.

They may not be professionals but those who labour at the heart of our best newspapers, magazines and TV are just as smart as a partner at Linklaters or Goldmans. (And, probably, better company with their looser, gossipy ways.) Their problem is that journalism is unruly. As Simon Jenkins has written, “The press does not operate with any sense of proportion, judgment or self-restraint because it is selling stories, not running the country”. This may sound horrible, irresponsible but that is the way it must be. And when you get journalists who wish to run the country you wind up with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

Journalists have “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”, as Kipling and later Stanley Baldwin put it. But do you think accountants, lawyers, and chartered surveyors are invariably more ‘responsible’ these days than hacks? Was the building ‘professional’ who signed off the cladding on Grenfell Tower or Carillion’s audited accounts more responsible than a leader writer on The Times, Grazia or The Wall St Journal?

Of course journalists can do calamitous things – naming suspected paedophiles, for example – but then, being irresponsible, they always have and always will. They can and have wrecked the lives of entirely innocent individuals. The laws of defamation and breach of privacy do what they can to keep this in check.

Indeed, the very fact it isn’t a professional activity may be greatly to the advantage of journalism as professions have been much discredited over recent decades. The professions have come down from their pedestals to our lowlier level – trust levels among lawyers and accountants languish in the pits where hacks have always dwelled. With the possible exception of NHS doctors and teachers who have been the least contaminated by ardent ‘client service’ and the profit motive many professionals have joined journalists in the sin bin.

Welcome to our world, guys where as Hunter S Thompson wrote: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuck-offs and misfits – a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.” Great place to be.


Matthew Gwyther is a partner at Jericho Chambers and an award-winning journalist. He was Editor of Management Today for 17 years, and currently presents In Business on Radio 4.

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