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11 April 2011

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

By Steven Baxter

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.

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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?

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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.