More Thrills Than Skills – A Half-Life in Journalism, Part 118

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is to be published March 1 next year, by Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow, and available from

There was an excellent book published in 2007 entitled, The Cult of the Amateur. Basically, it makes one very sound point: far from increasing the availability of real knowledge, our modern means of instant communication and so-called understanding, specifically the internet, propagates laziness, false and unreliable information, prejudice and ill-formed views.

Why read a book when you can go online and get someone else’s 100 word rundown on the topic at the press of a button?

The fact that that person may, him or herself, have copied that from some other dubious website posting, itself made by an anonymous half-wit, seems to be irrelevant.

Ready access to information does not make you an instant expert, as millions now seem to believe. What makes experts is hours, days, months and years of tedious study in libraries and darkened rooms reading books and searching for real understanding. That is then followed by careful thought processes, as a result of which informed views are formulated. It all may sound very boring and old-fashioned but I believe that is the reality.

Similarly, real journalists are not just people with mobile phones capable of producing grainy, truly awful photographs or video clips, but people who have studied a subject in depth and are capable not just of repeating facts but providing in-depth analysis and communicating meaningful insights.

In the 1990s, there emerged a significant new organisation called the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). In the early ‘90s, it was a small organisation then called Yugofax and sought to spread enlightenment on the wars in the Balkans. By the mid-1990s, it had transmogrified into IWPR and was gathering supporters of the universal, ‘do-gooder’ type.

I became really conscious of its activities, personally, when articles distributed by IWPR started to appear in one of the papers I regularly wrote for. Some weeks, the editor or foreign editor would decline my piece from some far-flung war zone from whence I had newly returned. “We’ve got a piece this week from IWPR.”

The bottom line, I’m afraid, was that the IWPR material was free of charge. My unbiased, from-the-frontline personal stuff had to be paid for and it saved two or three hundred pounds to take the IWPR free-issue material. I don’t think IWPR was unbiased, though.

That was one nail in my journalistic coffin. The others are not too difficult to discern if you have got this far in this book: the distinctly unnerving effects of the injury in Kosovo; the truncation of my journalistic career in Sri Lanka; etc, etc; and a rather more cheerful and significant reason.

In the end I was happy to go. My old friend Geddes Wood of Scotpix in Aberdeen, where I got my first taste for, and experience of, journalism, used to say: “A good picture is worth a thousand words.” He wasn’t the first to say it, of course. But he was right.

No more words, just a picture.

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