Theatre in Wales

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A Political Diary

Tom Davies- The Reporter’s Tale , Berwyn Mountain Press , June 26, 2012
A Political Diary by Tom Davies- The Reporter’s Tale “The Reporter’s Tale” is an exuberant and exhilarating read but it is also a frustrating one. It looks as though the author is his own editor; that is invariably not a good choice. The pages are tightly packed and the word count must run to around two hundred and forty thousand words. The reason for the frustration is that “the Reporter’s Tale” is in fact two and a half books crammed into one.

The best book is the biography, warts and all, of a rumbustious career at the heart of Britain’s press, first regional in the form of the Western Mail, then across a range of national titles. As a student in Cardiff he mixes with a young firebrand Neil Kinnock. Mixed in with travels to Asia, he goes on to work with any number of Britain’s journalistic greats, who are colourfully painted in all their shortcomings. He has a short, almost comically incompetent, stint as a coal merchant.

He is not the kindest of observers. The author Richard Condon enjoys Ireland’s tax-free status for artists and has bought “a large, down-at-heel mansion in Kilkenny where he said, he sobbed himself to sleep every night over the bills. The saga of the ruinous expense of taking over such a folly kept me laughing for hours.” For hours? He is there at the Sunday Times’ zenith under Harold Evans’ editorship. He briefly becomes a media personality featuring on Radio’s “Moral Maze”.

Money, its arrival and more often disappearance, is a constant concern. He records his lowest moral point, knocking on the doors of the bereaved in Aberfan and lying in order to get parasitic hands on images. And all the while the hard-working journalist yearns to be a serious writer.

The half-book, part-hatched within the memoir, is that of the author’s spiritual conviction. Something hits when he is young, in Malaya, a sense of a greater immanence. It has to be said that the God, to whom he adheres, does not manifest Himself much in the way of virtue or charity. The life follows a course of infidelity soaked in alcohol. Characterisations are often curt, cartoonish. A great dancer is reduced to “a jealous little twerp fresh in from the Russian steppes.” An actress he adores is viewed as “angular cheekbones, tiny ski slope of a nose and a mouth big enough to post parcels in.” But then to be present at the great events of the day is not automatic guarantee of appreciation of the subtleties of the human heart.

The book is into a third edition so is apparently doing well. It comes with plaudits from press and worthy Welsh writers. The cover makes a ludicrously grandstanding claim. The third part of the book, the one is another book altogether, is about the media. These sections divide in two. Where the author makes direct observation it works. When he extends this into a general cultural critique his writing lacks the rigour that is necessary.

He gives examples of what Daniel Boorstin termed the pseudo-event fifty years back, actions that are undertaken wholly and solely for their dissemination in the media. He cites a Dean of Londonderry that the arrival of television cameras would in itself generate a riot. In a neatly circular way the participants then “went home to watch themselves on the box”. The organisers of quasi-military funerals “would build a special grandstand for the photographers of the international media.”

He skewers the processes of editorial selection and prioritisation in the same way that Nick Davies does devastatingly in “Flat Earth News”. He excoriates the media’s maxim of “If it bleeds, it leads” but in extending his argument to culture in general he ironically mirrors the media of his critique in several respects.

Firstly, he gives prominence to deaths where they occur in a multiplicity. This is exactly the same as the news. Deaths that occur singly and daily on the roads are unreported: where three or more deaths occur simultaneously they acquire status as a story. Fatalities from faulty software in medical devices are regular but non-news; a felled aircraft anywhere in the world is a lead. The author focuses, in cut-and-paste detail, on those cases where an unhinged male has run amok with weaponry. But a murder took place some years ago a hundred yards from my home, the selection of the victim being entirely random. Those circumstances, and others like it, are equally deserving of investigation.

Secondly, it is Euro-centric. Death visited by states upon their own people outnumbers ten thousand-fold that of private murder by individuals on their fellow citizens. The role of the media in conflict is a honourable one, as attested by the accelerating numbers of journalists who themselves are casualties of violence.

He also attributes the impulse to murder to influence by works of fiction. This is an argument that Anthony Burgess found himself assailed with fifty year ago. It is dependent on a highly reductionist interpretation of human psychology. “It was clear to me the people here were becoming what they were seeing. They were mirror men, as, in a sense we all are, created in the image and reflections of others.” But motive is more complex and an argument like this needs deeper intellectual foundation.

The range of reference is also dated. He dislikes “Taxi Driver” and “Alien” but the shockers of the last ten years, the Eli Roth generation, go unmentioned. But, most weakening of all, is the lack of referral to the internet. Swathes of the upcoming generation pay small or no attention to mass media. As commentators on the dreadful trial this season in Norway have said, it is entirely feasible for a disconnected personality to saturate himself- and it is a he- in media of his own selection. The author is over-impressed by print. Of his early days “The Western Mail was pretty much central to the workings of the community then.” It is just a newspaper.

“The Reporter’s Tale” is flawed but fascinating. In relation to security he rightly quotes the ancient Chinese writer Sun Tsu “Kill one and frighten ten thousand.” For a small publisher the level of error is small. To write “with I” is strange coming from a veteran journalist. There is the odd flat sentence “Cardiff University, in 1960, was a loose gathering of old and modern buildings scattered among the towering Edwardian civic edifices in the city centre…” Lundy has “island” attached to it. Nonetheless, this is a book filled with brio, aspiration and passion. Recommended.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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