I remember someone once asking me what I do as a profession. “I’m a journalist,” I answered. “Oh, wow,” he said, as his eyes lit up. “You must get a lot of girls.” Whether he confused the word ‘journalist’ with ‘footballer’, I’m not quite sure, but he was half correct in that journalism is definitely one of the more rewarding and exciting jobs out there.
Whenever I’ve dropped the line ‘I’m a journalist’ to people, it’s always been received with a certain level of respect and admiration, aside from a few who’ve quickly snapped, with a smug look on their faces, “So, do you hack phones?”
In airports, it comes in handy, too. I often get questioned by officers – I’m young, brown and Muslim, what do you expect? – but the journalist line often makes them back off a little.
In my brief stint as a journalist, I’ve interviewed dozens of celebrities and big-name figures, been flown out by governments to attend conferences, written for national publications across the world and been invited for TV and radio interviews and debates. Not bad considering I’m only 24, right?
On Sky News discussing extremism
So, how did it all start?
I always knew I wanted to be a journalist. At the tender age of 6, I began to take an interest in the news. This passion for news and reporting started to manifest itself by the time I was 11. Every Thursday night, I’d sit down by my thick, white bulky computer, open up Microsoft Word and type away until I wrote about four pages of the latest and most interesting news happening in my school. The next day, I’d distribute my little attempt at a newspaper to my classmates.
Infused with an inquisitive mind, always wanting to know why and dig beneath the surface, I grew up convinced that journalism was my career path.
I got the grades at college to be accepted into City University’s School of Journalism, perhaps the most prestigious university for journalism in Europe. To everyone’s surprise, I began writing for national publications – The Guardian, Independent, the New Statesman and the Times – while I was at university.
Here was a young, brown Muslim kid interviewing celebrities and high profile politicians – Jon Snow, Alastair Campbell, Jon Bercow, Ken Livingstone et al – for national publications while still studying. I was quite chuffed with myself.
Even though things were still on the upward trajectory after I graduated, I started to fall out of love with the journalism industry. I remember having a meeting with one national newspaper editor to become a columnist. It didn’t go particularly well because, as soon as I met her, she was visibly surprised how young I was and, it seems, was immediately put off. Nothing transpired from it. Not long before this, at this same newspaper, I had an article commissioned, which I spent a a great deal of time interviewing, writing and researching for, which later got dropped for no apparent reason. Over the following year, I had to put up with editors effectively bribing me: I would pitch stories to which they’d reply something to the effect of: “If you want this published, I want to share a byline,” [i.e their name will also appear on the article].” This is something no journalist would be happy with, as it takes away from your hard work.
I was particularly outraged by another national paper, the Jewish Chronicle this time, after a journalist, who I pitched a story to, told me that they wanted to use the story as their own and not credit me. I was calmed down by the editor of the newspaper who apologised to me over the phone shortly after. Perhaps it’s paranoia, but I sometimes felt that after I pitched to a national publication, they’d go on to write the same story soon after, despite rejecting or ignoring my pitch.
In my few weeks of work experience that I acquired during university, I also felt uneasy that newsrooms were dominated by white, middle class (mostly) Oxbridge graduates who would give jobs to white, middle class Oxbridge graduates. This type of nepotism was unsettling.
I’ve had very bad experiences with Vice Magazine, too. And I’m owed 12 articles worth of money by a now defunct publication based in Asia – money, I suppose, I’ll never see. The worst part is, even when you do get work, the pay is awful. I’ve written 1500 word investigative, heavily researched articles for £75 (or sometimes less!) Having to chase payment for an article for over 6 months isn’t fun either, especially when the money isn’t great.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say I’ve been used and abused. But it’s not just the treatment that’s off putting. It’s the direction in which the industry is heading in that’s often quite alarming. Sensationalism and clicks has slowly began to overtake honesty, common decency and respectability. I suppose the news industry has been forced to keep up with people’s ridiculously short attention spans and feel they need to compete with the thousands of other pieces of information people are constantly seeing online. But many journalists aren’t even doing their job properly anymore. For the first time, I now hear callers on LBC radio station say vile things about Muslims without the presenters even challenging them.
Perhaps the worst part of being a journalist is having to constantly keep up with the news. Refreshing news pages, scrolling down Twitter and hearing people’s stories wouldn’t be so bad if it all wasn’t so damn depressing. Car bombs, miners dying in tunnels, boats sinking, children being mauled by dogs, ethnic minorities being abused, the list goes on.
Some of you may be thinking that this is reality, the way of the world, so you need to accept it.
I don’t deny that these things are happening, but my question is: how important is it for you to know? I mean, before TVs, radios and social media, people were much less exposed to all the craziness happening in remote, distant lands, and they got by just fine. So why do we have to know? I honestly don’t think we do. It’s not healthy, surely? Is that why journalists drink so much?
I spent three months in the West African desert recently and was almost completely out of the loop with current affairs, detached from modern technology and living a life of utter simplicity. I knew the big stories, but all these small snippets, which don’t directly concern you, were erased. They were the happiest three months of my life. That’s not to say we should shut ourselves off from the world, that’s irresponsible and selfish, but to absorb a constant influx of negativity is unnecessary and damaging.
I think what drove me to write this was an email I recently received from a young lady in South Africa who told me she was inspired by my writings and now wants to leave her job and pursue a job in journalism. My response to anyone wanting to become a journalist is always the same: journalism is a cut throat industry, one in which you need determination and thick skin. And, if you’re not willing to put in many months, if not years of unpaid, work experience, it probably won’t work out, at least in the UK.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have an issue with journalism, it’s an honourable profession. There are many good, balanced news corporations that exist and a plethora of brilliant, noble journalists. However, a large motivation of mine to go into journalism was to help make some kind of change to the world, to highlight unexplored issues that badly affect communities, to expose scandals and corruption. In summary, to help make the world a better place – I know, it all seems a little naive. But, due to the unfortunate way large parts of the media are now run, my ambitions were thwarted. And I don’t have the time or patience to persist. There are other ways I can pursue my goals.
Indeed, over the past couple of years, I’ve learnt that journalism isn’t the only way you can make a difference to the world and, considering the media is largely seen as unreliable among the masses, isn’t necessarily the best way to reach out to people. There are so many ways to now reach people with a message, so I’m giving some of them a try, and so far so good.
I love journalism, I will always be a journalist at heart and I may even do it as a hobby every now and again. But I fell out of love with the industry.