Why journalists aren’t as mean as they used to be

Empathy is at the heart of the modern reporter’s craft, argues Radio 4's Today host Justin Webb

136687.d4ec9161-36fb-4eac-8f75-8a806c7b5cdf

What do you do when a report is being played on the radio or TV? You listen attentively. You silence the dog with a juicy bone. You concentrate. You shush the kids. No, me neither.

Advertisement

Sometimes of course your attention is caught. You are genuinely interested or genuinely shocked. But often, let us be frank, the mind wanders. The opportunity is there for conversation until something better comes along.

This happens, too, when your job is to present the stuff. Sometimes in the morning the news is so gripping and the need to keep abreast of what people are saying is so obviously huge that we sit for three hours in the Today studio without saying a stray word.

But that’s not always the case. And one of the great pleasures when a slow Bank Holiday programme is unfolding on your shift is that you have a chance to chew the cud with your fellow presenter.

And while I was chatting to John Humphrys the other day, we agreed on a Big Idea: that we are not as unpleasant as we used to be.

To explain. One of the great journalistic books of the 1970s was entitled “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?”. You get the picture: the manly thing, when I was a young reporter, and certainly when John was in the late 1960s and early 70s, was to be brusque and brash and care little about the suffering you saw. Or at least to pretend that this was the case.

Nowadays that approach would make you look like a monster and an idiot. When the late tabloid journalist and all-round good egg Chris Buckland wrote, “The first casualty of war is room service”, he got away with it because he was charming and well liked and it was a typically funny and mildly ironic line. But even he would be hard pressed to use those words from Syria today and keep the respect of his peers.

And this is not the result of any directives imposed from above: it is the impact of societal changes that have put empathy at the heart of the reporter’s craft. It’s a commonplace observation these days that empathy is on the wane.

The head of a fancy private school was telling us the other day that pupils will have to have special classes to teach them to empathise, such is the level of dysfunction caused by too many computer screens and too much social media.

Perhaps the kids are messed up. But I’m not sure that empathy is as out of fashion now as the headmaster thinks.

My friend the long-time BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen was in Syria the other day and I was chatting to him before recording an interview. Yes, we did stray onto the fact that black cabs have been seen recently touting for business in our (previously unfashionable) area of south London where we have both lived for many years.

But Jeremy did not pretend to me off-air that all was fine with him and with the people around him. The old braggadocio of the reporter in the field has gone. Jeremy – and others like him – are successful because they bring our attention to human suffering. Not in a mawkish way but in a manner that suggests, well, empathy.

Perhaps the new generation of reporters – raised on screens and Twitter – will take us back to the old days, the swashbuckling generation who blundered around the world drinking the minibars dry. It will be interesting to see. But I somehow doubt it.

Never mind the screens and all the talk of social conflict and online hate: in the world of broadcasting we live in a gentler, more thoughtful world than the one I knew when I started work in the 1980s.

So what did John H get up to in the bad old days: sad to say the reporter piece ended just as he got to the juicy bits and it was time to hand to the weather and all was not revealed. Incidentally, John himself is a success not because he bullies people but because he listens intently to what they say, a more difficult skill than it sounds. You could call it empathy. 

Advertisement

Justin Webb presents Today on Radio 4