Journalist Annalena McAfee’s new novel The Spoiler opens with a deliciously cringeworthy epigram of sorts by columnist Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times of London: “The Internet,” he wrote back in 1994, “is one more electronic craze that market forces will sooner or later put in its proper context … it will strut its hour upon the stage and then take its place in the ranks of lesser media.”
Ah, would that it were true! If only the esteemed Jenkins had been correct, we newspaper journalists would all still be living large. Regular folks who wanted to participate in the national debate would still be forced to write thoughtful letters instead of leaving cranky anonymous comments, and culture as we know it would still be intact – or so the old newsroom nostalgia riff goes.
But it didn’t work out that way, did it? Instead the Internet became, over the course of a decade or two, the great brain of information and culture in which we work, play and socialize – not just a replacement for many traditional models of media, but a veritable extension of human consciousness itself.
Jenkins, like so many of his esteemed colleagues, wasn’t just wrong; he was disastrously off the mark. Coming to terms with this truth – that the model must change, and fast – has been a very tricky thing for newspapers and those who love them .
But wait, there’s good news. Sort of. From this glut of premature nostalgia and collective self-pity has sprouted some interesting new fiction. From Evelyn Waugh to Michael Frayne to Ian McEwan (who, incidentally, happens to be married to McAfee), newspaper culture has long offered novelists rich material for satire.
But in McAfee’s The Spoiler, a funny, fast-paced story set in the dying days of Britain’s late-nineties newspaper heyday, as with Tom Rachman’s recent novel The Imperfectionists, about an English-language paper in Rome on the brink of economic collapse, a new subgenre of fiction has emerged. It is one I like to think of as “recent-past period-piece media satire.” It’s a genre that enables us to laugh (and cry) at the way we were before Twitter feeds and news blogging took over.
In McAfee’s novel, set in 1997 at a fictional middlebrow broadsheet called the Monitor, the Web revolution has just begun to encroach. The plot centres around Tamara, an ambitious twentysomething upstart who is sent to interview an octogenarian grande dame of English journalism. As the drama ramps up into a race to the presses, the decadence and cynicism of a sunset industry is revealed . “The golden age is over,” Tamara observes , and is quickly rejoined by a harder-nosed colleague: “The gravy train has been derailed, you mean.”
Given this seismic shift in culture, it’s perhaps not surprising that those of us who remember the world of newspapers pre-digital-revolution are embarrassingly prone, especially after a glass of wine or three, to find ourselves reminiscing about Ye Olden Days.
Of course, t’was ever thus: When I started out in journalism, there was lots of moaning about “journalistic standards” by red-nosed curmudgeons who would happily regale you with tales of three-martini lunches while you scrambled to fill empty pages with copy they couldn’t be bothered to write.
Many of my friends are from the same world, including one girlfriend who until a few years ago worked in British tabloids, dishing up celebrity dirt in a manner on which the Leveson Inquiry has lately cast its high-minded gaze. While she never actually hacked phones, she told me she has often seen it done. She also remembers gossip columnists with a flagrant licentiousness with the truth that flowed from the top down. There was a sense that as long as a celebrity wasn’t prepared to sue, you could say what you liked.
“We often remarked how lucky it was the stars had no way of communicating with people except through us,” she laughed – because then, obviously, Twitter came along and put an end to all that. There is still lots to love about the world of newspapers, but it is a chastened world . In recent years, many talented souls have fled for greener-looking pastures, some to PR; others to bookwriting . I suspect there will be more novels like The Spoiler to delight nostalgic newspaper lovers . In a world of doom, gloom and ethics inquiries, at least that’s something we can all look forward to.