Giles Foden agrees with John Simpson that news gathering is a form of escapology

Colleagues at the BBC and elsewhere will not be able to resist a chuckle at John Simpson’s summation of the art of journalism at the start of this book. “Journalists are like portrait painters: their work will be accurate and fair, or inaccurate and distorted, according to their individual capacity.” But if the ghost of Dorian Gray is hovering, so is the ghost of Picasso. Simpson is not just admirably clear on the obligation to truth in journalism, which the public deserves; he is also clear on a side of it that’s not often seen.

That is, the physical construction of the story, and the way that, even under authentic light, it involves perspectives, elisions and selections. An apparently innocuous phrase can encompass a worldview, implying one line or another on the material to hand. The ropes and pulleys are perhaps more visible than they once were, and in this informative, amusing, sometimes shocking book, Simpson has clearly picked his subjects to show these mechanics, as much as to narrate the 20th century.

These subjects include: fear of immigration in the early 1900s; the first world war; the Black and Tans in Ireland; the rise of Hitler; the abdication of Edward VIII; appeasement; Dunkirk to the blitz; Suez; Harold Wilson; the rise of Mrs Thatcher, leading on to recent wars in the Falklands, the Balkans and Iraq and their representation in journalism. By the end, the “peering at awkward photocopies” that has constituted Simpson’s early research, in which he has had many helpers, has given way to trawls through digital archives.

The show by then is coarsened with government spin, unwarranted press intrusion and celebrity smut. All these have always been there, but going down in history means something different now. One enduring feature is the role of the media baron. Simpson is very good at showing the relative merits and demerits of characters such as Lords Camrose and Beaverbrook, the Rothermeres and Harmsworths, and Rupert Murdoch.

The book begins with correspondents sailing from Southampton to Cape Town on the Dunottar Castle in 1899, accompanying British troops sent to relieve the siege of Ladysmith in the Anglo-Boer war. Among those on board was one of the century’s great journalists, the Manchester Guardian’s John Black Atkins. At a time when jingoism was at a high pitch, he resisted government, army and popular pressure to alter his account of the conflict: imperial certainties were being loudly espoused, even though the reality was that the empire had been on the wane for several years. It is a mark of Atkins’s quality that he also resisted the “Guardian view” as formulated in the office back home. It’s a curious feature of newspapers that their staff often second-guess what the editor wants.

Atkins gives an evocative pen portrait of another correspondent in that campaign, “slim, slightly reddish-haired, pale, lively, frequently plunging along the deck”, whose greatness would largely come in other fields. This was Winston Churchill, who typically made himself the subject of a story, with his famous escape after being captured by the Boers. The journalist as part of the story, either as an active agent or in terms of perspective, is one of the themes of this book.

So is the journalistic character, and the role of new technology. The “screeching billiard ball”, as the shrill-voiced war artist Melton Priors was nicknamed, was on board the Dunottar. Hogging the limelight, he seemed to some like a windbag from another age; it is a maxim of journalistic life that every newspaper has characters like this. Also taking ship was WK Dickson, experimenting with a new moving picture camera, “an immense, imposing and cumbersome affair made of mahogany, leather and brass” called the Biograph. This contraption weighed over 1,000lb.

Inside Ladysmith itself were two talented correspondents who exemplify types throughout Simpson’s story. One was the shooting star, GW Steevens, who helped develop the exciting narrative journalism that would quickly win his paper, the newly established Daily Mail, hundreds of thousands of readers. At the height of the Boer war, just four years after its founding, the Mail was selling well over 900,000 copies. Steevens, alas, died of typhoid during the siege.

The other great talent was HW Nevinson, who worked for the News Chronicle and later, at Gallipoli, for this paper. Resilient, amusing if a little melancholy, Nevinson was a vivid writer who could be relied upon to deliver, and wrote a number of books similar to the ones Simpson has produced.

This, Simpson’s eighth book, is best not as an account of history but as a description of the evolution of journalism as a profession. For foreign correspondents, even now, in the age of email and satellite phones, this involves working out the technicalities, often in stressful and sometimes dangerous situations, of how to file their material on time. Simpson’s line about journalism being “not so much a first draft of history as a form of escapology” seems destined for the quotation books.

To some extent, the subtitle of Unreliable Sources is a misnomer, as the scope of Simpson’s 20th century is largely limited to the British experience. Sometimes, too, the narrative spine is twisted by media particularities, as for example in its recording of the long-running battle between the Daily Mail and the BBC. Simpson is never less than fair on this issue. Nor does he neglect the times when the BBC has failed its audience and betrayed its charter, usually when it has given in to or anticipated government pressure. As Simpson points out, the existence of the pressure in itself may be no bad thing.

The fact is, all the papers and news organisations whose story is told in this book can look back with an equal measure of pride and shame. They’re all only as good or bad as what they reported yesterday. The press needs its relative positions and traditions. But every morning that trickster figure, the changing context of the news, makes a fool of the abstract. Even the wisest editor goes into morning conference naked.

Giles Foden’s novels include Ladysmith (Faber). © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds