Image 20160712 9302 16cbtmg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Truth-seeking heroes to low-brow diggers: a history of press reporters told through fiction

Truth-seeking heroes to low-brow diggers: a history of press reporters told through fiction

The summer of 2016 marks a point in British history when two journalists-turned-politicians launched a spectacularly ambitious coup to take over the government. Boris Johnson, who still writes a column in the Daily Telegraph, and Michael Gove, formerly of The Times and who still has close links with Rupert Murdoch’s news empire, turned on their prime minister to lead the Leave side in a referendum campaign that has left the country wounded and divided. While they won the referendum, they lost the ultimate prize in the political bloodbath that followed the unexpected result.

As journalists who told a good story – in effect, a rehashed version of one of the oldest plots in literature: David and Goliath, plucky little England standing up to Monster Europe – Johnson and Gove harnessed the imaginations of more than 17m voters. But in crafting an oversimplified narrative and conjuring up a vague idea of “sovereignty”, they unleashed a story over which they quickly lost control, and which resulted in hurried backtracking the day after the polls closed.

It didn’t help that the reputation of newspaper journalists as a profession has never been so low. A recent YouGov survey revealed that people now trust Wikipedia more than journalists to tell the truth.

Johnson and Gove’s failed coup will no doubt be the stuff of future political thrillers, but anyone who has read fictions about journalists of the past will have seen it all before.

Power games

The story of journalists who don’t quite understand what it is they have unleashed is the plot of one of Rudyard Kipling’s brilliantly polished short stories: The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat. In this dark 1914 tale of political machinations and revenge, a group of journalists use their ready access to the wells of public opinion to bring down a political opponent. But the “story”, first published in the downmarket Cake and ponderous Bun newspapers, but then picked up by Reuters, the Spectator, other papers and the Edwardian equivalent of social media – the music halls, goes “viral” as we would say today. The journalists don’t realise they have done, and their story results in the political assassination of an MP in the ruling Liberal party and anarchy in the House of Commons.

As the journalists survey the unexpected results of their work, one says: “We’ve put it over the whole world – the full extent of the geographical globe. We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to now. It’s got to burn itself out. I’m not in charge any more.”

Flat Earth. EnclosedEarth/YouTube

Fictions about journalists from the past often reveal deeper truths about the inner workings of the journalism industry than standard histories of the press do. Many of them are told by journalists with newsroom experience, or freelance contributors to the press and provide granular, day-by-day commentary on the evolution of the news media. And there are dozens of these forgotten fictions, now gathering mildew on secondhand booksellers’ shelves, with enigmatic titles such as Mightier than the Sword, The Paper Palace and Paperchase End. Written by reporters of past decades, together they construct a vibrant, alternative history of the newspaper press, told by its foot-soldiers.

Journalists are compulsive story tellers and cannot resist chronicling their own lives and aspects of their trade. As one of the latest in a long line of journalists to turn their newspaper experience into fiction, Annalena McAfee (The Spoiler, 2011) said: “I’ve only ever met one journalist who didn’t want to write a book.” Indeed of the 154 “newspaper” fictions discussed in my new book, The Journalist in British Fiction and Film: Guarding the Guardians from 1900 to the Present, two thirds (98) were written by former or practising journalists.

The old black art

Rudyard Kipling. Shutterstock

Kipling was a newspaperman to the tips of his inky fingers, having spent his first years as a sub-editor and correspondent on the Civil and Military Gazette in British India in the 1880s. While highly critical of the mass popular press, which emerged after the launch of the Daily Mail in 1896, Kipling never lost his love for what he called “the old black art”. His short story, written in the early summer of 1914 marks a turning point in fictions about journalists.

For the previous decade-and-a-half, novels by and about journalists had been almost unanimously celebratory with courageous, canny reporters saving innocents, civil society, and in one case, the world, from oppression and everlasting darkness. Indeed, Edwardian fictional journalists out-do Clark Kent in their noble pursuit of Fourth Estate ideals.

So we have PG Wodehouse’s Psmith Journalist exposing brutal tenement owners preying on their impoverished tenants (Psmith Journalist, 1909); Edgar Wallace’s alert young reporters of the Megaphone sabotaging an anarchist plot (The Four Just Men, 1905); and Harold Spence of the Daily Wire saving the Christian world from self-immolation in Guy Thorne’s runaway bestseller (When it was Dark, 1903). All three novelists began their writing lives on newspapers and were grateful for the opportunities and financial rewards they got from their smudgy lines of newsprint.

After the launch of the Daily Mail, followed by the Daily Express (1900) and Daily Mirror (1904), hundreds of young men (and a few women) recruited from the first generation of literate lower middle classes, joined the bright lights of a burgeoning Fleet Street. The new newspaper buildings boomed to the sound of super-fast printing presses and thundering type writers, the ticking of telegraph machines and tinkling of telephone bells, the new technology that has always driven the development of news media.

Novels written by news reporters reflected their pride in telling, for the first time, the stories of miners, farmers and ordinary working men in the pages of national newspapers. In one novel, written by Daily Express reporter Alphonse Courlander, the hero Humphrey Quain dies a triumphant death as he is crushed by a French wine-growers riot. As he dies, the willing martyr knows his death will transform himself into the front page story he so desires (Mightier than the Sword, 1912).

Seeking out the ordinary man. Richard Roche/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Kipling’s short story is the first sound of warning that perhaps this powerful new force in British society – circulations soared from a few hundred thousand to several million in just a few years – brought problems, as well as a democratisation of information.

Execrable war reporting (“We have economised life, not squandered it, on these fields”, Daily Mail, December 6 1917); gross fabrication (“The Germans and their Dead … There is a sickly smell in the air as if glue were being boiled. We are passing the great Corpse Utilisation Establishment”, Times April 19 1917), and the involvement of press barons Northcliffe and Beaverbrook in the coup against Liberal Prime Minister Asquith caused enormous disquiet about the malign influence of the powerful newspaper magnates during World War I. Modernist intellectuals railed against the degrading influence of tabloid news reporting: Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and James Joyce all included attacks on the popular press in their novels and poetry.

Virginia Woolf, a critic of the tabloid press. RV1864/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Interwar novelists who wrote for newspapers now questioned the news industry in their fictions. Rose Macaulay, although a successful novelist who needed her freelance Daily Mail income, savagely attacked the stereotyping of women readers and writers in her novel Keeping Up Appearances (1928). Evelyn Waugh, who had a trial doing work experience on the Daily Express, and who wrote for the Daily Mail, famously lampooned the foreign correspondent press pack in his classic novel Scoop (1938). Graham Greene who worked on the Nottingham Journal and then spent four years on The Times created a series of shabby, compromised journalist characters including the lantern-jawed lesbian Mabel Warren in Stamboul Train (1932) and the craven, sadistic Minty in England Made Me (1935). His study of the alienated foreign correspondent Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American (1955) is probably the best forensic examination of the genus journalist and his mixed motivations for both reporting and acting.

Blurred lines and double agents

Greene, like many journalists and writers, worked for British intelligence in World War II. Europe from the 1930s to the end of the Cold War was a world where spies and journalists often blurred the lines between objective reporting and commitment. The use of the newspaper as “cover” for intelligence agents has a long history. The writer Somerset Maugham worked for British intelligence in Moscow during World War I, ostensibly as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. Maugham used his experiences in Russia as material for his Ashenden stories (1928), about an early urbane spy and “writer by profession” who, like a later and more famous fictional spy, drinks dry Martini.

Kim Philby, double agent for the British intelligence and the Soviet Union. Mariluna, CC BY-SA

Kim Philby was recruited by Russian Intelligence in 1933 and went to Spain in 1937 as The Times’ correspondent with General Franco. The Times “Madrid correspondent”, in reality Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clark, was arrested in Madrid on October 17 1941 dressed down to his lacy underwear, as a woman.

SIS and MI5 found Fleet Street and Grub Street fertile recruiting grounds, attracting among others David Walker, sports reporter of the Mirror and John Bingham, columnist for the Dispatch, who was to become the inspiration for John Le Carré’s George Smiley. Bingham would later write spy thrillers featuring journalists embroiled in the great tussle between East and West in the aftermath of World War II. The list of contributors to the Spectator in the 1930s reads like a Who’s Who of leftists, spies and intelligence operatives for both Britain and Russia including arts correspondent Anthony Blunt and book reviewer Guy Burgess.

Shapes of Sleep by J.B Priestley. Author provided

Cold War thrillers, including Eric Clark’s The Sleeper (1979), Robert Harling’s The Enormous Shadow (1955) and J.B. Priestley’s The Shapes of Sleep (1962) all feature journalists whose loyalties are questioned and compromised. They all also implicitly question the idea of journalistic impartiality and undermine the idea of the newspaper as a reliable text. The newspaper, from the cliched barrier behind which charlatans can hide in public places, to its conveying, in black and white, of information both true and fabricated, both innocently acquired and cynically placed, is an image developed in fiction from the early days of classified advertising and, later, crossword puzzles and agony columns.

It is now fashionable among contemporary writers to stereotype journalists in fiction, from the mendacious Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter novels and Martin Amis’ virtually illiterate Clint Smoker in Yellow Dog (2003) to the murderous Vernon Halliday in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (1998). Guardian journalist-turned-novelist James Meek, who included fictional journalists in his novels We are Now Beginning our Descent (2008) and The Heart Broke In (2012), acknowledges the difficulty of writing a “good” journalist in post-Leveson Britain. Not only would he or she appear preachy, dull and pompous but no reader would believe in them, he says.

The trouble is, most journalists have never rifled through celebrity bins or hacked phones, and most still want to inform, clarify and enlighten. In today’s post-fact politics, where a lie on a bus or an over-adorned CV is brushed aside as unimportant, we need journalist-heroes more than ever.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.