A A Gill

Freedom of speech is what all the other human rights and freedoms balance on. That may sound like unspeakable arrogance when applied to restaurant reviews or gossip columns. But that’s not the point. Journalism isn’t an individual sport like books and plays; it’s a team effort. The power of the press is cumulative. It has a conscious humming momentum. You can — and probably do — pick up bits of it and sneer or sigh or fling them with great force at the dog. But together they make up the most precious thing we own. “It’s all very well for him,” I hear you say, “on his high horse about freedom, but just look at the papers. They’re full of lies and gossip and laziness. The theory’s fine, the practice is disgusting.” Well, let’s just look at that. I don’t know what it is you do, what you make or sell, but consider this. Consider starting each morning with three or so dozen blank sheets of broadsheet paper. And then having to fill them with columns of facts, opinions based on facts and predictions extrapolated from facts. I don’t know how many facts a newspaper has in it. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Millions. From the Stock Market to TV listings by way of courtrooms, parliaments, disasters, wars, celebrity denials, births, deaths, horoscopes and the pictures to go with them. Now tell me, how long did your last annual general report take? Days? Weeks? And you had all that information to hand. How long did the last letter you wrote take? You just made that up. Newspapers are the size of long novels. They’re put together from around the globe from sources who lie, manipulate, want to sell things, hide things, spin things. Despite threats, injunctions, bullets, jails and non-returned phone calls, journalists do it every single day, from scratch. What’s amazing, what’s utterly staggering, is not the things papers get wrong, it’s just how much they get right. Your business, no other business, could guarantee the percentage of accuracy that a newspaper does. And what’s more, if you live in Britain, you don’t get just one, you have the choice of a dozen national papers. Oh, and a small boy will come and put it through your letter box before you’ve even got out of bed. Nothing, but nothing, makes me prouder than being a hack.

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