When Waugh writes of the ingenious but unethical feats of the likes of Wenlock Jakes and Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that he exaggerates just a little for the sake of being satirical. After all, how could a reputable journalist write an eyewitness report of a revolution in a Balkan country that had not yet happened, as Jakes did? And how could Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock write eyewitness accounts of an earthquake in Messina without leaving his desk in London? Surely these things are not possible. Think again. In 2002, a British journalist working as New York correspondent for London’s Daily Mail (the same Daily Mail that Waugh reported for in the 1930s and which was the model for the Daily Beast) seemed to be using Jakes and Hitchcock as his role models. The journalist, Daniel Jeffreys, wrote an eyewitness report for the Mail of the execution of a British citizen in Georgia (United States). It was a vivid account, including the condemned man’s mouthing of the words “I love you” as he was about to die. The only problem with the story was that Jeffreys made it up. He was not a witness to the execution. No one at the time in London’s Fleet Street knew this, and in an episode that could have been lifted directly out of Scoop, rival newspapers began berating their own foreign correspondents about why they had missed this scoop (exactly as happens in Waugh’s novel when Shumble gets a scoop by making a story up). One British journalist commented (quoted by David Amsden in New York magazine), “It’s very competitive being a foreign correspondent. But you can’t compete with someone who makes things up.”
Although the fabrication was later exposed, the Daily Mail never printed a correction or issued an apology. This was in keeping with British journalistic practice. Unlike their counterparts in the United States, such as the New York Times, British newspapers do not run a daily list of corrections to previous stories. They are no doubt aware of Corker’s comment to William in Scoop that, if you print too many denials, readers will start to distrust the newspaper. This is an interesting example of the skewed logic that helps to give the novel its Alice-in-Wonderland quality, where everything that happens seems to violate rational common sense but which is justified by its own curious form of logic.
If there were many more Daniel Jeffreys—one hopes there are not since this apparently was not the only story he is alleged to have made up—one might well understand the sentiment Waugh expresses in the Preface to Scoop: “Foreign correspondents, at the time the story was written, enjoyed an unprecedented and undeserved fame.” Waugh was in a position to know, since for a while he was one himself. It is remarkable how much Scoop is based on his own experience of journalism. The book in which he wrote of his time as a war correspondent, Waugh in Abyssinia, although little read today, gives a very entertaining account of how journalists went about their business in Addis Ababa in 1935. It also provides insight into how a novelist takes the raw experience of his own life and turns it into the stuff of fiction.
One of the amusing episodes in Scoop is when William loads himself up with excessive supplies for his trip, including such items as a collapsible canoe, six suits of tropical linen, a camp operating table and a set of surgical instruments, and even a portable humidor, “guaranteed to preserve cigars in condition in the Red Sea.” Courtesy of the Daily Mail, Waugh was given a similar opportunity to kit himself out before setting off to Abyssinia, an experience he describes in one of his memorable bon mots: “There are few pleasures more complete, or to me more rare, than that of shopping extravagantly at someone else’s expense.” Waugh also observed the excesses of others, especially those of a young reporter named William Deedes, of the Morning Post, whose equipment weighed a quarter of a ton and included clothing for every possible occasion and items such as snake-proof boots.
When Waugh reached Abyssinia, he soon found that life as a foreign correspondent was less glamorous than he might have expected. There was to be no “crouching...
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