Observer Review: People’s Witness By Fred Iglis Essay, Research Paper
Reporting on the reportersPeople’s Witness: The Journalist in Modern PoliticsFred IglisYale University Press ?18.95, pp427It will come as a gratifying surprise to most of its current practitioners that the history of journalism is, according to Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield, ‘a thriving and productive realm of academic history’. Undeterred by the already creaking ’shelves-full’ of the genre, Inglis makes a not immodest claim for his own weighty contribution: ‘There is not, I believe, anywhere to be found a book such as this one… which offers to reorder a galaxy of starring and not-so-starring, more dimly significant names in a new historical constellation.’The journalist as star? Now he’s talking. Most journalists worth the name feel obliged to take a more self-effacing line, regarding themselves less as Hamlet than attendant serfs. They are, at best, eyewitnesses to history, privileged (and occasionally brave) observers of events which may or may not prove to be historic, relayed via the prism of prejudice exercised by their proprietors, editors and, ultimately, readers.Phillip Knightley has already documented this last phenomenon in his seminal study, The First Casualty (as in ‘The first casualty of war is truth’), a pioneering work to which Inglis turns frequently, and not without some self-contradictory angst. Although many of the journalistic stars in his personal firmament are war correspondents, from Martha Gellhorn to David Halberstam, he makes no effort to hide where he himself is coming from. To qualify for canonisation in Inglis’s book, you must conform to his political agenda, which is squarely of the high-minded left.This reviewer may have no problem with that, but less sympathetic spirits surely will. Invoking the ‘free speech’ legacy of Fox, Wilkes, Cobbett and Hazlitt (though curiously omitting the latter’s friend and editor, Leigh Hunt, imprisoned in 1812 for insulting the Prince of Wales), Inglis leavens occasionally prolix political theory with racier potted biographies of his favourite twentieth-century practitioners, from Hemingway to the unlikely Arthur Ransome, the pedagogic Antonio Gramsci, Malraux and Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Claud Cockburn, James Cameron, Walter Cronkite, I.F. Stone, Alastair Cooke and many more, up to and including my own outstanding contemporaries James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens.He has no time for objectivity – one of his beefs with Knightley – and is not averse to sensationalism, so long as it conforms with that fine old Mirror definition: ‘the vivid and dramatic presentation of events’. The journalists he seeks to immortalise are, broadly speaking, tenacious individualists with a distinctive style and a clear, humanitarian point of view. They must usually work in the field; he has little time for pipe-sucking pundits. He is also deeply suspicious of the highly-paid.With Max Weber, who pensively called it a ‘highly ambiguous profession’, Inglis deplores society’s tendency to consign journalists to ‘a sort of pariah caste, which is always estimated in terms of its ethically lowest representative’. So he seems unlikely to accept, or even be much amused by, the late Nick Tomalin’s celebrated (but here unquoted) summary of the ‘only’ qualities required for success in journalism: ‘ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability’.Inglis likes and admires – which one would have thought almost impossible – both John Simpson and John Pilger. In his sizeable Hall of Fame there is no room for equally courageous journalists with less of a political agenda than a strong sense of right or wrong, including some who died for their newspaper (David Holden, David Blundy), or were kidnapped and held hostage for it (John Swain, Charles Glass).Surprisingly, Inglis does not make much of The Observer’s brave (and commercially damaging) stand on Suez. Other partisan readers will no doubt notice other errors of omission. Given its eclecticism, however, this is a lively, original and provocative tour d’horizon of committed journalism (and some movie versions of it) since 1914. A brief but sharp postscript explores how radically that horizon has been changed by the brutal removal of New York’s Twin Towers.Even before 11 September, Inglis agreed with Eric Hobsbawm that the present lacks an explanatory narrative adequate to its complexities. Of all the isms journalists must now confront, however, the one to watch is not religious fundamentalism or nationalism or neo-Nazism, but ‘turbo-capitalism’. Few have as yet reported satisfactorily from this new front line. In the end, Inglis confesses himself torn between ‘the dark judgement and the hopeful vision’.His sole purpose, meanwhile, is to ‘thank and honour’ the journalist, ‘that shadowy figure always to be found on the edges of the century’s great events, offering to tell ourselves about ourselves’.