Standing up for the powerless – the real strength of the press

“Basically, newspapers are not run by a bunch of nice people. The journalists themselves are a special breed. I often say that, in many cases, they are pathetic people who love the power of the pen. They are spiteful individuals whose mentality is to pry and dig and give people grief. They’ve never achieved anything themselves, but they can’t wait to attack someone who is trying to achieve something. That’s why you very rarely see any positive stories in the newspapers.

“Whenever I see something negative written about me in a newspaper, I will go on Twitter and slag off the journalist in question. This results in a load of followers agreeing with me and slagging off the journalist even more – which I’d imagine is the first time that one of these pathetic cretins has ever had any criticism voiced against them. And when they see it, they don’t like it, so I’ve found that it does shut them up.”

– Alan Sugar, The Way I See It.

I’m a newspaper reporter by trade. I’m also, by all accounts, a nice person. I know that is quite a dangerous assertion to make, but if you ask people who know me, I’m optimistic that they’ll confirm what I’ve just stated.

Because I am a newspaper reporter, though, I have come in for an amount of unjustified criticism that I doubt anyone else in other professions would tolerate.

Let me give you an example. I moved to Mid Wales to start a new job in August 1997, and was just starting to become known in the community when the news broke that Diana, Princess of Wales, had been killed in a car crash in France – while being pursued by paparazzi (that particularly odious breed of newspaper photographers). That evening I went to my local pub for a pint of bitter and was bombarded with acid instead. “It’s you newspaper scum who killed her!” “You bloody paparazzi can’t leave anyone alone!” “What lies were you going to print about her this time?”

I put up with this for a little while, then turned on them: “Yes. It was me. After I left here at closing time last night I travelled straight to the airport, got on a plane for Paris, hired a car and started following her, hanging out the window with a Nikon perched on my nose.” That shut them up for a moment so I pursued my advantage: “Don’t be so bloody stupid. we’re not all out to dig up the dirt on every single human being around us. You only believe that because you’ve been told it by someone else – who probably did so in the newspapers or on television! How gullible can you be?”

Nevertheless, once you’ve admitted you’re a reporter, the stigma stays with you. One lady refused to speak to me at all for a long time because she was convinced I would seize any tiny detail of her conversation and make some column inches out of it. What would be the good of that?

In the quote I’ve used above, it’s Lord Sugar making the tired old accusation. He doesn’t actually clarify it in the book, but he’s referring to journalists working for national tabloid newspapers, who really are a breed apart, and about whom I tend to agree with him.

But because he doesn’t clarify, we all get tarred with the same brush, right down to lowly local reporters like myself. So he’s utterly mistaken where he doubts that any journalist has ever had criticism voiced against them. It happens all the time, and is most commonly undeserved.

At local level, we provide a valuable service to readers. We tell them what’s going on around them – both recent history and upcoming events. We warn them when political changes are coming up that might damage their way of life. we campaign for them against plans – whether by the government (local or national), developers or private companies – that might blight them. We work to ensure that they enjoy a certain quality of life.

Perhaps the most extreme example of that, in my case, was back in the 1990s when a gentleman contacted me to say he had been on a waiting list for a vital heart operation for 11 months; it had been put back and back and back again. This was back in the days of the last Conservative government, when I think we can all agree the NHS was neglected badly. I campaigned to get him his operation and we won. Afterwards, he sent me a letter claiming I had saved his life!

So we don’t deal entirely in bad news – in fact, the front page lead on one of my locals this week states ‘Campaigner up for Nobel Prize’, referring to a dedicated lady who has spent her life working for peace.

But the doom and gloom does tend to overshadow much of what goes on – because it’s what readers need to know.

Today I read a perfect example of the good service newspapers provide – in, of all places, the Daily Mail. Now, if ever there was a paper that deserved the brunt of Lord Sugar’s bile, it’s the ‘Wail’, with its biased, vindictive, right-wing reporting and cavalier attitude to accuracy. This is the home of Quentin Letts and Jan Moir – both of whom rightly get lambasted in Lord Sugar’s book.

But today, the Mail featured possibly the best article yet, vilifying the government – the government which this newspaper has supported and promoted for more than 20 months – for hushing up the overwhelming tide of opposition to its Welfare Reform Bill.

Under the headline “We’re all desperate for welfare reform, Mr. Cameron, but hiding the truth is not the way to achieve it“, writer Sonia Poulton states: “They are more mean-spirited than ever – proving that when it comes to politics, David Cameron’s Conservatives retain their place as ‘the nasty party’.

“Despite conducting a public consultation, the Department for Work and Pensions – whose arm DLA falls under – have chosen to blanket ignore the opinions of their respondents.”

She writes: “The upshot is that 3.2 million people will be transferred to a system that will include yet more assessments and a cutting of existing claims by 20 per cent.

“Even more savage are those disability cuts that will result in as much as 50 per cent of weekly benefit deducted. When you are receiving little more than seventy pound, as it is, then reducing the income by half is a frightening and shocking amount. People are already dying through lack of food and heat and it will surely only increase.  Remind me. We are living in a privileged country in 2011, yes?”

“This Coalition love to talk about our ‘shameless’ generation but we are led by a shameless government.  One that runs regular ‘Sweetheart Deals’ with multi-nationals and allow them to get away without paying billions – yes, that’s right billions – of pounds in taxes and yet turn on the very people we need to protect.

“Like their fatcat mates in The City – who they protected again last week when David Cameron vetoed a financial transaction tax for business – this Coalition is symbolic of the ‘me, first’ era.

“That’s not a country that represents me or, indeed, any of the decent and fair-minded people of my acquaintance… When it comes to your proposed welfare cuts, the ones you seek to change but by giving us only half the story in which to make up our minds, I say this: not in my name.”

Bravo, Daily Mail. Bravo, Sonia Poulton. Bravo, journalists – standing up for the people.

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3 thoughts on “Standing up for the powerless – the real strength of the press

  1. Peter Robson

    The fail will be back to normal tomorrow slagging off all the “scroungers” but hey you could have knocked me down with a feather reading that. Still wouldn’t buy it though.

  2. Pingback: First Mail/Miliband, now Mail/Mehdi – don’t they know two wrongs won’t make them right? | Vox Political

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