Times Literary Supplement: Of lesbians and constipation

Public opinion on journalists has always been influenced by how they – or should I say we – are represented in novels, films and popular culture. In her PhD-thesis-turned-book, Sarah Lonsdale traces fictional and real journalists throughout the twentieth century.

From swashbuckling Edwardian alcoholics with “special ink for hot countries which would not dry up” to the post-war alienated outsider, Lonsdale analyses how journalists have been represented; the most recent representative being J. K. Rowling’s mendacious gossip Rita Skeeter, who embodies the crisis of trust journalism faces in the post-Leveson era.

Three broad themes catch the eye. The first is the “battle of brows” in the 1920s and 30s. While writers such as the Daily Express reporter Alphonse Courlander used fiction to highlight the positive qualities of the new mass press, “highbrow” authors used it to distance themselves from mere journalism. But Lonsdale points out that their attitude was often a matter of class snobbery – something that remains the case today.

Money comes into it, too. Before the 1930s highbrow papers still paid similar rates to the halfpenny press, but since then the popular press has paid a lot more. In recent decades, journals of opinion have rarely made any money at all. As the former editor of The Nation Victor Navasky writes in A Matter of Opinion: “Even that avatar of capitalism William F. Buckley Jr., when asked whether his own journal of opinion, National Review, might ever make a profit, had responded, ‘A profit? You don’t expect the church to make a profit, do you?’”

Lonsdale also raises the question of whether the interaction between journalism is literature. Some journalists would say so; for others, journalism is simply a necessary evil. Virginia Woolf described her literary journalism as “intellectual harlotry”.

Evelyn Waugh was elated when his agent secured him a monthly commission from the Daily Mail at £30 an article in 1930. In his diary Waugh recorded: “wrote Daily Mail article. Talked of lesbians and constipation”. His contract was not renewed.

The fictional representation and real lives of female journalists make Lonsdale’s third theme. The celebrated nineteenth-century journalist Barbara Bodichon claimed that two thirds of contributors to the prestigious Chambers Edinburgh Journal were female – but most of them wrote under a male pseudonym. According to census figures in England and Wales around 10 per cent of journalists were female in 1861.

Fast forward one century to and the proportion doubled to 20 per cent. In some ways the journalistic profession offered more career opportunities for women than others, only 1 per cent of architects and lawyers were female in 1931, compared to 17 per cent of journalists. This is partially because journalism didn’t require a degree and women could freelance. Today, women make up about 40 per cent of journalists in the UK, but they are paid less and write fewer bylines.

By looking at journalists and their fictional images from the early twentieth and late nineteenth century, Lonsdale’s analysis reaches further back in history than most studies of the media, many of which originated during the Cold War as propaganda research.

This book is a hugely valuable complement to the important studies by Michael Schudson and Jeremy Tunstall, to which Lonsdale refers in passing: Discovering the News and The Media Are American, respectively. The author also includes the occasional reference to Bourdieu, which she could have done without – even if no PhD thesis in the field of journalism will be passed without a mention of Bourdieu – call it academic hegemony. But such obligatory citations seem unnecessary to book that amply demonstrates why – even as the industry’s prospects look grim in the digital age – journalists who speak truth to power are needed now more than ever.

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This review was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement on 8 February 2017: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/of-lesbians-and-constipation/

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