July 8, 2011 10:22 pm

Why I’ll never be Robert Redford

While American journalists are often heroic leads in movies, the best Brits can hope for is a cameo as a drunken hack

It is time to face up to an unpalatable truth. I am never going to be portrayed by Robert Redford in a movie. I know what you are thinking. You are looking at my picture and thinking how absurd I was ever to harbour such ambitions, and of course you are right; Redford’s way too old to play me.

But it’s not just Redford; I won’t be played by Russell Crowe, Michael Keaton, Mel Gibson, or any other much-loved star. And it’s all because I am a British journalist rather than an American one. (I admit, also, that I haven’t yet brought down a president, although I did once inconvenience John Major.) But this is not a point about Hollywood favouritism. It is about the wildly differing perceptions of reporters in the two countries. Journalists in America are widely respected; in Britain we’re right down there with estate agents and MPs. When Americans start talking about freedom of speech they are defending the US constitution; when British journalists do it, they are demanding the right to tell you who’s sleeping with Ryan Giggs.

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Robert Shrimsley

So while American journalists are often heroic leads in movies, the best we Brits can hope for is a cameo as a drunken, morally compromised hack. On the rare occasion that a British journalist is depicted in a flattering light, he’s invariably about to be murdered by the security services. On home TV we are characterised as either dishevelled low-lifes, or as heartless swines. Even when American reporters are anti-heroes they get played by Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable or Cary Grant.

American reporters can take themselves too seriously. At times they can seem sanctimonious and self-important. By contrast, British journalists on all but the most upmarket brands largely take a perverse pride in their roguish rougher edges. One of my old editors used to say journalism was a crucial role entrusted entirely to disreputable people. It is hard to imagine American reporters taking pleasure in that description. But then in the US journalism is a profession; in Britain it is a craft. For too many in Britain, a legitimate story is about what you can get away with. Even the great novels of British journalism are stories celebrating dissolution and dissembling.

Our varied approach was highlighted this week by the latest shocking revelations in the News of the World hacking scandal, and in a far smaller way by the row over Johann Hari, the Independent columnist caught embellishing his interviews with quotes the subject gave elsewhere. Hari’s case, while in a different league from the staggering amorality of the Murdoch tabloid, is more instructive because even hardened journos can see that hacking a murdered teenager’s phone crossed the line. Hari inserted quotes that made him look a better interviewer than he clearly is, and were designed to deceive the reader into thinking they were part of the conversation. Yet many journalists have rushed to defend him, dismissing the offence as minor and rounding on critics as if they were drowning a kitten. He has apologised, up to a point, but otherwise has escaped without sanction. It is hard to imagine the same forgiving response in the US to a calculated deception of the reader, especially on what is meant to be an upmarket title.

For discovering a journalist makes things up is a little like discovering your partner is being unfaithful, albeit less personally devastating. You may forgive them but you can never regard them in the same way as before. Hari is a clever writer but a journalist either believes in the contract with the reader or he doesn’t. His case is merely a pinprick compared with the phone-hacking scandal and other tabloid tales too often laughed away with roguish charm. But that’s why his apologists are more emblematic of the malaise. If serious titles won’t fight for standards, who will?

So there’s a good reason why the Redfords and Gibsons aren’t playing heroic British hacks; why film and TV don’t take British journalism seriously. It’s because British journalists don’t either. Perhaps we are more fun than our serious American counterparts – but it seems we’re the only ones laughing.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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