Unreliable Sources: How the 20th Century Was Reported

To journalists charging around the world's trouble spots, trying to be in the right place at the right time, John Simpson is a reassuring sign that they've got there. I can still picture this great oak of a broadcaster, in his long loden coat and carrying a black umbrella, covering the central European revolutions of 1989.

That mixture of grandeur and professionalism has marked him out as one of the great treasures of British broadcasting. In this book, he turns his attention to more than a century of newspaper reporting, from the Boer war to Iraq - and he performs an audit of how the press has fared along the way.

As so often with newspaper histories, it is the characters who stop it being one damn thing after another. Take Bennett Burleigh, the Daily Telegraph's Boer war correspondent, an avowed socialist who stood three times for parliament, served with the Confederate forces in the American civil war and disguised himself as a gas fitter in order to insinuate himself into the House of Commons. Burleigh also had a tendency to drop the notepad and hurl himself into battle on the British side when things were going badly. Never let it be said that reporters becoming overemotionally involved are a modern phenomenon.

Both the Boer war and the First World War brought home the fallibility of the press to soldiers battling through the mud and gore on
the front line. Simpson's accounts of shocked reporters trying to tell truths that their editors and leader writers didn't want to hear has a sobering resonance today. And the book explores with dismal bathos the press's tendency to undermine its own role as provider of what Philip Graham of the Washington Post called the "first draft of history" - not least with its description of a newspaper poster that read: "Battle raging at Ypres. Gatwick racing late wire."

In the eternal divide between colour writers and straight reporters, it was the colourists who got Hitler "right" - something I hadn't noticed until Simpson pointed it out. Harry J Greenwall of the Daily Express, moseying around the beer halls in 1924 and listening to Adolf's early ravings, gets closer to the mark than many of the grandees. "Hitler, the tub-thumping patriot," he advised his readers, "may be heard from again some day." (If that looks like one of the great understatements of modern journalism, the Daily Mail's "Another upset in Russia", to describe Lenin seizing power, surely trumps it.)

Simpson has a newsman's forensic nose for the continuities amid the chaos of war, and his conviction is that those on the ground almost always know best. Unfortunately, Unreliable Sources becomes more grumpy than grounded the closer it gets to the present day. There is an awful lot of complaining about Rupert Murdoch, though it isn't clear whether the main charge is interference or vulgarisation. Murdoch papers have, after all, supported both New Labour and the Conservatives. Simpson claims the Sun propped up Margaret Thatcher - "cheerled" would be a more accurate word: the Lady was not for propping. And neither it, nor any other supposedly mighty press supporter, could prevent her humiliating fall.

Simpson does not consider that much of the power of proprietors might derive from politicians routinely indulging in pre-emptive cringe. It is also odd to underplay the modern Daily Mail in its postwar incarnation as the voice of Middle England. He barely considers the impact that the paper has had on public opinion - not least since it reverted to the Cobden and Bright position of instinctively opposing British military entanglements abroad.

This is really a book, therefore, for people who like their quality papers untouched by the ravages of time. The internet, and any attempts to adapt to what the consumer might want, receive horribly short shrift. If Simpson does not approve of something, he would rather just miss it out. He thinks that the "best" papers are the Guardian and the Telegraph, because their proprietors (or ownership trust, in the case of the former) have kept out of the way. But that certainly wasn't the case when Conrad Black owned the Telegraph and shifted the line on Israel to a degree that even the more hawkish among us found hard to take. He also ended up in jail, which falls some way short of proprietorial perfection.

In any case, is it really true that rogue owners are the source of newspapers' woes, rather than the nosediving economics of the trade? The
future that Simpson dissects is more unclear than it has been since the inception of the press. Unreliable Sources is a pleasure we might well relish more as a swansong than as a j'accuse.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD