Journalism and the school of (very) hard knocks

Who would be a journalist? It’s hard to get into. It’s tough work: frantic deadlines, high-pressure – get it wrong and your outfit might get sued! And there’s immense pressure to cut costs, especially on the inky-handed “Fleet Street” newspaper reporter side of things.

If you’re working in certain dangerous places in the world, you might also get threatened, beaten up, jailed, taken hostage and even killed. Look at just the last 24 hours: one journalist killed in a hostage rescue situation in Afghanistan (thankfully another surviving); a third held for 79 days in Iran while his pregnant wife agonises over his safety back here in the UK.

So, do you fancy it? OK, it’s also great work! Talking to and meeting interesting people, getting and producing “news” or fascinating features, having the satisfaction of seeing or hearing well-produced reports … and yes, I suppose we should say it, there’s also the pleasure that journos get in seeing their names in print or having their friends and families hearing them mentioned on the box or over the airwaves.

Last week the Guardian’s excellent investigative journalist Ian Cobain gave a talk to a bunch of would-be journalists here at the Amnesty office. It was engrossing stuff. For example:

* Yes, journalism – especially its print form – is under financial pressure, but no it’s not dying and there’s still a huge demand for good quality reporting in the world

* People still hunger for and will always want to consume news. (Ian made the nice observation: “How did we know who is top of the Premiership or whether Barack Obama is president of the USA? Because a journalist has reported it to us, that’s how)

* Breaking into journalism is harder than it was when Ian started (via the classic local newspaper route in Merseyside). Instead now you need a journalism degree, yes, but then you need a niche. Basically, if your local newspaper or radio/TV station isn’t doing something because of a lack of capacity – then perhaps you could! Good Coventry-based football journalism example here (hey, Sky Blue Army! Sky Blue Army!)   

Ian acknowledges that he’s in the especially lucky position of not just being with a big media outfit but also having the luxury of working on long-term investigations (“I just have to produce something every once in a while”). For most, though, it’s tight deadlines (online news going up within the hour etc), disappointingly chopped back copy, an emphasis on speed, on impact, getting the follow-up, and moving on. But it’s still making a difference. Witness, as Ian remarked, the bombshell of the Daily Telegraph’s MPs’ expenses story (OK, a paid-for scoop initially, but then expertly dissected for news value by a big team of hardworking reporters thereafter).

Ian himself is back in the newspapers today with his close examination of what really happened to the man who is being described as the lynchpin in the “Oasis bottles” airline bomb plot, Rashid Rauf. Cobain is doing what a good, dogged reporter should do – digging away at a story rather than simply accepting it at face value. As I’ve noted approvingly in this blog before, he’s already uncovered copious material pointing to complicity from the UK authorities in the torture of British detainees in Pakistan, and Cobain’s latest report suggests that Rauf was tortured in Pakistan for two weeks before being questioned by British intelligence officers. (Separately, today, Sky News is also reporting a similar alleged instance of the British authorities turning a blind eye to their nationals being mistreated in Pakistan).

Realistically, if you’re starting out as a junior journalist fresh from journalism school it’s not going to be all Washington Post Watergate-style heroics. But, taking Ian Cobain as an example, it can be both rewarding and important work. And that, dear blog reader, is my exclusive news story of the day.

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