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'Journalists Don't Have To Learn Shorthand' Is A Dumb Argument

01/11/2016 14:39 | Updated 01 November 2016
Danny Hewitt/500px

On Tuesday morning, I felt like journalism was having its own 'the country has had enough of experts' moment. A Twitter debate began about whether journalists should learn shorthand. People who really should know better were suggesting they should not.

First up, the counter-argument to my position: Journalism has changed. Recording technology is affordable and discreet. It can be better than hastily jot down what someone says using weird shapes only some people can recognise. All this is true. This is why I use both shorthand and audio recordings in my work.

My argument: Really? Really? I won't focus on the practical case: Shorthand is the only way to record proceedings in English courts from the press box. Smartphones and dictaphones can break down. The notion of firing up a cumbersome device for every two-minute chat is absurd.

What left me surprised was the suggestion that the relatively easily-acquired mental skill that makes you able to quickly write down what other people say was, at best, redundant and, at worst, a symptom of an industry that arrogantly refused to adapt to a changing world.

I saw two people argue requiring people to learn was a barrier to joining the trade, which has become the preserve of the elite. I am a white, Oxbridge-educated man. If you think shorthand was what got me into the business, you have some funny ideas about how Britain favours the privileged.

Journalism came to be dominated by the rich because those with rich parents are more able to work for little or no money early in their career. The internet created new media and opened up avenues into the business besides the traditional training route. It did not, as far as I can see, create much opportunity for the type of person the industry already discriminated against.

I ranted on Twitter about this. If you are a good journalist who does not know shorthand, your success comes despite that, not because of it. Within journalism, as in politics, there is a loud competition, usually on Twitter, about who is the Industry's Best Practitioner Amid These Changing Times. Shorthand offered another chance for a scrap between the more-traditionally minded and the brash newcomers. In the heat of arguments like this, the notion that it can be a plus to be unskilled or ignorant thrives. You can argue shorthand is less important than it was. You would be right. But to argue that people should not seek skills or tools to do their job is daft and, I hope, self-evidently so.

At the end of my Twitter rant - or in the middle of it, it went on too long for me to keep track - our head of video said to me: 'I think all journalists should be able to film'. She's right. I can't film. I'd be better at my job if I could. That's how skills work.

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