Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Evelyn Waugh's 'Scoop' - A Review

By the time Evelyn Waugh published Scoop in 1938, he had already gained quite a reputation as a biting social satirist. His previous novels, Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, had mercilessly lampooned various aspects of British society in the 1920s. With Scoop, Waugh had another target in his sights – the journalism industry, or more precisely, the tabloid newspapers which habitually engaged in sensationalist reporting.

The novel revolves around William Boot, a bumbling, unassuming nature writer who, through a case of mistaken identity, finds himself plucked from the obscurity of his country home and shipped off to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia by the editor of The Daily Beast. As the Beast’s man in Ishmaelia, Boot is charged with the task of reporting on the impending civil war, which is expected to erupt at any moment. A raucous comedy of errors ensues, which ultimately sees Boot, despite his breathtaking incompetence, eventually land the scoop of the decade.

Loosely based on Waugh’s own experiences as a special correspondent reporting on Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, the novel deftly paints a vivid portrait of Fleet Street as an ineffectual, bloated, egotistical monster, more concerned with newspaper sales than reporting the truth. (Sound familiar?) It becomes apparent that journalism, with its pervasive expenses-claiming culture, was the poster-boy of excess long before today’s bankers and politicians took over this dubious mantle.

The novel’s cast of characters is a thinly disguised who’s who of Britain’s newspaper industry during the interwar years. The Daily Beast and its rival The Daily Brute are parodies of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Lord Copper and Lord Zinc are both recognizable as the real-life newspaper magnates, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Northcliffe (owners of the Express and Mail respectively). The obsequious and inept foreign editor, Mr Salter, can, one imagines, be taken to symbolise any number of Fleet Street editors of the time. Even Mussolini gets a mention, in the guise of Dr Benito, the would-be dictator of Ishmaelia.

A quick glance at today’s tabloid headlines is enough to convince the reader that not much has changed in the intervening years since Waugh wrote his illuminating, if cynical, parody of tabloid reporting. As such, it is essential reading for anybody interested in a career in journalism. In fact, why not avoid extortionate university fees altogether; invest in Scoop instead– it’s the only textbook an aspiring journalist will need!

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