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Customer reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars

on 14 May 2010
I enjoyed this book enormously, and I'm very grateful to John Simpson for researching such a fascinating and comprehensive history of journalism from the Boer War till the present. I bought it as a birthday present for my son-in-law who lectures in media studies, and as usual with presents that I buy, I read it first. I learnt a lot about the early years of the century - newspapers and the early years of radio - and was particularly interested when it came to events that I remember as a child and young adult; it filled in a lot of gaps. I have read several volumes of Simpson's autobiographies, and always find him easy to read - interesting, at times amusing, at times moving.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 4 April 2010
Journalism is one person's interpretation of events. The reporter may be open-minded and meticulous, but equally may be bigoted and lazy, just like the rest of us. Moreover, he or she may have to contend with pressure from newspaper proprietors and politicians to slant the news to suit their own agenda, or even to suppress it all together, as was the case during the abdication crisis. Only from the perspective of history can we tell which reports were accurate, which were not, and what was considered unsuitable for the public to know. This is the subject of John Simpson's book, which mines a rich source of stories to chart the fascinating history of journalism in 20th century Britain.

The book starts with the Boer War and concludes with the premiership of Tony Blair. Biased reporting and suppressed stories figure large in the narrative. Examples are the absence of reports on the deaths of Boer women and children in British concentration camps, but plenty about Boer nastiness; and in WWI, the failure to report the horrors of trench warfare, with many reporters content to accept whatever stories the military authorities gave them. But it was not all shameful. A few newspapers were more rational and the BBC always tried to maintain some sort of balance. Some critical reports also appeared, with effect. Reports in the Express on the behaviour of Nazi thugs in the streets, led that paper to support the plight of Germany's Jews before WWII. There were also remarkable, on-the-spot, reports, such as the first entry into the Nazi death camps and the aftermath of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan, of which journalists can rightly be proud.

The misreporting during WWI sowed the seeds for a widespread long-term distrust of the truthfulness of newspaper reports. The respect that journalists had for politicians also lessened. When the IRA troubles broke out in Ireland, more reports appeared that did not automatically accept the government's position, such as those on the brutal treatment meted out by the Black and Tans. An important turning point in the relations between the media and politicians was the fiasco of Suez, and even the BBC lost its traditional deference, attracting much criticism as a result. Things did not improve with the premiership of Harold Wilson, who had a suspicion of the media that bordered on paranoia. John Major was another Prime Minister who had poor relations with journalists, and indicative of the lack of press respect was the absurd and trivial revelation, but damaging at the time, that he tucked his shirt into his underpants!

Throughout the 20th century, newspaper proprietors have openly tried to influence govenment policy. Lord Northcliffe used his ownership of three newspapers that spanned the whole British class structure to strongly campaign for the Conservatives and against Home Rule; and the political views of proprietors were evident in support of appeasement of Hitler. Rupert Murdoch continued this tradition. His papers were strong supporters of both Margaret Thatcher, who allowed him to expand both his print and TV interests, contrary to the spirit of monopoly laws, and Tony Blair. But whereas Murdoch recognized Thatcher as a formidable person who could not be treated lightly, he showed no such deference to Blair. Although Blair went to great lengths to take Murdoch's views into consideration, Murdoch had no qualms about repeating their confidential conversations in his papers.

The Blair years were marked by the cynical manipulation of the media, a job performed by his `spin doctor', Alistair Campbell. A prime example of this, that contributed to the end of the Blair premiership, was the construction of the so-called `dodgy dossier' during the run up to the Iraq war. A low point was Campbell`s manic pursuit of the BBC after the allegation was made by one of their reporters that the dossier had been altered to justify the war.

John Simpson is not only a remarkable journalist, but also a fine writer. He covers a full spectrum of 20th century journalism in detail in this excellent book. It presents a clear narrative in a way that holds the reader's attention throughout and I strongly recommend it.
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on 19 November 2010
This is a cracker; John Simpson has come up with a very clever way of writing a sort of history of the twentieth century from a British perspective through the way in which the press has reported events of various kinds. It could have been rather a cut and paste job but what is so delightful and therefore easy on the brain and eye is the seamless way in which quotes and headlines are incorporated into the text. They become integral rather than illustrations or footnotes.

It is a long book but it never flags and I read it with unflagging interest. I compare it with Steve Richards' new book about Gordon Brown; about the same length but really hard work. As ever John Simpson's prose style is elegant and rarely repetitive - neither would be true of Richards, sadly. Two excellent journalists but only one of them can write an excellent book; and that is John Simpson. Seriousness of purpose and deeply significant and sometimes horrific events can be tackled in a very readable way - and here they are. I'm not sure whether his approach is unique but I have never read anything like it. You can read it if you are interested in the evolution of journalism over the the past century - the great thing is that John Simpson does not write it from the point of a self-regarding journalist. This is a cunning way of linking historical snapshots. An excellent Christmas present to give or receive.
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on 2 November 2010
Another great book from John Simpson,written in his usual informative and and indepth style.A great read.
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on 21 June 2017
Underlines how journalism changes with the times over the last hundred years which I found interesting although much of it I did realise from reading political biographies.
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on 17 August 2011
John Simpson is the BBC World Affairs editor, best known for his award-winning reporting of the Kosova conflict. Here he writes an account of how he sees the press reported on key stories from the Boer War to the Iraq invasion. As the focus is on the British press, so the themes are those that affected Britain and its press most strongly over the last 110 years. This probably means it will be of most direct interest to students of modern British history, but the story it tells of relationships between the press and its readers, of press owners and government as well as how far the press supports, questions and/or is restricted by government policy is more global in its significance.

Simpson devotes a chapter to a key period that affected how the press operated: clearly Britain's main wars and conflicts, but also issues such as the Abdication crisis, interwar attitudes to Hitler, Suez, Ireland, and the rise of the Murdoch press. I found the most useful chapters to be ones that examined the press response to government policy during the Boer and First World Wars (in the final chapters Simpson draws several parallels of approach between the Boer War and Iraq invasion). He shows clearly for example how loathe the press was to present the realism of the western front and how much his was resented by those at the front. Students (and teachers preparing courses on the impact of the media) will also find much of value on the interwar chapters which shows clearly which papers were most behind Hitler and the differing views on Appeasement and the actions of Chamberlain. Individual reporters are given mini pen portraits - many seem to be "gentle" and/or "generous...... Meanwhile he explains how the new kid on the block, news reporting on BBC radio, tried to catch up until coming into its own during World War II.

This is well written and reads easily, all the more surprising as the introduction suggests much of it was written from a distance in hotel rooms after reporting on some global event (with much of the research provided by an assistant who sent out clippings during his travels). A large tome, 562 pages, it has a basic but useful bibliography for each section (although, despite apologising, it commits the cardinal sin of publishing all chapter notes and the origin of specific sources online). It is sufficiently self-contained so that chapters could be taken on their own. This is worthwhile as Simpson provides many extracts from press reports (good for using as source questions?) and numerous worthwhile, not to say often enjoyable, anecdotes about the individuals he is describing.

In the final analysis which elements of the press emerge with most credit? The Guardian has been pretty consistent in publishing reporters whose items stand up well to hindsight. The Mail vehemently attacked immigration in the early 1900's, still does today - and was most solidly behind appeasement and cooperating with the dictators in the 1930's. The late 20th century Sun rewrote the rules (and morality?) of what could be reported and how. Yet even here Simpson reveals how the famous Sun headline "GOTCHA" referring to the sinking of the Argentine Belgrano was withdrawn by the editor for later editions when the number of casualties became known. As for the Beeb, it might have been more valuable to have more on the impact of the BBC World Service reporting after 1945 and less on the BBC's more recent conflict with the Blair government, which if we are being pedantic was not in the 20th century. Another point of issue is that the book seems to focus on issues that are exclusively political or to do with international conflicts that involved the UK. No mention is made at all of how BBC reporting made the world aware of the famine in Ethiopia and produced such global impact and consequences. Such "social" reporting has grown considerably since the 1980's even if its thrust has been blunted/hijacked by more recent governments - however is this not the theme of the book?
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on 2 October 2017
Found it heavy reading, almost like a thesis - lots of evidence (which is important) but one for those dedicated to the cause.
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VINE VOICEon 31 August 2011
John Simpson's beautifully written account provides a fascinating account of how key events of the twentieth century were reported, largely in the press, but also by the BBC and other broadcasters. His insights into the way in which different journalists, editors and proprietors have influenced the way in which news has been reported are remarkable; the way in which the story of the impending abdication was kept out of the papers until the very last moment is superbly analysed and the contrast with present-day journalism finely drawn. The fickle nature of the press is also laid bare, particularly in the chapters dealing with the lead up to WWII and the coverage of the conflict itself. Simpson is not afraid to be critical, but is also open-minded enough to see fine examples of reporting across the whole of the press. This books is both an affirmation of the importance of strong journalism, but also a rejoinder to consider the complex chain of events, arguments and ideas that often occur between the event being witnessed and a report being published or broadcast.
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on 17 December 2010
As with all John Simpson books they are all well written albeit froma personal aspect. This book shows how governments and other organisations can 'adjust' the news to suit their purpose.
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VINE VOICEon 5 October 2010
It's been suggested the first casualty of war is truth and that, as politics is a substitute for war, politics and truth are uneasy bedfellows. In recent years political comments have been identified as "spin", a shorthand way of saying "lies" peddled as truth, but the dark art of manipulating the news by using journalists for propaganda purposes has a long and inglorious history. In this well researched history of twentieth century news reporting, John Simpson provides many examples of the way in which governments and some newspaper proprietors have managed news for their own advantage. The most recent example is Rupert Murdoch who came into The News Of The World's offices and rewrote editorials he did not think were solid enough in their support of Thatcherism. Murdoch used the Times as a battering ram to break the power of the print unions, completely out manoevred them and, in so doing, saved the British newspaper industry from total collapse.

Rupert Murdoch was not the first newspaper baron to throw his political weight around. Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, founded the Daily Mail in 1896, the Daily Mirror in 1903 and went on to purchase the Observer, Times and Sunday Times. It was said he spoke to the upper class and upper middle class though the Times, the middle and lower middle class via the Daily Mail and the working class by means of the Daily Mirror. His papers created the culture of the first world war with the jingoistic tone of "Brave Little Belgium" fighting against the "Hun" and a variety of ficticious stories, including the crucified Canadian and the little girl rescued from a village burned by the Germans. The worst deceptions were the descriptions of non-existent victories by advancing British troops written by correspondents far from the scene of battle. The Daily Mail's fabrications were loathed by the men in the trenches. Pressure from Northcliffe's newspapers was responsible for the resignation of Churchill and Asquith during the war. Eventually, of course, the Germans created their own myth of "the stab in the back" to explain how they lost the war.

Substituting myth for fact was simply work in progress for many journalists eager to keep such work to the minimum by writing what their unreliable sources wanted to read. Simpson refers to Bennet Burleigh of the Daily Telegraph who falsely claimed, "there was no truth in the stories that Boer women and children were dying like flies in the British concentration camps in South Africa." and Beach Thomas of the Daily Mail who "lied about the terrible disaster of the first few days of the Battle of the Somme". In war-time journalistic jingoism was prevalent while anti-war sentiment was played down as a betrayal of the troops on the front line. The scenery has moved from South Africa to Iraq and Afghanistan but the same discredited arguments are used to support failed policies. The policies themselves (concern over mass immigration, rising crime and Britain's diminishing role in the world) remain largely unchanged.

In other instances, notably Ireland, reporting was uneven. IRA atrocities were widely reported while those of the Black and Tans were largely ignored. Simpson surprisingly makes no reference to the attempts by Lord Beaverbrook and Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, to influence government policies which Baldwin rebuffed as wanting, "power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." Rothermere went on to promote appeasement and praise both Mosley and Hitler. Beaverbrook's Express took an anti-appeasement stance. Unlike other newspaper owners Beaverbrook was not an habitual interferer with journalistic freedom, even when he was the subject of attack. Rothermere and Beaverbrook played leading parts in preventing news of Edward's affair with Wallis Simpson reaching the public, persuading all papers, including the communist Daily Worker, Reuters and the Press Association, to maintain a code of silence which they all did until circumstances forced the news on to the front pages less than a fortnight before the King's abdication broadcast.

A number of changes have occurred over the past fifty years, the appearance of professional journalists as spokesmen for the government being the most important. Premiers such as Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home and Heath were less than enamoured of the press and tended to ignore them as far as possible. Others, Harold Wilson (Joe Haines) Margate Thatcher (Bernard Ingram) and in-fighting duo of New Labour, Gordon Brown (Charlie Whelan) and Tony Blair (Alistair Campbell) were the opposite. Most of them suspected the BBC were conspiring against them, not least because they published news politicians did not want to hear. Yet none of the newspapers published anything about Churchill's or Wilson's health when it became obvious that both were medically unfit for office towards the end of their Premierships. Similarly, despite the universal distaste for Marica Williams no one reported her affair with Walter Terry which produced two offspring while she was at Number 10.

Margaret Thatcher's attempt to ban Peter Wright's unreliable Spycatcher book showed the limits of government control of information. It can only work if it has the full support of the information providers. Anyone who thinks newspaper have the influence they once had is mistaken. The Sun newspaper, founded in 1969, claimed at the time of the 1992 election "It's The Sun Wot Won It". It cut no ice on Merseyside. The last hundred years has witnessed increasing scepticism towards news reporting. For that state of affairs newspapers have only themselves to blame. Excellent book. Five stars.
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