Scoop Scooped

Scoop has become a prominent news story. This is the result of a poll by the Publishers Association to mark its 125th anniversary. They asked MPs to name their favorite book, and Boris Johnson named Scoop. He offered no explanation for his choice, although several others did briefly explain theirs. Here’s a link to the announcement of the choices (Scoop appears on p. 6).

Several papers mention the list (and Johnson’s choice). For example, The Spectator’sSteerpike” column has this comment:

The Prime Minister’s own choice represents something of a hat-tip to his former career as a journalist. Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh, is a 1938 satire of foreign correspondents, sensationalism and newsroom rivalries set in the fictional East African nation of Ishmaelia. Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s own economies with the actualité in the jungles of Brussels and Westminster have prompted many already to draw parallels with Waugh’s delightfully sketched characters. An alternative suggestion for the PM could be the choice of Carolyn Harris MP, deputy leader of Welsh Labour who opted for Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer – a fantasy work about an uneasy peace in Ireland, nearly thwarted by one man’s over-elaborate technical ‘solutions.’

Patrick Kidd in his Times diary wrote this:

Boris Johnson went to Waugh: specifically Scoop. The prime minister surely does not identify with its hero, William Boot. He is hardly one to chase questing voles through plashy fens. The Johnson role model is more the man Boot replaces at The Beast: Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, a reporter who can start revolutions simply by making up stories without leaving his hotel room.

Although not mentioned by those papers, Johnson’s selection may have been foreseen by a feature-length article in The Critic. This is written by journalist Robert Hutton and is briefly mentioned in the Guardian. This article is entitled “Putting the Boot in…” and relates to the novel specifically, not Johnson.  Near the beginning Hutton explains the book’s importance with a reference to a previous Prime Minister:

[David] Cameron, himself a man who was reluctant to take the whole business of prime ministering too seriously, understood this. As leader of the Opposition he’d kept on his desk a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. It’s a book that explains a great deal about the press in general and the current prime minister in particular.

For a British reporter, Scoop is the holy text of the job. One of the enduring mysteries of journalism is that a trade which employs large numbers of skilled writers, and puts them into interesting situations every day, has been the subject of so few really good novels. Scoop was written as satire, but eight decades after it was published, and after the industry has gone through two technological revolutions, it remains the best description of UK journalistic life.

After a review of the novel, Hutton explains how some of the characters relate to present day persons and events:

Which brings us to Boris Johnson. As well as being Britain’s most successful politician, the prime minister has long been one of the country’s highest-paid journalists, a job he did entirely in the Scoop mould. His sympathetic biographer, Andrew Gimson, describes how, posted to Brussels, Johnson delighted in producing stories that were more entertaining than accurate. It was not that he was opposed to writing accurate stories, but he didn’t see it as in any way essential.

The Scoop character Johnson most resembles isn’t the hero — Boot is too naïve, his reports too close to reality. Nor is the press corps regulars, Corker, Shumble, Whelper and Pigge, who huddle in the same hotel, lest they will be beaten on a story. Johnson, both as journalist and politician, has generally preferred to hunt alone. We must look to the man Boot replaced at the Beast, foreign correspondent Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock.

Like Johnson, who was hazy on the outcome of the Battle of Stalingrad, Sir Jocelyn is more confident than he should be about history (“He was wrong about the Battle of Hastings,” says Lord Copper. “It was 1066. I looked it up”). He hides in his hotel room before filing an entirely imaginary interview — something else for which Johnson has form. Sir Jocelyn was, pleasingly, modelled on Sir Percival Phillips, a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, which would later employ Johnson.

Sir Jocelyn’s fabrications didn’t hold him back, and Johnson’s propelled him to the front rank of journalism, then into politics, where he exhibits the same behaviour: the pursuit of a higher “truth” unburdened by facts, the deadline mentality, the reluctance to correct mistakes, the assumption that someone else should pick up the bill…

The story closes with another Johnson reference. You can read it at this link.

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