The journalist and novelist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was famous for his satires on the political classes. Michael Shallcross, who is writing a PhD on the author, wonders what he might have made of the current scandal surrounding the Murdoch press and politicians.
It was a notorious quirk of G.K. Chesterton’s mystery writing that if a fiery, red-haired woman should happen to make an appearance, it was absolutely certain that she would not turn out to be the villain of the piece. For this reason alone, the Leveson Inquiry offers unpromising material for a Chestertonian detective story. However, in a number of other respects the dramatis personae bear a remarkable resemblance to the dubious personages who Chesterton insistently assembles before the reader’s gaze. The conniving press magnates, the cynical tabloid hacks, the compromised law enforcers, the dissembling politicians—each of these comic types might have emerged directly from the pages of Father Brown, the satirical saga of Chesterton’s unprepossessing priest-detective.
“The conniving press magnates, the cynical tabloid hacks, the compromised law enforcers, the dissembling politicians—each of these comic types might have emerged directly from the pages of Chesterton”
The contemporary relevance of Chesterton’s satirical agenda is striking. As he argued over a century ago, “we have sunk utterly, silently, and almost without struggle under the domination of plutocracy.” Father John O’Connor, the original model for Father Brown, recalled that Chesterton possessed “a kind of mystic passion” for democracy, and argued that this directly informed his production of satire, since Chesterton felt that “the people would have to cultivate their sense of the ridiculous” as a shield against the manipulative designs of political and journalistic demagogues. As a disillusioned journalist himself, Chesterton particularly focused upon the role of tabloid proprietors and editors in engineering the capitulation of the populace. Commenting upon the increasing homogenisation of the press in the years immediately preceding the First World War, Chesterton termed Fleet Street a:
plutocratic combine […] It is not the Public Press. It is not an organ of public opinion. It is a conspiracy of a very few millionaires.
Consequently, his fictional journalists are frequently melancholy cynics, burdened by a nagging sense that they have prostituted their calling to the demands of plutocratic press-barons. In “The Curse of the Golden Cross” a journalist is asked whether he believes in maledictions, to which he offers the laconic response: “‘I don’t believe in anything; I’m a journalist.’”
Chesterton possessed a comparable disillusion with the political sphere. Although he identified himself as a lifelong Liberal, his disaffection with the shifting values of the Liberal Party once it achieved power invested him with a sense of abandonment with which the contemporary liberal voter may feel some sympathy. He became, in his own words, “a Liberal without any Liberal party.” Most presciently, Chesterton argued that the adversarial party system itself was a charade, since, in what has become a contemporary truism, a cigarette paper could not be put between the parties’ ideological positions, because each prioritised the interests of power brokers and financial backers over the interests of its constituents. To this end, the plot of an early Father Brown story, “The Queer Feet,” centres upon an exclusive dining club composed of members of both main political parties. As the narrator archly notes, since the club chairman was not a political man himself, he occasionally “embarrassed the company by phrases suggesting that there was some difference between a Liberal and a Conservative.”
Chesterton was particularly exercised by the ways in which systems of patronage undermined British democracy by encouraging an insidious judicial distinction between those who are in the club and those who are not. In “The Innocence of the Criminal,” an essay written in 1923, Chesterton remarks upon “the two principal reasons for imprisoning a man in England: that he is known to the police, and that he is not known to the magistrate.” Consequently, he chose to circumvent the legal system altogether in his mystery fiction by making his detective an unofficial figure working outside the legislative confines of what Chesterton termed “that official detective, the State.” This approach enabled Chesterton to turn the inquisitive gaze back upon the organs of state, a reversal which accounts for the somewhat unorthodox boast made by his detective in “The Quick One”: “‘I’ve never had anything to do with setting police machinery at work, or running down criminals.’” As Chesterton’s most recent biographer, Ian Ker, has noted, Father Brown “is himself on the fringe of society as a Roman Catholic priest rather than a clergyman of the Established Church [a distinction which] helps to encourage the reader to look critically at the English class system.”
Despite the satirical efficacy of this strategy, the theological dogmatism of Chesterton’s work has contributed to the failure of subsequent generations to recognise his continuing relevance as a radical satirist. This is an oversight which my own research seeks to redress.
In aligning himself so vocally with Roman Catholicism, Chesterton committed the same PR gaffe which another recent guest of Lord Justice Leveson, Alistair Campbell, famously counselled his employer, Tony Blair, to avoid. Chesterton “did God” with boisterous abandon, and the result has been an enduring reluctance on the part of the critical establishment to do Chesterton. However, it was precisely Chesterton’s self-ascribed outsiderdom which enabled him to successfully critique the machinations of insider-figures such as Campbell—the contemporary exemplar of the permeable boundary between the press and parliament, and the erosion of democratic accountability.
Indeed, long before the advent of Malcolm Tucker, the press secretary from television satire, The Thick of It, Chesterton had skewered the expediency-driven relativism of the Campbell type. Another Father Brown story, “The Purple Wig,” features a satirical account of an editor, Edward Nutt, whose working practice closely prefigures the blithe disregard for verity and reliance upon the obfuscating power of euphemism which Campbell seamlessly translated from journalism to government. Throughout the story, Nutt demurs that the facts reported by his journalist on the ground unacceptably contradict the newspaper’s ideology. Finally, Nutt abandons the reporter’s account altogether: “he crumpled up the copy and tossed it into the waste-paper basket; but not before he had, automatically and by mere force of habit, altered the word ‘God’ to the word ‘circumstances.’”
“long before the advent of Malcolm Tucker, Chesterton had skewered the expediency-driven relativism of the Alastair Campbell type.”
Nutt’s curious combination of editorial autocracy and blind adherence to the proprietorial line also calls to mind the formula which underpinned Rebekah Brooks’ journalistic success. Interestingly, Brooks not only resembles the editor in Chesterton’s story, but also the criminal, who adopts a theatrically performative approach to his personal appearance in order to manipulate his public image. Brooks’ “puritan chic” mode of dress at her most recent inquiry appearance has been interpreted as a performative gesture, discussed by a Guardian journalist as a clumsy attempt to convey a schoolgirlish innocence, and by a guest on Newsnight as reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. It seems probable that Brooks was aiming to convey both associations, since her husband subsequently described her as the victim of a witch-hunt. In this light, her outfit can be seen as a self-conscious attempt to restyle the inquiry as a contemporary version of Miller’s unjust trial—an example of life imitating art in Oscar Wilde’s famous formulation, although naturally the reader should draw no further inference from my invocation of a figure who perjured himself under oath.
Miller’s play also informs the coverage of the story in the latest edition of Private Eye, a satirical magazine which offers the closest contemporary analogue to Chesterton’s own journalistic practice, perhaps unsurprisingly given that its co-founders included Willie Rushton, a man described by his colleague, John Wells, as “like G.K. Chesterton, Fred Astaire and Giles all in one.” The current edition features a parody of Miller’s text, in which Brooks “fiddles with her hair and tries to look innocent” while denouncing the political elite: “I did see Goody Cameron supping with the Beast on many occasions.” This sketch hints at an interpretive dissonance which Brooks’ choice of outfit would appear to intentionally engender among her audience, if we take her sartorial allusion to Miller’s text to be a conscious strategy. The irony of Miller’s trial-scene is that the accused girls get away with an act of prosaic criminality precisely by manipulating the establishment’s atavistic fear of the supernatural. Similarly, Brooks’ outfit not only conveys connotations of innocence and victimhood, but, in its evocation of the witch-subtext, also attempts to subtly enact the same conjuring trick which has, up to now, proved successful in prompting the capitulation of politicians and police officers to the agenda of News International—the implication that she belongs to a cabal possessed of esoteric powers to confer worldly success or destruction. With this double-edged act of real-life literary parody, Brooks attempts to have her cake and eat it, presenting herself as both the innocent victim and the woman who it is perilous to cross.
“With this double-edged act of real-life literary parody, Brooks attempts to have her cake and eat it, presenting herself as both the innocent victim and the woman who it is perilous to cross”
In view of the way in which Brooks’ hairstyle has become figured, in certain sections of the press, as a further prop in this act of self-projection, it is interesting to return to “The Purple Wig.” In Chesterton’s story, the pseudo-aristocratic possessor of the unusual hairpiece attempts to use the wig as a mystification device to obscure the prosaic crime that he has committed. He convinces the townsfolk not to look further into his affairs by claiming that the wig conceals a genetic taint of diabolic import, thus attributing to himself both victimhood and menace: “‘If I gave you the faintest hint of the load of horror I have to bear alone, you would lie shrieking at these feet of mine and begging to know no more.’” Father Brown’s response to this invocation of mystery articulates Chesterton’s faith in the capacity of responsible journalism and satirical detective fiction to act as empowering agents of revelation, working on behalf of the public: “‘wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it.’” In the story at hand, this leads to the transfiguration of the Chestertonian journalist’s cynicism into a positive attribute—the reporter rises to Brown’s challenge because his ingrained state of scepticism extends to maledictions: “‘Your Grace,’ I cried, ‘I call your bluff. Take off that wig or I will knock it off.’”
The conclusion to Chesterton’s story is, in one sense, pessimistic—the editor finally spikes the report because it would offend his aristocratic acquaintances and endanger the proprietor’s peerage. However, in another sense Chesterton simultaneously overcomes this pessimism—the narrator’s textual intervention to bring both the crime and the attempted cover-up to the reader’s attention operates as a defiant double-revelation. It remains to be seen whether the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry will serve to corroborate Chesterton’s pessimistic account of whitewash or the tentatively optimistic narrative of exposure which he embeds within that account. Nevertheless, the events of recent months illustrate the enduring pertinence of his satirical inquiry into the state of the nation.