Book reviews, Comedy, Literary fiction

The Beast by Alexander Starritt

The Beast is a satirical dissection of Britain’s tabloid newspaper trade – and it’s not for the faint hearted.

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

Jeremy Underwood is a long-suffering subeditor on The Daily Beast, Britain’s mightiest tabloid. Returning from holiday, he notices two burqa-clad figures lurking outside the paper’s Kensington offices. Two male terrorism suspects have escaped from a mosque disguised as women; recently suspicion and fear have made everyone alert. Jeremy’s casual observation sets off a chain of events that spins out of control, as the great Beast feels that it is the next target of terrorism.

Alexander Starritt’s darkly funny novel is a vivid anatomy of that most uncontrollable of large creatures, the British tabloid newspaper. The ferocious professionalism and manic rivalries of a newsroom have rarely been so well described. And at the heart of the newsroom is the brooding, dictatorial figure of its editor, Charles Brython, the booming voice of Middle England. His world is under threat, and he will do whatever it takes to defend it. This is a story in which comedy teeters on the edge of horror.

What’s good about it? 

I work in communications in my real life. On a daily basis, I deal with journalists – usually from local newspapers but sometimes national – seeking answers to a variety of questions that may or may not end up as stories. It was with this experience that I broached The Beast with glee, hoping Starritt would capture the chaos and frenzy that is the newsroom.

And, he didn’t disappoint. The Beast perfectly reflects the essence of a daily news machine, of an organisation whose mission it is to find the next big story before its rivals. The frenetic pitching of stories to an editor, of scrabbling to check the details stand up to legal scrutiny and the in-fighting between journalists who try to outdo their colleagues, as well as competitors at other papers, is all beautifully portrayed in the book.

Starritt hits on the thing that has changed journalism most in the last few years – online news. News now breaks online not in print and being first past the Facebook post when it comes to publishing content is the key to success. Clicks not copies sold are the currency of the day. The Beast depicts this perfectly and the frantic agitation of journalists vying for the next big digital scoop is a tangible component of the novel.

The Beast is humorous and witty, satirising the tabloid press’ nimble crafting of salacious headlines and vilification of the working class. However, it has much darker tones when Starritt explores how the press manipulates an innocent situation into something much more sinister. The editor’s furious determination to make a story out of very limited information in order to produce a headline that fuels the paper’s Islamophobic agenda, appeals to its Middle England readership and ensures all other papers are talking about The Beast illustrates the power the press has to manipulate the truth.

This troubling and pernicious narrative is all the more unsettling because it’s so true. You only have to read the headlines of the red tops every day to see how editors, journalists and their newspapers control not only the information their readers receive but how that information is portrayed. These are not just facts from which readers draw their own conclusions; these are opinions ready formed and presented as truth.

The characters are recognisable – the seasoned hack, the tenacious newbie, the bitter and twisted editor – and well formed but none of them are particularly likeable. They’re not supposed to be. Starritt outlines the pressures on them, at home and at work, but doesn’t use them to excuse the behaviour of these morally corrupt characters.

What’s not so good about it?

While the pace of the book is good, I felt Starritt spent too much time on examples of journalists shaping headlines into tabloid-friendly soundbites. He established the point very strongly early on and, in my opinion, duplicating that convention with a number of different subject matters felt repetitive rather than adding anything to the original observation.

The Beast is a wonderful novel and fans of dark, satirical fiction will love it. It’s pretty scary how easily the events in the book could occur in real life – I would argue they have already to some extent – so it’ll stay with you long after reading. I’ve certainly taken a second look at newspaper headlines since reading this.

The Beast is published by Head of Zeus on 7 September. Thanks to them for my advance copy.

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