Let's hear it for the hacks

Media - Bill Hagerty praises the "lovely nuts and gorgeous crackpots" of Fleet Street

An Observer poll reveals that our national image of ourselves as a high-minded and confident race is starkly different from the truth. Headline: "We're not as nice as we think we are".

It is possible that this came as a shock to those jolly decent ladies and gentlemen who read the Observer. But there are some of us, mostly students of the media, who have recently received graphic proof that one small section of society is as grubby as the general public always suspected. Columnists - some columnists, that is - have been publicly denigrating members of the Fourth Estate as if they were . . . well, as if they were estate agents.

Tony Parsons, nurtured as a writer by the New Musical Express, is a bestselling novelist and Mirror columnist. Under the headline "Hacked off with hatred", and adopting the bloke-ish, bunch-of-fives style he obviously thinks is necessary to communicate with Mirror readers, he gave journalists a clobbering in a recent column.

His point was that the kind words written about Auberon Waugh and John Diamond after their deaths were camouflage for a trade "largely populated by cruel, stupid cowards who are eaten up with envy and loathing". He especially castigated Private Eye's Ian Hislop, A A Gill of the Sunday Times and "a big-boned lass called Caitlin Moran", of the Times.

Whether or not this tirade caused the chipmunk grin to vanish from Hislop's face, or Gill to weep on the shoulder of the Blonde as they shared a chateaubriand, I do not know. Nor can I be sure that Moran, accused of trading in abuse by a man who twice referred to her as "Fat Cait", suffered distress. But what I realised the moment I read Parsons's column was that his view of journalism is as narrow as his shoulders.

On behalf of hacks, my hackles began to rise. But before they could gain full thrust I noticed a column in Punch, written by its proprietor, Mohamed Al Fayed. Al Fayed berated those who write for the Sun, Mirror and most other national dailies and concluded: "The only place to find a fair analysis of what is really going on is in the Daily Express and the Sunday Express. Their new proprietor, Richard Desmond, is the only one showing real concern about what is happening to ordinary people in Britain."

Has the world gone mad? There's Desmond about to cleave into the staffs - ordinary-ish people? - of two of his newly acquired papers as if they were pats of rancid butter and here he is lauded as journalism's saviour.

Without wishing to suggest that all journalists are as scrupulous and fair-minded as Parsons and Al Fayed, I do feel it necessary to come to the defence of those dedicated to a much maligned trade, one that those "ordinary people" already consider lower than a grass snake and twice as venomous.

This is not the case. The working hack is, in my experience, as courageous and honest as the next man - although this very much depends on whom one chooses to stand next to.

For his money, Parsons volunteered, the three greatest journalists of recent years have been John Diamond, Auberon Waugh and Keith Waterhouse. I've no quarrel with the inclusion of my friend Waterhouse, a properly trained and multi-skilled operator who has written so many wonderful novels, plays and columns that he makes Arnold Bennett look like a slacker. But Diamond and Waugh? Captivating writers that they were, neither strayed far from the personal and the polemic, Waugh after dabbling in caption-writing at the Daily Mirror and Diamond developing into a Mirror columnist before becoming ill.

James Cameron, they were not. Nor Vincent Mulchrone, Harry Evans, Nicholas Tomalin, John Pilger, Bill Deedes, Hugh Cudlipp, Nick Cohen, Ann Leslie, Matthew Engel . . . There are more where those came from - fine writers or editors all, and journalists operating at the sharp end of the business, whether reporting wars, revealing corruption and deceit, or producing newspapers so sharp they have lacerated the establishment and often brought about change. Cruel, stupid, cowardly, envious? I think not.

There are many other fine journalists who escape the attention of Parsons, including representatives of that talented bunch who make sure his words arrive pristine on the nation's breakfast tables, even when those words attack practitioners of their own trade.

Mirror executives, art editors and subs must have felt cheered no end when they read that they are, as inhabitants of the Fourth Estate, cruel, stupid, etc. As for Al Fayed's blinkered view, only Desmond, the puppeteer of Ludgate House, can take it seriously.

But don't accept my word about most journos. Here's the opinion of one of Tony Parsons's predecessors at the Mirror. "I have been on Fleet Street for 30 years and I have never laughed so much," wrote Bill Connor. "I would never advise anybody to come to Fleet Street. Learning this trade is like learning high diving - minus the water. But I wouldn't have missed it for all the treasures of Araby . . .

"I've never got used to the people. The lovely nuts. The gorgeous crackpots. And all those wonderful, generous, self-derisive folk who spend their lives making dirty great black marks on miles and miles of white paper. Newspaper people are the greatest company in the world."

Come to think of it, Cassandra wasn't a bad journalist, either.

Space dictates that I am unable to reply to Cristina Odone's withering remarks about hacks in last week's New Statesman. Perhaps some other defender of the faith can explain to her what decent chaps we are while I do some research in Australia. Back soon - journalistic hospitality in Murdochland allowing.