Summoned by the stubby finger of fate…

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WHEN the stubby finger beckoned, you were in trouble. The digit belonged to a sub-editor with a reputation for toughness. He was hard on trainees, hard to like if you’d slipped up, although he was always right. Occasionally he surprised you with a gruff beardy nugget of praise.

That was back in the days of noisy typewriters, overflowing ashtrays and long lunchtimes in the pub – a distant era now.

I don’t remember all the names from my days as a trainee on the South East London Mercury, but I do recall this man. That’s because he was called Steve Martin, an easy name to remember. He left to work on the Sun, where for a while he wrote a column called something like “The View From the No 36 Bus”. This was a spin, I guess now, on the man on the Clapham omnibus, that hypothetical reasonable person in English law against whom a defendant’s conduct could be measured. In his column he offered the ordinary man’s view on life.

Those days came back to me thanks to something the editor of the Sun said yesterday in the Press Gazette. Tony Gallagher believes that journalism is a trade and one you learn with a notebook in your hand. “The idea that it’s a profession and held to the same standard as doctors and accountants is something that’s grown up over the last 20 years and should be resisted.

“You become a journalist by practising it not by learning it in a classroom.”

Gallagher then went on lament the rise in journalism degrees all the way up to the post-graduate MA. He regretted that the old entry point of starting on a newspaper at 18 seemed to have gone.

I think he may well have a point, although it comes late in the day. Most young journalists are graduates these days, although it was different back when the Seventies collided with the Eighties.

People from all sorts of backgrounds used to become reporters. Turning journalism into a more or less graduate-only job risks excluding non-graduates who’d make good reporters, as the main qualities – nosiness, doggedness and so forth – can’t be taught in a classroom.

There were certainly all sorts on the Mercury, including Steve Martin and other Fleet Street-honed subs, who were hard on the trainees, but in a good way. I ended up following them in a sense, doing my three years as a Saturday sub-editor on the Observer while still working on the paper.

The “all sorts”, incidentally, included Geordie Greig, now editor of The Mail on Sunday. Eton old boys were a rare sight in Deptford in those days, and probably today as well, unless they are property developers (parts of this once down-at-heel but honest area are now known as North Greenwich, apparently).

Even though I did go in as a graduate, looking back I’m glad I had to endure that stubby finger. It was good training and a little bit of shame went a long way, in a productive sense.

As it happens, recently I was back at my old newspaper, helping out with trainees from around the country. They had an exam coming up needed to be put through their paces.

A cynical person might wonder at that, helping young people to find their way in an industry that just chewed you up and spat you out at the other end. Well, it wasn’t their fault and the experience was rewarding, if mildly stressful with trainees who feared they were heading for a fail. I guess that Tony Gallagher would approve of the training given to these young journalists, as it was practical and based on the job.

There has been a lot of comment recently about how actors from relatively wealthy backgrounds now dominate the theatre and film industry, with obvious examples being Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. The likes of David Morrissey and Julie Walters, who came from working-class backgrounds, worry that they wouldn’t make it today.

From seeing the sort of people who turned up for work experience on my old newspaper, I reckon something similar is happening in journalism. Unpaid internships are partly to blame, as these are only available to those who can rely on parental largesse.

I don’t make a habit of going round agreeing with the editor of the Sun, but I reckon he’s got a point here.

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