Lynn Barber of the ‘Independent on Sunday’ defends the indefensible

  • The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
    Bloomsbury, 163 pp, £12.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0759 7

I shall bite the next person who comes up to me at a party and asks if I’ve read The Journalist and the Murderer. It is not a well-intentioned question. It implies that Ms Malcolm’s book has dealt irreparable damage to me and my kind (journalists who do interviews for a living), and that henceforward we must hang our heads in shame. I don’t see it myself, but let’s begin with the book.

It is an account of the ethical issues supposedly arising from the MacDonald-McGinniss case in the United States. Jeffrey MacDonald was a Green Beret doctor who was found guilty of murdering his wife and children. Joe McGinniss is a journalist who, shortly before MacDonald’s trial in 1979, signed a contract to write a book about the case. (Books about murders were all the rage then.) Under the terms of the contract, MacDonald was to waive libel rights and give exclusive co-operation to McGinniss, in return for 26½ per cent of the book royalties. McGinniss interviewed MacDonald during the run-up to his trial and afterwards in prison. He wrote often to MacDonald assuring him of his friendship and belief in his innocence. But when his book, Fatal Vision, came out in 1983 it depicted MacDonald as a cold-blooded murderer. MacDonald, not surprisingly, felt betrayed. He then sued McGinniss, not for libel, the rights to which he had waived, but for breach of contract on the basis of an odd little clause to the effect that ‘the essential integrity’ of his life story would be maintained. The evidence was certainty embarrassing to McGinniss, but a hung jury resulted in his acquittal.

Ms Malcolm came late to the case after the murder trial and after the McGinniss trial – when, journalistically, the story was dead and buried. But, as we shall see, she had her own reasons for getting involved. Her book begins with a bold and now much-quoted contention: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’ Well! This is certainly what we journos know in the trade as a good opener – ‘UFOs land in Crewe. Official’ – but unfortunately nothing in the rest of the book lives up to the excitement of this paragraph, and, more seriously, nothing in the rest of the book substantiates it. It is a headline without a story; it is the journalism of Sunday Sport.

The rest of the book is a disjointed account of Ms Malcolm’s meetings with various people connected with the case. There are some nicely drawn vignettes (especially of a stubborn juror) and many witty one-liners, but nothing that adds up to an argument. Indeed, insofar as Ms Malcolm does attempt to follow her own thesis, she comes to the following conclusion, which, because sensible, does not have the high quotability of her opening; ‘What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s scepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.’ Exactly. This is something we all learn at our first editor’s knee. So why does it take Ms Malcolm 144 pages and a lot of hot air to remember it? Obviously she is unhappy in her work, but why?

The answer coolly emerges in an Afterword which apparently she only tacked onto the book after a certain amount of pressure from her publishers and colleagues. She is currently being sued by the subject of her previous book In the Freud Archives because, he claims, she misrepresented him by doctoring his quotes. Her defence of this is quite jaw-dropping. If you tape-record an interview, she says, the resulting transcript doesn’t read very smoothly or grammatically: so naturally, she says, you re-arrange it and tidy it and paraphrase it. ‘Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist.’ she maintains, ‘will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs.’ Oh really? Since when? Rule one of journalism is never make up facts; rule two is never make up quotes. Of course spoken speech reads differently from written prose – that is why we put it in inverted commas. If we wish to paraphrase what someone has said then we don’t put it between inverted commas, and if we do, we are perpetrating a lie. It is as simple as that.

No wonder Ms Malcolm has a problem with journalistic ethics. No wonder she worries about the fairness of the subject-journalist relationship. It would be a foolhardy subject indeed who would talk to a journalist who could so blithely confess to doctoring quotes. But just because she is ethically adrift doesn’t mean she has a right to blacken the whole profession. There are bad journalists, but ‘every journalist knows that what he does is morally indefensible’? Pish and tush!

Nevertheless, there remains a problem. Why has The Journalist and the Murderer caught on as readily as it has? The reading public is always happy for a stick to beat journalists with – we are used to being the most reviled profession after politicians – but why do journalists themselves seem to welcome Ms Malcolm’s strictures? Do we want to believe that we work for a morally indefensible profession? Is there some appalling moral flaw at the heart of the journalist-subject relationship, and if so, what is it?

Incidentally, I don’t want to get stuck with defending McGinniss. His behaviour sounds pretty bad as related by Ms Malcolm, though in the light of her Afterword I am not prepared to take her word for anything. She argues that the MacDonald-McGinniss encounter was ‘a grotesquely magnified version of the normal journalistic encounter’. I would say that it was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different, and that journalists do not normally, or even occasionally, perpetrate the degree of deception that McGinniss perpetrated.

But is there even some deception at the heart of the journalist-subject encounter? Yes – but it is the subject’s self-deception, unaided by the journalist (by this journalist anyway). Honest journalists make no promises. Subjects agree to see them because they believe they can charm or persuade the journalist to their point of view, and sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t. Both sides hope to get something out of an interview: in the journalist’s case, a story; in the subject’s case, money. The money can either be direct, as in the MacDonald-McGinniss contract, or when the tabloids pay for a kiss-and-tell story, or it can take the indirect form of ‘publicity’, which, after all, equals money if it brings more readers/viewers/listeners to the subject’s work. Thus when Kirk Douglas or Richard Adams or Melvyn Bragg ‘agrees to see me’ shortly before their new book comes out, they are not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts but in hopes of a socking great plug. And even if I say their book is lousy, their publishers will still reassure them that ‘it’s column inches that count.’

Thus the interview seems to me a perfectly straightforward, if perhaps rather cynical, transaction. As with any commercial transaction, both sides hope to get slightly more than they give, and one side is bound to be disappointed. If the journalist is disappointed, though, he/she can simply dump the interview – a fact sophisticated subjects are aware of, so they try to give good tape. They try to make themselves interesting but in a way that does not give too much of themselves away. The journalist’s task is to get them to give more of themselves away than they would wish.

The ethics of interviewing seem to me perfectly straightforward. Nevertheless it is a fact that many journalists seem to feel uncomfortable doing interviews – men more than women, I suspect, and eminent journalists more than unknown ones. There is a telling passage early in Ms Malcolm’s book when she goes to see McGinniss. ‘I had never interviewed a journalist before,’ she writes, ‘and was curious about what would develop between me and a journalistically knowledgeable, rather than naive, subject. Here, clearly there would be none of the moral uneasiness that the naive subject all but forces the journalist to endure as the price of his opportunity to once again point out the frailty of human nature. McGinniss and I would be less like experimenter and subject than like two experimenters strolling home from the lab together after the day’s work, companionably thrashing out the problems of the profession.’

Now this is a feeling that every interviewer will recognise. Sometimes you wish it didn’t have to be an interview; sometimes you wish it could be a conversation. And most journalists make the mistake of trying it once – usually much earlier in their careers than Ms Malcolm – and find it doesn’t work. It never can work, because a conversation is not an interview; it doesn’t write up, the journalist’s participation seems, to the reader, pathetically vain. (John Mortimer has occasionally brought off the celebrity duologue, but he is the exception.)

But many journalists (including, I suspect, Ms Malcolm) are reluctant to endure the denial of ego that interviewing entails. ‘What about me? Don’t you want to hear my views?’ they clamour, wasting good interview time and blowing their whole interview stance, which should be one of studied neutrality. Secretly they often resent the idea that the subject is more interesting than them, and feel that they should be giving the interview. Some interviewers try to console themselves by comparing the interviewer’s role to that of the psychoanalyst – a tempting comparison but a false one. The psychoanalyst is paid by and working for the subject. The journalist is not.

The journalist is working for the reader and therein lies, for me, the solution to all these supposed ethical dilemmas. If the aim of my interview with, say, Melvyn Bragg were to please Melvyn Bragg, then I would be a bad interviewer. But it isn’t. It is to please the readers, and to convince them that I have reported back truthfully, so that they can feel they have met him themselves. I am amazed when journalists, journalists! say to me: ‘Oo but aren’t you embarrassed meeting Melvyn Bragg now at parties?’ The truthful answer is; ‘Yes I am, but so what?’ Journalists should expect a bit of embarrassment in their lives, it shows they are doing their job. It infuriates me that Ms Malcolm has tried to translate this embarrassment – which is only a social embarrassment – into an entirely bogus argument about principles. I suspect she knows it is bogus herself – and that is ‘morally indefensible’.