Rhiannon J Davies compares Evelyn Waugh’s world with international reporting now

ighty years ago saw the publication of satirical sensation Scoop – Evelyn Waugh’s “novel about journalists” that sends up the world of the foreign

correspondent in a typically irreverent fashion. A case of mistaken identity sees protagonist

William Boot sent to cover a growing crisis in the fictional African state of Ishmaelia. Laden with an abundance of extraneous luggage, the hapless countryside columnist finds himself among a cut-throat pack of foreign correspondents, all of whom are content to make up stories when none present themselves. Boot’s stubborn refusal to be drawn into a visit to a town that he knows for a fact does not exist means he is the sole witness to the overthrow of the despotic government and the subsequent “counter revolution” – unwittingly scoring the scoop of the century. Told with scathing wit, the story is based upon

Waugh’s time in Ethiopia covering the anticipated invasion by Mussolini’s Italy for the Daily Mail, a conflict that lasted from October 1935 to May 1936. Although an established novelist, Waugh

never quite made it as a “newspaper man”, which may be why he poured such scorn upon the profession. However, his experience did enable him to take a step back and recognise the absurdity of the situation, set against the backdrop of a truly abominable war. But – apart from the racist language that

would no longer be tolerated – how does this satirical tale hold up today? David Pratt, contributing foreign editor at the Herald, Sunday Herald and Cable – Scotland’s new international affairs magazine – thinks it is not far off the mark. “It’s quite a surreal piece of writing but, in some ways, closer to the truth than many people realise. I was in Port-au-Prince in the 1980s when the president was overthrown and I remember thinking it was a bit like Scoop; one day I’m interviewing the president and a few

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days later the rebels have overthrown him. It didn’t drag on – there was a beginning, middle and end – and it was all very colourful and neat. The demands of editors and the peculiar, nomadic, dysfunctional life that the foreign correspondent lives still have some truth.” Despite this, foreign reporting has come a long

way since. For starters, there has been a shift in gender balance. Bethan McKernan, a Beirut- based reporter who covers the Middle East for the Independent, notes that while there is still a need for more women editors, there are now plenty of great female reporters in the Middle East: “I remember looking around a briefing table recently and realising all seven journalists – and the person who organised it – were women.” This has influenced the type of stories reported. According to Christina Lamb, Sunday Times chief foreign correspondent, men and women report things differently: “Women are much better listeners and we talk to women more – often men don’t think of them as being part of the story. And, as a woman, you have access to half the population that a man doesn’t.” David Pratt agrees: “In many parts of the

world, it’s the female dynamic that is the pivotal aspect of a story. When covering Israel-Palestine, I often found that it was the Palestinian women who were much more outspoken, engaging and able to talk about their communities in a way that men couldn’t.” Some of the most absurd moments in Scoop

come from Boot’s failed attempts to comprehend the succinct manner required for telegrams. Advances in technology have changed this aspect of international reporting almost unrecognisably. Lamb recalls: “When I started, 90 per cent of the work was logistics – trying to find a way to get the story back when there were no telephones. You could have the best story in the world but, if you had no way of getting it back, it was useless. We used to have to take films to the airport to find someone who would take them back. It was all very time consuming.” There is often now an expectation for

journalists to be multiskilled – publishing words, photos and video on various platforms. While this is not essential, Bethan McKernan certainly thinks it helps: “For example, the Raqqa campaign was prohibitively expensive for lots of news organisations – fixers [local people who help organise interviews and translate] alone were about $700 a day and it was pretty

dangerous in parts. Part of the reason I was able to pitch and do such ambitious and expensive reporting trips was because I can write, take photos and film for the same story.” If the calamitous Boot were to return to a conflict zone now, would he be expected to post Instagram stories of the quiet revolution? Would he, like some journalists, use dating apps to meet local sources? How would he weather pro-government Twitter trolls’ accusations of “fake news”? Certainly, with so many people with cameraphones and internet connections, he would surely not score that definitive scoop. The sheer volume of information online is another factor. Foreign correspondents are no longer the sole conduit of news between a war zone and the public back home. Citizen journalists and, frankly, anyone with a cameraphone and an internet connection can now scoop the best. Also, journalists have to be wary of online sources if they do not know their motives. As Pratt notes: “When properly harnessed, social media can be an incredibly useful tool, but it brings a challenge of its own. It can be corrosive to the veracity of stories and to getting to beneath the veneer of the stories.” The increased availability of information online may also have contributed to the reduction in funding for international reporting. Another issue is the danger foreign correspondents now face. At one time, journalists were usually injured only accidentally. Now, in some places, journalists have become targets. The flak jacket and helmet have become a standard element of a foreign correspondent’s “war bag”. Despite these challenges, some argue that

there has never been a greater need for foreign correspondents or, indeed, a greater interest in world affairs. Richard Sambrook, professor of Journalism at Cardiff University, spent 30 years as a BBC journalist and, in 2010, wrote a report that asked: “Are foreign correspondents redundant?” He says: “We live in an era where there is more information available than ever, but where public attention is more fragmented and politicised. International reporting remains crucially important. It can differentiate news organisations in a hypercompetitive environment; undertaken in the right way, it can still engage audiences of all ages. But it is harder than ever to make international issues relevant and engaging against a backdrop of greater media noise.” While Boot – and indeed Waugh – may have

never become fully enamoured with life as a foreign correspondent, there are plenty who are. For those who risk their lives reporting, there may be no greater response than Lord Copper’s to the book’s eponymous scoop: “Stop the machines at Manchester and Glasgow. Clear the line to Belfast and Paris. Scrap the whole front page. Kill the Ex-Beauty Queen’s Pauper Funeral. Get in a photograph of Boot.”


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