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Scoop – Evelyn Waugh

by Venky

(Image Credit: http://www.barnesandnoble.com)

An asinine tragi-comic sequence from a prime time debate on Indian Television that lasted just a shade over two minutes had the entire social media in hysterics for the past couple of days. In what can only be described as a Kafkaesque sequence of events, the host of a panel discussion engaged in a full blown slanging match with one of his guest panelists. In between reciprocal shrieking, hollering, insinuating and incoherent rambling, the host could be heard yelling “Mr. McAddams”. This slug fest is finally broken when another bemused panelist finally intervenes to clarify that he is in fact the original Mr. McAddams and he hasn’t even uttered a word yet, and is getting undeservingly rebuked! This bizarre clipping not just illustrates a vaudevillian blooper, but also the depths which media of all ilk, affiliations and allegiances, plumb these days.

While an entire world is rendered numb by the indiscriminate and barbaric invasion of Ukraine by the megalomaniac Vladimir Putin, the media seems to be having a field day (no pun intended). Traipsing through alleyways where bodies are piled high, wafting in and out of gaping holes which were once magisterial buildings now ripped open, and apart by unerring missiles, sacrificing propriety and decency at the altar of ‘TRP’ ratings by indulging in brazen disinformation – all while putting on a smug face – media has become a Faustian bargain.

Evelyn Waugh, one of the greatest satirists of our times seems to have predicted this rabbit hole down which news channels are diving headlong, a full nine decades ago. In what possibly has to be his most widely read work “Scoop”, Waugh cocks a thumb, and with panache, at the mediocrity of a media that thirsts for scoops, like rabid canines foraging  desolate dumps for crumbs and morsels.

The book begins with a slip up that sets the stage for a cavalcade of farce and fiasco. John Courteney Booth, a budding novelist approaches Mrs. Stitch a lady of formidable repute, and the better half of a politician, for a potential recommendation for an assignment as a war correspondent. The accommodating lady puts in a benevolent world to Lord Copper, owner of the “Beast”.  Lord Copper, in turn, commands his obsequious editor, Mr. Salter to sanction Boot, a sojourn to the desolate African Republic of Ishmaelia where there is stirring a potential revolt by rebels against the Ruling Party. The warring factions are termed Patriots and Traitors. The Patriots have no clue they are such while the Traitors are blissfully unaware of the treachery which they are supposed to perpetrate, and the foreign journalists making a beeline to Jacksonburg (the capital city) to cover the “conflict” have no fuzzy rodent posterior’s clue about the dynamics of the fractious issues.

Mr. Salter, in his search for Boot, makes a monumental error. John Courteney Boot is not the only Boot that has decided to make a living out of the ennobling profession of journalism. William Booth, a man of prosaic words and modest means ekes out a living as a nature writer, sending in columns under the heading “Lush Places” to the “Beast”. William is in danger of being severed by his employer, when unknown to him, his mother Priscilla replaces the word “badger”, with a more exotic reading “the crested grebe” in an elaborate piece where William holds eloquent on the playful habits of the badger. The “Beast” gets a flurry of remonstrations from biologists and various other animal experts. So William is more than pleasantly shocked when instead of getting the boot (no pun intended) he gets an all expenses paid trip to Ishmaelia.

This comedy of errors turns into a veritable romp as William reaches Jacksonburg. Put up in the Hotel Liberty where he shares accommodation with an egregious bunch of journalists from competing publications, William gets a textbook lesson in manipulating the media. Every journalist aspires to reach the same pedestal as Wenlock James, the greatest living American journalist who once overslept in his train while on his way to cover a revolution. Wenlock not only reached the wrong station but also typed out a furious 1000 word story about barricades in the street, flaming churches, machine guns and dead children, without even seeing a feather flutter. Other news papers took up the cue, created their own story, and triggered an actual revolution in a place that was otherwise absolutely peaceful.

Delectable dalliances, deceitful comrades and deleterious doses of alcohol later, William finally sends in a Scoop that not just blows rooftops across London, but also grants him a Knighthood. However, much to the chagrin of Salter and Lord Copper, the invitation for the investiture is printed in the name of John Courteney Boot. The charade continues until……

Scoop” has satire dripping from it like an ambrosia of delight. From leading a life that is exquisitely balanced on the fringes of obscurity, William is catapulted into a world that is a panegyric for hypocrisy and a tribute to mendacity. The Holy Grail of breaking news that is the hamster on a wheel of journalism is portrayed in an uncompromising and remorseless fashion by Evelyn Waugh. The obnoxious yet unforgettable characters of Corker, Pigge, Whelper, Jakes and Hitchcock – parasites hunting random prey – will remain in the reader’s mind long after the covers have come down.

How I wish Evelyn Waugh had lived to see the unfortunate predicament of a squirming and bewildered Mr. McAddams!

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