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
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser