Journos de nos jours

Anthony Howard

  • Alan Moorehead by Tom Pocock
    Bodley Head, 311 pp, £16.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 370 31261 9
  • Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir by Carl Bernstein
    Macmillan, 254 pp, £15.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 333 52135 8
  • Downstart by Brian Inglis
    Chatto, 298 pp, £15.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3390 2

The late James Cameron always liked to claim that the only male company in which he felt at home was that of his fellow journalists. They offered him, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘the conversational shorthand of completely common understanding’. Nor was his in any way an exceptional reaction. The existence across the world of various favoured journalistic watering-holes – sometimes grandly known as Press Clubs, more usually simply hotel bars with squatters’ rights established – is one proof of that. Never mind that they tend to be drab places: their defiant survival into the age of the Amex Gold Card is evidence of the herd instinct of the newspaper trade.

That instinct remains, in some respects, surprising. Journalists, after all, come in all shapes and sizes, with an especially strong line in outsize egos. Superficially, one might have expected the members of more conventional professions, like accountants or solicitors, to feel greater rapport with each other. But if journalism has nevertheless always been the companionable trade, the explanation is not far to seek. Like actors, journalists have to believe in the glamour of their own calling. And here nothing has helped as much as the relatively recent invention of the journalist as superstar.

Like Cameron himself, Alan Moorehead was just such a figure. He was probably the most celebrated of all the 1939-45 war correspondents. Along with his rival from the radio, Chester Wilmot, Moorehead was an Australian by birth – and he may well have owed some of his success (not least with his employer, Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express) to a certain air of breezy informality. But there was also more than a touch of the grand seigneur about him – reflected in his automatic assumption that, whenever a town fell into Allied hands, it was his right to commandeer its best hotel. Since he worked very much in concert with his two principal competitors – Alexander Clifford of the Daily Mail and Christopher Buckley of the Daily Telegraph – this was something they normally achieved, although at times they went one better by occupying the former enemy commander’s former villa.

He was lucky enough, in fact, to live in the golden age of the war correspondent as buccaneer. Although he was not at all his way inclined, it was Tom Driberg who described him (perhaps unguardedly) as ‘a trim, slight figure, dark and jaunty, with steady eyes, a scornful passionate lip and a certain ruthless charm’. Interestingly, his appeal was not universal, even among newspapermen. When he worked before the war in the Paris office of the Daily Express his relationship with his bureau chief, Geoffrey Cox (later to be editor of ITN), was clearly a prickly one. That was, no doubt, partly because Moorehead always wore his ambition very much on his sleeve. Outside the cartel that he formed with his two principal rivals – in itself a form of mutual security pact – he was highly competitive; and, partly through having a glamorous wife who served as private secretary to Sir Claude Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief of the Middle East, he usually enjoyed an ease of access to the top brass that must have been the envy of his more pedestrian colleagues. There was an element, too, of machismo in his make-up that was no handicap when it came to gaining the confidence of generals. It was significant that, after Auchinleck had been banished back to India in 1942, he went on to develop an equally close relationship with the new Eighth Army commander, Montgomery.

Tom Pocock – himself a very junior correspondent in the last stages of the Second World War – was an excellent choice to summon back the fame of a now largely forgotten folk-hero. He has performed his task admirably, and, at least so far as the life of a war correspondent is concerned, this is a model biography. His concentration on his subject as action-man imposes, however, its own limitations. Just as Moorehead found the adjustment to the more routine rhythms of the postwar world difficult, so does his biographer. Most of the excitement and élan goes out of his narrative once he has to settle down to telling the story of just another peacetime writer. Moorehead became, of course, a very successful one – battling through, after a false start with fiction, to recreate his fame with travel books like The White Nile and The Blue Nile, as well as his classic study of the Australians in the First World War, Gallipoli. But authorship is necessarily a private occupation – and even meticulous accounts of meetings with Hemingway and Berenson are pretty small beer when compared to the far more dramatic life of the war correspondent.

Pocock’s book, however, is rescued by its end. When he was just 56, Moorehead was struck down by a stroke and lived the remaining 17 years of his life unable either to speak or write. It was a terrible fate for a man who had always lived through his personality almost as much as his pen. What made it, in some ways, even more painful for himself and his family was that, physically, he remained the same energetic figure that he had always been. It was the grimmest possible conclusion to a life that had been based on communication: but Pocock handles the savage twist at the end of the tale with a fine mixture of candour and sensitivity.

Those are the qualities which Carl Bernstein clearly seeks to bring to bear when telling the story of another family tragedy – this time, the wanton wrecking of the lives of both his parents by the cruel political witch-hunts that preceded the arrival of Senator Joe McCarthy on the American scene. Thanks to Watergate – and its sequel, the book and the film, All the President’s Men – Bernstein also rates as a journalistic superstar, though his fame may have faded a little since Dustin Hoffman represented him in that film, and Jack Nicholson represented him in a later one. He is quite open about the difficulties he has subsequently experienced, making it clear that he started out trying to write this book almost a decade and a half ago and laid it on one side partly in deference to the wishes of his mother and father. The last thing they wanted apparently – having rehabilitated themselves to the ranks of the respectable – was to be reminded of all the troubles they had lived through during a time when neighbours would not even allow their children to play with their son and daughter.

For reasons that never quite emerge Bernstein later took up again what he somewhat grandiloquently calls ‘the project’. Loyalties – bearing the subtitle ‘a son’s memoir’ – is the result. It is a transparently sentimental book, and a slightly uncomfortable one. To his credit, Bernstein does not seek to pretend that his parents were ever reconciled to the notion of his writing it – and maybe it is the vividly communicated sense of their apprehension and fear that makes reading it a slightly unnerving experience. Investigative journalism may still be a fashionable pursuit – but when it comes to digging up the pasts of their own living parents, most star-struck imitators of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford would probably draw the line.

The difficulty, of course, is that both Albert and Sylvia Bernstein had a secret that they desperately wanted to preserve. Some time between 1940 and 1942 – even their son cannot be specific about dates – they had joined the Communist Party: and, having refused to admit to that before a Congressional Investigating Committee (one of the most eloquent parts of this book is the transcript of Albert Bernstein’s evidence in which he called the whole procedure ‘a disgraceful piece of business’), they seem, understandably, to have reacted against their son’s efforts to wring a confession out of them more than forty years later. They may never have had anything to be ashamed of – though ‘taking the Fifth’ (as invoking the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination was called at the time) was never a very impressive public posture. But what they plainly felt entitled to in their old age was their privacy – and to see their son, of all people, invading it can hardly have made their distress any easier to bear.

Naturally, in the end, they come up smelling of roses – the portrait of Albert Bernstein, driven out of union work into running a launderette, is a particularly moving one – but in neither his case nor his wife’s does this quite succeed in banishing the ethical question. If they did not want their own distant political pasts disinterred, should not their desire for obscurity have been respected? As it is, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they have had to endure what the US courts call ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. After reading Carl Bernstein, I began for the first time to feel queasy about the implications of the much-envied American Freedom of Information Act. That, admittedly, may largely be Mr Valiant-for-Truth’s own fault – for in a rather sickly apple-pie-and-motherhood manner he is at pains to portray himself throughout as the dutiful and adoring son. At least there is no such nonsense about the home-grown memoirs of Brian Inglis. A child of both the Irish Ascendancy and of the Empire, he does not try to conceal that he regarded both his parents as total strangers, finding his prep-school headmaster’s instruction to kiss his mother (when she suddenly arrived from India) ‘acutely embarrassing’. Alas, that feeling of reserve also pervades his book – an elegant, if rather elliptical account of an unusually full and varied journalistic life. Inglis is very good on Dublin – both the Irish Times and Trinity College, where he spent some five years as a part-time academic (though some of this material has been published before in his earlier autobiography West Briton). But the heart of his book is probably his account of the nine years he spent on the Spectator.

Even in those days – the paper, by my count, has been through five successive owners since – the Spectator was very much a rich man’s plaything. In 1954, however, it had the good fortune to be bought by a wealthy young barrister who, initially at least, brought to it the same benevolent rule as editor-proprietor that David Astor exercised on the Observer. It was at this stage that Inglis was lucky enough to join it – having leapt on board from the Daily Sketch, where the tone was a good deal more robust, or thuggish. If still a conservative paper, the Spectator was even by the mid-Fifties a notably unstuffy one – and Inglis’s influence soon began to liberate it still further. His characteristic reticence prevents him from making it clear how sizeable his contribution was, though he can be sharp enough at times – writing, for instance, of John Braine: ‘His copy was boring; so, on his visits to deliver it, was he.’ He appears to have been the impresario of most of the bright new talent that was assembled – a formidable roll-call including such names as Bernard Levin, Katharine Whitehorn, Alan Brien and Cyril Ray. Certainly, by the late Fifties the Spectator had already put the wind up the New Statesman – and may even have been partly responsible for the departure of its long-serving editor, Kingsley Martin, at the end of 1959.

Inglis was probably always more ambitious than his laid-back manner betrayed. In 1958 he served notice on Gilmour that he wanted to leave. He claims to have had not the slightest notion of what this announcement would lead to, but, in fact, it ended up with his being installed in Gilmour’s place in the editor’schair. The journalist-academic had entered into his inheritance and there should, no doubt, have been a happy ending. The explanation of how and why there wasn’t provides easily the most informative part of Inglis’s narrative. He and Gilmour had been at one over the anti-Conservative line the Spectator took in the 1959 Election (just as they had been in their joint opposition to the 1956 Suez policy): but the united front between editor and proprietor did not long survive Macmillan’s electoral victory. By early 1961, he says, Gilmour was already professing dissatisfaction with the paper – and further irritating his editor by doing so during Inglis’s absence on holiday. At first, Inglis was simply puzzled – all the commercial indices remained encouraging and there seemed no call for criticism. The day, however, came when the scales fell from his eyes. An invitation to a drink in the local pub led to a diffident confession on Gilmour’s part that he had succeeded in having his name placed on the official approved list of Conservative candidates. Inglis chose to regard this as an act of treachery, though it is a little hard to see why since he already knew that his proprietor was playing an active part in his local Conservative Association.

He seems, however, to have perceived a theat to the paper’s integrity. That afternoon he was on the phone to an Independent Television company, accepting a job offer he had previously refused. On Granada’s All Our Yesterdays, he became for the next 14 years one of the most familiar voices and faces in the land – the journalist, once again, as superstar. The tragedy in his case was that he should have gone on being a successful, self-effacing editor.