A permanent casualty

The death of investigative journalism and who killed it?

Phillip Knightley

The Golden Age of journalism

Before we get around to revealing the names of the murderers, I think I'd better anticipate some of the criticism that my colleagues in the journalism game might throw at me. You know, that helpful constructive criticism on the lines of 'here's another old-fart-looking-back-at-the-Golden-Age-of-journalism-that-never-really-existed'. Let's pre-empt that. More by luck than skill I spent most of my 60 years in journalism in, yes, the Golden Age, and the comparison I have to make is between that age and what passes for journalism today.

I started as a copyboy for David McNichol senior on the old Daily Telegraph. Remarkably, for a columnist who spent his later years as a bon viveur, McNichol kept me busy running down Castlereagh Street to the greasy Greeks to bring him back a double hamburger with egg (on which he seemed to thrive). I got my break on the Northern Star in Lismore as a cadet reporter, doing what I have since termed 'public service journalism': keeping the people of Lismore informed of what was going on around them - CWA meetings, town council meetings, swimming carnivals, speeches by the mayor, interviews with the sergeant of police. This was great training. You have to get the names right, or your readers will stop you in the street the next day to complain.

Yes, I have to admit it, there was the odd moment of shame; the first inkling that everything one reads in a newspaper is not necessarily the truth. One day the senior reporter, a Scotsman on the run from something nasty in the Old Country, turned to me and said, "It's your turn to do Suzanne". Suzanne? "Yes, 'Your Week in the Stars', by Suzanne". I looked bewildered. "Get your arse down to the filing room, turn up some copies of the paper for ten years ago, and copy out the stars." And then he added, "But change it around a bit. And don't give the same people bad luck two days running. They'll complain."

I wrote about this many years later, and received a letter from a lady who said she had been the editorial secretary at about the same time. She said I shouldn't worry too much about having made up the stars column. It was her job to ring up the weather bureau each night just before publication deadline and ask what tomorrow's weather was going to be. She said she hated doing so because the weatherman thought forecasting was a science, and tried to dictate the forecast to her. And it was full of stuff like "a cold front is moving in from the south-east". And she had to stop him and tell him th