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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bring back fun

By Ken Ashton
An Independent profiler, writing on the appointment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as Tory communications director, said Coulson - unlike many media figures - had gone to ‘an ordinary school’.


And now I read that Simon Barnes, The Times chief sports writer, is to be given an honorary doctorate by his old university and, while reporting it, comments on the fact that many journalists worked their way through the ranks, eschewing media courses.

Ah, the dreaded media courses. When I was 62, I was enrolled at a local comprehensive school to teach journalism and media. After being roped in to help design their course material, since the head of department knew nothing about journalism, I was appointed a teacher, but paid as a technician, because I didn't have the relevant qualifications.

The students, bless them, were happiest designing cannabis posters on their Apples or filming each other. They didn't read newspapers because ‘you can’t believe them’ and they were not interested in public affairs, because ‘Dad pays the rates and the tax.’

All of which reminds us of our own golden days as, straight from school or national service, we went into the hallowed trade of journalism.

And here I am, at 75, mentoring would-be journalists in foreign climes. And many of them are not just good, they are brilliant. Like the guy who sent me an article yesterday and said he was having problems, being a Nigerian in Spain and finding doors closed to him. Or the woman in Sierra Leone who tells me she is sorry her work is late, but she can use her laptop only when the generator is free.

We, who gaze at journalism through our rosy Specsavers glasses, see the good old days as the best.

Were they? Well, the training was. Editors like Alf Glynn (who often would look out of his window in the office and think he could see Red Indians, covered in blood, coming up the High Street – and then carry on editing), who sent me back once on a five-mile bike ride to gather a first name I'd forgotten to ask for. I’d already been out pedalling all day doing district calls, but not many people in those days had a phone.

I covered Harold Wilson’s constituency on a bike and one of my rare car trips was accompanying him in his chauffeured car on election night and being despatched in the rain to buy fish and chips for three... ‘Put ’em on your exes, lad. Tell your boss they were for Harold.’

News editors like Gordon Bennett, at Warrington, who would make trainees stand to attention and sing misspelled words. Try ‘accommodation’ to the tune of Little Brown Jug.

Thank the Lord we didn't have mobiles in those days. How would we have stayed out of the reach of news editors who never would have believed we couldn't find phone kiosks that worked?

I once missed almost a whole day's play at Chesterfield between Lancashire and Derbyshire because my car had broken down on the moors. I cobbled something from the radio and Manchester Evening News, but was unaware there had been a public address call for me to contact the office. Bob Findlay was not best pleased.

Today's media students and university qualified ‘journalists’ have never experienced the trauma of door-knocking the bereaved, milling with strikers, using the stubs of cheque books as note books, à la Arfon Roberts, RIP.

When I tell some students of journalism how to write an intro, they will argue with me.

This is the guy who once rewrote the intro of a column by Peter Wilson, The Man They Can’t Gag. He came all the way to Manchester from London to chastise me - then took me out to lunch.

I have no quarrel with the trendy journalists who now have their shoulders clapped for mixing fact with opinion when reporting, or the Top Shop models who pose while they shout the evening news at me (... the girls Sir Trevor McDonald called docklands hookers on News Knight).

But I hanker for the days of yore - was it all of 50-odd years ago? - when we seemed to have more fun doing the job.

Maybe abolish media studies and bring back the fun? Now there's a thought.

Ken Ashton worked on the St Helens Reporter, Yorkshire Evening News at Doncaster, Lancashire Evening Post, Liverpool Echo, Mirror and Sketch and on the Birkenhead News and Runcorn Guardian and Rhyl Journal.