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The Business of Journalism: a View from the Frontline – Lionel Barber

The Business of Journalism: a View from the Frontline – Lionel Barber
The Hugh Cudlipp Lecture
January 31, 2011

Thank you Lady Cudlipp, trustees, and students of the London College of Communication for inviting me here tonight…

I come before you as a man of print, not the spoken word. A broadsheet editor determined to follow the trusted maxim: all power tends to corrupt, power point corrupts absolutely.

I come from a family of journalists. So does my younger brother, Tony. Our father left school at 15 and started as a copy boy on the Leeds Weekly Citizen before graduating to Fleet Street and the BBC World Service. Frank Barber was a blunt, self-educated Yorkshire man, a dedicated sub-editor who never met a paragraph he couldn’t cut. He regarded the news business not as a profession but as a vocation.

My own route to journalism was more circumspect. At Oxford, a young man called Mark Thompson turned down an article I proposed for Isis magazine. Now I know why people complain about editorial bias at the BBC. After many – too many – job rejections, I won a place on the Thomson regional newspapers training scheme in Newcastle and several shorthand tests later joined the Scotsman in Edinburgh.

Back in 1979, the Scotsman sold 91,000 copies. It carried a page of foreign news. 20 North Bridge, an imposing Victorian building overlooking Waverly station, housed printing presses which thundered through the night. It was also home to many fine journalists: reporters and editors such as Neal Ascherson, Chris Baur, Harry Reid, Jim Naughtie, and later Andrew Marr.

Today, the Scotsman is a tabloid; it sells 45,000 copies and that page of dedicated foreign news has disappeared. North Bridge is now a five star boutique hotel with a gym, poetic justice for generations of journalists raised on cigarettes and whisky.

As a cub reporter, I devoured books about journalism. One tome sticks in my mind because it sat for many years on my father’s many bookshelves at home in London. Hugh Cudlipp’s memoir Walking on the Water captured for me the thrill of the news business. The prose is economic, funny and splendidly irreverent. One paragraph toward the end of the book is particularly notable and quotable.

“Knowing what is going on is the lure of journalism. Explaining to vast audiences what is going on is the art. Influencing, or trying to influence, what is going on is the self-imposed mission.”

Cudlipp’s dictum just about sums up my own credo, though I might quarrel with the last point about media influence, especially in the light of the latest, pressing questions about journalistic ethics in this country. I will return to that subject later.

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