On August 7, 1972 I joined the Brentwood Argus in Essex as the paper’s cub reporter. I was barely 16, and it was the start of a lifetime as a reporter. Because I think, in essence, that is what I still am – a reporter. Not a TV presenter, or occasional quiz-show host, or even a newspaper columnist. Fundamentally, I’m a reporter. Much of what I “use” today, be it hosting Good Morning Britain or writing pages like this one, I learned in the first three years of my apprenticeship on local papers.
How to tell a story. What a story actually IS. How to meet a deadline. How to pare things down to the bone when space or time is tight. I vividly remember a lecture at Harlow College’s journalism center (cub reporters like me were sent there for crash courses in shorthand, libel law, and headline-writing).
Our tutor – a colorful former Fleet Street hack who’d succumbed to multiple stomach ulcers and a double coronary (and yet still freely nipped whiskey and chain-smoked as he half-taught, half-harangued us) scrawled four words onto a whiteboard.
“FRESH FISH SOLD HERE”. “Right, you useless lot,” he sneered at us cubs, belching and breathing smoke like a burping dragon.
“What can we cut from that, and still keep the meaning?” No answer. We were terrified.
“Useless,” he repeated. “OK – let’s start with this!” He wiped the final word away. “We don’t need ‘HERE’! Of course it’s bloody well ‘HERE’. Where else would it be? In the next flaming street? OK, what else can go?” More silence.
“Gawd! ‘SOLD’, of course! It’s a shop! We’re not ******* giving it away! Next? Anyone? Aaargghh… it’s ‘FRESH’, you morons! We’re not flogging STALE fish, are we? So – we just need ‘FISH’! Oh, class dismissed…”
Much of my early career was tutored under such men – and women. Piers Morgan went to Harlow College too, and he agrees with me – it was sometimes a brutal education and today it would probably have most student reporters running and bleating to HR – but it served us well enough.
So why, after half a century surviving in a rough old game, do I still have so-called “imposter syndrome” – the occasional surge of overwhelming doubt that I deserve even to be in the profession?
I discussed it with my wise, reflective 35-year-old daughter this week and she came up with this counterpoint.
“Ask yourself this, dad. If everything you knew, everything you’d learned, and everything you had achieved in your professional life over 50 years was about to be taken from you; obliterated – what would you give to keep it? Nothing? Or everything?”
“Well…everything.” Exactly. And that represents most people’s real sense of self-worth.
“Anyone who gets imposter syndrome should ask themselves the same question.”
Just thought I’d pass it on. Thank you, wise daughter o’ mine.