The honest hack

My Trade: a short history of British journalism

Andrew Marr <em>Macmillan, 391pp, £20</em>


Concerned that people might dip into his book rather than read it from cover to cover, Andrew Marr evidently decreed that there should be no index. This reader duly found himself with a pencil, constructing a do-it-yourself index on the inside back cover. You never know, it could catch on.

It brought to mind Marr's description of his brief editorship of the Independent, where he hit upon a similarly bold innovation - the newsless newspaper. He hired a designer who had never previously designed newspapers, and they created a daily poster front page, dominated by a vast image, together with a short essay "laying out everything essential a busy reader needed to know".

The latter experiment bit the dust after Marr unveiled it to his proprietor, Tony O'Reilly (who, we learn, was wearing a white towelling dressing gown and sitting beneath one of the family Turners). O'Reilly took one look at the newspaper of the future and gently discouraged any further experimentation. Perhaps Marr's editors at Macmillan might exercise similar firmness when it comes to the paperback edition of this book. More than most books, it needs an index, being a hotchpotch of themes and styles - part memoir, part history, part primer. Many people will want to read it from cover to cover, but many others will want to mine it for its numerous illuminating insights - at the same time as dipping into a trough of jokes and journalistic folklore.

My Trade is an honest book about journalism, sometimes painfully so. Marr is an incisive political analyst and a fluent and engaging writer, but he was not a very successful editor, and he knows it. It was not his fault that his tenure at the Independent coincided with a bitterly contested period of management and ownership. Much of his time was spent in a brave, sometimes farcical, and eventually fruitless battle with managers who were obsessed with cost control and had no real appetite or feeling for broadsheet journalism. It was a relief when Marr was eventually sacked - even if he was briefly and comically rehired.

Yet if Marr is tough on himself as an editor, he is equally clear-eyed and unsentimental about the whole business with which, as he says at the end, he is in love, but also hates. In a series of mini-essays, he poses the most basic questions: Who are journalists? What is news? What is a political story? What do editors actually do? Anyone who has spent more than a day in a newspaper office will recognise his frank descriptions of how it all happens - from the pack mentality of "agreed" lines and pooled "quotes" to the unglamorous but vital business of making orderly sense of it all against the clock at the end of a long day.

As one would expect, he is particularly insightful on political reporting. Here is a typically blunt passage laying bare what is frequently involved in the subtle, often unhappy relationship between two major groups of polit-ical obsessives - the lobby and the politicians themselves:

The "honest" journalist must behave like a shit - must build up close sources and then, quite often, betray them . . . The cynical but professional answer is to have a range of good sources, with more under cultivation, so that when one is blown, there are others to fall back on. But we all go easy on pals occasionally - the decent among us, at least. In return, we hope, the public gets a better feeling about what's really happening behind closed doors.

Marr does not hanker after the return of some whisky-tinged golden age, but he does mourn the decline of rhetoric, of debate, of parliament itself. And he is evidently dismayed by the limitations of editorial ambition in journalists - or managers - who can't see beyond the next month's circulation figures:

Is a newspaper devoured by gossip and voyeurism, which fails to report the looming political or military crises affecting its readers, "professional" in understanding what people want, or "unprofessional" in failing to report the stories that its journalists know matter?

The British press is not very good at asking itself such questions. Some hacks consider it bad form to engage in public debate about anything to do with ethics or standards, never mind the fundamental purpose of journalism. Marr's book is not for them. They will affect to find it a bit earnest, a bit comical, a bit self-indulgent.

In fact, it's remarkably unpreachy, not in the least self-indulgent, and, in large parts, intentionally funny. One of its great virtues is that it is written by a rounded person, with a hinterland outside journalism. Marr reads widely, for instance, and knows a bit about art; he sometimes even dabbles in paint himself. This gives him a perspective on his trade that is sometimes missing in people who eat, drink and sleep it.

A mistake that journalists often make is to assume they are the only people with interesting or valid perceptions on journalism. Marr is not of this school. He understands the subject from the inside better than most, but he can also pull back and see how it looks from the outside. Polls tell us that only 7 per cent of readers believe the tabloid newspapers. Marr's book provides some of the reasons for this - if anyone is interested.

Anybody contemplating a career in journalism or, indeed, politics should certainly read My Trade, perhaps alongside John Lloyd's recent polemic, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics. Most people already in both fields would learn a great deal. Just keep a pencil handy and write your own index.

Alan Rusbridger is the editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The real Tony Blair