LAST NIGHT was the British Sports Journalism awards in London, for which I was a judge. It was a chance to catch up with old mates and colleagues, some of the best in the British press, radio, TV and websites.
The big winner was The Guardian and Observer’s very fine football writer Danny Taylor, who broke this year’s big story – one which went from sports page to front page, as the very best can and do – that of Andy Woodward, the former footballer who bravely told last year of how he had been sexually abused when a young player.
It was a story that very quickly spread to all corners of the media and prompted many similarly abused players to come forward and get the help and support they needed. Their secrets no longer needed to keep them sick.
Woodward was asked to speak last night and a room of more than 500 people went silent, rapt, riveted by what he had to say. Some fought back tears. Some couldn’t. At the centre of his compelling message was thanks to Danny Taylor – and all the other journalists – who had told his story.
Now you don’t hear that often these days: somebody thanking the press. These are dark days in this country (let alone Donald Trump’s America), post phone-hacking and Leveson, for an industry that is struggling for survival in the face of public scepticism, antipathy even. The contempt for press barons and their perceived lackeys is probably at an all-time high, sales of newspapers at an all-time low, and not just because new technology and outlets offer more instant access to news and opinion.
Woodward’s courage, and his overcoming of nerves and emotions to deliver his speech, meant that the occasion became much more than just a routine self-congratulation fest, a night off from all the hard work.
It was a reminder of what a force for good the written press can still be, how it can still uncover cruelty and injustice and hold wrongdoers to account. If it declines towards oblivion without people being willing to pay for proper journalism, who will question the politicians and the power brokers on behalf of society’s beleaguered and battered as they watch, for example, the NHS crumble and care for the aged disappear?
We will still, of course, have TV and radio but the BBC’s pursuit of perpetrators and the truth often appears hamstrung by its rules of balance. And how often do those media break stories, as opposed to follow them up after they have appeared in the written press and on its websites? Will those in authority heed new websites that lack the standards of trained journalists? Will bloggers expose and halt injustice?
The rot set in with local newspapers a long while ago and is now seeping into their very structure. Their staffs are skeleton. They rarely send reporters out on jobs these days. Cheap youngsters are expected to ‘content-harvest’ from press releases and websites. Council meetings are barely covered. Bad planning decisions and local cuts enjoy an easy ride.
I tweeted about Andy Woodward’s speech and its welcome comfort for under-fire journalists; about how he had been an example of how much good the press could still do. Back came a predictable response about lies and biased writing these days, about the agendas of owners.
How can all that be contested? Frankly, in some cases, it can’t. But then, many people in other walks of life work for bad employers whose practices and financial affairs are highly questionable. It doesn’t stop those people believing in what they do and seeking to be the best professionally they can be, as many journalists do in my experience.
I have drawn on that experience for the character of Jan Mason in my novel, The Outer Circle. She is caught between sound, ethical old-fashioned journalistic methods that the police have always relied on to help them solve cases (before new regulations forced the two parties to be warier of each other) and the need to satisfy the voracious modern need for regular internet copy.
A new excerpt from the novel has now been posted on here. It sets up Jan as a character and her struggle to do her job well – and her battle with the cynicism that has insinuated itself in her amid the frantic modern world of journalism.
I hope you like it. And her as a character. I hope, too, that it gives you the impetus to pledge and get this book published to see if she and her profession - of which I felt proud anew to have been a part of last night - can still be a force for good.
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