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Behind the scenes look at journalism,
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This review is from: My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism (Paperback)
The work of journalists, perhaps moreso than that of other professions, is often viewed in a stereotypical light. Andrew Marr's book however sweeps away much of the romance and glamour in favour of a down to earth this-is-how-it-is approach. He is well suited to the task, having moved through many of the important stages in the print and broadcast hierarchy over the course of his career.
Although the book is billed as a "short history of British journalism", most of the book is taken up with impressively detailed accounts of what a journalist does, how they do it, and why, addressing also issues of personal motivation, bias, editorial influence, government pressure... The historical section in fact only ends up occupying one chapter of this fairly dense book. Whilst it is undoubtedly fascinating, Marr is not a historian and a lot of the substance and cohesion you would expect from a historical essay is lacking; that said however it takes up only about 15% of the book and does provide valuable context for the rest of his narrative.
The main body of the book gives a blow by blow account of the various roles which newspaper (mainly broadsheet) journalists play, right from the commanding national editor down to the latest teenage provincial apprentice. He recounts a range of issues which the layman might not think about too often: What makes a story? What keeps a story alive? What should the balance of stories within a newspaper be? How does the editor decide what to put on the front page? These are then linked in with a more logistical account (based on his period as an editor), explaining how it all gets put together into something printable, how long it takes, what the priorities are for printers. He gives the reader an acute sense of how stressful and monotonous a lot of this routine work can be.
A study of this nature cannot avoid tackling journalism's relationship with politics. Marr also dedicates a lot of space to the tightrope, cloke and dagger world of the political hack, how journalists go about building up sources, developing and maintaining contacts, where they can sniff for stories. His account of this all too closed world is revealing and for me was the best part of this book.
His treatment of broadcast journalism is a bit more thin (a reflection on the few years spend on television) and talks about a world with which most people are probably more familiar. We are treated to an overview of the running battles between various governments and the BBC, along with explanations of the BBC's special status and the reasons why the rules of the game are that bit stricter for the Beeb.
Finally, Marr is acutely aware of the massive changes inflicted on the industry by the electronic revolution, and charts their impact on a range of fields. As well as the obvious practical changes (computer-based editing, email, satellit communications, internet), our new world of instantaneous communication and constant availability has also led journalists to think differently and in some cases has paradoxically made finding the story more difficult.
Although only one inch thick, the book is pretty long, at least 150,000 words at a rough guess. Marr does an impressive job of keeping it all hanging together and maintaining the momentum right up to the last page. Although densely packed with information, this book is very well written and the user friendly writing style makes the text flow easily along.
Any gripes? Perhaps one: in his discussion of the pressures an editor is under, in particular from politically-minded proprietors (which in the end covers most newspaper owners), not much space is given to the impact of commercial interests on journalistic decisions. Whilst the owner's impact is direct and obvious, the influence of advertisers' business interests is indirect yet, as acknowledged in passing by Marr, has a bearing on what a paper is willing to print. Newspapers really only stay afloat because of advertising revenue; in fact you could even say that instead of selling the news (the product) to us (customers), papers are selling our attention (the product) to advertisers (customers). How many newspapers are going to have the conviction to document the impact of companies like BMW and Mercedes on climate change when the very same two are writing the cheques which keep the paper's profits healthy? Other than this point however, the book is excellent and well-worth reading.