You can get a sense of what American journalists’ priorities are from looking at a 96-page report that the New York Times has just produced about… the New York Times. I’m not talking about the words, obviously, which are far too boring to read, but the pictures. On page three of the report, there’s a photograph of the paper’s top brass gathered around a computer terminal, having just discovered that the Grey Lady has won yet another Pulitzer prize. The staff are gathered around them on the stairs — hundreds of them — and one of the editors is looking up and humbly applauding them: ‘Well done, folks. You knocked it out of the park… again.’
That’s what most American journalists care about — winning prizes that affirm just what noble tribunes of democracy they are. In Britain, we have less lofty ambitions. For us, it’s all about selling newspapers and — pathetic hacks that we are — producing stories that people actually want to read. Our Yankee counterparts preen about, congratulating themselves on upholding the highest ideals of the fourth estate, whereas we focus on the bottom line and pride ourselves on keeping our papers afloat. For them, it’s a profession and its members are expected to observe a highfalutin code of professional conduct. For us, it’s a trade and, to be honest, it’s more about not getting caught. If you said the word ‘ethics’ to most British hacks they’d think you were talking about the birthplace of Kelvin MacKenzie.
Yes, yes, we’re ghastly knuckle-dragging troglodytes and, when it comes to man’s inhumanity to man, about as sentimental as a bog brush. The foreign correspondent Edward Behr once overheard a colleague ask the following question at a scene of carnage and devastation in some far-flung hell hole: ‘Anyone here been raped and speak English?’ (Christopher Hitchens described that as ‘the standby slogan of the Express foreign desk’.) As we in the trade can testify, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is probably the most accurate work of reportage a British journalist has ever produced.
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