Johann Hari Debacle - What Makes a Good Journalist?

16/09/2011 23:34 BST | Updated 16/11/2011 10:12 GMT

The most striking part of Johann Hari's latest attempt to draw a line under the slow-motion crisis threatening his glittering career in journalism is a quote many outside the profession will find absurd.

As well as handing back the Orwell Prize he seemed certain to lose in any event, the suspended Independent columnist said he would be taking a leave of absence until 2012 with a view to 'undertaking a programme of journalism training.'

Speaking as someone who had to do precisely that before I was ever allowed near a newspaper office full-time, let alone be appointed as a columnist on one of the country's most respected quality titles, I'll give him this - at least it's a start.

I'm struggling to avoid this sounding like sour grapes - honestly, it's not*. Hari has achieved a great deal in journalism at a young age through talent and dedication. His failings are certainly not through a lack of either.

Where Hari appears to have fallen down is in straddling the gap between being a fine writer, able to turn a good phrase and develop an argument more coherently than I could ever hope to, and being a reporter or interviewer.

The transgressions which have forced Hari to fight for his journalistic life came about through misattribution, occasional carelessness and an inability to coax from a subject the required quotes to make a story stand up in the way he might have liked.

If you don't get the quotes, you've not got the story - and you can't get them from things someone may have said somewhere else and in some other context unless you're absolutely clear and explicit about it.

This kind of thing was dealt with in the first week of the NCTJ training course on which I studied. Thousands of others have gone through the same punishing routine of lessons in media law, news writing, public affairs and shorthand.

It's mechanistic, precise and occasionally soul-destroying. It's also absolutely essential, and when I came to hire new reporters the training was a pre-requisite when sifting through CVs.

Put simply, Hari's double first from Cambridge would pale into insignificance next to the kind of applied, focused journalism training provided on these courses.

Up and down the UK local journalists are working for not much more than the minimum wage, doing the vital work of holding councils to account and reflecting the work of the justice system in our magistrates' and county courts.

It's hard work for long hours in an industry which each year sees hundreds of redundancies as ad revenues and circulations shrink by the week.

Despite all this, there is no shortage of would-be hacks out there. Each reporting job at my former paper would attract up to 70 applicants, all eager to work for not much more than the thrill of seeing their byline in print every day.

I hope, when Hari admits he has let people down, he's thinking not just of the middle-class progressives who share many of his views (myself among them), but also of these men and women on the country's Chronicles, Heralds and Echos.

Their careers are spent taking down quotes and reproducing them faithfully. Aside from the training which stresses accuracy above all else, the practical aspects of daily reporting leave a lasting imprint.

When the people you're quoting live in the next street to you, it's a lot less tempting to change their words around to fit the story in your head.

When you've seen another reporter carpeted by a ferocious coroner over some minor inaccuracy you make sure your own copy is as close to verbatim as you can possibly manage.

Fortunately local reporters have a useful tool to help them out - shorthand. A staggering number of national newspaper journalists, not just the commentariat but actual reporters, don't possess this fundamental skill.

It's the only record you can make that's guaranteed to stand up in court, and the process involved in note-making forces you to focus and concentrate on the details of what's being said like nothing else.

That's not to say you don't face dilemmas - if a councillor is barely able to form a sentence, should you 'tidy up' his quotes to reflect his intentions, or should the electorate know how their representatives speak in reality?

Those judgment calls have to be made every day, but embellishment to the extent practised by Hari would be anathema to even the most callow of cub reporters.

Those at the top of the profession have a duty not only to their readers but to the rapidly diminishing army of local reporters, sub-editors and photographers who make up our local press.

We cannot blame Johann Hari or the many others like him for the fact they don't have some of the most basic skills of their trade. That's the fault of an industry which has lost its way in so many areas, from plurality of ownership to the phone-hacking scandal.

What we can expect from the journalists lucky and talented enough to be in such lofty positions is that they pay their dues and experience some of what life is like at base camp. One day it might help them hold on to their prizes - and their jobs.

*alright, it is a bit