Paul Anderson, review of People’s Witness:The Journalist in Modern Politics by Fred Inglis (Yale University Press £19.99), Tribune, 9 June 2002
Traditionally, books that tell the history of journalism come in two kinds. On one hand, there are memoirs by veteran journalists, typically with titles like Witness to History or Sixty Years on Fleet Street, which are stuffed with anecdotes about observing great events, mixing with the famous and infamous and scooping the opposition. On the other, there are accounts, mainly by academics, that concentrate on the institutional, social and political contexts in which journalists have worked: histories of newspapers and broadcasting organisations, heavyweight biographies of press barons, social histories of the media, and so on.
Fred Inglis’s big idea was to produce a book on 20th-century journalists that synthesises the two approaches — “one which offers to reorder a galaxy of starring and not-so-starring, more dimly significant names in a new historical constellation”, as he puts it somewhat inelegantly his introduction. Unfortunately, People’s Witness, although undeniably pacy and enthusiastic, does not in the end deliver the goods.
The book mixes brief lives of Inglis’s journalistic heroes (and a few villains) with observations about the changing nature of the mass media and summaries of the ideas of various sociologists of the media, all topped off with ruminations on myths of journalism in fiction and on the influence of fictions on journalism.
The good guys are those journalists, most of them foreign correspondents or essayists rather than reporters or commentators on domestic politics, who made it their vocation to speak truth to power, among them Martha Gellhorn, William Shirer, George Orwell, I. F. Stone, James Cameron and Harold Evans. The bad guys are those who kow-towed to governments and big business and pandered to popular prejudice. Which is fair enough — and refreshing in this cynical age — except that Inglis’s heroes are already so familiar. Although his sketches are well drawn, they are superficial. If he has done any archival research he has hidden the evidence well.
Inglis is better on the way the media industry has changed over the past century, where he draws heavily on James Curran and Jean Seaton’s classic Power Without Responsibility, and his short accounts of the thoughts of Max Weber, Jurgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu et al are competent if hardly ground-breaking. When he gets to outlining his own views about journalism, fiction and truth, however, his predilections for prolixity and opacity get the better of him. “The distinction between history and myth is harder and harder to draw,” he concludes after a particularly convoluted chapter on recent films about journalists. Er, why?
People’s Witness is also flawed by annoying errors. In the space of a couple of pages on 1980s Britain, to take just one example, Inglis makes it appear that Rupert Murdoch shut down The Times for a year (that happened in 1978-79 before he appeared on the scene), renders the Social Democratic Party as the Social Democratic Alliance and has Robert Maxwell drowning in the Meditterranean rather than off the Canaries. These are hardly fatal mistakes, but they add to the impression that this book was researched and written in great haste.