Scoop: The newsman’s Nostrwaughdamus

Authored by Bruce Edward Walker

      Fredrick Remington’s 1898 telegram to W.R. Hearst, New York Journal, N.Y.:

      “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.

       Hearst’s response:

      “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.

Apocryphal or not, the above vignette would’ve also worked as an epigraph to Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel “Scoop,” which in the author’s inimitable comedic fashion skewers – or, in British parlance, cocks a snook – at Fleet Street and the world of journalism writ large. 

The 1930s was a watershed decade for classic fictional sendups of endeavoring in the daily press corps. Predating Scoop, for example, were such Hollywood offerings as 1931’s “The Front Page” (and the 1940 remake His Girl Friday) and “The Libeled Lady” (1936).

Whereas the American offerings conjure a world of hard-boiled editors and gin-soaked reporters stalking urban jungles with notebooks, pencils permanently welded behind their ears, and wearing sleeve garters, Waugh’s novel delivers the archetypal effete British hero in a smoking jacket and slippers reluctant to leave the safe confines of the country estate and the comforts of afternoon tea for worldly adventures.

Despite being preceded by the Remington anecdote by 40 years and nearly a decade of screwball cinematic depictions, Scoop endures as a wonderful lampoon of journalism as it existed in its day but remains amazingly prescient of what we continue to witness from the press today.

Not a Nostradamus, exactly, but more of a Nostrwaughdamus.

Scoop’s nominal protagonist, William Boot, is cut from the same literary cloth as Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins or P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster.

Boot is a country-living columnist for the publication Lush Life but is mistaken for a distant cousin, the novelist John Boot, by the bumbling staff of The Beast. As a result, the meek William is sent to cover “a very promising little war” in the fictional East African country Ishmaelia. For his part, John is seeking a foreign assignment to escape the affectionate grips of an unwanted lover.

By now, astute readers will have noted that the publication calling into service William Boot shares its name with the more recent enterprise inaugurated by former New Yorker editor Tina Brown. Like any good work of journalistic fiction of Waugh’s era, the Beast (led by Lord Copper) requires a prominent publishing antagonist, so Waugh delivers with the similar sounding Brute (led by Lord Zinc). One might even assert boldly that, lacking Waugh’s literary effort, such New Journalists as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson might never had gained a literary footing decades later.

The American journalist Wenlock Jakes, a name and reputation Waugh could’ve inventedly snatched from Our Man Hemingway (but, more than likely, is modeled after the Chicago Daily News’ John Gunther), is granted legendary status throughout “Scoop” from his knack for inventing news that eventually transpires.

“When [Jakes] turns up in a place you can bet your life that as long as he’s there it’ll be the news centre of the world,” he is breathlessly described.

Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station , didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window – you know.

Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny – and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jake had said. There’s the power of the press for you.

They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace Prize for his harrowing descriptions of the carnage – but that was colour stuff.

The timeless novel remains pertinent to today’s world of journalism, which continues to hammer hard those stories that ensure eyeballs over a two-week news cycle (longer or shorter, of course, during an election year depending on the press’ preferred candidate).

Before sending William Boot to Ishmaelia, Lord Copper instructs him: “With regard to Policy, I expect you already have your own views. I never hamper my correspondents in any way.”

But he follows this reasonable tutorial in objectivity with his own caveat:

What the British public wants first, last and all the time is News. Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stand by them four-square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side, and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the Beast Policy for the war.

In Waugh’s world – and our own, unfortunately – of imperious media moguls, only yes-men will survive. Contrary opinions must be couched as a milder form of agreement wherein lackeys must nod and assert the mogul’s pronouncements are correct “up to a point.” It’s a strategy that, from 48 years’ personal experience as an ink-stained wretch in the editorial salt mines, usually works until it eventually doesn’t.

Thus far, the claims for Scoop’s prescience have been supported mainly by similarities to current journalism, which seems universally baked into the cake of the profession from its inception.

Reading the novel again after some 25 years, I was struck by the shoot-first obsession of claiming a scoop in “Scoop” and contemporary journalism’s insistence on repeating obvious errors to advance its agenda. In other words, what was once considered the brass ring of journalism – the scoop – has been replaced in prominence by innuendos and outright lies disguised as reporting.

Readers might discern an episode in Waugh’s novel as a premonition of events that unfolded over the past several years. Similar to a railway agent mistakenly identified as a Russian agent in Scoop, our modern-day reporters, editors, and media at large saw in the 2016 victory of Donald Trump a Russian conspiracy – a repeatedly debunked lie that continues to resonate.

William Boot recognizes the error of his fellow journalist (Shumble) immediately.

“But he is a railway employee. I saw him in the ticket office today when I went to ask about my luggage.”

“Of course he is. But what good does that do us? Shumble’s put the story across. Now we’ve got to find a red agent or boil.”

“Or explain the mistake.”

“Risky, old boy, and unprofessional. It’s the kind of thing you can do once or twice in a real emergency but it doesn’t pay. They don’t like printing denials – naturally. Shakes public confidence in the press. Besides it looks as if we weren’t doing our job properly. It would be too easy if every time a chap got a scoop the rest of the bunch denied it. And I will hand it to Shumble, it was a pretty idea….”


The hunt was up. No one had time for luncheon that day. They were combing the town for Russians.

And that, dear readers, is why I dub the author of Scoop Nostrwaughdamus.  

Bruce Edward Walker is a freelance writer on culture, pop culture and public policy.

Authored by:Bruce Edward Walker


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