Can books tell us much about what it’s like to edit a newspaper?
Peter Forster’s The Spike is probably the least well-known but the author does, unusually, set himself the task of describing, as he puts it, “the nature of the job, and the conditioning effect upon the person who does it”. The plot is rather trite, but he at least does give you some indication of what it’s like to see the news sked and have the power to decide what’s important in it.
And, having been an editor yourself, did you think it was an accurate portrayal?
Yes. Instead of describing high politics, the prime minister on the phone, proprietors breathing down your neck and all that tends to make up the caricature notion, he talks about the problems between the editor’s secretary and the secretary in the sports department, and the problems of having too many lunches in the same week with people you don’t need to have lunch with, and how easy it is to waste your time. He talks about primadonnas on the brink of resignation, and how lawyers and diarists have different standards of truth…
“It’s always possible to forget the effect of what you are writing on the people you are writing about.”
It’s not a great novel. To some extent it’s a novel of management with a romantic plot, but it does at least attempt to deal with the personal aspects of editing a newspaper. It’s a kind of cautionary tale. It’s got a wonderful opening line: “He eased himself into the chair behind the big desk and thought, ‘Well now it will be different’.” Now he was editor! And it describes all the things he thought he would do before he became the editor, and how they would be done. And the things that stop him doing all these things are not big things. They’re all the little things that I can recall so well. It is one book which describes the experience from the inside. Most of the books about newspaper editors tell it from the outside, from the point of view of people who are critical – of which Trollope’s is one of the most famous.
Let’s talk about Trollope’s The Warden.
The plot of The Warden has been a familiar one this year. It’s about middle-ranking, mostly decent people who have had financial privileges, which to them – in terms of their own internal logic and their own rules – are absolutely OK. Then there’s a protest and a leak. The Times gets hold of the story and suddenly everything is upside down…
There are no bad people in The Warden. The comparison with our own MPs is quite telling. The top churchmen always had most of the money once bequeathed to support the local pensioners. They justify that to themselves on the grounds that the church should make its own rules, and that society was better if it did. And only when it was given a harsh write-up in the press did it become clear that the internal, moral logic that they thought was perfectly fine actually wasn’t. And the warden loses his job, even though the whistleblower takes pity on him, goes to the man at The Times and says, look, can we call this whole thing off? And, of course, he can’t, because the thing by that stage had its own media momentum.
It’s always good to learn from critics of newspapers. Sometimes newspaper people feel that everyone is getting at them. In fact, newspaper editors do have a great deal of power, and it is sometimes possible to put abstract principles above the ordinary good. It’s always possible to forget the effect of what you are writing on the people you are writing about. However much newspaper editors try to stay close to their readers and to ordinary life, the prospect of becoming a distant figure is always there. The fictional editor of The Jupiter wasn’t called Tom Towers for nothing. He may not have been exactly in an ivory tower, but he was not easy to meet. And the notion that he could send off “the thunderbolt” from so far away was what upset Trollope so much, the power to fire and forget at no risk to yourself.
Now, I’m not saying that Trollope was correct, or that what Tom Towers does in The Warden wasn’t exactly the right thing to do – I’m sure it was – but, what Trollope explains is the effect the newspaper has not just on “bad people”, the people cleaning their moats at public expense, but the people doing things they thought were ordinary. There’s a clear link with what happened over the MPs’ expenses scandal last autumn: good people are dragged down with the bad. It is a nuanced book, which draws attention to that, and a good one for any editor to read.
Now Philip Knightley and The First Casualty. He first wrote this in the 1970s after Vietnam, and has subsequently updated it to include most of the more recent wars. Tell us about it.
Yes. It’s a pretty terrifying book for an editor to read, but I think it’s essential reading for anyone sending reporters into war. I think modern editors tend to feel quite superior to their predecessors, the ones who sent official reporters to the First World War, whose job was nothing but to make sure that people at home felt that everything was OK. We don’t do that any more. We also, I think, have tended to feel quite superior to the shadowy editors of Scoop, the ones who are obsessed only with having some identifiable “good cause” they can play to their tabloid readers and having a low telex bill at the end of the day. But, actually, the chapter on Kosovo in the new Knightley, whose coverage you and I watched together at The Times and whose direction we played a part in, makes quite a grim story about us.
Those Serbian rape camps, a huge issue for the justification of the aerial bombing, were, it seems, based on one source. The original journalist was totally blameless, of course, but Robin Cook was asked if he could confirm the suspicions about the rape camps, and he confirmed that there were suspicions! And that created an astonishingly widespread account. Well, I’m not sure that even now we’re clear on what happened and what didn’t, but the journalism analysed by Knightley does suggest that it wasn’t journalism’s finest hour.
As for how patronising we are about the journalists in the First World War, well, at least those journalists were actually there. Because Kosovo was an aerial war (remember it was the first war in history where no military personnel suffered even a scratch) there was no way of knowing exactly what was going on. The best that we could do was to attempt the widest possible range of reporting – say, one person from the Serb side, others embedded with Nato, and some guy hammering around the battlefield trying to get to wherever there were smoke and flashes. That way you could just about get an idea of what was going on for a very “first draft of history”.
And again, it’s useful for an editor to read the book. It will not help you avoid every mistake. Some of these mistakes are woven into the very fabric of producing a newspaper, for all the technological changes that have taken place since the Crimean War.
Returning to fiction, we’ve got Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning.
This book is often recalled for a very famous portrait of lunchtime seen from a Fleet Street window. Everybody’s going out for lunch. The literary editor and the foreign editor are going off to the Garrick by taxi, the subs are going off on foot to the cafe, the advertising bosses on a stroll to El Vino. And then: “The editor shuffled out, unnoticed by anyone, and caught a number 15 bus to the Athenaeum.” The editor is totally invisible in Frayn’s account of rivalry between the “old lads” and the “young turks” in what was then the new age of TV and celebrity. The beauty of the Frayn account is the invisibility of the editor, which in some respects is probably the best model of all.
I don’t remember you taking the bus, though?
Well… no. Not the bus. But there weren’t many going past Wapping…
Now the last one is Harry Evans’ My Paper Chase, which you’ve chosen over his Good Times, Bad Times. That’s interesting, given that the latter has more relevance to your own experience on The Times.
Well, editing is not something that you can learn from books. That’s true of many things. But a book that can still be of inspiration. A bit of inspiration doesn’t go amiss. This one is not hostile, like the Trollope. Nor does it see editors as dysfunctional figures, as Forster does. Harry’s book is not much about leaders and opinion at all. It’s mostly about investigation and communication and presentation and making your readers aware of what’s going on. I think that once you’ve read all the way from one end to the other, and then thought how we’re going to maintain that particular tradition of journalism in the internet era, it’s a worthy end to a set of books which otherwise might be rather depressing.
The First Casualty suggests that editors’ control over things is straying; in Towards the End of the Morning they are probably doing well, but are rather invisible; in The Warden they do bad things even for good motives and it’s not always easy to separate out the two. But My Paper Chase is a rather inspirational book, about the highlights of some of the best things editors have achieved.
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