Early on in my career as a newspaper reporter in London, a grizzled newsroom veteran summoned me over to his desk for a stern talking to. "Harnden, you're letting the side down," he told me. "You're bringing in all these stories but your expenses are pathetic. You need to start claiming some more." Helpfully, he pulled open his desk drawer, which was stuffed full of blank taxi and restaurant receipts.
Although it has been years since London's newspapers moved away from the famed Fleet Street -- where my newspaper, the Telegraph, had its own pub, the King and Keys, to which the news editor would run to get his sodden reporters if there was a story breaking -- its spirit lives on. The late Sunday Times foreign correspondent Nicholas Tomalin was right when he once observed that the attributes most required of a British "hack" -- the term most of us still use to describe ourselves -- were "rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability."
Whereas our American counterparts have long viewed themselves as comparable to lawyers and doctors, we British hacks still see ourselves as practitioners of a grubbing craft rather than members of an upstanding profession. (The public, which views us as on a par with real estate agents, prostitutes and perhaps even criminals, tends to agree.) As recently as the mid-1990s, it was standard practice for British reporters to spend three hours over a liquid lunch in the pub before returning to file their copy. Stories were sometimes pronounced "too good to check." When seeking an additional element of confirmation on one story, I was told that it was "close enough for journalism" and that a bit of artful conjecture would do. An editor once dictated a quotation to me and then, winking, offered the opinion that he was sure my contacts were good enough to find someone to say it anonymously. My deadline was five minutes away.
Of course, the term "hack" has taken on a different and altogether more sinister meaning in the British press since the century-and-a-half-old News of the World tabloid imploded amid allegations of bribing of police officers and hacking into the voicemails of a missing teenager, victims of terrorism, and relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. More respectable precincts of the country's media, meanwhile, have been rocked by the swirl of plagiarism allegations engulfing Johann Hari, a liberal wunderkind columnist with The Independent who, it has emerged, had for years been in the habit of including quotations from books and other interviews to improve his own articles. (The saga has inspired a running joke on Twitter and in Private Eye, the satirical magazine and longtime scourge of Fleet Street, which recently ran a Johann Hari interview with Winston Churchill: "I ask him how he feels about the country's current debt crisis. 'Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few,' says Churchill puffing on his trademark cigar.")
Go ahead and snigger. While the American press has certainly had its share of similar disgraces, it is true that American newspaper articles are in the main more accurate and better-researched than British ones; the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal was not wrong when it ventured that Fleet Street has "long had a well-earned global reputation for the blind-quote, single-sourced story that may or may not be true." But stories in the American press also tend to be tedious, overly long, and academic, written for the benefit of po-faced editors and Pulitzer panels rather than readers. There's a reason a country with a population one-fifth the size of that of the United States buys millions more newspapers each week.
For all their faults, British "rags" are more vibrant, entertaining, opinionated, and competitive than American newspapers. We break more stories, upset more people, and have greater political impact. (The BBC, with its decidedly American outlook on the news, has become increasingly irrelevant as its state-sponsored dominance has been challenged by Murdoch's Sky News.) Broadsheets journalists like me view ourselves as part of the same gang as the tabloid hacks -- and there is movement between the "tabs" and the more serious papers, not least because the hard-nosed skills are in demand by editors of both. If they weren't too busy shaking their heads at us and quoting the laughably pompous Journalist's Creed, the genteel scolds of the U.S. media might learn a thing or two.