I first set foot in a newspaper office 23 years ago. I was 15 years old, and I was on work experience. On each desk at the Sutton and Cheam/Epsom and Ewell Herald was an in-tray, an out-tray, a telephone and a sit-up-and-beg typewriter. Stories were researched by speaking to people, either by telephone, or, as was often preferable, by getting out of the office, wearing out a bit of shoe leather and meeting them face-to-face. I remember sitting in an old people's home as a First World War veteran talked me through his experiences and showed me his photo albums. Would the story I ended up writing have been as good if I'd spoken to him on the telephone? Almost certainly not.
Nowadays, 'churnalism' is the word. Journalists from the smallest circulation local freesheet to the biggest-selling national hardly ever leave their desks. With more words needed to fill more pages, there isn't time to go out and get the stories. The typewriters have been replaced by computers, with Google and Wikipedia the overworked, underpaid hack's friend. Journalism now is increasingly about repurposing existing material. Why ring the person up when there's a tidy little bon mot on the press release? Of course it would be better to have an all-original line, but with deadlines looming, it'll have to do. I have nothing but sympathy for journalists working in this awful culture. I have less sympathy, however, for the way that many journalists now use social networking sites.
At one end of the scale is the relatively benign, but still lazy practice of plundering Twitter for a few handy opinions and bunging them into a nice space-filling box. 23 years ago, the work experience kid or office junior would have been pushed out of the door and told to get a few vox pops. Much better, and much more fun.
At the other end of the scale is the deplorable way in which individuals' Facebook profiles are often used fill in the gaps about that person. There's nothing particularly deplorable about using the profile as source material, apart from grumpy old hacks' general caveats about laziness. What makes it deplorable is the appallingly judgmental way in which the information is all-too-often used. Generally speaking, this happens when the individual has done or is suspected of having done something unpleasant or notorious. Take the case of Becki Leighton, the nurse arrested on suspicion of adulterating the saline drips at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport. Now, I have serious reservations about the correctness of naming the suspect at all. Remember Joanna Yeates' landlord? He turned out to be completely blameless, but only after his name had been dragged extensively through the mud by Her Majesty's Press. Leighton is a suspect. She could be guilty. She could be innocent. Nobody at this stage knows.
What we do know about her, though, thanks to the Daily Mail finding her Facebook profile (don't worry - it's an IstyOsty link) is that she drinks (sometimes to excess), she smokes and she has days where she really doesn't want to go to work. Well, that's pretty conclusive. Throw the book at her. Except, smoking apart, that description could also apply to me and most of the people I know. Look at the way it's presented. It is indicative of absolutely nothing, but it is presented as being of obviously massive significance. It is shitty hackery, pure and simple.
The fact is that most of us could be painted as awful and evil on the basis of unguarded remarks and stupid pictures that we intended to be seen only by people who know us well enough to understand the intent. If I became nationally infamous tomorrow, what would the Mail make of my Facebook profile? "The 38-year-old self-styled 'truffler' is seen on his Facebook page wearing sunglasses at an all-day riverside bender. His latest status update calls Rupert Murdoch 'a complete and utter bastard' and his picture albums also contain a photo of Cliff Richard in swimming trunks." Chances are that they wouldn't mention the status updates where I describe the Mail as a hateful shit-sheet, but there's more than enough source material there to make me sound properly unhinged. Maybe they'd have a point, but you could probably frame most people's Facebook updates in such a way as to make them sound unwell in the head and almost certainly a danger to shipping. What illuminating morsels could we find on the profiles of Mail hacks James Tozer, Jaya Narain, Claire Ellicott and Louise Eccles (It took four people to write that story? Seriously?) if we were inclined to look them up? In summary, judge not.
While I'm here, I should mention that I was obviously an insufferable, cocky little sod back in my work experience days, and would like to thank all the experienced professionals who put up with me on that original fortnight in the office and on my subsequent returns to the Epsom office. They all taught me things that I try to observe to this very day. When I hear people slagging off journalists, it saddens me, because I think of that team and my later colleagues at Publishing News, not of Johann Hari cut and pasting his 'intellectual portraits' or Neville Thurlbeck flogging his Horace in a naturist B&B. Without exception, they were and are good people, good journalists, good writers. Andrew, Pauline, Susan, Ian, John, Richard, Clive, Mark, Christine, Dina, Judy - thank you all for your patience and sorry for being an arse.