I have just written a book, Breaking News, about journalism. Some of it is about that state of mind called Fleet Street. I’m old enough to nurture some romantic notions about the place: old enough even to have worked there when the streets were full of newsreel lorries and inebriated hacks. But the revolution that the book describes did for Fleet Street – except as a state of mind.
Physically, it scattered to four corners of London. Journalistically, it experienced a similar force, beginning with the 1960s period captured rather brilliantly by James Graham in his recent play, Ink, and ending with Facebook. The Daily Mail’s idea of journalism has become quite far removed from the BBC’s. The Sun and the FT have some things in common, but perhaps not many. And that’s before you start on all the other things calling themselves “journalism”.
That presents a problem for an author setting out – partly – to write a defence of journalism. I began writing as the Brexit campaign was in full throat and, to this day, I often find more enlightenment, balance and expertise on Twitter than in some newspapers. There are easy enough books to be written slagging off social media: my own does a bit of that, too. It’s harder, as a lifelong journalist, to understand the things that the new players do well – better, even. And to understand where the thing we loosely call journalism fits into a world that increasingly feels horizontally, rather than vertically, arranged.
The former Sunday Times editor Harry Evans has written one of the first reviews of the book – and praised it, which, to a certain generation of journalists, is like being patted on the head by God. Some in old Fleet Street won’t like it, but then I’m used to that. The book briefly describes several attempts by editors and publishers to carve out private deals whereby the Guardian media section would exempt them from coverage. And the inevitable retaliation when we didn’t. I ended up concluding something simple and obvious enough: if journalism is to survive, and even thrive, then it has to get better. And it has to be serious about articulating its primary mission as a form of essential public service. Which means agreeing a common idea of the public interest it is trying to serve.
As for the money: let’s hope new commercial models continue to emerge to sustain decent journalism: it’s never been more needed. I doubt there will be a one-size-fits-all template. Paywalls are working for some, not for others. The Guardian’s own membership strategy, devised five or more years ago, seems to be bearing fruit, with break-even promised this year. The Guardian’s Australian operation, started in 2013 with a philanthropic gift, is now healthily in profit. But it wouldn’t work for all.
It’s probably wise for many newspapers, especially local ones, to be working on a plan B involving social enterprise or foundation status for news organisations producing public service journalism. I didn’t agree with all of Jeremy Corbyn’s recent speech on the media, but at least there’s a front-line politician coming up with some interesting suggestions for discussion.
We’re just back from our annual pilgrimage to the Schubertiade festival, where you can hike and listen to music in the stunning surroundings of the Bregenzerwald region in the far west of Austria.
Musically, little changes from year to year. Nor, on the face of it, does a landscape in which each cow, apple and blade of grass knows its place. Yet, under the surface, there is green innovation and cutting-edge craftsmanship and design. This is an area in which one mayor (of Krumbach, population 1,000) invited seven international architects to design a bus stop each, using local materials. An area that can take civic pride in bus stops is, you have to agree, singular.
Entire villages run on biomass, ground source or solar energy. The food in hotels is locally sourced. Stringent restrictions on second-home owners are matched by a commitment to build community facilities and social housing. In the UK we are closing libraries; in Krumbach they have just built a beautiful modernist one (in untreated local wood, of course) above a room where the brass band can practise. The secret, they say, is elementary enough: by buying and building local, they create a circular economy whereby the money stays in the region rather than being sucked out of it. Working relationships are built on trust, which saves an awful lot on regulation and legal fees.
It’s in Europe. It seems to work. Why do we in the UK find the same things so hard?
Moving the piano
The summer has been spent downsizing. We have moved in London from a quart to a pint pot, with all the accompanying anguish over discarded books, LPs, pictures and computer cables that might come in handy one day – or not. (My wife’s view: not.) Half the books went – 30 boxloads to Judd Books in London, the rest scattered around haunted-looking charity shops in Kentish Town. For some reason I can’t persuade myself to part with 200 or more CDs, even though I am now a firmly committed Spotify user. And there are decisions still unresolved: Does a bulbous first generation iMac belong in a museum, or a skip?
The piano was winched in through the window. We are 90 per cent there. The marriage has, so far, survived.
We are now in an apartment in what used to be the North West London Polytechnic, opened in 1929. I recently did a conversation at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford with one of our visiting fellows, the Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant. Where had he been to college, I asked? “North West London Poly,” he replied, adding scornfully, “It’s now flats for yuppies.” I stirred uneasily in my seat.