Back in February, I wrote an entry about the ‘lost art of the long lunch’, which lamented an unfortunate consequence of the modern, social media-dominated environment and its ten minute news cycle. With most conversations now conducted via mouthpiece or screen, and quickly at that, it strikes me that the generations of hacks cutting their teeth from the late 80s onwards lack the highly sensitive interpersonal skills of their forbears.
The Fleet Street era of colossal expense accounts and booze-fuelled revelations couldn’t last, of course, but it had one thing going for it. When devious tactics were employed to extract information, more often than not they were employed face to face. It was open warfare of the kind where the loser probably deserved what was coming to them, if only because they’d had a few too many brandies with dessert. Perhaps if a generation of scribblers were not chained to their desks in the Wapping Gulag, the need for hacking might have taken a back seat. Worshipping the powers of a lunchtime claret, and its ability to make a contact sing, might have suppressed the lust for the dark arts.
Journalists have always done whatever it takes to get information. Nobody in the media industry has any illusions about that. Look at how readily Kelvin Mackenzie implicitly defended many of those involved in the phone hacking scandal in his 2010 spat with Chris Bryant, for instance. The point is, though he can sympathise with those who did, Mackenzie didn’t resort to the kind of invasive tactics employed at NI publications in the late 90s and early 00s when he edited the Sun. Sure, he didn’t have some of the technology, but he also didn’t have to.
The culture of the long lunch looked like laziness to the executives who came to re-shape the media landscape throughout the late 80s, but it wasn’t. Between the coppers in the pubs round the Old Bailey and the City Boys in the square mile boozers, the hack of two or three generations past had the kind of network Rebekah Brooks would have to hire armies of Private Investigators to achieve. As post-boom social pressures turned against drinking culture and geographic pressures sent the industry scattered far and wide – Docklands, Wapping etc – this network, decades in the making, was silently dissolved.
What’s more, the newspaper industry became (and still is becoming) a young people’s game. With the culture change the old blood – not just Mackenzie, Wendy Henry, Stewart Higgins et al, but senior reporters and writers – faded away into alternative careers. Rushing in to replace them came the Piers Morgan, Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks brand of quick-fire young editor. Following on from them, we’re about to see the dominance of kids fresh out of media courses, ready to follow a formula rather than their nose.
These cultures, both of which in their way prioritise tangible, novel skills over less condensable experience, combine with an increasingly desk-bound age to create isolated environments. If on the one hand you’ve never had time to develop the kind of lifetime people skills and ephemeral networks available to the journalists of bygone decades, and on the other you’ve a world of voicemail and internet based dirt at your under-callused fingertips, the results aren’t hard to predict.
So what’s the answer? These days, the entire media landscape will have shifted more than once in the space of a 1981 Times lunch break, so clearly a straight return to old habits is impossible. But social media doesn’t have to be about disconnection and alienation. With Twitter you can involve yourself in the kind of fast-paced conversational wranglings that occurred over those mythical luncheons. With Foursquare, even the busiest people can align their days sufficiently for some brief face time.
All it takes is a little imagination and media professionals of all kinds can use their instincts, not their phones, for a spot of information gathering.