John Nicolson: Reflecting on a career in journalism


Categories: News

I DIDN’T think it would be possible to pack the student union debating hall on a Saturday morning at 10am.

“What kind of self respecting student is going to give up precious hours of duvet time to talk about journalism with me?” I asked my endlessly sunny and optimistic press manager Ally. “Students are different these days” he said – “you’ll see.”

I was wrong and he was right. And I found myself back in my old stomping ground, Glasgow University Union, doing a Q&A session with student journalists from across the country.

From the stage I could see some of the debating trophies I’d won glistening in the trophy cabinets.

SPANC 23 – the Student Publishing Association Annual Conference – was being hosted in Glasgow (for future reference I suggested to the hosts that this acronym might attract the wrong kind of MP) and it was sold out.

I always wanted to be a journalist. As a wee boy I used to wait for my dad to get home with his newspaper, and I’d lie flat on the floor pouring over the columns of print with their descriptions of far away exotic places.

I loved TV journalism too. As a pre-teen I used to watch ‘Weekend World’ as Brian Walden pinned squirming politicians to the ropes with the sheer force of his logic and unforgiving interrogation.

Students at the conference asked how to get into journalism. The answer is that there’s no guaranteed route.

I was very lucky. I was spotted debating in the Glasgow University Union by one of BBC Scotland’s great producing talents, David Martin. He put me on air without training, hosting a network youth affairs show called ‘Open to Question’.

Each week I’d have a studio audience, a famous guest, and a calm voice in my earpiece.

The guests were extraordinary – Archbishop Tutu, Kind Hussein of Jordan, the very odd Mary Whitehouse, and, one week, two Americans who claimed to be aliens. It was my job to take the guests for dinner after the show.

I ended up down in London reporting for and presenting various high profile news and current affairs shows on television and radio.

Students at the conference wanted to know about the day I was live on air for the BBC when the Twin Towers were hit. The conference organisers screened the moment and my commentary.

They were keen to know whether I’ve found the switch from journalism to politics hard. And the answer is no. I have tried to take lessons from good journalism into politics: Answer the question. Don’t obfuscate.

And if you don’t know the answer, say you don’t. Fair-minded people realise you can’t be expected to know the answer to everything.

Journalism is a glorious career. At its best it exposes injustice, holds the powerful to account, and gives voice to the powerless. As I told the students, it’s the best job in the world.