Why the best journalists still fear the tap on the shoulder

He’s one of the most-respected names in sports journalism.

He’s worked for all four quality daily broadsheets, written books, is a regular on TV and radio football shows, and chairs the Football Writers’ Association.

And yet, the great Patrick Barclay still admits to the journalistic equivalent of pre-match nerves.

He was one of the many inspiring guests at this week’s University of Gloucestershire Media Festival – part of a fantastic programme of speakers from the worlds of journalism, music, film and TV production, media technology, and animation.

He had all manner of fascinating insights into the biggest characters in football, the curse of the England manager, and his hopes for the future of journalism.

But I was most struck by his ever-present fear – even now, in his sixth decade of journalism – of being ‘found out.’

And, he says, he’s not alone.

“I’ve never met any good journalists who aren’t insecure,” he told us.

Part of that might be the freelance gig – and we heard a lot more about life as one of the self-employed at the festival yesterday.


But I think it’s also all about an obsessive drive for self-improvement, fuelled by the sort of nervous energy that keeps the journalistic flame alive.

One of my colleagues told yesterday’s audience that a friend who is one of the best-known interviewers in the business, regularly throws up before meeting his subject.

Paddy Barclay used to live in particular fear of being unable to make the journalistic switch from sports analyst to news reporter if a match he was covering was ever marred by tragedy or violence.

He’d have coped admirably, I’m sure.

But I completely understand his mindset.

I was a news editor for more than two decades, dealing with all manner of big stories and crises.

I fear the tap on the shoulder that says ‘you’ve been rumbled.’

But a couple of days without a decent splash would comprehensively undermine my self-confidence.

Now I have the job of my dreams. But, like Paddy, I still worry about someone tapping me on the shoulder and saying ‘time’s up, you’ve been rumbled.’

It’s a funny thing, this confidence business.

I have no problem with addressing big lecture theatres or meetings, and have always enjoyed public speaking. I’ve never dodged difficult conversations over stories, and I will always be completely frank with my students if I think they’re underperforming.

Confidence is one of the most-prized attitudes and attributes in a journalist, and one that is lacking in so many of the young people my colleagues and I see every day.

But it has to be the right sort of confidence – I’ve written before about the glorious notion of confident humility.

And sometimes in journalism, a dash of self-doubt can be just the right ingredient in the recipe for the perfect piece of writing.


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