When the playwright Arnold Wesker spent several months at the offices of the Sunday Times, gathering background material for his drama The Journalists, he decided to produce an account of his observations. The resulting slim volume caused such offence to some of those he observed that its publication was held up for five years. This was his conclusion:
The journalist knows his world is among the least perfect of all imperfect worlds. Most are raring to get out and write books-the best of them do, frustrated by small canvases and the butterfly life of their hard earned thoughts and words.
Wesker was not, suffice to say, overly impressed by what he found. Indeed, his book conveys a sense of bemusement that grown men (as national newspaper journalists in the main then were) could want to subject themselves to such demeaning work. More than a quarter of a century later, many people outside the media seem still to share that view.
The industry has changed out of all recognition: relatively large numbers of journalists at all levels are women and not a few are black; and technological advance, long delayed while the trade unions remained strong, has transformed the job. Yet the popular image of journalism appears often to remain that of the unscrupulous, dog-eat-dog press of 1920s Chicago, immortalised on stage and screen in The Front Page. There is undoubtedly a fear of the media, but above all there is a lack of understanding. And nowhere is that lack more evident than in the world of social policy.
Probably the single most common misconception about what I do is that I do it to edict, or that it is at least pre-determined according to policy positions and protocols. One assumption is that my editor decrees which stories are to be covered, how they should be treated and what editorial line is to be taken.