Saturday, 27 March 2010

His Grey Eminence: Phillip Knightley's unintended lessons

By Anthony David Gatt

Coming to know Philip Knightley from his War Propaganda masterpiece "The First Casualty", Anthony David Gatt and others who attended his lecture at City University in London earlier this month were in for a surprise. A 90 minute psuedo-dialogue that revealed more about the state of mind of a star newspaper man than on the state of journalism itself.

Peeping in from the minute square window in the door it looked like an exam room. On the front benches enthusiastic youngsters where scribbling down their thoughts, rushing away in order not to let their next idea fade before they had put pen to paper.

With a plethora of noises we made our way in, fashionably late. Making my way in last, the door screeched as I was hunting for the best seat left. Struggling with a colonnade that blocked the view from any side I would place myself, I finally sat down. Whilst nodding an apology on my way in, he didn’t look disturbed, or angry. His soft monotone voice did not change pitch or emphasis to acknowledge our entry.

And there he was the acclaimed War Propaganda and Espionage writer Philip Knightley. I thought that his lecture at City University earlier this month would be much more of an event. It had its moments of journalistic nostalgia, which would amuse the young students trying to find such anecdotes in their imagined future careers, yet it lacked inspiration, energy and drive.

He sat leisurely for around ninety minutes reading off a printed version of his lecture, verse by verse, paragraph by paragraph. The first couple of pages had already gone past their lifetime as we moved in. Water bottle and long distance specs to his left, glancing at his audience periodically from above his short distance glasses which sat peacefully on his nose, Knightley looked anything but alive. The bald-headed elderly man with a grey-white goatee donning a navy blue jacket with gold buttons complimented with a red handkerchief didn’t stand out. Not even with an unused whiteboard and the light-off projector screen as a background.

His audience was lost in trying to bridge their expectations for the lecture and the real deal. For some it was still the acclaimed journalist who was giving them lessons, they sat on the front rows. The writing of his every word is exactly what journalism is not about. There where the Harry Potter types with the trendy glasses alongside the touched up females who still think that journalism can replace the catwalk. You also had the lecturers, a middle-aged female professor gleamed at his every word, another one leaned in to grasp as many of the soft spoken words as possible, a third unashamedly dozed off.

And while he narrated his main career anecdotes of invented stories that led to arrests for non-existent crimes, misunderstandings from his Australian editors who requested direct quotes form Queen Elizabeth at 3am and the secrets to Lawrence of Arabia’s lives, we were expecting something deeper. Something that one could discuss after the lecture. Deeper than making your wife call you regularly at the Sunday Times office for the receptionists to learn your name.

This does not mean that he didn’t pass on some usable tips. He even branded them with numbers:

Lesson 1: Publication often revokes information

Lesson 2: No “No” is ever final

Lesson 3: Be prepared to believe the most unlikely story from the most eccentric of people

Lesson 4: Do not expose people that earn less than you

There were other valid remarks especially when he spoke about the need to be proactive in journalism.
“Get a phone and ring around, it’s not true that there are no stories for that spiral notebook to get”. His news-point as chosen by was that “Journalists working in a digital age should not underestimate the importance of 'off-the-street' whistle blowing”. Yet when during question-time a student explained that in the real 24-hour news production cycle that we have to operate in time is limited, he spat out the worst quote of the night: “Is that what the reality is. I don’t know, I haven’t been to a newsroom for a long time now”.

Knightley claimed that he had never put his foot in a door or ran after a minister with a microphone, as he was a newspaper man. His ironic tone would have hurt any respectable TV journalist who strives day in day out to strike a good balance between story and ethics.

With time to spare for some last questions, sweaty hands, my usual press-conference blood-rush and a corrected voice I fired away: “As a young journalist my ever-present dilemma is about citizen journalism... should we as professional journalists stand in our Ivory Castle and disregard the work done by these individuals or should we acknowledge that the scenario has changed once and for all? What are your thoughts about this?”.

It wasn’t the “I want to hear my voice reverberate in the room” question, it was and still is a concept which troubles me: the legitimization of our profession. When in the past I have been confronted with this question I would always find myself in a difficult position. Is it professionalism, is it ethics, is it the journalistic houses whose names we use to get privileged access. What makes us better than citizen journalists or whatever you wish to call them? After all, are we better or are we just different models of the same brand?

He didn’t think extensively about an answer, he resolved what many see as a complex issue by saying that ”They are just witnesses, we are professionally trained, we have professional standards”.

Do you think that such an answer is enough? How can we keep on hanging onto such Eminence Grey characters to motivate our young journalists? How can we base our future journalism on outdated approaches out of touch with the time.

Terminating the talk with an abrupt “Let’s wrap it up” which was followed by an appropriate applause, Knightley rose to his feet. After chit-chat’s with the ‘you know who’ type of students he started to move slowly towards the door. I thanked him too.

Helped by his colleagues to move down the steps of the City University’s Centenary Building on London’s Spencer Street, Knightley looked the same: unmoved, unchangebly solemn and contained. Has his profession wore him out? Or have his recent health problems effected him so strongly that they have seeped into his general mood and approach to life?

Meanwhile as the female professor congratulated him with a polite “Well done Philip, as ever”, my mind could only think about the practicalities of how City University transfers the money to Knightley’s account every time he gives such lectures. I strongly believe that this one should be his last installment.

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