I am sceptical, as maybe are you, about my claims to give this lecture. I have committed every known folly in our trade, and invented some of my own. I have always held back from expounding theories of media practice, because I am so doubtful what they should be, beyond those of the ‘fifties Expressman who said: ‘Always take six carbons, and never stuff a colleague’. Journalism is not a science, nor even a profession. It is a craft, most successfully practised by rabid individualists. Those who can, do. Those who are past it, or in some cases have conspicuously failed at it, write columns about how it should be done. A year or two ago, the Guardian media pages used to phone, inviting me to hold forth. When I refused for the fourth time, the adolescent at the other end inquired why. I asked: ‘Can you name one ex-editor who pontificates about newspapers whom you respect ?’. He giggled. I said: ‘I rest my case’.
The message which some superannuated editors deliver in sour and spiky media columns is that things were done better in their day. It seems to me otiose to express such views when retrospective conceit is usually founded in delusions about the adequacy of our own tenures. More important, times change. A few months ago Will Lewis was civil enough to ask what I thought of the current Telegraph. I passed. I told him I thought the people with whom I worked on the paper had useful answers to its problems in the 1980s and nineties. But 2008 is a different place. When people ask whether I am sorry no longer to be running a newspaper, I say that I am only grateful to have no commercial responsibility, because the structural problems are so challenging. I believe they will be solved. I remain an optimist about print. But the answers are likely to come from people much younger than me.
So tonight I am going to talk more about the past than the future. My perspective is that of a reporter who only by a quirk of fate spent 16 years as an editor, a role which never entered my head until it was suddenly offered to me in 1985. I am prouder of having been a reporter than of anything else I have done. I can never understand the mania to become columnists among journalists, most of whom are much better employed doing other things. As a polemicist, sure one gets a big picture byline and fixed platform. But to be a reporter, a purveyor of information rather than comment, is the vital role. Those who find out and publish things which are not already known, and which those who hold power do not wish to be known, together with men and women who can paint word portraits of scenes and events, appear far more worthy of respect than the commentariat, even though these days I myself am a part-time member of it.
I fell in love with print from the first day in 1964 that I saw my own byline, over a feature in the Evening Standard on which the headline read: ‘In Athens, the hungry hitchhiker sells his blood’- what I did during the usual gap year trip round southern Europe. I got L30 for the piece, which seemed good money. I have been morbidly preoccupied with reward ever since, influenced by the fact that my father’s indifference to squalid money matters caused him- also a freelance journalist- to die broke. The three questions which my kind ask most often are how many words, when, and for how much ? Oh yes, and about life insurance. It is crazy to go anywhere risky without ironclad cover. I have been unwilling to allow my dependents to rely on the goodwill of a newspaper management since the day in 1968 when a Telegraph stringer dropped dead in Saigon. Told that his body could be repatriated for the cost of a first-class air fare, the Telegraph dispatched the characteristic cable query: ‘Couldn’t he travel economy ?’.
Yet most even of us who love print have suffered moments of disaffection. One day forty years ago, I was lunching with Simon Jenkins. My finances were in an even more distressed state than usual. I bemoaned to Simon the fact that we were so poorly paid by comparison with our City slicker friends- yes, a nasty worm of envy was there, even in that era. I said crossly: ‘I can’t think why I keep doing this’. Simon said: ‘I’ll tell you. It’s because it is the only thing you know how to do’.
Most journalists are unfit for any other occupation. And those of us lucky enough to prosper with our pens discover a joy seldom shared in more lucrative trades. When I was a teenager, my father gave me two pieces of advice. The first was to marry a girl with fat legs, because they are better in bed. I have never had a chance to discover whether this is true, because both the women to whom I have been fortunate enough to be married have very thin legs. Father’s other advice was more pertinent. He talked in lyrical terms about what he called ‘the challenge of a blank sheet of paper’. At the time he said it, when I was maybe sixteen, his words meant little. But in the rest of my life, they have come to mean a lot.
There is not a day, even now, when I do not get a thrill from sitting down at a keyboard and setting about filling it by five or six o’clock with a quota of words for a newspaper. The old showbiz adage applies, that if you take care of the beginning and the end, the middle looks after itself. I never go to bed happy unless I have written something for somebody. I am sometimes asked how I can bring myself to write 1200 words on my experiences of camping or do-it-yourselfing as cheerfully as the same number about David Cameron’s party conference speech, or Obama’s chances of the US presidency. The answer is that I love to write- about almost anything. In that sense, I am a true hack. I have never lost the thrill of seeing my byline on a page, of hearing the desk say ‘it’s on page 8’. I am a shockingly bad holidaymaker, because I file from wherever my poor wife and I find ourselves. David English once told me that he thought all great editors are obsessives. Whether or nor that is true, all proper reporters are compulsive filers.