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.

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