You can’t put it down

Fintan O’Toole

  • The Fourth Estate by Jeffrey Archer
    HarperCollins, 550 pp, £16.99, May 1996, ISBN 0 00 225318 6
  • Tickle the Public: One Hundred Years of the Popular Press by Matthew Engel
    Gollancz, 352 pp, £20.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 575 06143 X
  • Newspaper Power: The New National Press in Britain by Jeremy Tunstall
    Oxford, 441 pp, £35.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 871133 6

Lay aside for a moment your self-esteem and imagine that you are Jeffrey Archer. You are now a model citizen of the Post-Modern state of hyper-reality, a figure in whom actuality and invention, public fact and private fantasy, the business of government and the spinning of yarns have become utterly indistinguishable. You have made up key aspects of your own biography and seen them reported as fact in the newspapers. You have seen how a man of limited intelligence but breathtaking cheek can be transported, thanks to a handful of dreary novels, into the realms of high politics, as deputy chairman of the ruling party of a major European state. And you have been, most unjustly, at the receiving end of the News of the World and the Star, who published libellous stories about your contacts with a prostitute.

You must, from all of that experience, have learned something that you could bring to bear on a book about Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell and the media in the contemporary world. From your unique insight into tabloid sex scandals, you must, for instance, have noticed among last year’s crop at least two that stood out for their quintessentially Post-Modern character. One was the fall of a Tory junior minister, Richard Spring, exposed by your old friends at the News of the World for taking part in a three-in-a-bed sex session. This was a political ‘event’ supposedly ‘reported’ by newspapers and television. But the event itself occurred only in order to be reported. The woman in the middle of the sexual sandwich had already approached the News of the World to find out how much they would pay her if this ‘event’ occurred, and had been supplied with a tape-recorder. She was, in effect, both participant and reporter.

The second concerned Rupert Pennant-Rea, who was forced to resign as deputy governor of the Bank of England when an extra-marital affair was revealed in the press. The almost literal intermingling of media and event here reached a kind of symbolic zenith, since the banker’s lover, Mary Ellen Synon, was herself a professional journalist who decided to write the story when he refused to marry her. She defined her private anger as a public news story by forcing her ex-lover’s resignation. Metaphorically, if not always literally, journalism is no longer the snoop outside the bedroom window. It is right between the sheets of public reality, making the earth move.

If you were Jeffrey Archer would you not have understood from all of this that we live in a world where the relationship between fact and fiction is fundamentally altered and traditional concerns about media manipulation of public events are hopelessly naive. Such fears assume a distinction between events on the one hand and their reflection in the media on the other that no longer holds good. In the Nineties, the definition of a public event is one that has been reported. Things happen, but unless they are mediated by television or newspapers, they don’t, in any real sense, happen in public.

This is true even of what used to be regarded as the very nub of public affairs. In his engaging history of the popular press since the launch of the Daily Mail a century ago, Matthew Engel reminds us of the sheer scale of Parliamentary coverage in earlier newspapers. On a single day in 1855, the Times carried 61,500 words of Parliamentary debate verbatim, considerably more than half the length of Engel’s book. These days, three thousand words of Parliamentary report is a great deal. The rest of what is said is spoken, for all practical purposes, in semi-privacy. What makes the difference between a public act and a private one is not the context in which it happens but the intervention of the media.

Parliament, in any case, is a much less important public arena than television, and in television the distinction between an event and the media reflection of it, between fact and fiction, is even less stable. In May 1992, for instance, shortly after the Los Angeles riots, the Vice-President of the United States, Dan Quayle, blamed that eruption of violence on the eponymous heroine of the television sitcom Murphy Brown, who was ‘mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice” ’. In the next episode of the show, Candice Bergen, playing the fictional Murphy Brown, herself supposedly a television journalist working on a show called FYI, then watched the ‘real’ Dan Quayle on television criticising her single motherhood. She delivered, in character, and to the fictional FYI audience, a reply to Quayle’s attack. As she finished, she left her desk on the fictional FYI set and moved to the floor of the studio, now both a fictional location for FYI and the real Murphy Brown studio, and began a discussion with a group of real single mothers and their real children. An hour later, television news programmes showed Dan Quayle in the company of real single mothers watching Murphy Brown watching him. The reports ended with the information that he had sent her fictional baby a real toy. And both Quayle’s attack and Murphy Brown’s reply made the front page of every American newspaper the following morning.

A few months later, President George Bush, campaigning for re-election, told voters that ‘we need a nation closer to The Waltons than The Simpsons.’ On the night of Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, viewers saw Bart Simpson watching television footage of Bush making the remark. Bart turned to his audience and remarked, in a tone of outraged innocence, ‘Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. Both families spend a lot of time praying for the end of the Depression.’ It may be that the decisive debate of the 1992 American election was this one between the most powerful man in the world and a cartoon character. And the cartoon character, more animated in every sense than his opponent, won hands down.

It’s not just in America that the line between fact and fiction has become a drunken stagger. Both Matthew Engel and Jeremy Tunstall, in his study of contemporary British newspapers, note the symbiotic relationship between tabloid news coverage and television soaps. Tunstall quotes a ‘senior journalist’ on the Sun who confesses that he videos all the soaps in search of news material and ‘if there is a certain soap story-line, then yes we do spin stories off it.’ Kelvin MacKenzie spotted in particular the potential for mutual promotion by the Sun and EastEnders, which blossomed first with an exclusive revelation that the actor who plays Dirty Den had a real-life murder conviction, and continued with SEARCH FOR REAL LIFE DIRTY DENS; EASTENDERS KILLED OUR MARRIAGE; and a double whammy combining the two most popular running soaps – a report that the actor who played Pete Dean in EastEnders was living with a woman who had once dated Prince Charles.

The most interesting aspect of Tunstall’s survey, indeed, is the attention he draws to the relationship with television as the biggest single shift in newspaper culture since he conducted a similar study in 1968, just before Rupert Murdoch’s arrival in London. This is evident in newspaper content, and in newspaper ownership, where Murdoch in particular has created an empire in which his television channels and his newspapers reinforce each other to such an extent that Andrew Neil, for instance, could serve simultaneously as chief executive of Sky and editor of the Sunday Times. But it is also felt at a much deeper level. Tunstall points out that newspaper readers now model their relationship with newspapers on their relationship with favourite television programmes, considering themselves loyal even if they miss every second episode. In the Sixties, readers stuck with a chosen newspaper that was delivered, like bread and milk, to their door. In the Nineties, it is much more common to read one daily newspaper on a Monday, a different one on a Tuesday and none at all on a Wednesday. Paper-hopping, it seems, has joined channel-hopping as a modern media phenomenon.

This relationship between newspapers and television has created something fundamentally different from the journalistic mendacity of the past. There was never a golden age of honourable newspapers, and Matthew Engel reminds us that the Daily Mail managed its first big lie in its second edition. It carried an announcement, certified by a chartered accountant, that the first edition had achieved a circulation of 397,215 copies. Even today, after the revolutions in communications and computers, it takes newspapers several days at least to work out how many copies of a particular edition were sold. The Mail – and presumably the chartered accountant – had merely decided to start as it intended to go on with rather more spectacular lies, like the forged Zinoviev letter of 1924.

Even bearing these excursions into fiction in mind, though, it is not just distance that lends enchantment to the pre-Murdoch age of popular newspapers. Things really have got worse, and Maxwell and Murdoch did a great deal to make them so, not just because of their own megalomania, but also because of the relentless logic of multinational capitalism. Tunstall’s comparative study is most valuable for the light it sheds on the link between the ruthless pursuit of profit on the one hand and the increasingly enclosed nature of journalism on the other. Journalism has been industrialised and journalists have been moulded by the same pressures towards efficiency and productivity that have been brought to bear on all industrial workers.

Tunstall highlights, for instance, a ‘massive redeployment of journalist labour back to central and East London’. In the Sixties and Seventies, about a third of all staff journalists on British national newspapers worked outside London. Now, less than a tenth do so. And those who work in London have to do about three times as much work. Roughly the same number of journalists work in London as in the Sixties. But there are now more newspapers and they have twice as many pages. What this means, in effect, is that staff journalists write more and get out of the office less. It is hardly surprising that their world has been reduced, or that a few global media empires are forming self-enclosed, self-reinforcing systems in which the reality defined or invented by one arm of the system is validated by the others.

In such systems there is no external reference point from which to take your moral bearings. It is now astonishing to recall, as Engel does, the restraint with which the Daily Mirror, then the downmarket leader, reported the grimmer details of the Moors Murders. Its reports of the Hindley and Brady trial in 1966, like those of the Daily Express, deliberately left out material that was carried in full in the Times. It informed its readers that ‘the Mirror recommends the Times, price sixpence, to any readers of the Mirror and Express who feel cheated of salacious detail we prefer not to print.’

The astonishing thing about Jeffrey Archer is that, in spite of the unique viewing-point which he occupies, he seems to have missed all of this. The most important reason – and the competition for that title is mighty tough – why his ‘factional’ novel is so very bad is that it is based on the assumption that there is still in the mediated world a stable distinction between fact and fiction and that disguising it a bit must be in itself a daring and creative act. The result is proof that fiction can be much less strange, and certainly much duller, than truth.

Behind the numbing dullness of The Fourth Estate is the comedy of a man who thinks that fiction is fact with the names changed. He actually believes that Captain Bob becomes a fictional character when you call him Captain Dick. It never occurs to him that Captain Dick is, by comparison, a lifeless bore trapped in claustrophobic prose. Maxwell’s story, an epic tale of fantasy and power in the late 20th century, is reduced to a linear narrative untouched by human imagination. As an exercise in misunderstanding a fictional character, The Fourth Estate reminded me of nothing so much as the woman who interrupted the unveiling of a plaque on the house in Dublin where Leopold Bloom was ‘born’ by insisting that everyone knew the Blooms lived two doors down.

As for Murdoch’s story, it is simply absent. Any hope that Archer might use the cover of fictional form to drop hints about me critical relationship between Murdoch and the Tory governments to which Archer was close is entirely misplaced. Much is made of Maxwell’s links to Labour, nothing of Murdoch’s to the Tories. The one vaguely interesting thing in the book, indeed, is that even after his own experiences with the News of the World, Archer still seems to idolise its owner. The Murdoch character Keith Townsend is a pin-up for barrow boys: youthful stud, cool operator, daring risk-taker, ultimate winner. If Maxwell’s career was inspired by fantasies, Murdoch’s, it seems, inspires them, at least in Archer’s susceptible breast.

It should not, perhaps, be all that surprising that after the supreme effort of inventing himself, Archer has no imagination left over for his novels. If he could write about himself, he could capture, uniquely, the spirit of the Murdoch and Maxwell media age. But he is, alas, a poor man’s Oscar Wilde, who has put his genius into his life and saved his lack of talent for his work. The Fourth Estate offers just one kind of enlightenment, and should be read by anyone who has ever been puzzled by reviewers who claim inability to stop turning pages or to put a book down. Both of those claims are in this case literally true. You keep turning the pages in the knowledge that, if you do, you will, Christ willing, get to the end. And you don’t put the book down because you know that nothing on earth will ever persuade you to pick it up again.