Witness who was looking the wrong way

People's Witness
November 1, 2002

This ambitious book aims to define the nature of political journalism through its relationship with business and with politics, but it does not quite achieve either goal. Fred Inglis's account of journalistic endeavour over the past century is wide ranging, tinged at times with brilliance, but also patchy and poorly structured.

The most incisive sections are the authoritative accounts of critical events, particularly in US history: the cold war, Vietnam, Watergate. Less attention is given to Britain, with some notable exceptions: The Daily Mirror 's duplicity during the miners' strike; the great Sunday Times exposures of the Philby affair and the Thalidomide story.

Inglis is less reliable on the practice of journalism. His observations on what makes good journalism are obvious: fidelity to the truth, passion, unadorned reporting, analysis, objectivity. By way of illustration, he invokes a gallery of his journalistic heroes from Martha Gellhorn to Harry Evans, Walter Lippman to John Simpson.

Regrettably, Inglis does not emulate the example of these giants or the values he purports most to admire. His prose is overblown and prone to editorialising. His definition of political journalism is ultimately so ecumenical as to be meaningless.

The book betrays an innate conflict. Inglis the cultural studies scholar is a practised deconstructor of notions of objectivity and truth, invoking the usual arguments about the nature of hegemony and the public sphere. But he is also sentimental about journalism and its ruggedly romantic exponents. He admires even those, such as Orwell and Lippman, whose politics he mistrusts. This creates a precarious structure. Analysis of the way grand world events are reported is interrupted and undermined by unnecessary biographical details, gossipy anecdotes and discussions of journalism in fiction.

There is much here to be admired: the buoyant, informative canter through the century; the accounts of the coming to power and of the influence of press barons on both sides of the Atlantic; the often-powerful tributes to the men and women who stand for the best in journalism.

But while his choices of these are understandably arbitrary, Inglis should have taken more care to distinguish between reporters, editors, war correspondents and columnists and their relative positions in the struggle between owners and governments, publishers and editors. The result is often confusion.

This seems to be the book's faultline. It does not engage sufficiently with the tensions between these interests, nor the shifting landscape of power. It does not document the changing forms or severity of government censorship in different armed struggles, nor the complicated attitudes of various press moguls to the conflicts between ideology and profit. And while praising the BBC for its journalism, Inglis does not address its relationship with successive governments nor the internal struggles that have influenced its news division. I was surprised, too, at the lack of real analysis of the differences between US and British attitudes to the press.

Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to students of journalism and of the media. Let us hope that Inglis's entertaining and informative style inspires the next generation to follow in the tradition he so robustly praises.

Sally Feldman is dean, School of Media, London College of Printing.

People's Witness: The Journalist in Modern Politics

Author - Fred Inglis
ISBN - 0 300 093 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £18.95
Pages - 416

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