An extract from the introduction to Francis Wheen's book, Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies: Collected Journalism 1991 -2001
My career in Fleet Street began inauspiciously: the very first feature I wrote for the Guardian, more than a quarter of a century ago, elicited a libel writ. A blizzard of writs, in fact, and all from the same person. By reporting that he had a dozen ball-point pens in his breast pocket, I had allegedly implied that he was some kind of nutter. After many months of legal arm-wrestling we had him struck off as a "wilful and vexatious litigant" - or, in plain English, a nutter.
Rather to my surprise, a couple of million words later, I have still not been taken to court for any of my articles in the national press. There have been threats, of course, including a hilariously angry letter from a cabinet minister in John Major's government who warned that if I didn't apologise by noon the same day there would be a full-scale legal bombardment. The Guardian told him to shove the letter up his bum (or politer words to that effect), and he duly did.On another occasion the late Robert Maxwell went on a television chat show to announce that, "My lawyers have told me that I would win £1m in damages from Mr Wheen for what he has said about me - but I don't need £1m." True, up to a point: he needed far more than that, as the world learned soon after his death.
One reason for my success in seeing off potential litigants is that I don't like to go into print without checking my facts. This isn't meant as a boast: I'm sure that minor errors creep in occasionally. It is merely a reflection of my old-fashioned belief that journalism involves telling people things they couldn't have found out for themselves - and that readers should be able to trust the essential accuracy of what I report. In the words of the 19th-century Times editor John Thaddeus Delane: "The business of the press is disclosure."The getting and giving of information now seems to be a minor function of the press, as newspapers become "lifestyle packages" stuffed with It girls and solipsists who witter on profitably about their love lives or their shopping habits.
For many decades, thoughtful hacks have argued about whether journalism is a profession or a trade; in normal parlance, however, the opposite of "professional" is "amateur", and this is more in line with what is happening today - the notion that anyone can "do" journalism. It's a revival, in some ways, of the old credo of the Victorian ruling class. Just as a degree in Greats at Oxford used to be thought more than adequate as a qualification for running Whitehall or a large corporation, so now there is a growing belief that anyone who can surf the internet is a "journalist" since the information is all outthere and freely available. When the latest proprietor of the Daily Express,Richard Desmond, was told that he needed to hire somebody to replace the departing health correspondent, he replied dismissively: "Can't we get all that stuff off the web?"
No, we can't. Long before the internet had been invented, the legendary muckraking reporter Claud Cockburn explained why. To hear people talking about facts, he said, you would think that they lie about like pieces of gold ore in the Yukon days waiting to be picked up - arduously, it is true, but still definitely and visibly - by strenuous prospectors whose subsequent problem was only to get them to market. "Such a view is evidently and dangerously naive. There are no such facts. Or if there are, they are meaningless and entirely ineffective; they might, in fact, just as well not be lying about at all until the prospector - the journalist - puts them into relation with other facts: presents them in other words. Then they become as much a part of a pattern created by him as if he were writing a novel. In that sense all stories are written backwards - they are supposed to begin with the facts and develop from there, but in reality they begin with a journalist's point of view, a conception...All this is difficult and even rather unwholesome to explain to the layman,because he gets the impression that you are saying that truth does not matter and that you are publicly admitting what he long ago suspected, that journalism is a way of 'cooking' the facts. Really cunning journalists, realising this, and anxious to raise the status of journalism in the esteem of the general public,positively encourage the layman in his mistaken views. They like him to have the picture of these nuggety facts lying about on maybe frozen ground, and a lot of noble and utterly unprejudiced journalists with no idea whatever of what they are looking for scrabbling in the iron-bound earth and presently bringing home the pure gold of Truth."
Unimprovably put; and it may explain the curious paradox that, although we live in "the information age", the status of the reporter - as against the lifestyle gusher, or the sad sap who rewrites PR handouts about minor pop stars for a showbiz column - has been dangerously downgraded.In the words of Ian Jack, a distinguished former editor of the Independent on Sunday, "Britain has developed a singular sort of media culture which places a high premium on excitement, controversy and sentimentality, in which information takes second place to the opinions it arouses." Nothing wrong with opinions, of course. But they need some sort of anchorage in fact.