BOOKS: TOUGHEST QUESTION FOR A JOURNALIST TO ANSWER IS WHY

This book is almost unreviewable but, as Paddy himself might have added: “What the hell?” So here goes.

I said “almost” because all these 250 stories, from different periods and about a multiplicity of topics and memories, are oddly sub-divided in that they don’t begin at the beginning, and stories from his childhood are sandwiched between stories of his professional life. It is also almost impossible to compare what he writes in his memoir with anything that his editors actually published because, with rare exceptions, none of these memories date in any detail the events to which they refer.

So these are “back-stories”: details, musings and revelations about what it was like to be a very competent practitioner of what some of us, including myself, have always considered a craft rather than a profession. Indeed, his current crop of articles in The Irish Times demonstrates that he has lost none of those antique skills, and can indeed craft an appropriate opinion as well.

The classic mode of journalism, as preached by many of its practitioners, requires reporters (as Paddy was) to faithfully answer the core questions about any event, namely: Who? Where? When? How? and Why?

This of course is a monstrous cover-up. Most competent journalists can make a fair stab at the first four of these requirements, but the last one is the biggie, and it is almost never answered, and rarely even attempted, except inferentially. The most accurate answer probably is: “Because that’s what the news editor told me to write about today.” To pretend that most, or even much, journalism satisfactorily answers the last of these questions is self-delusion on an epic scale. Not that it’s easy, of course. It’s anything but.

There is also the related problem that most news stories are highly formulaic, that is, that although the stylistic requirements are minimal, personal opinion is not supposed to intrude, except invisibly of course, in the reporter’s choice and prioritisation of the events or personalities or in the words they choose subliminally to articulate approval or critique.

Now that all that high-minded guff is out of the way, what about the book? It is, in a good sense, the opposite of standard journalism, in that it is unmediated by the structure of our industry, by the expectations and prejudices of editorial superiors or even colleagues, or by any ambition other than the honest one of pleasing its readers. That it will do in spades.

Some of the pieces are so short that they are almost epigrammatic. That is by no means a bad thing. Overwriting is the original sin of journalists. Others ‑ for instance, almost at random, his account of an off-the-record chat with a Dublin district justice ‑ are 24-carat longer stuff, through and through. The fact that our often formulaic model and practice of journalism so often excludes this kind of real-life, bare-bones reportage should be a reproach to all of us, but more especially to those people with editorial power whose self-importance leads them to assume that doing the same thing better than everyone else is in itself an mark of distinction.

Things do get better, but not often, and not quickly. We have come a good distance from the period I remember well when all the media political correspondents inhabited one large office in Leinster House. If anyone left the room, even for the most mundane of purposes, the chances are that they would be interrogated when they returned. “Where did you go? Who did you talk to? What did they say?” If everyone ran the same story, no one was in danger.

This book is a salutary reminder that what doesn’t get into the paper is sometimes as interesting as what does, and a challenge. How can we refine the craft so that so much of the really interesting stuff will get in rather than be left out? The laws of libel are of course a major influence here. But so is the self-protectiveness of those with power and privilege, and the economic weaknesses of an industry that has been almost brought to its knees by the challenges of the electronic Wild West and has yet to find a response that does not depend on cutting costs by hiring fewer journalists and giving them less time and fewer resources to do the stuff that really matters.

Paddy Murray’s book, for all its occasional diversions into anecdotage that will not, at the end of the day, age well (because we will all be dead, as well as the people he’s writing about) is a tonic, a bit of a romp, and conveys a picture of our craft, its odd mixture of the significant and the ephemeral, that will be enjoyed not only by his fellow labourers in the media vineyard but by anyone who likes a good yarn, long or short, well told.

  • John Horgan is a journalist, former politician and professor of journalism at Dublin City University. He was a member of the Seanad, Dáil and European Parliament between 1969 and 1982, and served as Ireland’s first press ombudsman from 2007 to 2014.

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