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Slagging off journalists

Posted by Richard Thursday, June 24, 2004

Regular readers of this Blog will already have discerned that the two favourite occupations of its editors – and this one especially – is slagging off politicians and journalists. And not necessarily in that order.

In recent days, we've had a go at the venerable Michael Gove, he of The Times, and the egregious Andrew Marr, the BBC's guru on all things political. Today, we turn to that great economics sage, the wise and indisputably famous Anatole Kaletsky, who has filled today's op-ed in The Times with several columns of EWM (Extruded Written Material) – somewhat more lethal than Iraq's WMD.

But, before launching a diatribe at this poor (albeit well-paid) and otherwise inoffensive scribe, we thought it might be as well to explain why the practitioners of the trade attract our continued ire.

Cutting to the bottom line, the simple issues are those of power and responsibility. No one (sensible, at least) will disagree that those who have access to the columns of the national newspapers have considerable power, not least to shape the agenda and – over term – influence and even direct events.

This sets the trade of journalism apart and it is not unfair to suggest that with power goes responsibility – the duty (to use that old-fashioned word) to get it right.

This does not, of course, rule out msitakes – which we all make, especially when information is incomplete or the writing is rushed – speculation (which is fair game), or opinion, but one does expect the basic facts to be understood and to be conveyed accurately.

What one sees in too many of the contemporary journalists, however, is a phenomenon which can only be described in technical terms as "pig ignorance", the most basic of howlers of the type that we find in Gove's writings, where he confuses the "Council" with the "European Council", or even the admission from Marr to the effect that he can't even be bothered to find out what is going on.

At the root of all this, we feel, is idleness – the basic sloth for which hacks are famous worldwide – in their unwillingness to do the work needed to get to grips with an issue. For something as complex as the European Union, they cannot just rely on the lessons in civics delivered in primary school (if they got that far) or a few Commission press hand-outs.

This is a subject replete with propaganda and misinformation, where it is necessary to get out there and do some serious study, and take the time to find out what basically makes the system tick.

But we detect that there is also another dynamic at play – the "above the line" syndrome, to which the likes of Gove are all too susceptible. They suffer from their own estimation of their value, whereby they are far too grand to admit there is something they do not know, and far too important to devote their most valuable time actually to learning anything.

By this means, they effectively disqualify themselves from learning and instead rely on their "above the line" status to churn out a never-ending stream of EWM, immune from challenge simply by virtue of their enhanced status. These are the prostitutes of journalism – all power with no responsibility.

So what of the inoffensive Anatole Kaletsky – hooker extraordinaire or simply another "above the line" blunderer? Judge for yourself with this golden offering from his op-ed:

…refocusing the EU on its original economic objectives would advance the cause of political integration between those countries which wanted to move along this road, giving them a golden opportunity to create new institutions outside the EU framework though closely connected with it, to develop their federalist ideals.
The point, of course, is that the original objective of the EEC (which later became the EU) was political integration. This, at the time, being unattainable overtly, its founders decided on limited but progressively increasing economic integration in order to achieve that end. Anyone who does not know that, and thus turns history completely on its head, surely has no business being in the commentary game, much less taking up space in The Times.

Perhaps it is apposite, therefore, that the BBC has announced it is setting up a "college of journalism" in an attempt to improve the skills of its staff. One could suggest three students for the first courses: Messrs Gove; Marr and Kaletsky, and possibly even Kilroy-Silk if he ever chooses to go back to his day job.

However, given the obvious limitations of the BBC, one dreads to think what it will in fact be teaching its students, and the very real fear is that the output will not be any improvement on what went in. Failing that, there is no alternative but for these so-called experts to break out of their own bubbles of ignorance and get down to work, learning something about the subject before again holding forth so freely.

But, as has been enjoined so often in the Blog, don't hold your breath.