The flack who became a hack

The path from journalism to 'the dark side' has been well-trod by many a scribe seeking better remuneration, but what of the few brave souls who make the opposite transition? Liam Maguire tells his story.

Maguire: walks the ethical tightrope every day
Maguire: walks the ethical tightrope every day
I’ve worked in-house and in agencies for – among others – The Royal British Legion, Bell Pottinger and The Invictus Games.

After years of spinning, countless coma-inducing PowerPoint pitches on ‘stakeholder engagement’ and ‘key influencer strategies’, I made the decision a few months ago to hang up my flak jacket and become the grubby ink-stained wretch my first boss always warned me about: a journalist.

Counterintuitive? Definitely. It’s the media equivalent of selecting reverse just as the lights on the North Circular turn green. 

There’s a reason George Pascoe-Watson, Neil Wallis, and now Sky News’s Joey Jones all crossed to the ‘dark-side’ and, believe me, it wasn’t the desire to ‘take on a new challenge’. It was money. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been suckling from the bullshit boob for nearly a decade, so I’m in no position to judge.

I often wondered how the humble pie tastes for hacks making the transition. 

You see, as a flak, you’re required to eat a client’s crap with a smile; get ‘super’ enthusiastic about their latest product and take being sneered at by newsdesks with stoicism.

But, as a journalist, you’re only asked to do one thing: make news. 

Far less complicated, no new business targets, no RFPs or pitches – on the whole, much simpler, right? Wrong.

As a peddler of puff, I worked on some great campaigns that would splash any day of the week and I’ve hawked crap written by committees destined to be read by nobody, but the challenges faced in making the transition to actually reporting the news – as opposed to trying to invent it – have been more difficult than securing a One Show spot (if you’re not Beeb talent plugging your new book). 

As flak turned hack, you’re not treated with the semi-superstar status a big-name journalist enjoys when strolling into an agency’s office for the first time.  

More often it’s a mix of suspicion and derision: editors, cynical at best, are unsure if you’re pushing an agency favour, while the agency guys are nervous you may choose to resurrect the crisis you managed so well for Mr Shiny Suit.

I won’t lie: it’s an ethical tightrope... and I tread it constantly. 

There are eye-popping issues I could file tomorrow which would set the media agenda for a day or two but would ruin years of hard-won trust. I’ve taken the decision to draw my own red line on this, partly to save myself from going mad but also in the hope, rather than expectation, that former PR colleagues will reciprocate with original exclusive content.

The bar for the flak turned hack, in my experience, is set that much higher if you’re to be taken seriously. 

So while an ‘All Media Release’ will work for some colleagues on the newsdesk who are happy to recycle it with their byline, such an approach by the ex-flak would be met with "must try harder" from the editor.

So for those considering stepping away from that new-biz bonus for a career in journalism, be prepared. Yes, there is an incredible high that comes with seeing your name in print, but there’s no red carpet or mega salary: just hard graft and some tricky navigating in busy one-way traffic.

Liam Maguire is a freelance journalist 

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