Express and Explore Yourself

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Being a journalist affords you a passport into the lives of others

Let’s face it. Journalists. We’re not everyone’s cup of tea. When you’re in hot water, we’re there. We’re not especially sweet. We can come on a bit strong. And we’re not known for overflowing with the milk of human kindness.Or so the cliche goes. Hard-nosed reporter is often bandied about. Quivering-inside hack I’d wager.Being a journalist affords you a passport into the lives of others. It is an incredible honour to meet, greet, console, chat with, listen to, be raged at, sometimes sworn at by the people you meet. Most times, of course, too, you’re treated very kindly. And that’s what being a journalist is about, it’s about dialogue and relationships and cups of tea.
You enter people’s lives when they are at their best and boasting and when they’re at their lowest and grieving or exposed and hurting. It is a hard job and anyone who isn’t affected by such encounters doesn’t, in my view, deserve to hold their press card.Death-knocks are those terrible assignments you get given, usually when you’re starting out, and they follow after someone has died. They could have died brutally, accidentally, or as expected. But it is always tragically.

I’m not going to lie – I hated the prospect of a ‘death-knock’. My stomach would be churning when I stood on the doorstep and I’m not alone, I’m sure, when I confess that sometimes, okay then, maybe every time, I wished no-one was in. And yet the reality of these situations most often didn’t merit the tremours beforehand. Ironically, these were often the jobs when you got the warmest reaction.

When someone dies it’s often important to those grieving that what has happened counts. That it matters to people other than the immediate family. That it is a tragedy, and that the life that’s lost is shown to have counted. To have mattered. The few paragraphs knocked out by a journalist at the Glamorgan Gazette when my grandfather died, long before I ever decided to embark on journalism as a career, were carefully cut out and placed in the family album, where it yellows still. His life could not, of course, be summarised in those six paragraphs but they helped us. We were proud to see them there. To see his name. And to have the sense that he was bigger than us and our feelings and that he counted.

When you’re training to be a journalist you’re told, in no uncertain terms by the tutors, to drink the tea. Never say no. No matter how dirty the cup (and I did get bitten by fleas on one job) or how revolting the brew (lapsang sou chong anyone?) you have to drink it. Because news doesn’t discriminate. News is what people are doing, why they’re doing it, where they’re doing it. News is at its most powerful and compulsive when it appears personal to you.

Nothing prepares you better for valuing the published word than learning your craft on your local paper. That’s where I did my indentures. On the Glamorgan Gazette. That meant that what I wrote was read by the person who served me fish and chips, was pored over by the receptionist in the library and caused a certain frisson of froideur when I once entered Maesteg Town Hall for a concert. I’m not sure my last review had won me any friends. But still, we drink the tea. The relationship continues.

When younger, I was sure that if something happened in my home patch then I would have gone to school with them. I realised this week just how many years I’ve spent in journalism when a major news story erupted in my home town and I didn’t go to school with the person involved but I had gone to school with their mother.

Relationships and contacts. That’s what being a reporter is about. And it’s not so different to any other area of business too. Knowing people, talking to people, having relationships. That applies to all industries. Which is why I really struggle with the impression that the Leveson Inquiry, formed to investigate press standards and public life, is creating – that to speak to the press is a suspicious thing to do in itself.

When did it ever become something sinful to speak to a journalist? When is it ever wrong to have a working relationship with a reporter? We’re professionals working in a professional world. There are examples when these relationships have been too close, or dysfunctional but let’s not contaminate the idea that any relationship with the press is suspect. It’s not. It’s actually essential to a free press and to ensuring that people’s stories are told, that grief and joy are registered.

This week I spoke to the Business Women’s Seminar along with Jemma Terry of Odgers Berndston and Melanie Hamer of Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice compered by Carolyn Hitt. It was a wonderful gathering of Welsh women eager to network, to learn from each other and to build relationships.No-one was afraid to speak to the big bad wolf that is supposedly me and those like me. We all had a nice chat and a lovely cup of tea.



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