A splendid Spectator 180th anniversary issue was published this year. Along with many readers, I fell upon a treasury of previously published columns: a selection of examples through the magazine’s history of the wit, erudition and style of contributors since 1828. We found pieces by Graham Greene, John Buchan and Bernard Levin; letters from George Orwell, Winston Churchill and Nancy Mitford; and reviews from Kingsley Amis and Lord David Cecil. Hand poised above the tub, the reader could plunge into this lucky dip for a miscellany of prizes.
But there was a fair measure of sawdust awaiting him too. Not every column was as sparkling as the next. Not every ancient contribution surpassed the modern ones. Not every opinion was quite as clever, nor every insight quite as penetrating, as the generally cocky style of contributors down the decades seemed to promise.
And I ended a fireside evening with the past masters of British journalism tremendously cheered. The presiding spirit of Spectator commentary down the ages — that we’re all going to hell in a handcart — is wrong in at least this respect. British journalism in the first decade of the 21st century — commentary, report and review — is as good as it’s ever been. As good as 50 years ago; as good as 150 years ago. I’m even going to suggest it’s better.
Of course, good journalism is current. It has the wind of its times in its sails. The canvas is taut with an invisible force: the interest and excitement shared between writer and reader; the shared knowledge; shared background; shared hopes, fears, passions and irritations; shared immersion in the news of the day. Take away that unseen energy we call newsworthiness, the unspoken assumption that this is what everyone’s talking about, and the sails flap. However artfully framed, the mere words, sentences, even the arguments, lose energy because the subject is no longer of much account.
The late Bernard Levin, familiar in the pages of The Spectator and whom I followed in The Times, meant everything to me as a columnist when I was a young man. I would devour his writing, savour his delicious disdain for the things I, too, despised, and enjoy the flamboyant overstatement of his case. Thirty-five years later, I keep trying to find examples of the columns that seemed such masterpieces. But they don’t read as I remember them. Now that hatred of the Gas Board or Harold Wilson is not a dominating feature of my life, all that huff and puff and indignation seems — well, at times almost puerile.
But that’s because Bernard was not writing for the Britain of New Labour’s long sunset. The test, the only test, of a column about the stories of the day is how it reads to the readers of the day. We cannot be those readers now. How things seemed at the time — the smell of an era — is a delicate and evanescent thing. With that smell no longer in your nostrils you stumble around the apparent historical facts, missing one of your key senses. Perhaps the novelist can do more to bring back how it felt than can the journalism of the day, dug from the archive and served cold.
What was good about Levin in 1975 is what seemed good about Levin to 1975. No subsequent decade is entitled to discover that it isn’t good after all — it was good, that’s the point. Journalism can’t prove worse or better than it seemed; it can only prove more perishable. But it wasn’t meant for posthumous examination. I don’t expect so much as a phrase I’ve written to be remembered in half a century’s time.
These are reasons why the journalism of any age may lose something in the eyes of ages that follow. It’s notable that the editors of that anniversary issue don’t seem to have come up with much that’s more than half a century old. Even Addison and Steele need to be ploughed through with some persistence before ideas and passages that still burn brightly are encountered. To their contemporaries, almost all of it was hot.
But I proceed now to a cheekier assertion. To the extent that objectivity is even possible, I submit that English journalism is getting better. That today’s readers are better served by today’s commentators and reporters than was the case half a century ago.
The big competitive bang of the 1980s has reverberated through tunnels beyond the mineshafts of South Yorkshire. Outside the police force, the prison officers and the British Medical Association, there are few areas of working life into which both the reality and the ethos of customer satisfaction has not now spread. Tattooed into the eyelids of the modern journalist is a simple truth: your reader is not your prisoner. He can always turn away. I often fail in the attempt, but hardly a paragraph is written by a modern columnist or smart reporter without addressing to himself the unspoken question: am I keeping their attention?
Pace, clarity, impact: these must never be far from our thoughts. That need not mean (and, in the cases of a legion of admirable regular newspaper and Spectator columnists, does not mean) ‘dumbing down’. There’s a huge amount of thoughtful, deliberative, often deep, prose in the public prints these days. But it does mean that the writer is straining every nerve to make what he writes accessible and entertaining for his audience. That audience, meanwhile, is more sharply defined these days. I recoil from the word ‘niche’, but it remains the case that publications and pages are now more efficiently directed and signposted to the readers likely to want them.
I’m not, incidentally, talking about myself. I fail regularly. But just look at the range of reporting, review and commentary from quite famous names in my own newspaper and others, and in this magazine, and ask yourself: would issues of these journals at Christmas 1958 or 1828 have contained better, funnier, sparkier, more thought-provoking writing than today? Where has all that slow, ambling, leaden, sanctimonious, curiously shallow copy of yesteryear, those endless clauses and subclauses, gone? How long today would a journalist survive who treats his readers like schoolchildren required to read the whole lot — and bloody well read it again if the meaning isn’t clear?
We have much to blame upon what used to be called tabloid journalism, but something for which to be grateful too. The punchy compression of the elements of a story into a single come-hither sentence is one of the glories of popular report and commentary, and unconsciously we have all learned from it. I stumbled upon this in Australia recently: the first sentence in a newspaper report bylined Milanda Rout:
Stuff your Christmas turkey with that, and take pleasure in the modern vigour of English journalism.