“Unreliable sources” by John Simpson: Truth to tell

Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century Was Reported

With a journalist’s frequent gift for bringing history alive, John Simpson employs many anecdotes and quotations from newspapers of the day to analyse the reporting in Britain of the major events from the Boer War around 1900 to the controversial Iraqi War of 2003.

I was most interested in the first half of the C20, that is the period I had not lived through so could not recall, and was intrigued to learn that the tabloid “red tops” of today were known around 1900 as the “yellow press” after a US comic strip. The phrase was coined by the New York Press to describe the sensational, exaggerated and often misleading form of popular journalism which was copied in Britain by newspaper owners like the Harmsworth family.

Although not apparently as influential as Murdoch in his heyday, the early C20 tycoons clearly interfered a good deal in the content of the newspapers they owned. For instance, Lord Rothermere, an ardent admirer of Hitler from the 1920s, wrote an editorial for his Daily Mail in 1933 stating, “The minor misdeeds of individual Nazis would be submerged by the immense benefits the new regime is already bestowing on Germany”. Rothermere was “the loudest supporter” in Fleet Street of Franco, announcing before the fateful Spanish Civil War that he was “the bright spot on the horizon”. At the same time, the press baron favoured the rise of Oswald Moseley, personally writing an article for the Mail entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” without criticising their fascist tendencies. Yet when World War Two began in earnest, the tone changed and a Daily Mail journalist once praised as “the man who knows the Nazi leaders” was writing about the “staggering heroism” of the “weary but indomitable” British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk in an exercise portrayed positively as an achievement.

John Simpson is scathing about the journalists who, from the safety of hotels well away from the battle lines, invented reports based on second-hand sources, praising the bravery of soldiers in “Boy’s Own” terms rather than recounting accurately the true grim conditions. Admittedly, communication was harder to conduct in the early C20, and throughout there have been the constraints of state censorship, and the need to “maintain morale”, combined with the prejudices of overweaning newspaper magnates as described above. Yet, as recently as 1999, Murdoch’s “Sun”, amongst others, was apparently distorting facts in reporting of the bombing of Serbia in its “Clobba Slobba” articles, in an attempt to keep the public “on side”.

Battles are the dominant theme, with the exception of the Abdication crisis over Edward VIII’s desire to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. In this case, while the US press was reporting the scandal in detail, British newspapers were “victims of a more than usually painful attack of discretional lock-jaw” which was self-imposed since neither the government nor the police had applied any ban to reporting of the affair. Although it was asserted some years after the event that the Mirror had dared to break the story of the affair, John Simpson suggests that, despite having accumulated plenty of evidence, every single British newspaper “failed in its duty to tell people what was really going on, because its editor thought it would be intrusive, distasteful , disloyal or damaging to do so”. This may be compared with reporting on the Royal Family since the 1980s, culminating in no-holds-barred criticisms of Prince Andrew and discussion of the future of the monarchy during the December 2019 general election.

John Simpson suggests that it was probably during the Suez Crisis in the 1950s that newspapers began the attempt to analyse events seriously rather than simply outline the facts, or slavishly toe the government line. A surprising number of titles survived the century, with Murdoch playing a positive role in keeping, for instance, the Times going, although his political and commercial interests seem to have encroached on its independence. Simpson condemns the downward drive in standards which misused modern technology from the 1980s, such as illegal phone taps to infringe excessively on personal privacy. He argues that the Guardian and the Telegraph “probably come out of it best” in terms of independent-minded journalism.

I was a little disappointed by the conclusion which seems somewhat rushed, with a last-minute focus on the Iraq War which justifies a chapter in its own right, giving more space to expand on the influence of “spin doctors” and a “dodgy dossier” with the false claim that Saddam Hussein had the power to attack the UK “in 45 minutes”, which misled MPs to vote for war without the approval of the UN.

I would like Simpson to have included more about the role of the more “impartial” BBC, often seen by the printed press as a threat. Published in 2010, the book is now somewhat dated as regards the growing importance of the internet as a source of news. Inevitably, there is not enough space to explain fully the political background to many of the situations covered, but at least it inspires the reader to find out more about them.

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