Real journalism means precision with words

Stewart Purvis, former Chief Executive at ITN in today’s FT (subs needed) says that mainstream journalism is being undermined by what he calls nearly journalists like Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and various playwrights.

He asks:

“Where is the value-add in ‘real’ journalism as opposed to ‘nearly’ journalism? This is a commerical question as much as a cultural one. If a key part of the brand and raison d’etre of news porviders is not quality, then what distinguishes them from the other pundits? And what justifies the investment in traingin and the charging model which allows ‘real’ jornalism to continue to be funded by the licence fee or the advertising community?”

Primarily he argues journalism must become more careful with its choice of words, particular in dealing with high controversy. He cites the Gilligan debacle as a point in case: “The irony is that if Dyke and Gilligan had got their words right, they might have won the fight”.

  • peteb

    So, the former Chief Executive at ITN believes it’s the nearly journalists that are the problem and not proper mainstream journalists.

    Now why does that criticism seem just a little too self-serving?

  • Mick Fealty

    Guilty of a little imprecision myself then. Unfortunately the orignal is locked tight under an expensive subscription so I’ve added a bit more of his original words, hoping not to mislead.

  • Davros

    “Real journalism means precision with words “

    Is it fair then to say that Journalism is diametrically opposed to politics ? Is there no place for subtle ambiguity in Journalism ?

  • peteb

    That expensive subscription is a problem Mick.. and it’s an expense I can’t justify to be able look at an occasional article..

    That said, I’d take issue with the examples he’s chosen.. perhaps if he had mentioned a documentary maker like Nick Broomfield instead his argument might have taken a different route.

    I’d argue there’s the same qualitative difference between Moore and Broomfield as there is between ITV’s 6.30pm news and the hour-long Channel 4’s 7pm news – or perhaps even BBC’s Newsnight on a good day.

    But the problem facing journalism, in general, isn’t a problem of a lack of precision in the writing – the problem is one of a desire to present a pre-determined narrative, and the chosen method of presenting that narrative, rather than presenting the analysis. In that sense it is interesting that he decided to include playwrights in his list of examples of nearly journalists when arguably playwrights are necessarily more precise than others with their words.

    On the Dyke/Gilligan issue, Gilligan had his narrative mapped out in advance and was overly-confident of it, but Dyke’s mistake was not a lack of precision with his words – his mistake was the tactical error of choosing to go head-to-head with Alistair Campbell in an arena where Campbell had more tricks, and more expertise, than Dyke had.

  • willowfield

    Precision should be the hallmark of journalism.

  • Mick Fealty

    Subtle ambiguity is what gets Michael Moore some of his biggest laughs. But as a form of journalism (‘nearly’ or ‘real’) its positive effects last about as long as the laugh itself.

    To be effective in the longer run, journalism has to eschew the quick play for political scandal. Instead it needs to chart, as well as it can afford to, the territory which politicians have to traverse in the performance of their democratic duties. Done well (and entertainingly) enough, the journalist can then withdraw and allow the audience to make its own particular sets of judgements.

    Another quote worth repeating from the piece is Mark Lawson’s introduction to a review of Dyke’s recent book biography (containing Dyke’s account of the Gilligan affair), that he was “at least, willing to admit that in taking on Alastair Campbell, he was more interested in where the fight was than in where the right was” (subtle echoes from Ulster’s past?).

  • Davros

    Has Journalism itself not been forced to change by the different world in which we live ? It’s not that long ago that people relied on what they read in newspapers for their view on the world. Radio, TV and especially the Internet have changed everything.

  • Mick Fealty


    Ditto, the expensive subscription.

    You’re right re playwrights and precision of language – but he’s hinting at the blurring of fact and fiction in the theatrical realism of recent presentations around the Iraq war.

    Traditionally the suspension of disbelief makes a large degree of poetic licence acceptable (and even necessary) within theatre, in a way that is deeply problematic in journalism.

  • peteb


    Blurring fact and fiction in the theatre is, and should be, welcomed.. it’s theatre after all.

    The probelmatic area would seem to me to be that journalism increasing sees itself as being a theatrical production, that’s evident from his chosen argument – and that’s not addressed simply by more precise writing.

    However, I do accept that your point “To be effective in the longer run, journalism has to eschew the quick play for political scandal. Instead it needs to chart, as well as it can afford to, the territory which politicians have to traverse in the performance of their democratic duties. Done well (and entertainingly) enough, the journalist can then withdraw and allow the audience to make its own particular sets of judgements” is a more precise description of my “the problem is one of a desire to present a pre-determined narrative, and the chosen method of presenting that narrative, rather than presenting the analysis.”

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Anyone from ITN has a cheek to imply that others are dumbing down news.

    This is not a new debate. Anyone remember the ‘New Journalism’ of the Sixties; Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson etc? Nowadays we don’t blink an eyelid at the ‘participatory’ journalism we see and read.

    But take Michael Moore. He could be convincing. But he seems so much more interested in things other than getting his point across accurately that he damages his own credibility.

    While facts and statistics should be questioned, using them selectively to the detriment of any semblance of balance weakens their case to the extent that the journalist’s argument is undermined. In other words, it’s possible to be more balanced than Moore is while also being entertaining.

    Personally, I think fame has gone to his head. At the moment he seems more concerned to take down George Bush than anything else. I find myself constantly querying his facts and statistics. It is hardly a good thing if an audience is always wondering if, when they maybe nod in agreement, they are being told a ‘fact’ that Moore just made up, or is of no real value.

    You don’t necessarily HAVE to sacrifice accuracy for ratings, or to get your point across.

    Moore is an entertainer and ‘mockumentary’ maker. Fair play to him. He may once have been a journalist, but the fact that he is listened to by more people now than before perhaps backs the former ITN executive’s argument.

    But instead of aiming higher, it’s more likely that ITN will take a leaf out of Moore’s book.

  • peteb

    Point of Information

    The ‘New Journalism’ of Wolfe and Thompson was also referred to as ‘Gonzo Journalism’ :o)

    “But take Michael Moore.”… Please.

  • Ziznivy

    On the subject of Michael Moore, however relevant his polemics about America are, I can’t read them as in any way credible after he produces facile nonsense about Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia in pursuit of cheap laughs.

    His books and documentaries are undoubtedly entertaining, but if even the pretension to balance isn’t there then the work loses any journalistic merit and becomes merely satire.

  • peteb

    The ‘New Journalism’ comparison doesn’t really apply in this case, Gonzo. Or if it does, only as an example of how journalism is regressing to a time before the ‘revolution’ of Wolfe, Thompson et al.

    The essence of that ‘New Journalism’ was, I believe, the identification of the journalist as an intrinsic part of the presented story. Currently the theatrical imperative that drives problematic journalism demands that the journalist hides not just their participation in the presentation but also their scripting of the ‘play’.

  • Davros


  • Belfast Gonzo


    Well spotted!


    At least the ‘old hands’ were honest about their role, eh?

  • peteb

    Far from being ‘old hands’, they were the new generation of journalists at the time, Gonzo.

    The question is what are the new ‘new’ generation of journalists doing? and would a ‘Wolfe’ or a ‘Thompson’ get past an editor these days?

  • Belfast Gonzo


    Well, when the Observer asked Will Self (of Grumpy Old Men fame) to cover the ’97 general election in the style of HS Thompson, he was quickly fired for taking drugs on a plane John Major was flying on.

    I mean, why did the Observer bother asking, if they never meant Self to do the job properly?! But then, this isn’t the Sixties any more…

    More here:

    I meant ‘old hands’, now. As for the new generation of journalists..? Well, locally there is nothing that really could be described as comparable to ‘gonzo’ journalism. Maybe Newt Emerson? Suzanne Breen?

    Generally speaking, journalists are quite (too?) respectful of politicians in Northern Ireland, although I think it was Mencken who said that the attitude of a journalist to a politician should be like the attitude of a dog to a lamppost!

    In terms of ‘straight’ political news, one guy who has quickly shown that investigative reporting in Belfast isn’t totally dead yet is David Gordon of the Belfast Telegraph.

  • peteb

    While ‘The Hunter’ was guilty of many indiscretions, Self’s actions during that plane trip had more to do with his own addictions than attempting to emulate the scripted scenarios of Thompson, Gonzo – and somehow I get the impression that Self wouldn’t be too happy at his renowned being due to “Grumpy Old Men”, excellent show though it is.

    Additionally Wolfe could not be lumped in with that narrow definition of ‘gonzo’. It’s the writer as an active participant that’s the key. Satire may result from that participation, but the Newt ain’t in the same league as the two gentlemen we’ve mentioned.

    Investigative reporting, while important, still doesn’t address the issue of the theatrical imperative driving a lot of modern journalism that I believe is at the heart of this thread.

  • Belfast Gonzo


    The ‘Grumpy Old Men’ TV reference is where most people will have seen him most recently. Self would be rightly annoyed if this was how he was remembered!

    As for Wolfe, he seemed to be along for the ride in the ‘Electric Kool Aid Acid Test’, although I know what you’re getting at.

    And as for Newt… You missed out on the early says of the Portadown News, where things went beyond satire on occasion. Just ask Robin Livingstone.

    Anyway, the Liverpool match is on soon, and that means getting off home, so catch you later.

  • peteb



    It’s been a while since I last read ‘Kool-Aid’ but I don’t remember Wolfe actually being ‘on the bus’. And he was gonzoing well before he wrote that particular book – check out the intro to his first collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

    The Newt just isn’t in the same league.

    Go Olympiakos!! ;o) (only joking)