Press Column Saturday 29 May 1999

One of the sidelights of the News of the Worldís success in stinging celebrities is just how widespread drug use is among marketing droids. No one has ever offered me an endorsement for grooming products, but it appears from the misadventures of Mr Dallaglio that it is normal on these occasions to swap tales of heroic debauchery before signing any contract.

But they are the only people among whom drug use is surprising nowadays. In ten years at the Independent I can only think of one colleague who may never have taken illegal drugs. Itís more likely that there were several who were faithful to the same person for those ten years. But in general, if my friends and colleagues, or I myself, behaved better than professional sportsmen, it was poverty rather than fastidiousness that held us back. Admirable as journalists are in many ways, they are not distinguished for the regularity of their private lives. In fact thatís one reason why the career is so attractive. Of course, most people stop some time in their thirties. But they donít grow censorious about the practice.

At the religious affairs desk in the early days of the newspaper I remember asking one of the executives ó who has since gone on to distinguished careers elsewhere ó for a light. He pulled from his pocket a lump of hash about the size and shape of a packet of Swan Vestas, gazed at it in momentary puzzlement, said "uhhh, no" and then produced the real box of matches.

Cocaine use was less common because we knew we couldnít afford it in more senses than one. One friend, a thrice-married borderline alcoholic, who now makes his living writing moralising leaders for a paper very tough on drugs indeed, told me that he had only taken cocaine once because it was so different from marijuana: when he smoked dope, he felt he was writing brilliant stuff, but it was all gibberish the next day; however, when he tried cocaine he discovered the next day that what he had written was quite as brilliant as he had supposed it to be. He realised at once that this was a drug he dared never touch again.

There were people who used cocaine regularly: a Swedish sub on the foreign desk named Annika Savill was convicted in a magistratesí court after she left a handbag with her weekís supply in a taxi and reported the loss to the police. It didnít really dent her career. After a series of strategic affairs she rose to the giddy height of diplomatic editor. Shortly after her promotion she walked out on the then foreign editor (who had left his wife for her) but when he was sacked, she went too and was last heard of in New York, writing high-minded speeches for Kofi Annan.

Alcohol, of course, had plenty of victims. People now drink far less than they used to, and they start after work rather than at lunch time. But three of my closer friends in journalism are in AA and several of my heroes, proved, when I met them, to be the most tedious drunks imaginable. These things are not accidents. Journalists have always been drawn to excitement, impermanence, and vivid sensations. If they cannot find them in the outside world, they will look in bottles or little wraps of silver paper.

There have been some really fine books written about journalism ó Scoop, and Michael Fraynís The Tin Men are the obvious examples. But they were not what made us want to be reporters. One book that did that was Claud Cockburnís autobiography, a celebration of the hard-drinking, chain-smoking life that could supply a lifetime of excuses for everything: he explained his tendency to perpetual insolvency by saying that as an adolescent he had lived in Budapest during the great inflation after the first world war, and in consequence he regarded all financial arrangements as fluid by nature. The most influential, though, was Hunter S Thompsonís Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The message of this book to my generation (I was sixteen or so when it first appeared) was simple and overwhelmingly important: You did not need musical talent to live like a rock star. You could have all the drugs and girls and excitement in the world by playing a typewriter.

But what has this all got to do with professional ethics? Does it matter what journalists do in their private lives? Does it have any bearing on how well they do their jobs? Thereís an obvious sense in which it does, but this doesnít matter very much: the post- Fear and Loathing career of Hunter Thompson shows how much damage brain damage can do to your style. But these things tend to be self-correcting. Journalists, as a rule can manage temptation because itís a fiercely competitive profession and if you canít there is always someone to take your place.

More important corruptions arise form the blurring of the line between journalism and celebrity. Some people are led into journalism by the same insecurities and ambitions as lead the differently talented into show business and in the hope of some of the same rewards ó some of the tabloidsí recent victims have themselves been television presenters The justification for journalistís sleaziness has always in the past been precisely that they were not respectable. You needed someone with the low, unblinking perspective of a toad to see and to show you important truths about the world. But this only works while respectability makes sense: when worldly success correlates with some observance of moral standards. But who in their right minds would expect moral leadership from a professional sportsman? They are not paid for their wisdom or sophistication but because they can run faster than other people with advertisements on their backs. The most depressing thing about the whole affair is that there seems to be no longer any moral difference between the rugby player and the journalist except that the journalist attracts less advertising and gives less pleasure to those who watch her at work. Why should they be held to different standards?

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