The journalist in fiction and film
By LAURA FREEMAN
Jasper Milvain, hero without scruple of George Gissing’s New Grub Street, is a hack’s hack. "It is my business", he smugs to his sister, "to know something about every subject – or to know where to get the knowledge." This passing acquaintance with any and all subjects is then profitably flogged round Fleet Street.
He writes a book review – three quarters of a column for the Evening Budget – after breakfast and a Saturday "causerie" for the Will-o’the-Wisp before lunch. Then a sketch – to be finished tomorrow – for The West End. Between tea and dinner, he reads four newspapers and two magazines, and he finishes an essay for The Current before bed. By such industry does a man make a living by his pen.
It's no good being high-brow, Jasper tells the dogged, Tibullus-reading Edwin Reardon, who aspires to literary criticism: "I will only mention, as a matter of fact, that such work is indifferently paid and in very small demand".
While Jasper churns out his thrice-daily trifles, Edwin starves and turns threadbare among his drafts and blotting paper and wastepaper baskets. Jasper thrives, Edwin moulders and, though Jasper is a disreputable rotter and Edwin honourable, it is Jasper one roots for and wills to succeed.
We like our fictional journalists in the Jasper mould: flip and arrogant, unscholarly and know-all, vain and neurotic, and willing to push their grandmother off the end of the pier – "GRAN IN SEA SHOCK SAVE" – if it means a cover story. The more incompetent (William Boot in Scoop), cynical (Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American) and dishonest (Rita Skeeter, the tabloid gorgon of Harry Potter’s Daily Prophet) they are, the more we like them.
Sarah Lonsdale, in a symposium at City University entitled The Journalist in British Fiction and Film on Thursday evening, put it to the room that while we may respect the "foot-slogging reporter", the noble war correspondent, "the high-minded, truth-seeking" missionary, we are "fascinated" by the journalist who is ignorant, irresponsible, indolent, a "nervous wreck", but who always gets his story.
Does it matter whether the story is true? Not necessarily. A good story trumps an accurate one. She cites Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Village That Voted the World Was Flat, in which an invented news story is taken up across "two hemispheres and four continents". One of the inventors of the story admits: "We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to now. It’s got to burn itself out. I’m not in charge any more".
One panellist, Eric Clark, an investigative journalist and the author of several spy novels, puts it more bluntly: "All journalists are liars". This, he says, makes them ideal spooks. Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess both wrote for the Spectator, and the British intelligence services used to recruit from the Economist, the Observer, the Sunday Times and the BBC’s ranks of "Our man in . . .". The CIA, according to Clark, has walls of spy novels in its library, to be plundered by staff for espionage inspiration.
If we journalists are not betraying our country, we are fiddling our expenses. Philip Norman, biographer of the Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney and a staff writer on the Sunday Times Magazine in its Sixties heyday, remembers an annual competition "Expenses Man of the Year". The journalist James Fox won it once, with an expenses form that simply said: "Taxi there . . . and back".
This was the age of the bottomless expense account. Norman took himself off to America to interview Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and P. G. Wodehouse, and, having done so, sent a message back to Godfrey Smith, the Editor of the Magazine, saying he "needed some time to think about all these stories – so can I come back on the QE2?"
"Of course, dear boy."
"And could I come back first class?"
"Of course, dear boy, of course."
The Magazine’s scoops and expenses claims were paid for by luxury advertising: butter, white carpets, After Eight chocolate mints. "The Mag soaked up advertising money", says Norman. This led to such incongruous page layouts as a photo-journalism story about children burned by napalm in Vietnam opposite an advert purring: "Double cream – spread it thick".
Godfrey Smith, we were told, was resistant to editorial interference. When memos came from the Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans requesting that a story be covered, Smith would dictate: "Compose vibrantly grateful response of which underlying message is: 'Piss off'". Smith once took the whole office on a jolly to Yugoslavia – not a word of copy ever appeared.
Ian Richardson, who spent fifty years at the BBC, said that he never fired a reporter for dishonesty or because he was suspected of being a spy, but only if he failed to deliver a story. Richardson has written a novel, The Mortal Maze, with an "ethical" journalist at its heart. The extracts did leave one thinking that an unethical one might have been more fun.
You have to admire the journalist Humphrey Quain in Alphonse Courlander’s novel Mightier than the Sword (1912), quoted by Lonsdale, who is sent to cover a French winegrowers’ riot and is crushed in the scrum. As he lies dying, "an odd, whimsical idea twisted his lips into a smile as he thought: 'What a ripping story this will make for The Day'".
The Journalist in British Fiction and Film: Guarding the guardians from 1900 to the present by Sarah Lonsdale will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.