MY FAVOURITE moment in The Post – Steven Spielberg’s wonderful movie about The Washington Post’s exposé of the Vietnam war – is a one-liner from Tom Hanks.
Playing the legendary editor Ben Bradlee, he is in the newsroom as journalists exchange possible stories. Someone offers what might be a front-page lead. ‘This is the real deal,’ Bradlee says. ‘How long to write it up?’
‘I can have it for Thursday,’ the journalist replies enthusiastically. ‘So what if we pretend you’re a reporter and not a novelist?’ Bradlee responds sardonically. It works. Now the story will be written by Wednesday evening – 12 hours is everything in the newsroom.
OK, it’s probably funnier if you have worked in such an environment with its potent combination of adrenalin and angst but one place the joke probably wouldn’t raise much of a laugh is the government press office. In my experience, the distinction between one day and the next rarely registers in quite the same way there.
Many things have changed over the 30 years separating my two stints in the JEP newsroom. Today, the paper evolves magically before your very eyes, stories having made it from keyboard to page silently transformed by expert on-screen journalists.
Sheepishly, I admit to colleagues that, first time around, I used a manual typewriter in a newsroom where you had to shout to be heard above the syncopated clatter of the keys.
But the biggest difference was that, schooled by the great Phil Falle, we were encouraged to develop contacts in the States to help understand how the Island worked, and then exercise judgment about the right moment to run a story gleaned from the information we had picked up.
Publish too soon, embarrassing the source of your information, and they might not speak to you again but wait too long and the story would become old news, particularly if someone else ran it first.
It was a tricky line to tread and you didn’t always get it right. Yet it was based upon a shared assumption: the paper gave the public the means to find out what was going on and, though our roles were quite different, journalists and their contacts were essentially collaborators in achieving that objective.
Things have changed – as I discovered shortly after returning to the newsroom. I arranged a coffee with a relatively senior officer in a government department to get some background to what was to be a very positive story.
Half an hour later the phone rang. The contact – I scrupulously preserve their anonymity – said their superior had told them they couldn’t speak to me: meeting for coffee was OK but they weren’t allowed to talk. I don’t suppose this was intended literally, though it did conjure up a curiously unsociable encounter.
Instead, what I should have done was put my questions in writing to the head of communications. In fact, that turned out not to be quite right but it was, nevertheless, to give me an insight into the unfamiliar world of comms.
Five days after submitting those questions and having received no answer, I phoned the person whose name I had been given. The conversation went something like this:
Me: ‘I wondered if you might have had the chance to look at those questions I sent through?’ (I often try to employ a degree of tact.)
Them: ‘Yes, I have as a matter of fact.’
Me: ‘Oh good, thanks.’ (Awkward pause). ‘Well, could I have the answers, please?’
Them: ‘No, I’m afraid I can’t give them to you.’
Me: ‘But I thought you were in charge of communications?’ (The tact sometimes wears off).
Them: ‘Oh, yes I am, but that’s for internal comms. As this is a press inquiry, you’ll have to get the answers from the press office which is for external comms. In fact, I’m surprised they haven’t contacted you already because I sent the answers through yesterday.’
It had taken the best part of a week for something to materialise that would have previously emerged in conversation, and I was twice-removed from the author of a response whose identity I would never discover.
What happens if you want to ask further questions? Perhaps the original ones haven’t been fully answered (sometimes the case), or they inspire other queries (almost invariably so)? Well, you simply start over again, putting your queries about the queries in writing and waiting in the hope of a reply.
This is no criticism of the professionals involved, I should say; it’s the system. Many have been very helpful to me but the fundamental premise of the exchange with the government has changed. Previously, you picked up the phone to speak to the person most likely to be able to answer your questions.
Now you pick it up to speak to someone who will definitely not know the answers, and you will never speak to the person who actually does.
Former Government of Jersey chief executive Charlie Parker disliked the press, reserving particular opprobrium for the JEP on one occasion, but you can’t help wondering whether such an approach is actually conducive to the good relations he said he sought.
Does it build trust and mutual respect between professionals, encouraging openness and transparency?
Or does it rather bring to mind another of Ben Bradlee’s unforgettable lines from the film – ‘if the press doesn’t hold government accountable, then who will?’