This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
In the early part of the last decade, one of the finest political reporters of his generation explained my job to me. At the time I covered Westminster for an American financial newswire. “You’re in the information business,” he said, and then gestured at his fellow newspapermen. “We’re in the entertainment business.”
He was joking, but not entirely. My readers wanted facts they could trade on. His wanted an interesting, enjoyable read. At the time, we were on a foreign trip, accompanying David Cameron to some summit or other. It’s not important which. It was never important which. Foreign trips for Britain’s political press were like EastEnders episodes in Spain: the same characters and storylines, just with a sunnier backdrop.
For a British reporter, Scoop is the holy text of the job
Travelling hacks took delight in finding ways not to write about the meetings with foreign leaders, which they feared would bore their readers, searching instead for embarrassing stories about the prime minister, which they were sure would delight them. The agreed goal for this trip was to get Cameron to talk about his addiction to Fruit Ninja, an iPad game.
Cameron, himself a man who was reluctant to take the whole business of prime ministering too seriously, understood this. As leader of the Opposition he’d kept on his desk a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. It’s a book that explains a great deal about the press in general and the current prime minister in particular.
For a British reporter, Scoop is the holy text of the job. One of the enduring mysteries of journalism is that a trade which employs large numbers of skilled writers, and puts them into interesting situations every day, has been the subject of so few really good novels. Scoop was written as satire, but eight decades after it was published, and after the industry has gone through two technological revolutions, it remains the best description of UK journalistic life.
While parts of the job have changed — copy is no longer filed in an abbreviated telegramese to reduce transmission costs — much remains the same. Anxious newspaper executives still live in terror of capricious proprietors. Reporters still enjoy a strange fellowship of simultaneous competition and cooperation. Entertaining readers remains as important as informing them.
The character Johnson most resembles is Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, who hid in his hotel before filing an imaginary interview
Based on Waugh’s own experiences covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia for the Daily Mail, the novel tells the tale of William Boot, the shy author of the “Lush Places” nature notes column of the Daily Beast, who is sent in a moment of confusion to cover a civil war in the fictional African state of Ishmaelia. Not, to be clear, that the Daily Beast is interested in the war, as Lord Copper, the newspaper’s proprietor, explains: “What the British public wants first, last and all the time is News. Remember that the Patriots are in the right and they are going to win. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war.”
Journalism is, in Scoop, from first to last about entertainment. “News,” one of Boot’s colleagues tells him, “is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.”
This unseriousness is a way of coping with what can be serious work. If your family were to be killed tomorrow, a reporter would knock on your door to ask how you felt. Journalists’ best days are often the result of someone else’s worst. If you think too much, you start reaching for a bottle. Far better to tell yourself none of it matters, that today’s front page is tomorrow’s chip wrapping.
British journalism has a stock of insider jokes about the dangers of hunting the truth too assiduously, ruining a perfectly good story by pushing someone to deny it: one must always beware the “phone call too far” on something “too good to check”.
The late Daily Mirror reporter Garth Gibbs described his own career in a way that would have fitted into Waugh’s novel with barely an edit. “I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism,” he said. “Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.”
This is not how it is everywhere, even in Britain. But these attitudes are particularly alien to United States journalists. To Waugh, Americans were much the same as British hacks. In Scoop, star foreign correspondent Wenlock Jakes, who could have stepped off the set of His Girl Friday, started a war simply by accidentally writing about one in the wrong country. But things have changed. Instead of Scoop, America has All The President’s Men, which tells you that if you knock on enough doors and follow the money, you might one day bring down a president. American journalism has become a serious business.
Until recently British journalists routinely put their names on top of overseas stories that they hadn’t written
Every so often the contrast is brought into relief when the US has a scandal of journalistic integrity. The Washington Post or the New York Times will reveal its horror that a rogue reporter had described things they hadn’t seen from places they hadn’t been to. There will be internal inquiries, resignations and hand-wringing. And from Fleet Street, we look on bemused. Is writing about an event that you haven’t witnessed wrong? Until recently British journalists routinely put their names on top of overseas stories that they hadn’t written, a successor to the tradition of putting “By Our Foreign Staff” over pieces filed by agencies from places where the paper had no one.
The only rival to Scoop as a description of Fleet Street life is Michael Frayn’s Towards The End Of The Morning, a tale of men who long to be ordered to East Africa, but find themselves bitterly assembling puzzles and other unloved parts of the paper.
Its description of the dream of being “international airport man”, at home in the Heathrow departures lounge, lingers, but it’s a story of disappointment. Scoop, whatever Waugh’s intention, offered generations of unserious young journalists the hope that they might pitch up somewhere, get drunk on expenses, fail to understand what was going on, and be declared a hero.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson. As well as being Britain’s most successful politician, the prime minister has long been one of the country’s highest-paid journalists, a job he did entirely in the Scoop mould. His sympathetic biographer, Andrew Gimson, describes how, posted to Brussels, Johnson delighted in producing stories that were more entertaining than accurate. It was not that he was opposed to writing accurate stories, but he didn’t see it as in any way essential.
The Scoop character Johnson most resembles isn’t the hero — Boot is too naïve, his reports too close to reality. Nor is the press corps regulars, Corker, Shumble, Whelper and Pigge, who huddle in the same hotel, lest they will be beaten on a story. Johnson, both as journalist and politician, has generally preferred to hunt alone. We must look to the man Boot replaced at the Beast, foreign correspondent Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock.
Like Johnson, who was hazy on the outcome of the Battle of Stalingrad, Sir Jocelyn is more confident than he should be about history (“He was wrong about the Battle of Hastings,” says Lord Copper. “It was 1066. I looked it up”). He hides in his hotel room before filing an entirely imaginary interview — something else for which Johnson has form. Sir Jocelyn was, pleasingly, modelled on Sir Percival Phillips, a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, which would later employ Johnson.
Johnson’s fabrications propelled him to the front rank of journalism, then into politics
Sir Jocelyn’s fabrications didn’t hold him back, and Johnson’s propelled him to the front rank of journalism, then into politics, where he exhibits the same behaviour: the pursuit of a higher “truth” unburdened by facts, the deadline mentality, the reluctance to correct mistakes, the assumption that someone else should pick up the bill. Johnson was neither the kind of journalist nor a prime minister who would read a study on, say, pandemic preparedness. A leaked document from his first months in the job showed him describing Cameron as a “girly swot” for wanting to show that MPs were hard at work.
One of the most interesting commentaries on Johnson came in 2019, just before he was appointed prime minister, from his then-employer, the Telegraph. Asked to account for a false claim in one of his articles, the paper explained to the press regulator, IPSO, that the piece was “clearly comically polemical, and could not be reasonably read as a serious, empirical, in-depth analysis of hard factual matters”.
This was a surprising way to describe a column about Brexit by the former foreign secretary and next prime minister, but it was also a truthful one. You aren’t supposed to believe this stuff, readers. It’s just entertainment.
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