What defines the reporter? It used to be that reporters went out to look at events, and came back with answers to four or five questions: who, what, where, when, and, sometimes, why? They covered events by capturing basic information, writing it up in the form of a ‘story’. But the basics are now readily available – more easily and at lower cost to the reader than ever before. It does not take a reporter to answer the first four of these questions when we can gather as much from open access, user-generated platforms such as Twitter; and these platforms have all but dispensed with the form of the ‘story’. From the traditional list, that leaves only one question for the reporter to answer; and just the one answer to be formulated. True, the outstanding question – why? – is also the most difficult, but this still amounts to a reduction in the reporter’s role; especially since separating the fifth question from the other four Ws means that the last remaining answer often comes better from analysts, commentators and leader writers rather than reporters.
So what is the reporter for? Now that basic information is often provided not by reporters but by people-formerly-known-as-readers, it is surely time to reconsider what the people-formerly-known-as-reporters should be doing instead of supplying the basics. Consideration of this question is especially timely since, unless we make a point of addressing it directly, chances are that the Leveson Inquiry and its legacy will redefine the reporter in terms of how well he behaves and what codes of practice he has been seen to follow. Although this process may demonstrate who is and who is not considered fit to be a reporter, it cannot show what purpose reporting is fit for. British journalism will have wasted a good crisis if it checks in for moral rehab instead of seizing the opportunity to reformulate itself. Whereas Leveson et al pose the current situation as a moral crisis, what the reporter really faces is a fundamental question of purpose – what am I here to do?; and a supplementary question – if I am to fulfil a modified purpose, now that the basics are covered by non-reporters, what form should this fulfilment take?
However well-intentioned, it is not possible to answer these questions with a new morality. For reporting to be fully rehabilitated, i.e. for it to continue into a new phase as a discrete, journalistic activity, it has to have a purpose which cannot be fulfilled by just anyone with a Twitter account. Perhaps reporters should be using their powers of observation to supply not just the basics, but a description of events which captures both their uniqueness and their similarity to other human experiences. Maybe this always was the higher purpose of the best reporters, but now that the basics are covered by non-reporters while the fifth question invites analysis rather than observation, showing what makes an event distinctive and at the same time what makes it human, could emerge as the primary purpose of reporting. Supposing that the fulfilment of this dual role did become the re-making of the reporter, at least it would require a level of literary technique far in excess of what most people can ordinarily do with the 140 characters afforded by Twitter; and this, thankfully, could only confirm the requirement for dedicated reporting rather than user-generated content.
But if the reporter needs a new form of reporting, what would it look like? This is the task which I have begun to address, in a very humble way, in this blog. The short pieces published on this blog roll are a small scale attempt to develop a secondary form of observational writing, predicated upon basic information which is assumed to be in the public domain already. In that there is no legwork involved (only internet surfing), it could be said that they hardly qualify as reporting. But they do entail a kind of capture or recapture on my part – grasping at something in the scene that has not been seen before, and in this aspect I regard them as a continuation of the reporter’s role. They also incorporate other ways of seeing drawn from a variety of imaginative precedents such as advertising and painting. These pieces are intended to serve as adverts for reality: they are short items which go beyond the basics, just as advertisements go beyond basic product information, composing their subject matter in an arrangement of accurate but unexpected – pleasurably surprising – associations. In this respect, though they are journalistic my pieces are also positioned somewhere along the axis which ends in the iconic images surrounding commercial brands; but mine are ‘branded’ events rather than commodities.
My way of working could also be described as ‘painting the news’ – rendering current events in an imaginative way in order to capture something essential about them, without prioritising or being restricted to basic information which will already have appeared elsewhere. The model for this modus operandi is a magnificent painting. Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist’ re-tells a well-known biblical episode. It captures the moment after the executioner has struck the fatal blow with his sword, just as he is about to swoop down with a knife to cut through the tendons still linking head to torso. Although the scale of this work and Caravaggio’s level of insight, far surpass my own petty offerings, it is his combination of the sensational and the humane, his spectrum of sacrilege and the sacred, prose and poetry, which I have sought to imitate in my rendering of recent events. My efforts were prompted by the problems facing journalism, and they can only be informed by my own, all too limited experiences as a reporter, writer, former musician and occasional art-lover.
But my blog pieces are also derived from the position I find myself in as a part-time Londoner (working in the capital but living elsewhere); and their content is further informed by London’s current position in relation to the rest of the world. Today, London’s defining characteristic is its estrangement from the social relation of production. As the major, global supplier of financial services, this ‘fictitious capital’ is characterised by secondary activity which is increasingly distant (not only in terms of mileage) from the primary activity of other cities and countries. In recognition of this, my efforts comprise a minuscule attempt to utilise self-consciously secondary forms of writing to enable the reader to identify with the essence or primary nature of events. But the essential or primary nature of events does not lie in their immediate occurrence; neither is it found in the basics now covered on Twitter. Their essence occurs in the realisation of their uniqueness (the particular way in which something has happened to specified individuals) and their social character or commonality (how this particular event is also an aspect of the general human condition, comparable to other people’s experiences).
Accordingly, in each of my blog entries I have tried to identify not only what distinguishes the featured event but also what it has in common with other human experience. Instead of aiming for an exclusive – the hallmark of reporting in the twentieth century – my pieces are intentionally associative: they are intended as a literary form of re-alignment, integrating contingent elements in order to construct the featured event in its essential, social reality, i.e. as a combination of both its uniqueness and its commonality. On account of where I am and who I am, my reporting is necessarily derivative, and in this respect my reports are formed in the image of London’s secondary way of life. In recognition of this, I have tried to use the relatively rarefied techniques associated with literature, advertising and painting in order to show the uniqueness of featured events and their association with our common humanity.
It is not for me to judge whether my pieces have succeeded in this aim, but insofar as they suggest this possibility, they must also suggest the possibility of reconciling those aspects of human existence which have recently become further estranged. Although estrangement between different aspects of human existence pre-dates the global division between productive labour and finance-style activity, the geographical distance between production and finance has only deepened the divide between interpersonal relations and the social relation of production. Meanwhile, in the shape of the world wide web, we already have the technology to overcome this degree of separation. But the available cultural forms are barely enough to effect reconciliation. We need new forms of expression which are themselves informed by this estrangement, while at the same time addressing the problem in such a way as to suggest the possibility of transcending it. Though absurdly small when measured against the tasks involved, nonetheless this blog is offered as a very early sketch of that immense possibility.