Splash!  by Stephen Glover

This is a very enjoyable novel about disreputable tabloid journalists and corrupt politicians. It is set on a newspaper, the Daily Bugle, whose proprietor, Sir Edwin Entwistle, is a latter-day Lord Copper, though as yet without the peerage he craves, and whose staff spend much of their time trying to do each other down.

The worst of the politicians, an MP called Terence Glasswell, finds a microphone which has been planted on him by a Bugle reporter, and retaliates by launching a national crusade to clean up the press. A trendy and ambitious bishop, who is angling for the see of Canterbury, naturally joins him in this endeavour, and preaches on Newsnight about media ethics and the need for journalists to drink less.

At the Bugle, Trevor Yapp, “the pugnacious, indeed pathologically disturbed, deputy editor”, is naturally trying to get the job of the editor, Eric Doodle, who in turn harbours absurd longings for a knighthood and a country house.

Doodle has taken on as a paid intern an entirely unsuitable young man, Benedict Brewster, in the hope of being invited to go shooting with the boy’s father, Sir Cumming Brewster.

Yapp sacks Sam Blunt, the drunken and promiscuous chief reporter, who has hardly got a word in the paper for the last six months, and the plot revolves around Blunt’s attempt, in alliance with young Brewster, to turn the tables and rescue his career by standing up a sensational story involving Glasswell, the Prime Minister and illegal political donations by a Chinese tycoon called Mr Po.

The book can be read for pleasure. Glover is very good at the comic discrepancy between what his characters claim to care about, and what they actually care about, namely their own advancement.

But this is also, in a light way, a condition of England novel, and especially the condition of the English press. The Bugle is not selling what it was, and now has a subsidiary called Bugle Online, which is obsessed by “the sexual antics of meretricious celebrities”, and is staffed by young people with first-class degrees who are desperate to get into journalism, so sit toiling in a subterranean “dungeon” and are treated abominably.

Glover knows the high-minded end of journalism, having been one of the three founders of The Independent, and editor of The Independent on Sunday, where I worked for him.

One of the good things about that paper was that although the founders were from The Daily Telegraph, it employed people from all over the place, with an eclectic mixture of political outlooks, including Neal Ascherson, Ian Jack, Lynn Barber, Stephen Fay, Sebastian Faulks and Zoë Heller.

But that did not last, and Glover has since been a columnist for various publications, including The Daily Mail. And one of the conclusions which can be drawn from his story is that high-minded papers are not always the best at holding the mighty to account.

To catch a thief, it is not enough to be a prig. Some insight into the criminal mind, and a readiness to use underhand methods, may also be required.

We live in a fallen world, and in some ways in a fallen country. Mr Po imagines that on coming to live in London, he will find “some hidden secret that would explain what had made Britain great”.

But after buying a rare Qing vase off a miserly and corrupt English peer, he finds himself thinking very differently about Britain:

“He felt that by regaining the vase he had in some small way reversed the shame which the English had visited upon his country. It seemed to him incredible that the race which had treated the mighty Qing Emperor Xianfeng as though he were no better than a tribal chieftain, and had looted and burned the Summer Palace, should have been reduced to this pitiable state. Where was the ruling class which had controlled half of Asia and a quarter of the globe? Their ignoble modern successors were men such as the greedy earl and Sir Edwin Entwistle and the crooked Terence Glasswell, who had the temerity and poor taste to fuck his secretary in Mr Po’s own private suite in the Park Lane offices of Anglo-Chinese Investments.”

Appalling manners. But then one might say the same after reading Scoop, subtitled A Novel about Journalists, the greatest and funniest novel ever written about the British press.

Even the French journalists in that book, with their futile official complaints that they are not getting equal treatment with the British and the Americans, are true to life.

As a comic stylist, Evelyn Waugh has no equal. Decline and Fall, with which in 1928 he burst upon a delighted public, is at least as funny as Scoop, and portrays the collapse of the moral order which Dr Arnold had sought to instil.

The joke is that the ruling class do not behave as they should, and nor, with a few exceptions, does anyone else: a theme which runs through the war trilogy and on into Brideshead Revisited.

Perhaps, come to think of it, that theme runs through almost all novels. Austen, Dickens and Thackeray cannot be said to have neglected it.

The great virtue of Splash! is that it makes one laugh. A subsidiary virtue is that it makes one think about, and reread, the masterpiece which inspired it.