Editorial: Early one morning

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How often do we read something new in a newspaper that will change our perspective or add value to our existence? Do newspapers continue to justify the paper they are printed on? Did they ever? 

Recently I was reminded of Thoreau’s argument against the news cycle in Walden, the eponymous pond he retreated to in order to escape the modern trappings of 1840s America. “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper,” he groused. 

“If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter—we never need read of another.” 

Speaking personally, the early hours of the Wednesday before Palatinate goes to print on a Thursday induce exactly such questions. These are the hours I spend making the paper’s pages orderly with my long-suffering co-editor, Max, subtly shifting margins by millimetres and staring into words until they lose all meaning. “Is ‘chair’ really spelt that way?”, I ask. “Surely not…” 

Even if it is agreed in the abstract that the news cycle is worth keeping, most people seem to feel exhausted by the excess of it. A recent poll suggested that seven of ten Brits feel some sort of ‘news fatigue’. The issue seems to be one of quality as well as quantity, as trust in journalism wanes. Worryingly, YouGov estimated last year that 9 in 20 people distrust the BBC.

You can adopt another, perhaps more cynical, view of journalism: that news outlets exist primarily to protect the interests and extend the influence of a few wealthy proprietors. There’s little doubt to my mind that this is sometimes true, but I’m skeptical that it is the norm. It’s one thing to question the good faith of a few billionaires, but quite another to doubt the integrity of thousands of journalists who are following their vocation. 

Journalism’s existence is often justified on intensely idealistic principles, sometimes called the principles of the Fourth Estate. This holds that journalism is a servant to democracy because it holds those with power to account. It is, by this view, much more than a commercial enterprise. This applies equally to all sections of a newspaper. A theatre review or feature, in its own way, holds institutions to account. 

Even if these principles often seem detached from the reality, in themselves, they remain appealing and credible. 

However, some contend that these lofty principles are self- delusional; designed to make journalists feel important, or to add a façade of honour and prestige to a morally bankrupt profession. We could think of the Leveson Inquiry, when some journalists tried to use the notion of ‘public interest’ to defend the sordid practice of phone hacking.

If you are a regular reader of Palatinate, there may have been times where you have felt that the paper has covered an issue disingenuously. Certainly, Palatinate has got things wrong during its 74 years in print. 

Yet, having been a part of this wonderful paper for over two years, meeting plenty of student and non-student journalists along the way, I’m relieved to report that the experience has made me more optimistic about the state of journalism and its ideals. My cynicism has been broken, not buttressed. 

Everyone I have interacted with understands the flaws of the press, but remain committed to its improvement. They all have a sober understanding of their responsibilities. Sometimes these weigh heavily. Most agree that the information age has made journalism more essential, not superfluous. And, most pleasingly, all have interesting things to say that are worth reading. 

So, while we may dislike a writer, be aggrieved at a particular story, or feel burdened by the excess of the 24-hour news blitz, we should remain uncompromisingly committed to journalism and its ideals. If anything, a sense that journalism is not in the state that we want it makes a robust defence of its foundational principles all the more essential. 

What, after all, are the alternatives? An end to democracy as we know it, with unaccountable institutions plagued by stagnation and corruption. Or, like Thoreau, a retreat to a dank hermit’s shack by a pond. 

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As this is my final edition as Editor, I’m grateful for the opportunity to thank the many people who have helped and supported me during my time at the paper. First and foremost, I would like to thank Palatinate’s editorial board for their staggering work ethic and ideas. I regret that confines of space mean I can’t thank them all by name. 

In addition to his support for Palatinate more broadly, I would like to thank Prof. Tim Luckhurst for many thrilling, challenging and enriching conversations, some of which have helped build the ideas in this editorial. Thanks to my lovely parents, Guy and Ruth, and siblings, John, Hamish and Anna. Finally, my deep thanks to Jack, Tom, Imogen, Tash, Tim and Max for their patience, good humour and, most of all, friendship.

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