February 17, 2012 9:16 pm

Why I’m happy to be a parasite

Much of the journalism profession is motivated by a desire to tell stories without concern for the people in them, but someone’s got to do it

I know how bankers feel. We journalists are also watching a public inquest into our profession, and it’s not pretty either. Months into the UK’s Leveson inquiry into press standards, and with journalists now being arrested, the central fact is still Leveson’s starting point: the News of the World hacked into the voicemails of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler. I’m not a great phone hacker myself, but I feel kinship with the journalists who did it. They are parasites who use other people’s lives as material, and so am I. Journalism is parasitism. It has to be.

Soon after starting work in the FT’s office at grey Southwark Bridge in London, I realised that journalism didn’t feel like a job for adults. Partly, that’s because it was fun. Putting out the newspaper every day felt suspiciously like making the school magazine. My colleagues called their articles “stories”, as if we were still teenagers at play. Indeed, journalism is so enjoyable that half the planet now seems to do it for free on their blogs. Presumably accountants and bankers feel their jobs are more grown up.

Falling pay hasn’t helped us feel grown up either. In 1947, Winston Churchill wrote a story about an imaginary conversation with his father’s ghost. Churchill tells the ghost that he writes books and journalism. “Ah, a reporter,” the ghost replies. “There is nothing discreditable in that. I myself wrote articles for the Daily Graphic when I went to South Africa. And well I was paid for them. A hundred pounds an article.” Churchill’s father visited South Africa in 1891. If he wrote those articles for certain newspapers today, he would still get £100, or maybe nothing.

Yet perhaps the most infantilising thing about journalism is our sense that we don’t do things. We just stand on the sidelines beside the academics and carp. The people who do things – politicians, business executives, etcetera – often deride us as the “chattering classes”. (Academics, of course, live in “ivory towers”.) We in turn deride the people who do things. To read the London Review of Books, in particular, is to plunge into a world where politicians are fantastically dense and the writers would fix everything if only anyone would listen.

Most journalists are probably happiest on the sidelines. Often, angry readers accuse us of writing something out of political bias, or to sell newspapers. The truth is usually more childlike than they imagine. Much of journalism is motivated by a desire to tell stories – ideally true ones – without concern for the people in them. The profession attracts sceptics and parasites. If journalists wanted to do things, they wouldn’t be journalists.

But being an underpaid childlike parasite does tend to make you feel useless. Every day we bite the people who do things, and it never seems to help. Often, journalism feels like a Peter Cook joke: opening his comedy club in 1961, he said it was modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler”.

If you want to change the world, you’re better off using money. Almost nothing that any individual journalist writes in his lifetime makes a jot of difference. Even George Orwell, patron saint of journalism, probably never influenced events as they happened. Single voices go unheard. Generally, journalists get power only when they become a braying mob all shouting one thing, and that’s not terrifically appealing either. Among themselves, journalists almost never speak in lofty terms about freedom of the press.

Some journalists tire of being parasites, and try to enter the field. Christopher Hitchens spent his last years making propaganda for the war in Iraq. In fact, that’s how he became very famous. The reporters who wrote about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” probably also yearned to make a difference. When the secretary of state calls you to the front of the plane for a private briefing, and you feel that the world’s fate is in your hands, it’s thrilling.

You write the “story” about WMD, and suddenly you’re a powerbroker, not a parasite. Similar motives prompted some western academics to tout for Colonel Gaddafi, or longer ago for communism. They didn’t just do it for money, or out of fear. As Czeslaw Milosz explained in The Captive Mind, writers want to feel useful. But once you try being useful, you generally end up saying things that aren’t true. That’s what happened to Hitchens.

Journalists have to be parasites. Somebody’s got to do it. En masse – though almost never as individuals – we help keep the people who do things honest. Countries with free media tend to be better governed, says the World Bank. According to the economist Amartya Sen, Indian famines ended suddenly after independence “with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press”. When famines threatened, newspapers alerted the powerbrokers. You only appreciate free media when they don’t exist.

Still, being a parasite does get frustrating.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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