Scepticism and humility: the essential qualities of a journalist

The more certain a journalist is about something, the more we should be sceptical about what he or she has to say, writes Rod Liddle.

'Journalism should hold the powerful to account. But it should also hold the weak to account and expose their own complicity in this weakness'

EVERY EVENT THAT happens can be depicted as a light cone. There is the past light cone which, way back when, encompasses almost everything and then narrows in to a single point; there is then that single point – the event itself, and then there is the future light cone where the event – a riot, a coup, a celebrity dying of a drugs overdose – affects what happens henceforth, spreading out in the end to touch everything.

Stuff doesn’t happen, then, in a linear fashion, nor does it have single and simple observable consequences. It is journalism’s job to explore the endless multiplicities of how, why, where and when. To offer a compelling narrative, for sure, but more importantly a myriad of narratives which will sometimes seem to conflict with one another.

This is all the more important when one particular narrative seems unchallengeable and is apparently believed by everyone. When everyone believes something, it’s often wrong – a belief founded upon a convenience or an expediency. Decent journalism will always challenge the easily held opinion, the supposedly common-sense notion that x caused y and there’s an end to it. Loads of stuff caused y, most likely, maybe including x at some point along the way.

Of course, journalism should hold the powerful to account. But it should also hold the weak to account and expose their own complicity in this weakness. And everything we do should be viewed through a prism of uncertainty and doubt. The more certain a journalist is, the more we should be sceptical about what he or she has to say. Humility, bloody-mindedness, an appetite for saying something which is unpopular and a mistrust of almost everything, not least oneself, are the crucial qualities for a journalist, then.

Unless they’re not. Hell, what do I know.

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