TAKEOVER OF THE TEENAGE SCRIBBLERS
David Martens is alarmed by the extreme
fashionability of journalism among the bright young things: who will do the real work?
ENGLAND in the year 2000 will be a nation not of shopkeepers (of course not), not of politicians (some cheer there), not of engineers (sad to tell), but of journal- ists. In 1993, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the most oversubscribed courses were those in the field of something called 'mass communi- cations' — media studies and the like with 20.8 applicants for every place. Next came medical sciences, with a mere 12.4 students competing for one spot. When they are finally calculated, the figures for 1994 are expected to be similar.
The brain-drain of the bright young things into journalism has more serious consequences than are at first apparent. It is not simply that provocative articles by young reporters in The Spectator can gen- erate transatlantic outrage — I pick an example at random — but that the very nature of the media is being changed by the influx of so many young and ambitious people.
Youth's impatience demands early pro- motion. But the competition for top jobs and the increasingly rapid turnover in senior positions lead to some strange appointments being made. I wonder how seriously Observer readers take the corn- mentrary of the political columnist, Andrew Rawnsley, who cannot possibly be old enough to remember Macmillan's fall, Callaghan's devaluation, the Barber boom or the two elections of 1974? It surely mat- ters that lobby correspondents appreciate historical context and parallels. I want to hear from someone who has seen it all before. Recent developments in Northern Ireland have highlighted this point: ITN's reporter in Belfast, Tom Bradby, looks as though he must he younger than the Trou- bles themselves.
The BBC's nightly flagship programme, Newsnight, aims to provide authoritative commentary on the 'significance' (appar- ently the Corporation's latest buzzword) of current events. The programme is put together very fast and under great pres- sure. Its editor, Peter Horrocks, is in his early thirties: how does someone of that age appreciate, for example, Islam's growth And when they announce the size of the lottery jackpot, I clap my hands and make silly whooping noises.' in Mediterranean Africa, born as he was after Suez and the Algerian war for inde- pendence? How does a young editor quickly weigh up the constitutional signifi- cance of late-night votes in the Commons? Will anyone in the office be aware of his- torical precedents? Piers Morgan, the 29- year-old editor of the News of the World, has at least admitted he is grateful for the presence of a few old lags in his Wapping fiefdom.
There is a dangerous trend in evidence here. What sort of media will we have left when all the wise old heads have been finally pensioned off? Who will be able to distinguish between a good story and mere hyperbole, or understand the historical context and significance of current events? As a former journalistic colleague wearily observed, when I eased myself into a chair of some authority recently, 'We ask for men and they're sending us boys.'
What did young people want to do for a living in the past? If there wasn't a war on the City was always a good bet, and still isn't a bad one if you've got the stomach for it. Advertising came into fashion, went out, and will probably come back in again. Poli- tics seems to be more about management than ideas these days, and attracts few who still have the desire to govern and serve.
Graduates have always headed for the professions. They still do — no shortage of lawyers or accountants has been reported. But where are the teachers, the scientists, the industrialists of the future to come from? We can't all be journalists. Some of us could be doing something useful.
The latest recruits to the BBC's fast- track news trainee scheme, smiling out of the pages of a recent copy of the Radio Times, are a case in point. Eight graduates (six from Oxbridge, one from Bristol and the other from Umist) share between them eight first degrees and two second degrees. They have worked or spent time at the UN, the European parliament, a radio sta- tion in New York, a South African town- ship, the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in 'Haven't seen the book but I've read the contract.' Paris. Here are tomorrow's stars.
But what do they really know about? What will make them good reporters? In the past, cub reporters might have spent years waiting to reach a position of senior- ity. Today, preferment comes quickly. Yes- terday's editorial trainee is tomorrow's leader-writer. Increasingly, journalists become famous for being who they are, not for what they do. It is hard for the ambitious young hack to resist the tempta- tion to promote himself or herself ahead of the story being reported.
This has led to another modern phe- nomenon, the picture byline. What greater goal could any young graduate have in life than to stare out all-knowingly from the pages, sometimes from above the mast- head, of one of the world's most famous newspapers? To pronounce on national events, share pseudo-intimacies in mean- ingless interviews with important people: to be young and in the media is very heaven!
Where can the more judicious reader or viewer turn for coverage that is useful and substantial? It is getting harder to find authority, wisdom, experience — 'Caught in that sensual music all neglect/Monu- ments of unageing intellect.' That promising young reporter, Ian Aitken, 67, recently explained the origins of the expression 'the smack of firm gov- ernment' to readers of the New Statesman. It comes, of course (and, of course, I didn't know this), from a Telegraph leader of 1957. Disappointingly, it has nothing to do with the bringing down of nanny's palm on the trembling bottom of a misbehaving child, but is rather (there may be a Specta- tor reader who doesn't know this) a com- ment on the then Prime Minister Eden's mannerisms. How many of today's fresh- faced Westminster pack could have provid- ed chapter and verse on that? Only a few days ago, it took a sprightly Alan Watkins, 61, and Lord Rees-Mogg, 66, to point out how serious was the Government's removal of the whip from its rebellious members.
No backlash is yet in sight against this irresistible rise of youth in the media. And so well-educated and articulate young peo- ple stand outside the unlikeliest of loca- tions in all weathers, with notebook or microphone at the ready, rolling back the frontiers of ignorance, tearing down veils of hypocrisy and unearthing the most tear- stained of all human-interest stories. No politician can be too adulterous, no single mother can be too desperate, but we shall dive in and get the story. And the byline. And the 'piece to camera' — 'Here is the news: unemployment is awful, Mr X is a liar and a cheat, Miss Y looks cute in a short skirt.' Back to the studio — but listen carefully, and you will hear our reporter murmuring quietly to himself, 'I grow, I prosper.' So, few exciting artists or thinkers, fewer teachers, doctors or academics emerge from my peer group; instead, a gleaming pack of reporters struggling for their exclu- sives. Was it for this that dates were mem- orised, formulae learned, irregular verbs mastered and stanzas parroted in echoing classrooms? Well, yes, I suppose it was. And was it for this that morning lectures were struggled to, and dusty texts dug out in obscure reading-rooms? You bet.
My generation has happily fallen victim to the charms of a career in journalism. We eagerly set about putting our own stamp on the day's 'agenda'. We have become obsessed with empty judgments on style and sex. And now, at an ever increas- ing rate, we are stepping into senior posi- tions, attaining prominence while the callowness of youth is still upon us.
Journalism, no doubt, should be a wor- thy and worthwhile activity, and some con- temporaries' work bears comparison with that of our elders and betters. But too many of us are glib, unthinking, ignorant, emotionally and intellectually immature. Naturally we have found our home in today's media.
The author is a 26-year-old journalist.