John Simpson’s new book, Unreliable Sources, is a history of British reporting during the twentieth century, and a thoroughly good read. Simpson (who is, of course, the BBC’s World Affairs editor) casts a journalist’s eye over what his predecessors and colleagues have written ; he is very good at dissecting a news article to show which bits were written by the man in the field, and which were added by opinionated editors at home. A staunch defender of the BBC, he is quick to note the occasions on which it bows to official pressure.
His heroes are the foreign correspondents who see what is happening, and speak the truth that is in front of their eyes. His villains are the proprietors who are selective with the truth for political reasons. The greatest villains are those who are quite indifferent to the truth of the stories they are propagating. Lord Northcliffe, Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell get deservedly rough treatment in this book.
It is probably the later chapters, dealing with the Falklands, former Yugoslavia and the Iraq War, conflicts that Simpson saw at first hand, that have most authority, but he has good insights into the earlier part of the century, too. I especially enjoyed his chapter ‘Black and Tans’, about how the London press dealt with events in Ireland between 1918 and 1922, when British paramilitaries were committing revenge killings very like the Hunnish atrocities wholeheartedly by the British press a few years before. Simpson shows how even papers like the Daily Mail, which supported the government line, had reporters whose writing expressed doubt and disquiet about what was happening. His hero in this instance is Hugh Martin of the Daily News, who was
remarkably even-handed: he was honest about Republican atrocities, but equally frank about the murders and revenge attacks carried out by the Crown forces.
That kind of impartiality is what Simpson values most in correspondents, and he shows it flourishing throughout the century, sometimes in unexpected places and against the proprietors’ wishes.
He gives a good clear account of reporting during the First World War. I suppose it’s because this is the period I know best that I found his war chapter a bit simplified. Like a good journalist, he has to make a clear story, and he does so by telling it though pairs of opposites. The obscurantist Army is contrasted with truth-seeking journalists, and the super-patriotic Beach Thomas of the Daily Mail is set against Philip Gibbs, the truth-teller.
He possibly over-estimates the desire of the Army to keep journalists out during the first months of the war. The British Army had learnt to live with the Press in South Africa and elsewhere, and it was the French who insisted that all correspondents be kept out of the war zone. The Army tried to deal with the demand for information by using Swinton as ‘Eyewitness’, sending out stories of what was happening. This was never satisfactory, but it’s worth noting that the man they chose was a writer whose most significant fiction was ‘The Green Curve’, a story arguing that civilians should be kept informed during a military emergency. Swinton’s main problem was that so many officers decided that they needed to approve his copy; this both delayed and diluted his accounts before they reached the press.
The Eyewitness system was fairly soon replaced by the authorisation of official correspondents, and once again I think Simpson is not quite fair to the majority of them. I totally endorse his praise of Philip Gibbs for his humanity and his determination to tell the truth about the horrors of the war, but Simpson’s account underestimates the degree to which other reporters were frank about casualties and horrors. Those at home were not left totally ignorant of what was happening in the trenches. Censorship prevented correspondents from giving away military details, and often covered up failures, but many reporters did give a frank and shocking account of battle conditions. Here’s how the Daily Chronicle reported the effects of the gas weapon when it was first used at Second Ypres in 1915, for instance:
[M]any, alas! not understanding the new danger, were not so fortunate, and were overcome by the fumes and died poisoned. Among those who escaped nearly all cough and spit blood, the chlorine attacking the mucous membrane. The dead were turned black at once.
Even the Daily Mail, which printed the fatuous stuff by Beach Thomas, also printed Patrick MacGill’s reports from Loos, which were frank and grim.
Considering the First World War makes me realise that Simpson’s book is very London-centred. In part this is justifiable, because that is where the national papers were based – but it means that he probably over-estimates the effectiveness of the wartime censorship. Adrian Faber’s excellent dissertation on the Wolverhampton Express and Star in 1918 (available online here ) makes it clear that the provincial press was far less strictly controlled than the London papers. It quotes a reply from Sir Edward Cook, co-director of Press Bureau, to a complaint that papers outside the capital escaped regulation:
You are not quite correct in saying that we ignore the provincial papers. It is true that we do not every day examine all the thousands of papers, to do so, we should require a staff, and premises, rivalling the War Office in size.
Many letters from serving soldiers were printed in regional and local papers, some of which made clear the conditions under which men were fighting, as to anyone with imagination, did the casualty lists, which on some days could fill a whole page of The Times.
So I’d argue with some of the book’s emphases, but I have both enjoyed reading it and learned a lot from it. Strongly recommended.
Mind you, it could have done with some more thorough checking. One or two paragraphs get tangled, as when the account of Siegfried Sassoon makes it sound as though he never actually made his protest. There is more confusion when Simpson talks about Lloyd George’s son Raymond being killed on the Somme. He is presumably thinking of Raymond Asquith. A reference to W.H.Auden writing film scripts for the Ministry of Information during WWII is surely wrong as well, isn’t it?