ICE blogs

November 2, 2014

Celebrating the genius of John Tulloch

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism, conferences — news_editor @ 4:44 pm

Richard Lance Keeble paid tribute at the ICE annual conference in London on 24 October 2014 to his University of Lincoln colleague Professor John Tulloch as the ‘quintessential journo: looking closely, witnessing with an ever critical, intelligent eye, curious about everything’

It is a great privilege for me to give a talk today in praise of my late friend and colleague John Tulloch. When I left City University for Lincoln in 2003 I was stepping into the unknown – but how lucky I was to work then alongside John for the last ten years of my full-time academic career. I could not have hoped for a better colleague. He was extremely supportive of my personal interests – such as peace journalism, investigative reporting, literary journalism – and we spent many hours thrashing out ideas late at night in his Lincoln home.

John could be shy and self-effacing in his relations with people. But he had a massive intellect; he was an extraordinary polymath: history, Indian culture, military aircraft, literature, music – from Bach to Bessie Smith and just about everything in between – the media, robots, the arts, politics, travel, second hand bookshops were a few of his obsessions. Just chatting to him was an education in itself. He estimated he had something like 20,000 books crammed into his north London home, university office and the terrace house he rented in Lincoln. But these books did not merely furnish the rooms: John had read them and more to the point he remembered what he had read. John was driven by an extraordinary curiosity about life. He was the quintessential journo: looking closely, witnessing with an ever critical, intelligent eye, curious about everything. I always remember as we went walking through the streets of say New Delhi, Paris or London he appeared to know the histories of every building we passed.

His writings and conference presentations over the years covered a vast range of subjects: peace journalism, Indian newspaper history, press regulation, media coverage of the US ‘war on terror’, the BBC; investigative reporting, literary journalism, journalism education to name but a few. He wrote beautifully: his prose was bubbling with original ideas and wit: he was able to mix subtle theory, even sections of quantitative analysis, with elegant references to some of the many books he had read. Take for instance, his Ethical Space review of Robert Fisk’s The Age of the Warrior, in which the author serenades his cat: John took the opportunity to slip in mention other literary cats – of Keats, Christopher Smart and Dr Johnson for instance, complete with apt quotations, of course.

John could even include the word ‘bullshit’ in an academic essay and make it appear both apt and profound! Indeed, there was a cheeky side to his personality that came out in his writings: while constantly critical of the ‘dumbing down’ of the media he always wanted to celebrate the tabloids for their mischief-making. So he was quick to challenge John Lloyds’ stress on the need for ‘responsible journalism’ writing:

Don’t we need a less solemn vision of journalism that has some space for active mischief-making, and scepticism and suspicion of the motives of the powerful, even if some of that mischief is damaging even to the body politic.

John’s contribution to the 2012 ICE annual conference was so typical of the man. Amidst all the avalanche of media coverage of Leveson, John picked on what he called ‘the witchifying’ of Rebebak Brooks – who might otherwise have been so easily passed over as a Murdoch crony not worth any sympathy or academic attention. So he read carefully from his script:

Last year, Rebekah Brooks positively willed herself to be my subject. She is, as many have seen fit to tell us, hard to resist. Not the Cotswold-living lady who rides retired police horses, or the tabloid editor and compulsive chum of celebrities … But the woman in the middle of the bizarre process that seems to happen regularly, when for a short period, they become a subject of press interest, are objectified and, not to be too dainty about it, monstered.

And he continued:

Apart from the too tempting opportunities for portentous moralising, her case is fascinating for what it can tell us about contemporary media culture, the persistence of class-based attitudes and a sexism so engrained into our public life as to appear ‘natural’, old boy.

Notice the vitality and wit, the subtle shifts of tone and register of John’s prose. How elegantly it mixes subtle theorising, journalese and witty vernacular. All of this crammed into just a few score words.

John was a regular attender at ICE annual conferences, was books reviewer for Ethical Space and he was always there in an email or at the end of the phone line with some wise words of advice for the ICE executive group. Indeed, ethical concerns lay at the heart of all his writing and teaching. Like one of his heroes, George Orwell, he used book reviewing as a way of expounding his theories about life and journalism and everything. So on Anthony Feinstein’s, Journalists under fire, The psychological hazards of covering war: he wrote:

The concept of the journalist as emotionless ‘filter’, devoid of social context, history, ideology jumps up like a claymore mine. Damn such ‘filters’. Surely the appropriate professional filter for journalists about conflicts within which we are enmired is paranoia about authority, empathy for the victims, and anger at the stupidity, historical illiteracy, ambition and greed which brought this to pass. Held together, of course, by a steely effort to construct credible ‘facts’. Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, John Pilger and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad spring to mind.

In his essay, ‘What moral universe are you from? Everyday tragedies and the ethics of press intrusion into grief’ published in Ethical Space, he outlined four essential journalistic ethical approaches:

• Firstly: the journalism is a ‘rough old trade’ argument: journalists are special and should not be subject to ordinary ethical codes. The PCC Code is primarily a public relations exercise, a deal with the political class to buy off political pressures.
• Secondly: the ‘virtuous journalist’ argument. Journalists should be subject to ordinary ethical codes but virtuous behaviour can only be based on the operation of individual conscience.
• Thirdly: the ‘cultural meliorism’ argument. Voluntary codes can ‘improve the culture of journalism’ gradually via training and contracts.
• And finally: the ‘structural determinism’ argument. Codes and conscience will count for little in a newspaper industry run by media combines to maximise profit.

And he concluded: ‘My own prejudice would be to support the virtuous journalist argument but this is only feasible if journalists establish a right to refuse instructions that breach the code.’

Another of John’s heroes was Charles Dickens. And in writing about him in a chapter for a book I edited, The Journalist Imagination, he was able to articulate his profound belief in the cultural and political value of journalism as literature.

One obvious reason for the low status of English journalism has been its perceived lack of creative control by the author compared to the control allegedly associated with the ‘artist’. Arguably one of the malign effects of Romanticism in English culture was to define the ‘true’ artist’s status as not having a patron but a soulful relationship to the audience that precluded writing for anything as vulgar as the market. Certainly, the issues of creative control and his relationship to the mass audience tantalized Dickens.

Ethics also lay at the heart of John’s promotion over many years of journalism and media studies as academic disciplines. As far back as 1996, in the wake of an outburst of Fleet Street and Jeremy Paxman attacks on media studies, he wrote:

Media studies is not a discipline it itself but a field where a number of other disciplines meet – among them history, politics, economy, sociology and law. Far from being ‘incoherent’ in Paxman’s ignorant formulation, this field is a key meeting place to gain an understanding of the forces which shape our lives. Mediawork is strong in all the fashionable transferable skills – teamwork, self-presentation, research, negotiation, communicating with different audiences – that we are asked to value in higher education.

On the Westminster part-time Masters in Journalism Studies, he said: ‘We hope the theory provides a critique of current journalism and a forum for the discussion of ethical and political issues, encouraging students to be aware of the potential consequences of their activity.’

John was very much part of the John Mair/Keeble book factory system which has produced 12 books over recent years. For John, it meant bashing out massively referenced chapters to very short deadlines. Significantly Ian Sinclair, the Morning Star reviewer, always singled out John’s chapters for special praise. And that was not surprising. Whether writing on trust in the media, or the ability of literary journalists such as Gitta Sereny and Gordon Burn to confront evil, or on US and UK newspaper’s coverage of torture and rendition John was always original and insightful. His prose the fruit of years of reading, reflection and pedagogic commitment, lives on to remind us of his genius.

• Richard Lance Keeble is Professor of Journalism, joint editor of Ethical Space, and chair of the Orwell Society. He edited with John Tulloch Peace Journalism, War and Conflict Resolution (Peter Lang, New York, 2010) and two volumes of Global Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination (Peter Lang, New York 2012 and 2014).

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