‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” wrote Janet Malcolm, in the famous opening lines of her 1990 study The Journalist and the Murderer. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The lines are arresting, and while not entirely true – not least because of a kind of glibness – they do get at something true about the often uncomfortable transaction that is the telling of someone else’s life story. “Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone,” she continues, “so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction learns – when the article or book appears – his hard lesson.”
And so, often, does the journalist. On Wednesday Penguin published, in the US, The Mockingbird Next Door, a memoir by journalist Marja Mills of her friendship with the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (it will appear in Britain at the end of this month).