- The Journalist and the Policeman: Seekers for Truth or Rivals in the Game?
Some leading nineteenth-century European novelists, including Dickens and Balzac, locating their stories in the changing social conditions of the era, drew on the figure of the policeman as an instrument of order in times of change and in conditions of injustice. The portrayals were seldom wholly flattering, though authors variously idealized aspects of the policeman’s role, comparing them to those of the lawyer, the soldier, or indeed the priest, making the policeman a comforter, a protector, a supporter of the law. The comparison might have extended to the journalist, for the policeman and the journalist too have much in common. They are both seekers after truth—or should be. At their best they both claim to protect and defend the interests of the weak. Many of the same skills are required in the two roles. Their methodologies too can have much in common, although of course the rules under which they operate will differ.
They sometimes experience similar excoriation. The English writer (and journalist) Nicholas Tomalin said of journalism that the only requirements for real success in its pursuit are “rat-like cunning, a plausible literary manner, and a little literary ability” (Sunday Times Magazine, 26 October 1969). Similar pejorative epithets have been coined to describe the work of the police. Perhaps it is inevitable, given that the work often involves digging into other people’s affairs, that practitioners in both callings are frequently depicted in unflattering terms.
Police officers and journalists have a relationship that can sometimes be antagonistic but is more often symbiotic. The journalist relies on the police officer for information and often for access to scenes [End Page 193] that form much of modern news reportage. The police officer in turn relies on the journalist to convey to the wider public information that may assist in the investigation of crime or in the maintenance of public order. Police officers rely on journalists too, for publicity that may affect their careers. It can be remarkable how many detectives’ names will appear in print in the weeks leading up to promotion interviews.
Later in the course of this essay I shall try to compare aspects of the work of the journalist and the police officer under some of these headings.
Journalists and police officers often work in proximity. Their daily—or nightly—rounds can bring them into frequent contact. In many cases they socialize together, identifying bars and eating places that welcome clients with irregular hours and unpredictable work patterns.
They have in common that they are both avocations that are essentially products of the industrial age of the nineteenth century, at least in the common-law countries. Police forces as we know them in Ireland and the United Kingdom were first organized in England in the reign of Queen Victoria. In the same era many of the great national newspapers emerged, as did the network of the local press. The process was facilitated by the development of steam-driven printing machinery, principally in England and Prussia, and by the dramatic reduction in the taxation of the industry.
Tens of thousands of young men of modest means found employment in the police, as did the men who turned out the content for the newspapers. (There were as yet no women in either calling.) Broadly, policemen and journalists were from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Neither Her Majesty’s home secretary nor the barons of the newspaper world were prepared to pay the high salaries expected by university men. But both the police and the newspapers could provide pathways to advancement for those who were prepared to work hard and improve themselves, without necessarily having the advantages of a public-school education or a degree.
Until fairly recently, policing and journalism more or less tracked each other in their professionalization and in their practitioners’ capacities to command higher pay. Until World War II police pay more or less matched the pay of artisans and tradesmen. Journalists’ pay was perhaps somewhat higher, but it rarely carried any of the pension [End Page 194] or sick-pay benefits that made policing attractive in an...