Watching the Detectives

I miss Peter Starck.

A colleague and mentor at Reuters once described journalism as a trade like any other, but Peter was a craftsman. A correspondent since time immemorial. he passed away from cancer last year, and is sorely missed. A couple of weeks before he passed away, he called me in hushed, hurried tones just before nine o’clock at night as he was having problems with his e-mail.

I later found out that the reason for his urgency was not some pressing story; it was the fact that the lights would be switched off in his hospital ward at nine o’clock. Even as the end approached, his natural curiosity never left him.

With a voice that boomed across the newsroom, he would call politicians and captains of industry and even if they had never heard of him (and most of them had), he somehow managed to convey to them that he wasn’t calling on behalf of himself; he was calling on behalf of the world. He was our detective, our Columbo. He found out what we wanted to know, and he told us.

He once addressed a group of students, spellbinding them with his opening remarks. “My name is Peter Starck, and I am a Reuters journalist. As such, I know nothing; it’s why I ask questions”.

Peter was alluding to the fact that, when writing or reporting for Reuters, there is no opinion, only fact- anything that looked remotely unsubstantiated or that could be interpreted as the writer’s opinion had a big red line drawn through it. There were heated discussions when the news agency started to consider how to apply this principle to social media and blogging, and to this day there are those who are uncomfortable writing their own thoughts – even with the tightly-controlled editorial guidelines that apply- rather than writing straight news.

A dedicated father who often rushed home to help his children with their homework only to return to the office later, Peter always maintained that writing was important, but reading even more so. He taught us that, in order to understand the world around us we needed to be able to read both a newspaper and a balance sheet; only then could we independently draw our own conclusions. With his knowledge of financial jargon and accounting practices, he put many analysts to shame over the years, pointing out where their reports fell short of the mark.

In the context of the Irish election, Peter’s advice has a special resonance. A basic understanding of finance is absolutely key to making an informed decision when it comes to voting, and most parties take advantage of the fact that people find economics difficult to understand. The People’s Economy is an excellent site set up by David McWilliams and his economic cohorts – regardless of whether you want to bear the brunt or burn the bondholders , half an hour on that site will let you know exactly what to expect from either course of action. Even though it contains a lot of different opinions, there are also plenty of juicy facts to get your teeth into.

The second key area is the newspapers, and this is where Peter is so sorely missed. Journalism without bias or opinion is very hard to find in an Irish general election, and it should come as no surprise that newspapers and media outlets have their own agendas. Without Peter to ask the questions for us and keep both the politicians and the media honest, we have to ask these questions ourselves.

So every time you read an article in the next ten days, keep the following questions in mind- why am I being told this? What are they really trying to say? Who is telling me, and why are they telling me now? What do these numbers mean? Are there other numbers that show the opposite to be true? What are the other guys saying? Is this fact, opinion, or opinion presented as fact?

Because like journalists, as voters we know nothing; it’s why we have to ask questions.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Reuters Correspondent Peter Starck (1957- 2010). Rest In Peace.

One response to “Watching the Detectives

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