In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: We’re all galley slaves now

THERE is an insightful interview, if ever there was one, that every journalist should read in today’s Scottish Review (December 22 2010) – even though it took place ten years ago.

It is an interview Review editor, Kenneth Roy, did with Anthony Howard, who died at the weekend.

Howard, the distinguished Fleet Street political correspondent, columnist and broadcaster, was one of Roy’s great boyhood heroes, whom he asked: “If you were a bright young thing just down from Oxford, as you once were, would you go into journalism now?”

Howard replied: “At the awful risk of sounding like Ted Heath, who said he wouldn’t now wish to join the Conservative Party, I have to say that I wouldn’t dream of becoming a journalist. Tell you what made the difference. All those years at Wapping [where he ended his career as obituaries editor of the Times]. Watching the boys come in, sandwiches to eat at their desks, crouched over their terminals from 10.30am to 6.30pm, never seeing anyone, working the phone quite hard, but never actually going out into the real world. This is the big change in journalism.

“Unless you are a political journalist and working in the House of Commons, in that rarefied atmosphere, reporters never go out of the office. Except on facility trips, of which far too many. It’s a life largely dependent on the information revolution. You scan the internet, you look at what all the news agencies have to say – all there supplied and ready -processed on the desk. It’s not a life at all any more. It’s like being a galley-slave.”

He added that it was not “a life of enterprise” and that if you were away from your desk overlong it was “almost as if you’re absent without leave”.

And, remember, this was ten years ago.

Kenneth Roy also asked the great man about the standard of journalism in the provincial press. His question was: “There was a time when journalistic excellence in England wasn’t confined to London. There were several cultured provincial papers, not just the Manchester Guardian but the Yorkshire Post and the Birmingham Post. Whatever happened to the provincial press?”

Howard replied: “We have to give high credit to Alastair Hetherington who saw what was going to happen and therefore at enormous risk and expense first of all took Manchester off the masthead, which greatly offended readers in Lancashire. The start of London printing was an enormous gamble. If it hadn’t happened, if Alastair hadn’t taken that gamble, I suspect the Manchester Guardian as it was would have gone the way of the Yorkshire Post and the other provincial dailies which once had a national impact but no longer did and would have become just another title in the provincial elephants’ graveyard. The one exception to this is the Scottish press, which has kept its virility. But in England the press has become completely centralist.”

Journalists in Scotland will not be surprised that ten years ago they were so well thought of by such an eminent colleague, but there will be many of them – like me – who will be wondering what Howard would have said had Kenneth Roy been able to ask him that question today. I doubt that it would have been complimentary.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning editor of the Lennox Herald and special adviser to First Minister, Henry McLeish. He was also for four years media adviser to the chair of the Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a Life Member of the National Union of Journalists. He is now a media consultant.