Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump turned me into the Prince of Lies
Patrick Freyne: As Leo Varadkar was siding with Trump on the media, I thought: How did I get here?
Tom Hanks in The Post: we swoon, fan ourselves or need to be alone for a few minutes with “our thoughts”
Last week, when our clever, handsome, nicely socked leader, Leo Varadkar, spoke to Americans, sympathised with Trump and criticised the media, I thought, At last. At last, someone has the guts to speak out against my profession. Leo has done another good thing, praise his name.
Then I sat up from whatever I was working on – an investigation into planning corruption, perhaps, or a listicle about soup – and thought, How did I get here? How did I become the vile ethicsless word monkey you see before you today? When and why did I become a prince of lies?
And the answer was, because of books and films and comics and TV shows about journalists. So here’s a brief cultural review of things with journalists in them to help you understand and perhaps avoid the sad, sorry road I travelled.
Oh, look at you with your ‘desks’ and ‘working phones’, I whinge from my straw pile in the ‘Irish Times’
In Press Gang, a surprisingly smart and funny ITV children’s show from the early 1990s, a child newspaper editor, Lynda Day, marshalled resources that would be envied by most national newspapers today. “Oh, look at you with your ‘desks’ and ‘working phones’,” I whinge from my straw pile in the Irish Times features department’s hovel.
Still, Day and her pals, the hard-bitten American cynic Spike and the infant Thatcherite Colin, were forever uncovering serious school-board corruption in an inspiring fashion. I think they’re the reason I went into journalism, to be honest. I still dream that someday I will work at the Junior Gazette and own my own “biro”.
New Grub Street
George Gissing’s surprisingly modern and relatable 1891 novel follows the careers of two hard-working writers. One is a starving artist, precious about creating works of headache-inducing genius, like yourself. The other is an unscrupulous hack, happy to turn his hand to any literary endeavour that makes a buck. “It me!” as the young people in the late 19th century were wont to say. There’s also an excellent bit where one of the characters fantasises about a publication that is just made up of sensationalist headlines without articles attached (seriously, this actually happens) and thus predicts Twitter.
I might be alone in reading Superman comics for tips on journalism, but the nuts and bolts of newspaper creation have always fascinated me. As a child I carefully studied the workings of the Daily Planet while shunning more parochial papers like The Irish Times. To this day, whenever I’m dispatched to cover something, I run into an alley, change into a disguise and then, so garbed, make myself the centre of the story. Later I chucklingly write it all up as though I observed the event from afar, including sock-puppeting quotes from my main source: me. Hyuck, hyuck!
This is basically what Clark Kent does at the Daily Planet. It’s also what Peter Parker does with his photojournalism over at the Irish Independent (editor’s note: I think you mean the Daily Bugle), where his editor, Jonah Jameson, likes to rant about what a menace that Day-Glo vigilante Spider-Man is, and how unready for government he is.
Sometimes my editor says, “That f***ing eejit was here again” (he’s in the Jonah Jameson school of editing), and I smile wryly to myself, peer over my spectacles and say, “Was he? I popped out for a minute and somehow missed him. Again!” Then I waggle my eyebrows, to suggest I know something that he doesn’t, and he says, “Jesus, Patrick. Seriously?” because another legacy of my years reading Superman comics is that I call Specsavers “the disguise shop”.
Carrie in Sex and the City
Nowadays someone who dressed as an outlandish clown person, regularly self-narrated her sex life and yet managed to live in a New York apartment as big as the one Carrie Bradshaw lived in could clearly only be some sort of crazed hobo squatter. Carrie, however, was meant to be a freelance columnist, and thus she gave a generation of young journalists absolute notions about their earning potential. On the other hand, journalists do hear Sarah Jessica Parker reading our words out loud inside our own heads as we write them. So they got that bit right. Also, the first sentence in this paragraph is my actual pitch for a Sex and the City reboot, so producers can contact me at the usual email address.
Sweet Smell of Success
In Alexander Mackendrick’s film a Walter Winchell-channelling gossip columnist is feared and courted by all, much like I am. He files his column from a cafe table with a rotary-dial telephone on it and uses his journalistic connections to destroy people (even his own sibling), much like I do. And his weak-willed lackey turned sort-of nemesis looks like Tony Curtis, much like mine does. The columnist is played by Burt Lancaster, and here we differ. I am played by the guy who starred as ALF.
Yes, I thought, I too am like Ben Bradlee, publishing secret papers to help stop a war. Then I filed the ‘Love Island’ review I was working on and took the rest of the day off
The Post is the story of some very serious journalism told in an entertainingly and inspiringly Spielbergian manner. (Unsurprising, really, as the director was Steven Spielberg. ) Yes, I thought the day after I saw it, I too am like Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor of the Washington Post, publishing secret government papers to help stop a disastrous war. Then I filed the Love Island review I was working on and took the rest of the day off.
The Post is basically erotica for journalists. It features impassioned speeches about the importance of a free press (ooh er!), fuddy-duddy reactionaries trying to stop the truth train reaching fact town (matron!) and, most importantly, footage of an old-fashioned printing press, conveyer belt filled with world-shattering headlines (hubba hubba!). For media folk of a certain vintage this footage is like catching sight of a Victorian lady’s ankle. We swoon, fan ourselves or need to be alone for a few minutes with “our thoughts”. I have seen The Post twice already . . . today. (Did I say that out loud?)
The Parallax View
Alan J Pakula’s excellent thriller is often written off as a beguiling product of conspiratorial 1970s paranoia. Warren Beatty plays a journalist who begins investigating some suspicious deaths before watching a number of his sources die, faking his own death, being brainwashed by the mysterious Parallax Corporation and then being framed for a murder he did not commit. I don’t like to go on about it, but a very similar thing happened to me when I interviewed Daniel O’Donnell.
State of Play
This is a US conspiracy thriller based on the superior UK TV series about a truth-seeking journalist (Russell Crowe) investigating a murderous politician (Ben Affleck). To be honest, the only thing about it that felt remotely journalistically accurate was the state of Russell Crowe’s car, a beaten-up hatchback filled with litter, and the state of Russell Crowe’s character, a scowling ham who hasn’t slept and has poor personal hygiene. (The working title, I believe, was State of You). “That, my friends, is what a real journalist and a real journalist’s car look like,” I said to my friends, who have real jobs as doctors and Star Wars vloggers.
“We don’t care,” said my friends. (They speak in unison, like a Greek chorus.) “Stop talking about your job, already. You journalists are the most navel-gazing, self-obsessed lot, and quite frankly we’ve had enou . . .” The Dictaphone tape runs out here.