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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

The world of journalism may have wilted, but our critics are still going strong

Though the media terrain has drastically altered over the years, journalists are still judged by the lowest prevailing standards

Journalists are the last to be appreciated and the first to be criticised.
Journalists are the last to be appreciated and the first to be criticised.

Cricketers – from the Indian subcontinent to England, Australasia to Cape Town – recognise 50 not out as a decent enough tally, nothing yet to write home about. Half a century at the crease of journalism makes it a familiar feeling.

WF Deedes – formally Lord Deedes, but Bill to those who knew him – not only fought in the Second World War, served the British cabinet and edited a national newspaper, but had one last, powerful piece on Darfur published a fortnight before his death at 94 in 2007. Since he began journalistic work in his teens, this was a supremely more impressive innings.

We hear of plenty of people – academics, taxi drivers and, from a quick internet search, a sweetshop owner and cloakroom attendant – who have worked well into their 70s, 80s and beyond. So my own half-century is cause for restrained satisfaction, not wild celebration.

Perhaps as a function of age, all who follow a single trade or profession for long periods reflect on how much better it used to be.

Journalism is by no means the only pursuit that can be said – again, mostly by older practitioners – to have dumbed down. This, in itself, is a phrase few would have used when starting out, though its usage dates from 1933.

There have been countless changes since that first day at an evening newspaper’s branch office as a nervous cub reporter in September 1967. For a start, the newspaper is no longer with us, a fate to have befallen so many other publications that the creation of The National in 2008 – and its continued presence can be seen as a commendable departure from the norm.

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My earliest tools were a notebook and pen. Stories were written, clunky-fingered, on old typewriters to be sent in parcels by train to the head office or dictated laboriously over the phone, straight from notes if time was short, to impatient copytakers.

Pagers, mobile phones, laptops and the rest were unthinkable gadgets far into the future.

Important developments in trials were reported when there was a chance to leave court and find a telephone, not tweeted constantly from the pressbox.

Much, however, remains essentially the same. Journalists are still figures commanding little respect from others in society.

The reality, now as then, is that the worst of their efforts is shallow or tawdry, whereas the best shines a necessary light on dark corners. But in common with estate agents and politicians, though unlike doctors and police officers, journalists tend to be judged by the lowest prevailing standards.

Today’s journalists are better educated than my generation. One friend and contemporary remembers being told by his first editor: “There's an old saying that the better an education a man has, the worse a journalist he will make. If that holds true, you should do rather well."

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With his modest diplomas, that friend would struggle to gain a foothold today, and so would I. Both of us have gone on, between us, to cover conflict, man-made and natural catastrophe, political upheaval and other major events in countries we might not have hoped to visit but for the opportunities we were given.

And we have worked with editors and correspondents whose curriculum vitae would reveal academic backgrounds as diverse as their natural abilities.

Higher entry standards do not always ensure greater competence or flair. But for the sake of good journalism, it may be, as well, that the world has moved on from when word that a university graduate had been hired by our local paper needed an old-timer’s reassurance: “Don’t worry. They're only going to let him cover entertainment stories."

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