I have been around journalists long enough to know that they should never be put in charge of anything, least of all a newspaper. Watching Billy Wilder's classic film The Front Page on a flight to Rome this week only confirmed this view. It pits the magnificent Walter Matthau, who plays the managing editor of the Chicago Examiner, a gruff, irascible man so committed to his paper that he sleeps on a camp bed in his office, against the star reporter played by Jack Lemmon, who wants to leave journalism and marry his sweetheart.
Lemmon's ambition is to move to Philadelphia and get a job in advertising. "Why do you want to do that?" yells Matthau. "You'll spend the rest of your life writing about soap and washing powder." With Matthau's coercion, the pair stops at nothing to get their front page lead, even if it means taking the condemned prisoner hostage and trying to smuggle him out of the jail in a desk. Jack Lemmon eventually catches the train with his girl, but makes an amateur's error by accepting the managing editor's parting gift of his gold watch.
Matthau tells the guard to phone down the line to have him arrested for stealing his timepiece. Lemmon is forced to return to the paper and ends up managing editor, while Matthau becomes a lecturer on the ethics of journalism. The message is clear: these men should not be allowed out of the newsroom. But where could they go? Few things are as much fun as journalism, even if there are fewer jobs to go around these days and many feel they are writing advertising copy anyway for a fraction of the pay. It is no surprise that many want to leave the noble trade, but what are the options?
Given the events of the past year, I would say that journalists' most endearing trait - their cynicism - should be in much demand in investment circles. My journalistic mentor was fierce when I suggested that I had assumed something. "Assume makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'," he would say, and he was right. For all their pinstriped suits and MBAs, investment bankers and fund managers seem to have the same perception of risk as a 17-year-old behind the wheel of his first car, as the subprime crisis of the past year has amply shown. But if not investment banking, what is left for hard-working hacks?
It is a little known fact that many journalists end up running countries. Mobutu Sese Seko went from copy boy to president of Congo, which he renamed Zaire. Although better known for his leopardskin pillbox hats, stumping up the cash to host the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the self-styled "all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake" started professional life at a typewriter in the offices of L'Avenir, a Belgian broadsheet.
Benito Mussolini, the bullet-headed maverick who ran Italy for 20 years before ending up hanged alongside his mistress, was also a former journalist. And of course the man now running the country, Silvio Berlusconi, owes his success to his media empire. He acquired it in controversial fashion, having been gifted it by Bettino Craxi, then prime minister, who also happened to be godfather to Mr Berlusconi's daughter.
A few years after the happy gift, Craxi received a present of his own, a deposit of 23 billion lira (a defunct currency then worth about Dh50 million) into his bank account from an arm of the Berlusconi empire. Mr Berlusconi was sentenced to two years in jail for this crime, but he didn't need a pair of reporters in fedoras to spring him. Italy's Alice in Wonderland courts did that for him - apparently the crime took place too long ago, so there was no need for him to serve the time.
Foreigners are always surprised that Italians so revere their prime minister. Just as many Russians adore Vladimir Putin, so do many Italians think highly of Mr Berlusconi. The men all long to be like him. They admire his cunning, his wealth, his ability to regrow his hair and the fact that teenage girls are willing, even desperate, to spend the evening with him. There are Italians who live in houses built by his company, who watch his television channels, read his newspapers, insure their cars with him and even support his football club, AC Milan.
In short, he has become ubiquitous. His television channels have nothing but good to say about him and only abuse for his rivals. His success is based on having a good narrative, as well as the means to get the message out. He understands the effect that his story has on other people, and puts it on the front page. My success can be yours, he suggests, although he omits to mention that his connections with Signor Craxi were also fairly useful. If only all journalists could do this.
His gain is journalism's loss: apparently Mr Berlusconi was a pretty good copy editor in his day and never, ever assumed anything. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org