What are the qualities necessary to become a good journalist? Believe it or not, this question has become the source of a feverish exchange between Justice Katju, who believes journalists, like lawyers, need proper qualification, and an assortment of journalists who may not be opposed to the good Justice Katju but certainly seem critical of his stand or, at least, the way he’s positioned himself.
So let me try and answer that question with specific reference to myself. First, however, we need to separate between educational qualifications and technical skills. Both are necessary for a journalist but they are acquired very differently. Indeed, it’s possible that the differences between Justice Katju and the fraternity of journalists arise out of a misunderstanding of what they mean by these two.
Now, of course, a journalist needs a good education even if Vinod Mehta claims he’s “a BA fail … and (hasn’t) done too badly”. That, no doubt, is explained by his natural talent or luck but it can hardly be a precedent for others to follow.
The question is what sort of education is needed? My answer is the type that teaches one to think and question, to assess and analyse, to assimilate and prioritise detail, to be sceptical of first appearances, to be willing to examine and, indeed, even fearlessly challenge and to go on and on doing all of this till you’re satisfied and re-assured and not just exhausted.
This means a university degree is necessary but it could be in literature or engineering, law or science, history or mathematics. It doesn’t have to be of any particular type. As long as it broadens your mind, fires your curiosity and quickens your analytical skills that’s all that matters.
For me, this rules out a course in journalism. Such courses teach practical skills. They don’t educate. Instead, what’s needed is a sound grounding in a traditional subject up to the level of a university honours degree.
Now comes the question of technical skills. These are, basically, the craft of journalism — how to report a story or structure a script, how to conduct an interview or film a sequence, how to edit or how to plan a magazine layout, etc.
I have little doubt these skills are best learnt on the job, by instruction but also by trial and error.
School and university taught me how to think, question, assimilate and analyse. Charlie Douglas-Home, who later went on to become editor of The Times, and Samir Shah, my first producer at London Weekend Television, taught me the skills of the journalistic profession.
If I had chosen a course in journalism instead of a degree at a university I might never have been educated. If I had lesser men to teach me the craft of journalism I would be a lot poorer at the job I do.
There is, however, a deeper truth. A journalist never stops learning. His or her education is never finished but even in terms of individual issues or subjects it is rarely complete.
That also applies equally to the skills he or she can acquire. Practice doesn’t make you perfect, it only reveals how you can be better.
I learn something new every day and, hopefully, it’s more than that. I’m taught by all sorts of people, events, books, documents, experiences, mistakes including, paradoxically, my incorrigibly obstinate belief I know what’s right. When I’m proven wrong, as I often am, the lesson is the most needed.
Views expressed by the author are personal