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Inscrutable journalists

Rather than simplify difficult thoughts, most journalists or columnists prefer to complicate the straight-forward, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Mar 07, 2009 21:55 IST

If a telephone ring can sound excited, this one certainly did. It was Pertie.

“I’m obviously better known than I realise.” He was bubbling over and clearly pleased with himself. Or had I misread his voice and tone?

“What on earth are you talking about?” I decided to play safe.

“Guess what? Women I’ve never met and don’t even know have started writing about me. I’m the subject of a whopping great article in the HT!”

Not sure how to respond, I kept quiet. Was this a joke? Was he teasing me? Pertie has a strange sense of humour. However, I soon realised he was serious.

“The problem is I can’t understand what she’s written. No doubt it’s awfully witty and clever but it’s also incomprehensible. And the worst part is that’s so typical of all you journalists. More often than not, you guys write to impress and not to express.”

I must admit Pertie has a point. In the 1970s, when I was still an undergraduate at Cambridge, people would struggle over The Times’s leaders on the economy. I recollect that I could follow every single word but put together, the whole editorial was mystifying.

“I can’t understand your leader”, an MP is supposed to have said to Peter Jay, the paper’s well-known Economics Editor, according to an apocryphal story. “You weren’t meant to,” was the prompt reply. “That leader was written with three people in mind and you aren’t one of them.”

I often suspect this is true of a lot one reads in newspapers. Rather than simplify difficult thoughts, most journalists or columnists prefer to complicate the straight-forward. And if you add to that their deplorable punctuation and obvious lack of grammar, what you are made to decipher is often just gobbledygook.

Yet I’m not sure if Pertie’s explanation is entirely correct. No doubt a desire to impress is partly responsible. But I simply cannot believe that’s all there is to it. At least in equal measure the blame must lie with a subconscious attempt to cover up. Journalists are often poorly informed and choose to obfuscate. Incomprehensibility disguises the fact they don’t know what to say and hides their ignorance.

How different this is to the three rules of thumb taught to me by Charlie Douglas-Home, when I joined The Times in 1980. At the time he was Deputy Editor and we were in his office overlooking Gray’s Inn Road. He had kept the bottom drawer of his desk open and used it to rest his feet. It made him look professorial. Even 30 years later I remember what he said and the definitive tone of that pronouncement:

“First, make sure what you’re writing is accurate. And that means check and check again. Then, make sure it’s balanced and fair. This doesn’t mean you can’t take sides, but you must give your target an adequate chance to be heard. Finally, read what you’ve written to see if you’ve made the case you wanted to. It’s not unusual to think you’ve said what you intended only to find you’ve conveyed something else.”

It was several months after I joined the paper that I discovered there was a fourth rule Charlie had not spelled out but which was perhaps the most critical of all. He was reviewing my first three months of largely wasted effort and there was a gentle if wry smile

on his face. But when he spoke it was with the same authority:

“Write simply. That means short, sharp sentences. Don’t try to emulate James Joyce. Instead, model yourself on James Hadley Chase.”

Today, after a life-time in journalism, experience has taught me a fifth lesson. It’s at once the most simple and the most difficult. Don’t try to be too clever. Most journalists are intelligent yet we often end up overly smart. That’s why people like Pertie often say: “God alone knows what you’re saying.” To which sometimes you could add: “And I doubt if he does too.”

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