09 October 2007

Jaffa cakes and journalism

The essential qualities a young journalist needs, the nature of news, the two forms of truth and the use of jaffa cakes in bondage sex, were all part of a wide ranging talk to Sheffield journalism students by the Guardian’s northern editor, Martin Wainwright.

Martin Wainwright

More than 100 students packed the Auditorium at the Richard Roberts building for the first of this season’s series of guest lectures organised by the Department of Journalism studies.

Veteran reporter and broadcaster Wainwright is renowned for his humour, eye for the offbeat and brilliant writing – and his talk didn’t disappoint the audience.

He argued that 100% accuracy is an impossible goal given the frenetic nature of modern news gathering.
“It’s a mistake to give readers the impression that perfection is possible, because even the most virtuous newspaper will not be able to get it right every time,” he said.

He illustrated the point by noting that C.P. Scott’s famous – and much quoted – “Comment is free, but facts are sacred” dictum was followed by the more realistic – and much less quoted – admission: “Achievement in such matters is hardly given to man. We can but try, ask pardon for shortcomings, and there leave the matter.”

There is anyway, said Wainwright, two types of truth; the literal truth of getting facts right, and a “penetrating truth in substance”.

“So someone may get a minor fact wrong, but the kernel of what is written is penetratingly true in substance,” he added.

The essential qualities he looked for in young journalists were curiosity about the world around them and enthusiasm, and he challenged the young journalists to use modern technology to transform the profession.

“News is something that is abnormal. That is why many readers complain that only bad things are reported in newspapers. Normal things – the ordinary, happy lives most people lead - don’t get in the papers.”

And he went on: “Horrible things happen in Iraq, but most people get on with their lives. How on earth do you put the news in context? How do you explain that these exceptional events are part of a bigger, more complex picture?”

And he ended with a challenge for the new generation of journalists – to use new technology to transform journalism and do precisely that.

As for the jaffa cakes, he didn’t go into detail. It’s probably a Guardian thing.