Themes

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776

Journalism and the Truth
Waugh wrote that his main theme was “to expose the pretensions of foreign correspondents . . . to be heroes, statesmen and diplomats.” In the novel, he pokes fun at the idea that the profession of journalism is characterized by a disinterested search for the truth. On the contrary, the only concern of the journalists is to file a story that will meet with the approval of their bosses at the newspaper. The goal is to keep one step ahead of the competition, which is why the journalists behave in such an unscrupulous manner toward one another. They steal their competitors’ cables and lie about anything they think will give them an advantage. For example, they all say they will be leaving for Laku at “tennish” in the morning, but in fact they are all ready to leave at dawn. The talk of leaving later was simply to try to steal a march on the opposition.

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Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock appears to be a past master at tricking his rivals. In Jacksonburg, he lies low so that a rumor will start about his “disappearance.” This will make his story, that he has conducted an interview with an important political leader in the town of Laku, appear plausible. In fact, Sir Jocelyn could not have done what he claims, since the town of Laku does not exist. But his fabrication serves his purpose not only of getting out of Ishmaelia, a place he does not like (having filed the story, he is free to move on to his next assignment in Europe), but also of deceiving the other reporters.

This incident highlights a point Waugh wishes to emphasize: the question of whether a particular newspaper story is true or not is a secondary consideration, ranking well behind the need to interest readers and scoop the opposition. The famous American reporter Wenlock Jakes is typical in this respect. He won his reputation partly by filing stories that he simply made up. For example, he sent an eyewitness report of the sinking of the Lusitania (a passenger ship that was sunk off the coast of Ireland by the Germans in World War I). The only problem with Jakes’s story was that he filed it four hours before the ship was hit. Similarly, Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock managed to give day-to-day reports about an earthquake in Messina without ever leaving the comfort of his desk in London. In Ishmaelia, Shumble takes a leaf out of their book by making up his own story about the presence of a Russian spy in disguise. The irony is that Shumble, although he never knows it, comes close to the truth, even though truth is not his main concern. (There really is a Russian agent in Ishmaelia, although it is not the railway official whom Shumble identifies.)

Much of the theme of the deviousness of the journalistic profession is brought out in William’s interactions with Corker. When William receives his first cable from the Beast, he misinterprets it to mean that he should stay in Aden. Corker knows perfectly well that the cable does not mean this, but he declines to enlighten William. Only when Corker discovers that he and William are not rivals after all—since the Beast is accepting Corker’s Universal News agency stories as well as William’s—does he let William in on the secrets of the cryptic cables they receive.

When Corker is pressured by his agency to file a story about reactions in Ishmaelia to a proposed international police force, Corker’s methods are revealing. He asks just one person, Mrs. Earl Russell Jackson, who runs the hotel where he is staying. She completely misunderstands the question, but that does not stop Corker from inventing a story that the women of Ishmaelia are opposed to an interventionist police force.

It is Corker again who sets William straight about how the newspaper business is run. After Shumble’s false story about the Russian spy, William suggests that they simply explain that the story was a mistake. But Corker tells him that such behavior would be “unprofessional”; newspapers do not like printing denials, since too many denials might lead the public to mistrust what they read; besides, it makes it look as if the reporters were not doing their job properly. Instead, Corker assures William that all the journalists must now find a Russian spy, whether he exists or not, so they can keep their newspapers abreast of the breaking story (which, of course, is not really a story at all). The way the process works seems to ensure that the real truth is unlikely to come out.

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