Bring back Clark Kent

Are journalists really as vile as Martin Amis has painted them in his latest novel? Tim Luckhurst wistfully recalls happier days when fictional hacks were heroes

Superman's alter-ego, Clark Kent, was modelled on a real reporter. He was Wilson Hirschfeld - he once claimed he knew nobody with as much integrity as himself. That conceit carried over into the ultra-virtuous Kent, but there are few equally complimentary depictions of journalists in fiction.

Take Martin Amis's latest novel, Yellow Dog. His fictional reporter, Clint Smoker of the Morning Lark, writes columns excusing rapists ("She was wearing school uniform") and is eventually sacked for celebrating the first sexual adventure of the 15-year-old Princess Victoria in a column opining "'Hi, men!' With these words Princess Vicky kissed goodbye to her catflap - and nun too soon, says the Lark."

This is Amis describing the physical appearance of ace reporter Smoker. "Clint himself subscribed to the look-like-shit look... with closely shaved head... a double nostril-ring in the shape of a pair of handcuffs... and a startlingly realistic, almost trompe l'oeil tattoo of a frayed noose round the Smoker neck." When we meet him, Smoker, "a very fine journalist indeed", is inventing a letter to the Lark's problem page. It begins: "Dear Donna: I am a 19-year-old heiress with a slender waist, a shapely derrière, and bouncers as big as your bonce."

Granted, Amis goes to comic extremes to make telling points about the worst of popular journalism. The title itself recalls the name given to scurrilous, muck-raking reporting in America in the 1890s - "yellow journalism". But it is plain that Amis is not a big fan of the profession. Clint Smoker encapsulates the assumption that the very institution of journalism is corrupt and that those who practise it are rendered venal by their involvement.

It is not a new idea, says Dr Kate Campbell. She teaches a course at the Department of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia, called "News in Heaven", about the depiction of journalists in fiction. "Literary people see journalists as soulless, all things to all men. Even the ethos of objectivity, which journalists consider so integral to their profession, can be seen as dehumanising by writers of creative fiction."

Campbell points to an unpublished poem by Virginia Woolf entitled Fantasy Upon a Gentleman who Converted his Impressions of a Private House into Cash. It describes the visit to Woolf's home of a reporter whom she christened "Bug". A "dapper little man", with "a green notebook", whose name Woolf invented to combine the ideas that he was as creepy as an insect and adept at persistently "bugging" his subjects.

Campbell says "the poem shows how very threatening she finds [reporters] - not just as writers, but in terms of class, morality, and sexuality. But she also fears that they are not as separate from her as she is trying to make out - that they are in her blood. In part, they represent aspects of her that she doesn't want to know."

The novelist Henry James created Henrietta Stackpole, a character who is similarly vulgar and facile. Kate Campbell explains: "James's and Woolf's representations of these figures display anxiety about a general decline that newspaper journalism represented for many writers up until the Second World War. Not only traditional high cultural values were seen to be threatened by journalists but also social barriers."

Professor Philip Schlesinger, director of the Media Research Institute at Stirling University, says: "Most people don't know real journalists. How they see them is filtered through an array of different cultural forms. The most important depictions come from Hollywood films, but television is important too. The drama State of Play depicted a journalist who was quite a complex figure. It forms part of a tradition that spills over into the detective novel and the spy thriller."

Much American popular fiction, both written and filmed, depicts journalists as noble strugglers after truth. In the mid-20th century, the per- ception that journalists were on the side of the righteous spawned a series of pulp magazines with titles such as Newspaper Adventure Stories. Later, Watergate led to novels and films about heroic investigative reporters who habitually won Pulitzer prizes.

Regrettably, this trend towards the canonisation of journalists in fiction created characters just as one-dimensional as any imagined by Woolf, James or Amis. Steve Weinberg, a former professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has a collection of 1,300 novels in which journalists are protagonists. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, he explained: "I worry a lot about the unrealistic picture a non-journalist must take away from these novels: according to most of them, we lack an ethical centre, sleep regularly with sources, and solve so many crimes, especially murders, that it is a wonder the police have anything to do."

That is a fair synthesis of the caricature journalist of fiction. But there have been better versions. Evelyn Waugh's Boot, in Scoop, manages to evoke sympathy as well as mirth. Mr Chatterbox, the gossip columnist in Vile Bodies (now filmed by Stephen Fry as Bright Young Things), is a clever portrait of a particular type of hack. But for many in British journalism the finest literary depiction comes in Michael Frayn's 1967 novel, Towards the End of the Morning. Roger Alton, editor of The Observer, considers Frayn's character, Dyson, superb. Alton, in common with many from the generation that helped newspapers survive the threat of television, recalls the scene in which Dyson "goes on to a Newsnight-style TV talk show and is so drunk he can only say the word 'yes' in response to any question. This delights the TV execs and he is constantly asked back. Top man."

Of course, they are all men. If male journalists have had a hard time from writers who consider journalism little better than prostitution with a pen, then women have had an even tougher time. The depiction of female journalists in fiction has moved through several phases, none of them complimentary. In the early years of mass journalism novels such as Sara Willis Parton's Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale for the Present Time (1854) depicted journalism as a literary equivalent of prostitution, something no woman would contemplate unless obliged to by crushing poverty. In the intervening century and a half, fiction has created the female reporter as fawning sidekick to a man she yearned to marry, as de-feminised hard woman, and latterly as professionally triumphant but unfulfilled seductive super-bitch.

Fiction seems to struggle with the possibility that, as Ernest Hemingway once put it, a journalist has "so many sides to him you could hardly make a sketch of him in a geometry book." Does it matter?

Philip Schlesinger says fiction is not the only source for popular impressions of journalists. "People get their impressions from a very complex interplay of fictional and real examples. If you asked most Brits for the name of a journalist now they would not name someone from literature or film. They would say Andrew Gilligan."

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