SCOOP - Evelyn Waugh (1938)
At first glance Scoop is s novel of chance, coincidence, and manipulation…. but only at first glance. For inside the cover of SCOOP lies the semi-autobiographical confession of a man shunned by his peers, of a family fallen from grace and rejected by those the author most admired, the Oxford men of England’s elite.
Our author is a man who squandered his own Oxford opportunity on what he later called “fatuously haughty” behaviours. Preferring to indulge his passion for drinking, university clubs and exploring his sexuality than embracing academic growth. Losing a scholarship and failing to graduate his degree he turns to primary school teaching and later pecking out a living as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail. Circumstances that force him to confront his talent. SCOOP draws upon Waugh’s own experience as a foreign correspondent and in particular his time spent as a correspondent assigned to Ethiopia to cover the rise and machinations of Haile Selassie and the Italian fascist incursions of the 1930’.
Like many of his characters, at this time had been married and divorced, undergone a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism and set about writing some of this greatest works of travel and satire whilst based in Africa. SCOOP builds on all of this. It’s a book that deftly skirts between satire, cynicism and even the outrageous. Its humour stomps firmly into Waugh’s irreverence for England’s elite societies, his naked resentment of post-colonial ex-patriates and his belief in the existence of vested interests in government and those who pull their strings.
SCOOP charts a rookie jouirnalists journey between “Ishmaelia” (a fictional African nation) and England and we meet one of Waugh’s grand ensembles’ of characters. There is Lord Copper, newspaper magnate and proprietor of the "Daily Beast”. Mrs Algernon Smith, an influential member of London’s high society who, by seeking to help a failed artist called Boot, triggers a series of events that sees a hapless nature writer of the same name shipped off to Ishmaelia. Our hero of coincidence arrives there over provisioned, under trained and totally out of his depth. Down this rabbit hole we meet the ancestors of the Murdochracy , other media desperado’s and an array of humorous characters native and imported to this much hyped yet astoundingly ordinary nation. Amid the melee nests an agent of commercial interests reeking of political influence and military connectivity. We witness the hijinks wrought from the naked ambition of those seeking the “scoop”, their disdain for the truth and other characters that are drawn along in their wake.
Read SCOOP. It’s a comedic, exuberant, and brilliantly irreverent satire of big media and its ludicrous absence of standards and ethics. It’s a story of innocence lost and found, of ambition and contentment, of love and of heartbreak and of the lukewarm passion of the transactional relationship. It’s a warning to the future generations of a post-truth world that honesty is always the first casualty of wars, hot or cold. But mostly it’s fun, relevant and its perhaps one of the few stories of its time where the good guys win in the end………….
Tony O'Donnell (Fortitude Valley Chapter)
I first encountered Evelyn Waugh’s work in senior high school when studying The Loved One, his biting satire on the funeral industry in the United States. Even at sixteen years of age I was struck by Waugh’s ability to observe, analyse and satirise the absurdities of the institutions of his day.
Therefore, to some extent, I knew what to expect in approaching Scoop. This time Waugh’s main target is the press - proprietors, journalists, and journalism itself. The novel was first published in 1938, on the eve of World War II. Waugh broadens the focus of his satire to include the preoccupations of this time – the decline of the English upper classes particularly the landed gentry; the power shift in British society from inherited title and wealth to the power of corporations led by newly minted “aristocracy” such as Lord Copper; the power plays of European countries as well as the United States and Russia using other peoples’ territory (Africa) as the “playing field”; the emergence of revolutionary communism as a threat to established systems of government; the paternalism and exploitation of indigenous people and their resources by colonial powers, and there are others as well
Waugh is a wordsmith and Scoop is full of wonderfully detailed descriptions, satirical observations, and ironic situations. The first few pages of Book II – Stones, for instance, introduces us to the land of Ishmaelia, the African country that is the setting for the novel’s preoccupations. Rather than being an attractive acquisition for colonial powers seeking new conquests it’s instead a hostile backwater, eventually shunned by the major European powers seeking potential colonies to exploit. Waugh describes in detail the initial incursions by “courageous” Europeans into Ishmaelia “furnished with suitable equipment” such as ”cuckoo clocks, phonographs, opera hats, draft-treaties and flags” and inviting the reader to reflect on the naïve arrogance of these would-be rulers who encounter local resistance in the form of cannibal Christian natives who “will not publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special dispensation from their bishop”. In acquiring some of the imposed influence of the missionaries and other forced intruders into their land, the Ishmaelians have managed to give these borrowed influences a local flavour through literally biting the hands that feed them.
At its heart, Scoop is a satire on journalism and journalists. Credible journalism should be about the search for accuracy through careful investigation, strong analysis, and clear reporting. At the time the novel was written print journalism dominated the field. This form of journalism requires the skilful use of language and the choice of the correct word or phrase to convey accuracy. Consequently, Waugh has lots of fun with the misunderstandings created by inaccuracy, the inability to use language correctly, or the inability to use language at all. Thus, we have the wrong Boot sent to Ishmaelia due to Salter, the Beast’s foreign editor who has never been abroad, being too afraid to ask relevant questions of his intimidating boss, Lord Copper. No one bothers to check the journalistic credentials of the Boot chosen to travel to Ishmaelia. We have the comic attempts by William Boot and his colleagues to decipher cables poorly transcribed by post office workers. We have the humorous interactions between foreign journalists and Ishmaelian officials as they attempt to decipher what is actually going on in the country during the revolution that lasts one day.
Waugh wrote the novel for the readers of his day. Detailed and exact descriptions of the absurd and disconnected world of Scoop reflect Waugh’s ironic intent. Furthermore, his detailed descriptions and use of dialogue allow readers to become absorbed in the world of the novel as they share William Boot’s reactions and reflections on his experiences. On the other hand, for contemporary readers used to screens and images, Waugh’s use of language to bring the novel’s world to life may be an irritation or even an annoyance. Similarly, his use of anachronistic words and phrases, viewed through a 2023 lens, could be judged as culturally insensitive, if not culturally offensive. In 1898, the American newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst gave the following instruction to an illustrator sent to cover a supposed insurrection in Cuba. The illustrator had complained to Hearst that there was no war to cover. Hearst told the illustrator, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war”.
We tend to regard “fake news” as a contemporary phenomenon; a product of modern technology and the 24/7 news cycle. Hearst’s 1898 instruction, and Waugh’s 1938 novel Scoop remind us that “fake news” has been around for a lot longer than we imagine. Waugh’s skillfully written satirical novel should be read as a necessary reminder for today’s reader of the foibles, tricks, and deceits pursued by journalism and the media in their relentless quest to obtain a “scoop”.
Peter Hill (Newcastle Chapter)