In this article I consider a number of writers and journalists past and present, including Pete May, Philip Knightley, Harold Evans, and Michael Green. All good and true men devoted to the art of the printed word.
But first, imagine a broadcast journalist, working for a national radio station, who is so comfortable with telling lies that he maintains his own mum and dad are dead – just because they’re from the lower-middle classes. Imagine that he’s so unfeeling that he doesn’t notice when the newsreader (whose wife has just left him) has a nervous breakdown as soon as the radio bulletin finishes. Imagine how he’s so self-centred that he doesn’t know the names of the people he works with. When the phone goes in the newsroom, he answers curtly but then has to ask if anyone knows the name of the person that the caller wants to speak to. He’s told that the individual in question left last month and now works at IRN. Is this really how it was in the radio newsroom of Broadcasting House?
Then imagine a member of the security services, let’s say he works for MI6, who leaves a computer disk (remember them?) on a London Underground train by accident. It’s got secret information about the fight against terrorism on it. The first that the agent knows is when he turns on the radio to hear that the BBC has got hold of that classified material because a member of the public has handed it in to them. He realises in an instant that his job with the secret services is now in question. Far from a stellar career ahead of him, he knows he’ll finish up in a dead-end backwater office with no prospects of advancement ever again. It’s a fictional department called Slough House where the talentless are put out to spend the rest of their days in professional purgatory. This story is a sub-plot of a recent novel. I’ll explain in a moment.
But first, ask yourself this: could both scenarios ever really happen? A couple of events in the spring and summer of 2021 had some similarity to the two stories I’ve just described. Perhaps a disclaimer should read:
The first story is taken from a 1983 movie, The Ploughman’s Lunch, directed by Richard Eyre and starring Jonathan Pryce as James Penfield, a BBC radio news producer. The script was one of the first screenplays written by the novelist Ian McEwan and the film was a state-of-the nation piece, commenting variously on the aftermath of the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher, and the rise of self-interested yuppy culture.
The movie mixed fiction with scenes shot in front of real events: it opened with the sound of a teleprinter typing out the latest stories on a BBC Broadcasting House newsroom machine to be processed by the journalists and sub-editors, who were then seen dictating their radio versions of the stories to copy typists. This was the early 1980s, so no computers in sight here. Later in the film, the characters carried on their acting in front of the actual 1982 Conservative Party conference in Brighton. It was fiction being played out in front of fact.
Ian McEwan also reflected on the BBC’s gravitas when it came to national news bulletins. In the film, the discussion of the news agenda took place at a morning editorial meeting. This had the air of a university seminar, with the duty news editor seemingly acting as a type of professor holding court in a room packed with his (almost exclusively male) acolytes. Perhaps McEwan’s intention was to suggest the BBC in the early 1980s was safe, cautious, and somewhat unadventurous in some of its news reporting. Fiction. All fiction.
But this story does vaguely remind, in passing, of events twenty-five years ago surrounding a scoop interview with Diana, Princess of Wales. The unravelling of those events took place in May and June of 2021.
The second story mentioned at the start of this article was about leaving top secret government papers on public transport. In June 2021 classified Ministry of Defence documents were found at a bus stop in Kent and handed to the Beeb. You couldn’t make it up. Except that Mick Herron did, in his novel Slow Horses in 2010, the first of his Slough House series of spy novels.
The author constructed his narrative so that the radio airwaves announced a life-changing moment. The novel was set in contemporary London and one of the characters, Min Harper, had mistakenly left a computer disk of classified information on a tube train. He only knew of his error when he heard about it on the following morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Later in the novel, a gruesome threat to behead a hostage live on the internet was broken by Corporation journalists when news of it first appeared, ‘on a BBC blog around 4 a.m.’ before spreading to other media outlets in saturation coverage. Such is the power of the feeding fenzy of the media circus. There is, by the way, talk of a TV version of this novel appearing starring Gary Oldman.
But let’s take a minute to reflect that the Beeb has, for almost all of its one hundred years of existence come in for particular examination, criticism, investigation, and consideration. That’s because it’s a public institution, and maybe also because each one of us feels we want to have a say about what the Corporation does. Here’s an example from the era of the Falklands War, just before Ploughman’s Lunch was released, a documentary by Thames TV about the BBC World Service…
Let me conclude by sharing some great examples of contemporary real-world journalists and writers who carry on our fine tradition of publishing the truth and sharing engagingly-written material. And just in case you have ever held a misguided view of the profession, then I offer a couple of examples of delightful self-deprecation by two wordsmiths in their own fields. Firstly Pete May’s book:
For me, his storytelling style has shades of the writings by a journalist from a previous generation, Michael Green (1927-2018). Green wrote a whole series of humorous books called “The Art of…” from the 1960s onwards. As a fellow journalist I’d urge you to support Pete May and buy a copy of his “What Are Words Worth” book.
Also, from an earlier generation there’s Philip Knightley’s memoirs – an extract of which was printed in an edition of Granta in 1996. Knightley started his career in Australia, and he had some hair-raising learning experiences as a cub reporter in rural towns on local and regional papers. Knightley was another who wrote in an engagingly self-deprecating style. The full version of his own life story is at this online store (other vendors are available). Do take a look.
Knightley (1929-2016) was a special breed of journo who spoke truth to power. So too, incidentally, was Harold Evans (1929-2020) who wrote that obituary in the last link. Sir Harold himsel passed in 2020. Here’s his obituary from The Guardian. In addition, here’s an interesting and thoughtful piece from Evans from 2012:
I’d love to hear about your favourite pieces of writing, as well as about your favourite journalists and writers. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing from you.