The question I was always asked in the four years I worked at the Daily Mail was: “Is the swearing really as bad as they say?”
“Oh no. Nothing like,” I’d reply. “It’s much, much worse.”
So when Trevor Yapp, deputy-editor of the mid-market tabloid the Daily Bugle, in Stephen Glover’s Splash!: A Novel calls graduate-trainee Benedict Brewster a “certifed clot”, I found myself thinking, “clot” isn’t quite the word he’d have used.
Glover, a columnist at the Daily Mail, co-founder of the Independent, and editor of The Penguin Book of Journalism, is a newsman to his bones. The Daily Bugle is a novel — and it is very much emphasised by the title that this is a novel and any similarity to editors, reporters and star columnists is entirely coincidental — about a once-great newspaper threatened by Twitter, smartphones and 24-hour rolling television news. Threatened, most of all, by its own succubus creation: Bugle Online with its instant-click, instant-hit stories of shark attacks, sneezing squirrels and half-naked “lovelies” taking a shower.
The longstanding Bugle editor Eric Doodle is making plans for his knighthood and retirement to a grouse moor with a pack of gundogs. He’s a stickler for ties in the office and an avid circler of houses in a glossy property weekly called Rural Retreats. The proprietor, Sir Edwin Entwistle, is keen to pack Doodle off to his Georgian rectory and install the barracking Yapp, Bugle Online’s man-of-the-future, at his desk. With Yapp in place, Entwistle can offload the failing Bugle and its page leads about the perils of drinking too much bottled water onto the nearest handy Chinese or Russian billionaire. Tables have already been booked at the Fig Leaf — London’s most fashionable restaurant — with Mr Po and Mr Vrodsky. Again, any similarity to Country Life, the Ivy, or newspaper-owning Russian oligarchs is entirely coincidental. (Though no proprietor’s wife could object to being described as “a corker”, and so beautiful as to “make your eyes prick with tears”.)
While the editor is driven to Downing Street for tête-à-têtes with the Prime Minister — “We’ve an election coming up, and we will need to count on the Bugle’s support” — the paper’s chief reporter Sam Blunt — manner blunt, pencil sharpened — is sinking pints in the Half Moon and reliving the great days of the foreign dispatch, the commandeered helicopter, the race against deadline and pursuing militia. All Sam does now is rewrite agency copy and stories that come in on the news wires. He has been asked to babysit Ben Brewster, a young Old Etonian with a First in Anthropology from Oxford who is not so much wet behind the ears as leagues out of his depth. Ben botches his first story for the paper and is banished to the basement to be a “galley slave” for Bugle Online, uploading stories about amusing chimpanzees. In the Half Moon, Sam, who is fired and rehired at editorial whim, and Ben hatch an investigation into dodgy donors, ministers campaigning to strangle the free press, and government links to the gold mines of Kangala, a despotic African state. They hope for the “splash” — the front-page story — that will save Sam’s career and make Ben’s.
The model is Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop with its glorious, excruciating, savage and affectionate portrait of journalism at its best and worst. (I’m longing, incidentally, for a retiring sub-editor, unsung hero of the newsroom, to write a humdinger of a novel about late nights on the backbench and call it Sub.) Ben Brewster doesn’t quite tug the heart as Waugh’s hopeless William Boot, nature-notes columnist turned war correspondent, does, but I did sympathise with his first-week copy manglings. Asked to write a “colour” piece about the visit to London of His Incomparable Excellency Moses Ovambo, President of Kangala, Ben files a piece about red hats, apricot suits, and the green-and-ochre banners of the Movement to Free Kangala from Oppression. A “colour” piece means lively, personality-led, vox-popped. Not rainbow prose.
As a very junior commissioning editor I was asked to “follow up the splash with a page-eight ghosted leader on edition” I said “of course” without knowing what was meant by “splash”, “ghost”, “leader” or “on edition”. I was all the more thrown when page eight turned out to belong to another section. (The old page-eight comment piece had been on page 14 for a decade but names stick, even if layout doesn’t.)
Splash! is a burlesque treat: its hacks are sozzled, but crusading; its MPs slippery; its media pundits satisfyingly lanced. There’s a groovy, tweeting candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury who calls himself “Bishop Bob”, and Ambrose Treadle, a PR slick whom Entwistle summons “much as a medieval monarch with a touch of ague would call for a favoured physician, who had occasioned a great deal of pain in the past, to bleed him”. Also, Arthur Bagg, chief book reviewer of the high-minded Chronicle, “who once wrote and dispatched an excoriating review of a novel which the paper’s literary editor had forgotten to send him”. Honest Injun: I read to the last page of Splash!, enjoying it too much to skip.
If not quite another Scoop, Splash! has the pace and wit of Tom Sharpe at his Porterhouse best and the mournfulness of Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning. When a dejected Eric Doodle says, “Online is the future, after all,” you feel his attachment to paper and ink. Here is a man who loves the press, the story, the splash, the bylines and straps, the column inches and centre spreads, the headlines blown into 72-POINT FONT.
If the novel has a fault it is that for much of the story the mood in the newsroom is downcast, defeated, somnolent. I remember the odd afternoon like that, but so much more often an electrifying feeling of a paper to fill before the first edition went off-stone. Of breaking news and Olympic medals and royal weddings and shock resignations and the sudden deaths of great men and women when we had no obituary on the stocks. The novel’s climax, the sending of Sam and Ben’s joint-byline splash to the printers, captures the thrill of the newsroom. “Send it,” says Doodle and a shiver went up my spine. For a minute I missed it. But not the late-night cries of “clot!”.