Listen to Kelvin. You don’t need to learn about journalism to be a journalist

I can’t do 100 words a minute shorthand, have never sat through a council meeting or done a death kn

Agreeing with Kelvin MacKenzie makes me angry. I wince as I type these words. But here it is: he's right about something.

I don't agree with MacKenzie about a lot of things, or really anything most of the time. When he turns up on Question Time, as he regularly does, I end up having to instal a brick-proof screen in front of the TV. But when I read his article of last week saying that you don't need to learn about journalism to be a journalist, I found myself nodding in agreement. And then feeling horrible about myself, as if I'd just French-kissed a putrid badger. But there it is: I can't help it.

I speak as someone who not only did one of those much-derided media studies degrees at one of those unloved former polytechnics, but also managed to sneak into a career in journalism without doing the required training. (A career that never really scaled any giddy heights and which will soon be shunted off into the Jobcentre Plus via a small cheque and a "Thank you very much for all the hard work", but a career nevertheless.) So I can see it from both sides, I suppose.

I can't do 100 words a minute shorthand, have never sat through a council meeting or done a death knock, and have never written anything, ever, about Oxdown school. In short, I am a fraud. Or am I? I think it depends on what you see journalism as being.

If you're going to be doing court cases, it makes sense to get some practice in and know what you're doing, read the law books and all that; if you're going to be interviewing footballers for a living, it's a waste of everyone's time. What kind of journalist do you want to be? What skills are you going to need?

Don't get me wrong, many of my best friends are journos and all of that. It's just that I think that their skills have shone out because of their talents and hard work, not necessarily because of their training. Compared to those of many other professions, the qualifications to enter journalism are not spectacularly strong, being just one series of tests that people do once. Often there is no ongoing professional training or development.

Yet that's apparently enough to see you through a 30- or 40-year career, if you're lucky. I've seen enough brilliantly qualified numpties and enough kids on work experience who managed to "get it" within minutes to make me wonder.

The problem, I think, is that journalism is not a profession or a trade, but rather, as Hunter S Thompson so memorably put it, "a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits". As Kurt Vonnegut said of the writing trades, "They allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence.

"They also allow lunatics to seem saner than sane."

Which sounds about right to me, as a patient and industrious but ultimately mediocre person. We're all just trying to edit ourselves into something like intelligence with every article we write, with every set of words we put on the page. One day, we hope, we might get there. I know I do.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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