John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor and a broadcasting institution, here follows the vagaries of British journalism throughout the twentieth century, dipping into great and significant events and examining how they were reported. It is a massive undertaking and Simpson has been necessarily selective, but his chosen period (for good measure, he adds the past ten years) has a remarkable consistency. Most papers have not only survived, but soldiered on with their character and prejudices in the same order (or disorder) today as they were in 1900.
The Daily Mail and the Daily Express opened the twentieth century inveighing against the evils of immigration (then Jewish) beneath headlines that bear an uncanny – and chilling – resemblance to the headlines they still employ: ‘The Alien Peril’; ‘English Expelled. East-End Captured by Foreigners’; ‘Remarkable Facts About the Criminal Alien’. And they played fast and loose with statistics to give their campaigning a spurious authority. Nothing new there, then.
Much of Simpson’s interest is in the coverage of war, which raises the core issue of where a journalist’s (and his paper’s) duty lies. In the First World War, the Tommies hated the press because newspapers – largely prevented from reporting from the front and ‘briefed’ misleadingly back