The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox, Constable, RRP£8.99, 314 pages
As a business proposal, it must have been irresistible. What publisher could turn away a new author who comes with a ready-made fan base? “The Fleet Street Fox” – a blogger and online newspaper columnist with more than 50,000 followers on Twitter – was guaranteed a book contract. And, after the Leveson inquiry into British newspaper ethics in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, how timely to publish an insider’s dispatch from the world of the “red tops”.
Although her identity was an open secret in newspaper circles, the author of The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox has now publicly revealed herself to be Susie Boniface, a former Sunday Mirror reporter. Anyone looking for a breast-beating confessional about the excesses of the popular press will be disappointed. Like Edith Piaf, the Sparrow of Belle-ville, the Fox of Fleet Street regrets nothing.
She writes that she has never been asked to hack a phone but says: “you can keep your nose clean, and then it doesn’t matter if a journalist hears your messages”. The practice can be justified in some instances, she feels, “along with a range of other minor crimes. Trespass, theft, speeding offences, impersonating people I shouldn’t – I have done and will do any and all of these things, and a few more, if the story justifies it. I’d hack a phone, too, if I thought it was the only way to prove a truth that needed to be known.”
And what truths do we see her valiantly investigating? There is a story about “a woman who was shagging a married television celebrity”, in pursuit of which the author fearlessly doorsteps the woman’s ex-husband in the hope of soliciting some bad-mouthing, and a scoop about a Tory MP who has a mistress, which requires the Fox to lurk outside the mistress’s house with a photographer, “waiting for the shagger to turn up so we could get a snatch pic in the street”.
She has no time for the “serious papers” – the sort that have high-mindedly banged on about phone hacking. The tabloids, she declares, “are where the most successful and well-paid journalists end up, because they sell more and it’s harder work”.
The picture she presents of her newsroom does not, however, suggest an entirely Gradgrindian existence. There are practical jokes to be played, expenses to be fabricated, sweepstakes to be held on “which raindrop gets to the bottom of the window first”, and prodigious quantities of alcohol to be consumed. And, despite her boasts about salaries, she claims that, “while cocaine is rife on Fleet Street”, one reason why reporters don’t indulge in cocaine very much is because “we don’t get paid very much and you can’t get a receipt for drugs”.
Although The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox is billed as “The Truest Tabloid Tale You’ll Ever Read” its main business is a chronicle, “a blend of fact and fiction”, of the author’s marital break-up. Unfortunately, like Other People’s Dreams, Other People’s Divorces are rarely of interest to anyone but the parties concerned. The Fox’s husband lied, he drank too much, he left her for a woman who is, gratifyingly, fatter than her – the charge sheet is repeated many times.
While the wronged wife complains about her ex-husband’s alcohol intake, she seems to share the old-school Fleet Street view of drinking as an extreme sport. There are slurred conversations, bacchanalian couplings and monumental hangovers – “I’m quite good at vomiting, in that I always know when it’s coming and have time to prepare the scene”.
Alas, she cannot make her account of the tedious financial disclosure forms required for her divorce anything other than, well, tedious. Even her friends begin to roll their eyes at the mention of her ex-husband (“Twatface”) and one longs to turn from the alcohol, vomit and tear-soaked pillow to the bracing pursuit of truth about other people’s private lives. There is, one feels, too much Fox and not enough Fleet Street.
But her colleagues keep her going in her hour of need. She points out, contrary to the popular view, “Journalists are usually empathetic to a fault ... we couldn’t do our jobs if we were unable to understand how other people felt, even if we do bend it to our advantage.”
Her case is somewhat undermined by references to newsroom jokes, such as one about a (real-life) missing child that should “never be told” to the parents but “still makes us snigger”. Cruel humour may have its place, but if we are to accept that authentic human tragedy is fair game for a chuckle, it is hard to muster any sympathy for a solipsistic, middle-class young woman going through an unexceptional divorce.
While the book can make no claims for prose style or narrative coherence, it might – as a tangential insight into the boorish, bullying tabloid mentality – have some value as a document for ministers considering plans for a new, post-Leveson, press regulator.
Annalena McAfee is author of ‘The Spoiler’ (Vintage)