Journalism in a pandemic: the case for the defence

Mark Leftly

Journalism is difficult right now. Working remotely, perhaps with dodgy internet and phone coverage, makes the business of buttering up contacts – particularly new ones – extremely tricky.

Few people are likely to shed tears. Hackery remains one of the most frowned upon occupations. A recent survey for jobs website CV Library, for example, found journalists to be less trusted than car salespeople and even bankers.

But journalism is crucial to maintaining a well-informed society. Most reporters take great pride in being members of the ‘fourth estate’. For them, holding power to account is a privilege that they can also boast about to their mates down the pub.

What is fascinating is that the Government’s live daily press briefings on the advance of COVID-19 have opened up the mainstream media to criticism as never before. Keyboard warriors and medical experts alike are convinced they’re asking the wrong questions.

Most of those attacks are either wrong or completely misunderstand the art of this varied trade. Journalists hold power to account in very different ways – the questions are often cannier than they sound.

We could write a dissertation on this, so let’s focus on the obvious. A lot of the journalists asking questions at the press conferences are print rather than broadcast journalists.

These are entirely different skills. The news broadcaster’s imperative in this type of situation is, often, to make the subject uncomfortable, ask the difficult question that will expose their mistakes through manner and tone of answer.

The daily print journalist, who is usually covering what are termed on-diary events, is more likely to be looking for a strong, enlightening quote that reads well in print. That’s not necessarily achieved through aggression.

The Sunday news journalist – or someone who specialises in getting exclusives – is typically looking for behind-the-scenes story tips. The awkward questions will come, but the real skill is in teasing out information.

Plenty of journalist graduates enter a print newsroom wanting to be the next Jeremy Paxman. Unless they adapt their style, they nearly always fail.

Think about it this way. Paxman didn’t get scoops. Arguably his most famous achievement was embarrassing Michael Howard, the future Conservative leader, by asking him the same question 12 times during a Newsnight interview in 1997.

That was a brilliant piece of broadcast journalism but is not the same as talking to a number of sources, getting hold of confidential information, verifying its accuracy, and then writing a headline-grabbing story that lets the public know what is really happening behind-the-scenes. Similarly, those who are good at that job often struggle with the inquisitorial broadcasting style perfected by the likes of Paxman.

Another way of looking at this is the role of the pundit, those journalists who opine in the comment sections of our national newspapers. One of the best of this breed, John Rentoul of The Independent, points out that his role is not to find news lines but interpret what is happening in politics.

He says of being locked down: “It’s all pretty typical to me. I can do my work remotely or on the phone. It’s remarkably undifferent.”

The commentariat does not necessarily need to be part of those daily press conferences to do their jobs. However, news reporters from distinct branches of journalism do need to be on those video links.

When they’re onscreen, we need to understand something. Just as the keyboard warrior knows how to antagonise and the medical experts understand COVID-19, so these journalists are doing their jobs with far greater proficiency than is obvious to the untrained eye.

And, right now, we need those skills to understand the situation that faces us. Let’s give this great occupation the respect it deserves.

Mark Leftly specialises in crisis communications and heads up Powerscourt’s political division. He was a journalist for 17 years, including UK Parliamentary correspondent at TIME magazine, deputy political editor at The Independent on Sunday, and associate business editor across The Independent and Evening Standard titles.