Colin James on journalism

On his retirement from “his relentless weekly scribblings” Colin James provides some good insights and advice on what may sadly be a dying craft, journalism, in A lifetime learning. There comes a time.

Journalists live two lives: the inner and the craft.

Journalists are close in to events but never part of them. They meet the powerful and the celebrated. Some are seduced into thinking themselves their equals. They are then lost to journalism.

Journalists make no momentous decisions. Celebrity ill-becomes them. They are a channel through which the powerful and celebrated talk to the people and the people talk back.

To others, the journalist seems greatly privileged to be alongside power and stardust. And the journalist is privileged. But not in the way most non-journalists think.

The privilege is to spend a lifetime learning.

I suspect that many modern journalists don’t understand that privilege. Some of them are too much in it for themselves, fancying themselves too much as celebrities. This is a problem that has been largely introduced by commercial television, where money and brands and attention seeking become more dominant.

A journalist can ask questions of almost everyone and almost all will answer: the powerful and celebrated, the knowing and skilled, the repositories of arcane science or ways of thinking and the “ordinary” guardians of understanding of a community or of a simple truth or of a good way to live an “ordinary” life.

They are all at the journalist’s call. They all teach a journalist who listens.

Yet the journalist need not be expert or knowing or complete. The journalist needs understand only so much of a topic as readers-viewers-listeners want or need to know. The journalist has only to light on and illuminate an idea or project or nation or technology.

No other occupation offers that intense opportunity — to learn but not to have to know, to learn a little and move to the next learning.

A journalist is sceptical, alert to lies, deceit, backside-covering and charlatanism. But not cynical. A cynic has stopped listening and learning. A journalist is open. If not, the communication channel that is the journalist will choke.

It must be difficult to keep cynicism aside as a long time political journalist.

For some, expression is journalism’s pleasure. They are would-be writers and journalism is as close as they can get.

For me, writing it down was the grind. Words shuffled off the keyboard or sat stuttering. They often said to readers different things from what I thought I had said. Words, I found, are wilful and wayward.

And in politics, words can be wilfully be distorted, exaggerated and misused by politicians.

People with an interest in politics (that excludes most people) often seem to have their minds before they read something, they want to only see good in their favoured politicians, and seem to only see bad in unfavoured politicians and parties. This is despite an observation from James:

Almost all in politics mean well.

That includes journalists. Some do better than others.


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1 Comment

  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  24th December 2017

    I met Colin a few times back in Values Party days and he was the exceptional journalist who was interested in ideas rather than merely power. He was never arrogant or deceptive and his articles were always balanced and insightful. Oddly enough I also knew his brother professionally.


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