As one of a dazzlingly-rare series of posts which follow on from each other, I thought I might carry on where I left off last week and think about journalists in books. This is not least because I rather yearn for those dear dead days when all a writer had to contend with was a pen or a typewriter: not a laptop which, as the more obsessionally observant among you will have noticed, takes the vows of matrimony very seriously indeed and posted a comment from Mr NorthernReader on last week’s blog as if it came from me, on the grounds that our computers as well as our hearts and minds turn out to be inextricably linked. I am glad to report that he was right– as always, of course (just call me Katerina and go and enjoy The Taming of the Shrew) – to celebrate Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (whose journalist hero, William Boot, even gave us a blog title way back in Week 6), Wodehouse’s sublime Psmith, Journalist and Andrew Marr’s absorbing My Trade. No aspiring journalist should take another step without getting these three under the belt. And then what?
Well, fewer people have a copy of Michael Ignatieff’s Charlie Johnson in the Flames on their shelves, which I think is a pity. Ignatieff, an historian, philosopher and more recently a liberal politician in his native Canada, lived in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and was a frequent thoughtful contributor to television discussion programmes (this was in the now far-distant days when television did not solely cater to our inner spoilt and fretful six-year-old and occasionally treated us as sentient adults who could cope with the odd moment or two of serious debate). He is a fiercely articulate champion for human rights and especially the right not to feel frightened and threatened. Subtle and nuanced, his writing on international politics continues to adapt and respond as the world mood darkens. I urge you to read Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience: informed by his experiences in the Balkans and Kosovo, but also encompassing the horrors of Rwanda, it goes behind the particular to the essential moral questions. Put it on your shelf next to Adam Nicolson’s fabulous The Mighty Dead and consider the antiquity and perseverance of violence.
Ignatieff currently holds the Edward R Murrow Chair of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. That’s quite some job title – I can only imagine his office door (possibly with a fold-out flap to accommodate it all) – but any reminder of Murrow is good enough for me. If you haven’t, settle down to watch Goodnight, and Good Luck, a film which explores the troubled relationship between press freedom and the state. Sounds a bit
worthy? Let me try again. Watch Goodnight, and Good Luck. It was written and directed by George Clooney who also stars in it (as Murrow’s co-producer: David Strathairn plays Murrow and jolly good he is too). Murrow was a seriously good thing in a naughty world. A passionate believer in the power and the responsibility of broadcast journalism, he became famous for his radio news broadcasts during World War II before moving into television, where he was at the forefront of the struggle to overcome Senator Joseph McCarthy and his deranged and destructive works. Murrow was a byword for honesty and integrity and a good candidate for patron saint of journalists. If you happen to be a journalist, print or broadcast, and your owners are requiring you to tell what you know not to be the truth or you consider not to be the best that you could do to inform and empower your audience, pause a moment and ask yourself, ‘what would Ed Morrow have done?’
Fearless, determined and questing for truth (although very rarely doing any actual reporting), the best-known journalist in fiction is probably Tintin. Together with his deeply adorable little dog (Milou originally, but Snowy in English-language versions), our young hero sent his first despatches from The Land of the Soviets in 1929. His creator, Georges Prosper Remi – known, of course, as Hergé – very properly tried to make Tintin the medium, not the message, and deliberately drew him as near to a blank as was possible, suggesting that the good journalist is without personality, biography or, indeed, personal interest to his reader: what matters, or what should matter, is the story he has to tell.
Or, of course, she. While in what we laughingly call real life some of the very greatest journalists have been women – Martha Gellhorn, Victoria Guerin, Anna Politkovskaya – fiction has served us less well. Lois Lane, anyone? Or Carrie-whatever-her-name-is in the deeply demeaning Sex and the City? (and if anyone ever told you that that little lot was somehow empowering and a bastion of feminism; darling, they were putting you down with their sniggering voyeuristic point of view). I’d rather re-read Monica Dickens’ My Turn to Make the Tea, not least for its chronicling of a vanished world of typewriters and local reporters.
Three more. The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins reminds us what a useful profession investigative journalism can be for the hero of your crime novel. On the Booker Prize shortlist in 2000, it’s a cracking read. And no journalists’ bookshelf should be without Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, even if only as a reminder of the sheer mind-numbing boredom of what you thought would be a glamorous profession. It says much that the book was published in America as Against Entropy. But today of all days, as we stand back and watch Vladimir Putin throw up his little hands in horror and wonder aloud how it could possibly be that Boris Nemtsov, the man who dared to speak out against him, has been gunned down; today is the day to read David Hare and Howard Brenton’s play, Pravda. It means ‘truth’, and is therefore, of course, a savage and despairing satire. Goodnight, and good luck, indeed.