Mark Colvin’s fine memoir – of a journalist’s life and as a spy’s son – was completed before the Macquarie Dictionary chose ‘fake news’ as its word of the year, and the OED and Merriam-Webster opted for ‘post truth’ and ‘surreal’. In July 2016, as Colvin was writing his acknowledgments chapter, Donald Trump was being nominated as the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States. Colvin does not mention Trump’s name. But his entire book – a principled insider’s history of the craft of journalism, of Cold War politics, espionage, and the pivotal political events of the twentieth and early twenty-first century – is a counter-instance to ‘fake news’ and the hyperventilating culture which spawns it. It is also a bracing reminder that the fourth estate – in its now myriad manifestations – remains the necessary counterweight to the abuse of power and to oligarchic or autocratic rule.
As I was rereading Colvin in New Jersey in January, six days before the presidential inauguration, Carl Bernstein appeared on television in his role as a contributing editor to CNN’s new investigative unit. Asked how journalists should conduct themselves in the new political order, the Watergate veteran replied: ‘By getting the best obtainable version of the truth, which is our mission.’ When asked for his response to Trump, Bernstein said simply ‘I don’t know enough. I’d have to do the reporting.’