Clark Kent would be the first to agree that something has gone wrong when the reporter becomes the story at a time when the BBC has been forced to investigate itself, writes Stephen McGinty
IF THERE is an art to public speaking, it is one I practice with finger paints. While there are orators who range across a vast canvas and render scenes and ideas with striking colour and complexion, captivating their audiences like a verbal Carravagio before retreating to thunderous applause, there are others whose efforts would be lucky to conjure applause from the most devoted of family members – and even then in the likely form of a slow hand-clap.
The reason for such failure is preparation, or, to be more precise, the distinct lack of it. It is often said: “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” Like many truisms, it is, well, true. The reason for my failure to prepare is a calculation that balances the time required to work on a polished speech versus the time spent coated in a thick lacquer of shame and embarrassment should one’s attempt to “wing it” falter. I call it the “Icarus Parabola”. Any speech or talk of less than 15 minutes duration should be tackled off the top of one’s head, on the grounds that if you know what you want to say why chain it down in linked sentences and paragraphs? Let it take flight and, should you fail halfway through, well, your cheeks will only burn crimson for a maximum of seven and a half minutes.
It was just this sort of plan that found me, a number of years ago, on stage at my old high school, St Andrew’s in Clydebank, staring out at row upon row of students incredulously listening to a “winged” speech, which, as I approached the microphone I had decided to entitle: “Journalism: The Superhero’s career of choice.”
My hypothesis was that it was no coincidence that Superman and Spiderman had chosen to spend their days in the fedora and trench coat of a reporter and press photographer. By night they could fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way wrapped in red and blue Lycra and Spandex and by day the same noble ideals could hit the streets wrapped in newsprint. My argument was that while journalism, at its best, can achieve such goals, even on a middling day it can still be fascinating and personally rewarding.
The speech came back to mind this week with the news that, in the latest issue of DC Comic’s Superman title, Clark Kent has quit his job and stormed out of the newspaper offices of the Daily Planet after a furious row over the infantilism of news. In a storyline that reflects the creaking fortunes of newspapers, he may yet embrace new media and start his own blog (the lack of any viable income stream is set to be cushioned by the vast pension he has accrued over the past 74 years).
Clark, the adopted son of the Kents from Smallville in Kansas, first joined the Daily Star in Metropolis in 1938, then under the editorship of George Taylor. Like many a young reporter, he had restless feet as the second issue of the comic saw him working for the Cleveland Evening News. But it wasn’t long before his natural writing talent and his ability to scoop his competitors with the latest story on the Man of Steel (funny that) secured him a job at the city’s biggest paper, the Daily Planet under the grizzled editorship of Perry White.
It is interesting to contrast the different styles of editor with which the alter-egos of Superman and Spiderman have had to work. Over at the Daily Bugle, poor Peter Parker had a maniacal, crew-cutted and cigar-chomping monster in the form of J Jonah Jameson, who joyfully hurled insults like confetti, dispensed compliments as if they were gold ingots and believed the web slinger was a dangerous vigilante who should be clapped in handcuffs. Perry White, meanwhile, was a little more understanding and, in the 1980s, secured Clark the time needed to complete his series of articles on gangs that eventually secured him a Pulitzer.
During the past 70 years, Clark Kent has tried other forms of journalism. In the early 1970s, he dabbled in television as a local anchor man when Morgan Edge, president of Galaxy Broadcasting System, embarked on a cost-cutting exercise that merged the Daily Planet with WGBS TV news station. Yet for a man whose favourite film is To Kill A Mocking Bird and who prefers to lunch at his desk with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the glitz of television was no substitute for ink and hot metal. Newspaper journalism for Clark Kent was a natural extension of his life as Superman, which makes his decision to quit all the more painful.
In this week’s comic, Kent sounds off on celebrity gossip masquerading as news: “Why am I the one sounding like a grizzled ink-stained wretch who believes news should be about – I don’t know – news?” A line which prompts his editor, Perry White, to reflect: “Times are changing and print is a dying medium. I don’t like it, but the only hope we have of delivering any news at all is to give the people what they want to read and God help me if a front page and some reality star gets them to pick up a paper and maybe stumble on some real news.”
Clark’s future was hinted at by the comic’s writer, Scot Lobdell, who explained: “He is more likely to start the next Huffington Post or the next Drudge Report than he is to go find someone else to get assignments or draw a pay cheque from.” A spokesman for DC Comics said: “This is not the first time that Clark Kent has left the Planet and this time the resignation reflects present-day issues, the balance of journalism versus entertainment, the role of new media, the rise of the citizen journalist etc.”
Yet the news that Clark Kent has walked away from print stings those of us left behind, especially as it comes just a fortnight after the announcement that Newsweek magazine will disappear from the newsstand at the end of the year.
Perry White and his colleagues in the world beyond the confines of the comic strip are only too aware that the future of journalism no longer lies in putting ink on dead trees. Yet since I started my career as a young Jimmy Olsen, a copyboy on the Glasgow Evening Times and have loved every one of the past 22 ink-stained years, I intend to be typing for the last printed copy of the last newsstand newspaper. This is not to say that, like the rest of my colleagues, it’s not an enjoyable challenge to fashion a successful online edition and embrace the many new opportunities that digital journalism can offer (did anyone see my interview on scotsman.com with the television historian Neil Oliver which, despite the idiot-proof genius of an Apple iPad, I succeeded in filming upside down?), it is only that no-one forgets their first love.
Clark Kent would be the first to agree that something has gone wrong when the reporter becomes the story and while this week he has stepped into the spotlight by stepping out of newspapers, he has not been alone in attracting attention. There will be many print journalists trying to imagine the idea of launching an investigation into a sister paper in the same manner with which the BBC’s Panorama reported on the mishandling of the Jimmy Savile abuse story by the BBC’s Newsnight. The only comparison in print journalism that I can think of is when the New York Times conducted an investigation into the fabrications of Jayson Blair, one of its reporters, and ran a piece critical of the then editor, Howell Raines, who, like any normal subject, was not allowed to see the story until the first print copy was available.
I was one of the five million who watched Panorama on Monday night, compared with the 400,000 who favoured Newsnight, which was on at the same time and felt it was the corporation at its self-flagellating best. The editor of Newsnight has been publicly thrown under a bus, with executives then reversing to ensure maximum damage.
The cardinal rule in journalism, as I was taught, was “if in doubt, miss it out”, ie better to err on the side of caution if unsure of the full facts. But, in this case, for Newsnight and the BBC, it would have been better all round if they had adopted a new maxim: “If in doubt (and he’s dead), stick it out.”
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