March 4, 2021

Essay: The Great Fleet Street Novel

The scandal that started at The News of the World and is now threatening to spread to the rest of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire and beyond, appears, on the face of it, to have more in common with a British remake of “24” than with “Scoop,” Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 “Novel about Journalists,” still widely acknowledged as the unrivaled masterpiece of Fleet Street satire. Its plot turns not on criminal wrongdoing but on a classically farcical case of mistaken identity. Instead of sending John Courteney Boot, fashionable novelist and travel writer, to cover “a very promising little war” in the East African republic of Ishmaelia, The Daily Beast dispatches William Boot, the mild-mannered and absent-minded author of the paper’s “biweekly half-column devoted to nature.” His complete lack of journalistic experience comes in handy when, instead of charging up a false trail with the rest of the international press corps, he stays behind in the Ishmaelian capital, Jacksonburg, and scoops the lot of them.

The journalists’ herd mentality and disregard for anything so tedious as “the truth” is partly what Christopher Hitchens had in mind when, in his introduction to the 2000 Penguin Classics edition, he called it (and he should know) “a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps, as no other narrative has ever done save Hecht and MacArthur’s ‘Front Page’ and, to a smaller extent, Michael Frayn’s ‘Towards the End of the Morning.’ ”

Frayn’s novel, published in 1967, the year before Murdoch bought The News of the World, can be seen as foreshadowing the transformation of the British press that Murdoch brought about. It’s based on Frayn’s experiences at The Guardian and The Observer, left-of-center broadsheets as far from The News of the World as British newspapers can be. The manageable chaos of a quiet corner of an unnamed paper where the “nature notes” (shades of William Boot), obituaries and crossword puzzles are put together is disturbed by the arrival of a terrifyingly efficient young man. “You really see yourself working on a paper for the rest of your life?” another character asks him. “I see myself owning one,” he replies.

The transformation was more fully registered in Martin Amis’s “Yellow Dog” (2003), whose psychotic tabloid journalist, Clint Smoker, makes almost any other fictional Fleet Street Caliban look like Ariel. Smoker, “a very fine journalist indeed,” works for The Morning Lark, where the staffers refer to readers with an unprintable epithet and “no global cataclysm had yet had the power to push the pinup off the front page.” He is racist, misogynist, hideously ugly and fixated on his tiny penis. He concocts stories by setting up liaisons between soccer players and models. “You might think that the contempt shown by the reporters for both their subjects and their readers is overdone,” Hitchens has written of his friend Amis’s novel, “but you would be wrong.” No doubt. But Amis’s chthonic hatred for the functionaries of the gutter press is so overwhelming that he misses a trick: Smoker’s depravity stands in murky isolation from the rest of society.

Thomas Jones is a contributing editor at The London Review of Books.

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