In order to do most jobs, you need a certain basic skillset. To be a doctor, it’s useful to know at least a bit about how the body works. An accountant needs to be able to count. Priests generally benefit from at least a notional belief in God.
For journalists, of course, the base requirement is to be able to write in crisp, clear, correct English. Anyone without that ability shouldn’t even get as far as an interview.
But they do. Oh yes, they do. Can’t string a sentence together? Not a problem. Spelling as wonky as an overturned Scrabble set? That’s your desk over there. Utterly illiterate? Tell us when you can start.
You think I’m joking. I wish I was. But sadly, it appears truth has truly become stranger than fiction. I see that the NUJ’s Scottish office is now running courses “in response to an identified need” to provide grammar and literacy skills for those starting out in the business.
So there you have it: Managements, it seems, are now appointing youngsters who can’t string words together. Only it’s not just youngsters – according to the union, the course is also “capturing the imagination of more experienced journalists”.
For me, this raises all sorts of issues. Firstly, I feel both astonished and ashamed by the fact that media organisations are prepared to take on people so plainly lacking in the core skills to do the job.
I also have to question what the NUJ (of which I am a member) is doing here. Surely its role should be to promote excellence and integrity within the profession rather than hauling illiterates out of the water and into the lifeboat?
Plainly, this lamentable scenario points to a fundamental problem with the way those wishing to enter journalism are taught in our schools and, given that a degree is now virtually a prerequisite for a job in this profession, our universities.
We constantly read – indeed, often ourselves write – that the Scottish education system is one of the best in the world.
This is clearly a ridiculous delusion. Any institution which sends graduates out into the world when they can’t even master the basics of written communication is failing itself and those it is paid to serve.
It’s not just basic literacy skills which are lacking. Many of those who work their way through the churn of Media Studies courses end up as pompous and self-important as they are inarticulate. A fellow journalist heard one such callow youth on a train last week boasting to his mates that any newspaper in the country would soon be begging to employ him.
Perhaps, given the current state of some newspaper managements, that boy is right. But I rather suspect that, like most of his degree mill compatriots, he’s simply as lacking in common sense as he is in humility.
Without wishing to sound like the archetypal grumpy old crumbly, I recall that when I started as a junior reporter straight out of school on a weekly paper back in the mid-1970s, it was made instantly clear who obeyed who.
I was told I was lucky to be in the job, that I was there to learn, and that my elders knew better (and I soon learned that they did).
Actually getting a story in the paper in the first few months was not a right but a privilege. All right, it wasn’t the best newspaper in the world and they worked me bloody hard, but they invested in me and I was able to slowly build my career on good solid foundations.
That look-and-learn culture has gone now. No longer do wise, experienced subs cajole, challenge, bully and occasionally terrify young reporters. News editors don’t have the time to send copy back to a rookie for a fifth rewrite. No-one picks up tips and anecdotes from the best hands in the business over an after-work pint or five.
Entrants to the profession are left to float in their own little bubble believing that they’re the ‘dog’s bollocks’ and there’s not an assignment in the world they can’t excel at from day one.
Like most of us of a certain age I’ve seen these people come and seen them go. There was the newly appointed religious affairs correspondent of a (Scottish) paper who wasn’t aware the Kirk didn’t have bishops; the staffer who couldn’t work out how to contact the Foreign Office; the night reporter who got me out of bed at 1am to ask if I had a phone number for Buckingham Palace (answer: “Get a phone book and look under Q, for f***ing Queen.”).
I know it’s easy to be cynical and I do actually feel sorry for these people. It is not, after all, entirely their fault that they are so woefully unfinished. So when I was asked a few months ago if I’d be interested in part-time lecturing to graduate and postgraduate journalism students at a certain Scottish university, I certainly indicated I’d be happy to consider the prospect and put something back into an industry which has been good to me.
All went well until the delicate question of money was raised. “We think we can extend our scope a little with you”, said the academic sounding me out. “We can probably manage