Knights of the King and Keys

Ian Aitken

  • A Dubious Codicil: An Autobiography by by Michael Wharton
    Chatto, 261 pp, £15.99, December 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3064 4
  • The House the Berrys built by Duff Hart-Davis
    Hodder, 299 pp, £16.95, April 1990, ISBN 3 405 92526 6
  • Lords of Fleet Street: The Harmsworth Dynasty by Richard Bourne
    Unwin Hyman, 258 pp, £16.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 04 440450 6

Practitioners of the black arts of journalism will universally acknowledge that the most accurate as well as the funniest portrayal of their profession is Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Scoop. No one who has ever worked for a paper with a baronial proprietor could fail to recognise Lord Copper and his bevvy of fawning executives. Equally, anyone who has ever been a foreign correspondent will admit that Waugh’s dreadful pack of war reporters is all too realistic. Indeed, the book has given journalists a phrase which they have adopted as their own. ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper,’ we say to each other whenever one of our number is getting the wrong end of the journalistic stick.

Not that all journalists have actually read Scoop. Once, many years ago, when I was immured in an un-newsworthy Latin American city at the insistence of my foreign editor, I tried to suggest that it was time to move on by sending him the immortal cable front Waugh’s novel: ‘Weather here lovely, no news today.’ I signed it ‘Boot’, after the novel’s innocent hero, only to learn much later that this had wasted much time on the foreign desk while they tried to discover if they had a stringer called Boot in Panama City. When I eventually got the order to move on, it, too, had a Scoop-ish quality. ‘Want you Honduraswise fastest,’ said the wire from London, and I obediently flew up to Tegucigalpa to discover that absolutely nothing was happening there either. It turned out later that the foreign editor had actually meant British Honduras but hadn’t liked to admit it.

No doubt similar things are going on right now in places like Ryadh and Dhahran, only faster because of the new technology. Perhaps somewhere among the rat-pack of reporters there is even a former author of his paper’s nature notes, blundering about with the electronic equivalent of a cleft stick. But there will, alas, be one major difference between the Gulf war correspondents and Evelyn Waugh’s immortal team: there is no booze in Saudi Arabia. Considering the traditional role of alcohol in lubricating the essential processes of newspaper production, this is a fairly horrific difference. We superannuated foreign correspondents can only shed a sympathetic tear for our successors as we contemplate facing up to Scud missiles, deadlines and people like General Schwarzkopf without a drop to drink.

Yet it has to be admitted that even without the help of the Koran and the Saudi royal family, the role of intoxicants in the life of journalism was already on the decline. Young journalists, many of whom are women nowadays, are quite as likely to ask for a Perrier water or a white wine and soda as to order a large scotch or a pint of bitter. In some respects, this is no less important a change in the ambience of our trade than the new technology and the mass migration from Fleet Street. Moreover, the combination of these factors has meant that the Fleet Street pubs now stand relatively empty. Many of the new newspaper offices exist in wastelands where there are few pubs within reasonable walking distance. It all represents a radical change of life-style for reporters, and even more for sub-editors.

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