Review of 'My Trade', Andrew Marr, MacMillan £12.99
This book is an enjoyable and light-hearted trawl through the history of British journalism. Andrew Marr flits between accounts of the lobby system, the lowdown on spin doctors and the strenuous day in the life of a political reporter. It is not intended as a memoir and therefore reveals little of Andrew Marr's political persuasion or personal obsessions. But let's look at the few clues...
While at Cambridge University Marr says he 'spent most of my time on marches supporting an (ungrateful) working class'. The brackets say a lot. He lets on that he gave up active involvement in politics but what this activity amounted to he doesn't mention. And after he became editor of the Independent in 1996 he dropped his membership of the NUJ. He calls himself a centre-left columnist, though I would dub him a genial liberal.
His accounts of the beginnings of journalism nearly 300 years ago are vivid and entertaining. He talks about the class interests that spawned the early pamphlets and broadsheets and those who did their best to censor and destroy them. There are wonderful tales of the big personalities that fill the world of newspapers. Daniel Defoe, whose longest work was not Robinson Crusoe but his own newspaper, The Review, published from 1704-13, ended up doing the bidding of his Tory ministerial masters. Like many later journalists, he came into journalism as a radical and found that survival involved getting in with the powerful.
Marr knows that editors survive or fall at the whim of their proprietors. During his stint at the Independent from 1996-98 the budget was reduced by a third and he had to oversee waves of staff cuts, largely ordered by David Montgomery of the Mirror Group. In my own time more recently at the Daily Express, we saw the older high earners made redundant in favour of eager young journalists who now work long hours, cramped and desk bound, churning out mindless celebrity stories for less than half the old rate.
Marr talks about a time between the wars and then in the 1950s when newspapers did not have heavy competition from TV and were flush with money. The workforce in its turn had the union closed shop and wages were high. Even in the 1980s, I remember with delight refusing to take a story from a desperate Max Hastings on the Evening Standard because it was our two-hour lunch break! Today we are fighting to regain that union strength and journalists on local papers can earn less than £12,000 a year.
Marr looks at the papers typical of their era - the Observer of early-Victorian England with its hard news stories, the Times in imperial days, the revamped Daily Mail, and the Mirror in the 1960s when it sold 5 million, when radical journalism was welcome and money was no object. John Pilger, pre Vietnam and Cambodia, would report back from the most obscure places after editor Hugh Cudlipp cabled him 'YOU WRITE. WE PUBLISH'. What a difference when we look at the paper Marr feels best typifies the period we live in at the moment - the Sunday Times, devoted almost entirely to shopping culture.
Marr acknowledges the huge bias there is in reporting today. Of course he is not a Bolshevik and doesn't see this bias in terms of maintaining the capitalist system. He is more concerned with the bias that would give an unhealthy preference to one party or policy over the other. He goes into the fine detail of which reporter supports which party or politician. He mentions every single paper and important television journalist, with the amazing exception of Jon Snow - frontman of Channel Four News. Is Marr showing his own bias here, ignoring the only news channel that gave regular consideration to the anti-war movement?
Marr has handled a massive amount of contemporary and historical material with skill and humour, with gossipy anecdotes to keep you turning the page. The genial liberal of Westminster has come up with a good insider's guide to the panto that is 'high' British politics.