Journalists By The Book by Fiona Barton
Fiona Barton, author of the acclaimed debut The Widow, shares her favourite real and fictional journalists.
It is perhaps unsurprising that journalist Kate Waters is one of the three main narrators of my first novel The Widow. As a former reporter myself, I have been where Kate finds herself in the novel – persuading people to talk to me on doorsteps, doing ‘buy-ups’ on exclusive stories and taking interviewees to hotels to escape the press pack – but this is not a memoir.
I met and worked with a number of ‘Kates’ during my career as a reporter and news editor on national newspapers, and was able to draw on that experience to create her. I also looked back at journalists whom I had loved, and occasionally loathed, in books for inspiration.
For me, it all began with Watergate journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (All the Presidents’ Men, 1974). And I was not alone. They were the inspiration for generations of reporters, all longing to break the big one and call the highest individuals in the country to account. The Washington Post reporters made mistakes, followed false trails and were vilified but they stayed the course and saw the story through to its historic conclusion – the impeachment of President Nixon. The story did an enormous amount for the public image of journalists because the reader and audience could see the process, professionalism, fallibility and humanity of Bernstein and Woodward. Casting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the film version probably helped a bit, too.
Investigative journalism is not all about clandestine meetings in underground car parks. I can still remember the overwhelming effect In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965) had on me when I read it as a young journalist. This forensic study of a murder and its perpetrators through interviews is textbook journalism. Capote chased down every detail of the murder of four members of the same family in Kansas. He stripped the story of sentimentality and shock, and relied on the voices of the murderers, the neighbours and the remaining family of the victims to build an utterly compelling narrative. True, Capote had the luxury of time – In Cold Blood took six years to write and most journalists have to write their stories on the day and in 350–500 words. But it was worth it: it allowed the reader a real and chilling insight into the criminal mind.
The first of my fictional heroes is Mikael Blomkvist (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2005). A dour, Swedish magazine editor, he solved murders while fighting off lethal attacks, and brought down a powerful and corrupt tycoon. Not your everyday reporting experience but a bit of swashbuckling never did anyone any harm.
There are two literary foreign correspondents who have remained with me for very different reasons. William Boot of the Daily Beast (Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, 1938), the hapless, accidental foreign reporter, armed with cleft sticks and a collapsible canoe, made me laugh as he brilliantly exposed the excesses of the press, whereas Guy Hamilton (The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher Koch, 1978) dealt with the danger and moral dilemmas faced by a correspondent in a country on the edge of meltdown. Hamilton (played by Mel Gibson in the 1982 film of the same name) risks everything to get the story and the reader is left to judge if it was worth it.
Those who made me grind my teeth were the appalling Peter Fallow (The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, 1987) who would have sold his granny as well as his soul to get a scoop and sparked race riots with his reckless stories. The other is the only woman in the list. In truth, there were not many to choose from (Lois Lane, the comic book foil to Superman; Miranda Priestly, the dragon-lady editor in The Devil Wears Prada) but I ended up with Mattie Storin (House of Cards by Michael Dobbs, 1989). She sleeps with the source of her exclusive stories, the machiavellian politician, Francis Urquhart. He uses the young ambitious reporter’s fascination to plant his poisonous, false stories as he manoeuvres himself to the top and Mattie pays a terrible price for her corruption – pushed from a rooftop by Urquhart.
Happily, Kate Waters survives The Widow, physically, if not emotionally intact, and lives to write another story in my second book, which I am deep into at the moment.
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