It’s a rough old trade, journalism. The ruthless pursuit of truth and glory wins few friends among readers, most of whom despise newspaper people, and, if successful, makes enemies of jealous colleagues.
Nor is it a trade that is easy to defend. If the purpose of newspapers is, broadly speaking, to inform, educate and amuse, they score quite well on the first count, fail almost totally on the second and devote far too much time and space to the third. And yet a free press is not only one of the glories of a civilised society but one of its principal safeguards. So perhaps we journalists – with the exception of the pond life at the red-top tabloids whose specialism is the entrapment of soft targets – should be taken a little more seriously.
Or so I thought until I read that Jonathan Cainer, the astrologer who recently defected from the Daily Mail to The Express amid stories that he had been offered £1m to stay, was unhappy about the status accorded to him. “I just wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist,” he told the UK Press Gazette mournfully.
Well, it can’t have done much to hearten a hard-working hack stricken by the occasional bout of self-doubt. What is the consolation in seeing yourself as, if not quite a pillar of the constitution, at least part of the fluting when some over-paid star-gazer demands to be taken seriously as a chronicler of events?
I should have no objection at all had he asked to be taken seriously as an entertainer, money-maker, diamond geezer, or even, at a pinch, a seer or oracle. In short, anything other than a journalist. For even we low-life must be allowed a tiny morsel of snobbery to call our own. I feel as a member of the medical profession might, were a wart charmer to insist on being taken seriously as a doctor.
The Mail, however, as anyone could have predicted without so much as a glance heavenwards, quickly recovered from the loss of its insufficiently esteemed astrologer by appointing another. Peter Watson arrived from its stablemate, the London Evening Standard, adorned with the obligatory adjective attached to all newcomers, namely “brilliant”.
He merited a full-page introductory profile in which we learnt that he has mysterious and penetrating soft blue eyes and a natural talent for knowing if you are feeling off colour – a gift he has honed with a serious and profound study of the movement of the stars. Moreover, his “predictions are both more accurate and inspired than any other astrologer”, which makes you wonder why the Mail put up with the inferior Cainer for so long.
Sceptic though I am, I turned to Watson’s first predictions for his new paper (described, predictably, as “brilliant”) and ran my finger down until it stopped at my star sign, Sagittarius. Here I was told, among other baffling generalities, to “accept that sometimes you lean and at other times you’re leaned upon. The trouble starts when you do one but not the other.”
That’s a relief. For, whatever else he might be, this fellow is plainly not a journalist. Or, at any rate, not one whose first language is English. To be leaned upon is a passive state and not something amenable to the act of doing. Charitable thoughts that those first efforts might have been just a “loosener” were challenged a couple of days later when he told his readers: “This morning, just before 10am, Mercury and Uranus will be linked in the skies [where else?]. This cosmic get-together won’t be visible, or audible.” So, madam, don’t bother to put down your coffee cup at 10am and throw open the window, you won’t hear a thing.
The next day found Watson in pensive and didactic mood: “It would have been Mozart’s birthday today. Child prodigy and rare musical genius, he packed a great deal into his 35 years, ever mindful of quality as well as quantity. Most of us, on the other hand, in trying to do too much, tend to cut corners, take short cuts and occasionally let standards slip.” I challenge anyone to deny there is Mozart and, on the other hand, most of the rest of us, or to gainsay there are differences between him and us.
In his days as the beast of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie fired the paper’s astrologer with the words: “As you will already know…” In those five words, he summed up all that needs to be said about horoscopes and the people who write them, and answered any claim they might have to be taken seriously.
That said, the Last Word has a record for long-range forecasting, and without recourse to the heavens. Some 20 years ago, I predicted that eventually some power-crazed health zealot would call for a tax on cream buns. Few, if any, took me seriously. Some put my madness down to Saturn’s influence on Venus. Others, quite fearful, listened for audible evidence, said to be a kind of “boing” or gong-like noise, of Uranus bumping into Neptune. Then, just last week, in the pages of the British Medical Journal, up popped Dr Thomas “call me Tom” Marshall with a demand that the Government impose VAT on fattening foods, including cream cakes. It must have been written in the stars.