A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 19 2012
Reading about the murky goings-on in the Murdoch empire and noting the continuing repercussions of the Channel 4 programme, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, I was moved to re-read Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel, Scoop.
Waugh was not a pleasant fellow but was very funny. When Winston Churchill’s son underwent surgery, Waugh noted in his diary: “Randolph’s tumour proved to be benign but it was removed anyway. How typical of the medical profession, to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant but to remove it anyway.”
Scoop’s plot begins with a case of mistaken identity. William Boot contributes a regular column of nature notes, Lush Places, to the Daily Beast from his rural retreat, Boot Magna. When civil war breaks out in the African nation, Ishmaelia, the Daily Beast feels the need to send a correspondent. Influential socialite, Mrs Stitch, (wife of the defence minister and close to the prime minister) recommends fashionable travel writer, John Boot. A muddle at the Beast leads to William Boot being sent.
Cynical hack Corker explains: “On Monday afternoon I was in East Sheen breaking the news to a widow of her husband’s death leap with a champion girl cyclist – the wrong widow as it turned out; the husband came back from his business while I was there and cut up very nasty. Next day the Chief has me in and says, ‘Corker, you’re off to Ishmaelia….A lot of niggers are having a war. I don’t see anything in it myself but the other agencies are sending feature men, so we’ve got to do something.’”
Corker advises the naive Boot: “‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism… News 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. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else had sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.’… Corker recounted …the luscious detailed inventions that composed contemporary history.”
Scoop features a newspaper magnate who prefigures in general awfulness Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell and Conrad Black. Lord Copper heads the Megalopolitan Corporation, whose flagship publication is the Daily Beast. Copper is often said to be based on an amalgam of Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, with perhaps a dash of Lord Rothermere.
The phrase, “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” has entered the English language. All employees live in fear of Lord Copper’s whims. No one dares contradict him. For instance:
‘Let me see, what’s the name of the place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?’
‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’
‘And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?’
‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’
Copper outlines his Policy: “I expect you have your own views. I never hamper my correspondents in any way. What the British public wants first, last and all the time is News. Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four-square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. 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.”
Bill Deedes (later Sir William F Deedes, Daily Telegraph editor, cabinet minister and confidant of Denis Thatcher) has been thought to be the model for William Boot, but another contender was William Beach Thomas, a quietly successful countryside columnist, who became a hopeless Daily Mail war correspondent. He described Britain’s first battle day on the Somme (Nineteen thousand British dead, 40,000 wounded): “All went well.” Thomas and his fellow correspondents dished up the false reports that army intelligence gave them.
Waugh also drew on his own experiences travelling in Abyssinia and working for the Daily Mail. Waugh cabled an exclusive in Latin. It was binned, as no-one in the office had the benefit of a classical education. Waugh and his colleagues were frequently getting it wrong. A story was floated that an American nurse had been blown up in Adowa. When this was found to be untrue, Waugh and his colleagues wired: “Nurse unupblown.”
Wenlock Jakes is thought to have been modelled on John Gunther, a successful American journalist best known for his Inside books. “Why, once Wenlock Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to an hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine-guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote…in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the press for you. They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace prize for his harrowing descriptions of the carnage.”
Even if there is nothing happening, the investment of resources into a place may mean that news has to be created. This is even worse today with 24 hour news coverage and internet compendia like Tina Brown’s online Daily Beast. Gone are the days when a BBC announcer could tell the nation: “Today there has been no news.” The beast must be fed.
Rajiva Wijesinha writes about press coverage of the Sri Lankan IDP camps: “Gethin Chamberlain (writing in the Guardian) and a few others, somehow seemed determined to denigrate Sri Lanka at every conceivable opportunity… articles predicted an epidemic soon though, and when nothing of the sort occurred, there were no plaudits for our health services which we kept going throughout the war. Similarly, there were constant warnings of possible outbreaks of disease at Menik Farm, with no appreciation by journalists of the fact that they were proved wrong.”
Wijesinha says that Chamberlain also wrote, “that 13 women were found with their throats cut near the Manik Farm Welfare Centre. … Gethin said he realized the story was not true, and that he could not rely on the source he got it from, but he would not correct the story.”
When William Boot suggests to Corker that they should issue a correction, Corker replies: “Risky, old boy, and unprofessional. It’s the kind of thing you can do once or twice in a real emergency, but it doesn’t pay…Shakes public confidence in the press.”
Channel 4 relied a lot on unsubstantiated claims in the report of Ban Ki-moon’s advisory panel. BBC journalist Waseem Zakir coined the neologism ‘churnalism’ to describe this phenomenon. An editorial in the British Journalism Review noted that churnalism was “a harbinger of the end of news journalism as we know it, the coroner’s verdict can be nothing other than suicide.” In his book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, the award-winning Guardian reporter who has a distinguished record in investigative journalism and has recently been the scourge of Murdoch, presented an overwhelming weight of evidence that the British press lies, distorts facts and breaks the law. His research revealed that 60% of stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material; a further 20% contained clear wire-PR elements with little added on; and 8% could not be sourced. In only 12% was the material generated entirely by the reporters themselves. In The Times, 69% of news stories were wholly or mainly wire copy and/or PR and in 70%, a claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all. Only 12% of these stories offered any evidence that the central statement had been thoroughly checked. It is interesting to note that Britain has 47,800 PR people to 45,000 journalists.
Britain has some of the best newspapers in the world, and the worst. I used to work in State House on High Holborn. The Daily Mirror has had periods of being among the worst. Rumour had it that State House was owned by one-time Mirror owner Robert Maxwell (nicknamed “the bouncing Czech” by PM Harold Wilson). From my window, I could see the wedding-cake spire of St. Bride’s church on Fleet Street. England’s first printing press with moveable type was brought alongside St. Bride’s. St Bride’s website says: ‘For five hundred years, Fleet Street has been the generic word for the Press, and its spiritual heart has been the church of St Bride.’ Private Eye called Fleet Street “the street of shame.” I could also see Maxwell’s helicopter landing and taking off from the roof of the Daily Mirror building and imagine inside the building Maxwell’s minions, including Peter Jay, formerly a respected journalist and British ambassador to Washington, (cuckolded by celebrity journalist Carl Bernstein – more power of the press) in the early 80s, emasculated by the ogre Maxwell.
Unfortunately, even the ‘quality’ British press seems to have failed in relation to Sri Lanka. Distinguished Sri Lankan historian Professor Michael Roberts has written: “We face a bundle of conundrums: since justice demands truth how does one discern identifiable fact within a milieu poisoned by the activities of individuals seeking retribution? …… especially where this force is promoted by the LTTE’s disguised international arms?…Have some media persons, aid-workers and academics associated with the Tamil network for so long become ‘White Tigers’ in sentiment?”
Christopher Hitchens called Scoop “a novel of pitiless realism…The manners and mores of the press are the recurrent motif of the book and the chief reason for its enduring magic…this world of callousness and vulgarity and philistinism”.