NEWSPAPERS have never been so different. News-papers are very much the same as they have always been.

I call as witnesses to these apparently contradictory views Charles Dickens and Alexander Starritt. If Charles had walked along Mitchell Street in the early seventies, the time of my early immersion in newspapers, he could have walked up to the editorial floor, sat down, marvelled at the facility of the ballpoint pen and proceeded to sub a story without further ado.

The instructions to the caseroom would have been known to him and had remained unchanged for more than a century, the proof marks were seemingly eternal and the grammar was largely the same.

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If one walks into a newspaper office today, having been out in the field for three weeks, the means of production requires at least an update or, at times, a full-scale training session.

That much has certainly changed.

The National:

But reading this frenetic, comedic novel this old hack finds instant recognition in the tension, cynicism and quick-wittedness of a subs’ desk. Indeed, one can put names to characters from the ranks of the fallen in The Herald and elsewhere from 1972 onwards.

Starritt’s novel thus reeks of authenticity right down to the subs with their 8.5pt, indented pars and sweaty fear and loathing. It has been described as a satire but I hesitate to use that term because The Beast never strays far from reality.

It, of course, namechecks Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and has echoes of Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of Morning but it is modern in setting and plot. One of The Beast’s sub-editors may have uncovered a terrorist plot. A bloody mayhem ensues over a couple of editions.

The obvious theme is a demolition of the practices, morals and motivations of The Beast’s staff. The Beast, an uncanny lookalike for the Daily Mail, pursues the story to a melodramatic climax. Obvious targets are put in the line of fire and a volley is duly delivered. It is accurate, witty stuff.

It also makes pertinent, reasonable points in a brisk but cleverly constructed narrative.

Most of these, though, are hardly original. Yes, the press has corporate prejudices that can and do impact awfully on the lives of those outside the media bubble. Yes, there are journalists who think ethics is an English county. And, yes, there is a ruthless pursuing of an agenda that puts both people and truth at risk.

But Starritt, who has laboured as a sub-editor, also has a more interesting theme that pulses just beneath the surface. This may not be a love letter to the ailing print media but it will serve as an elegy.

The online staff are scorned by the print journalists, placed in a corner, lambasted for their inaccuracies and lack of skill. These print journalists are placing themselves for the jump to the next available life raft. There is a desperation in The Beast that is all-consuming.

The young are condemned to sycophancy laced with fear, the older journalists top up their anxiety with cynicism and an increasing resignation that the old days are gone and there may not be too many of the new days.

It seems clear that the new media is just the old media, with fewer checks, less professionalism and a cruder purpose. There is no protest at this, it is just a reality that has to be faced like the certainties of tax and deadlines.

There is no obvious hero or heroine in the Beast. They are all flawed: simply doing their best or their worst, sometimes at the same time.

Starritt has constructed more than a frothy comedy. It is a snapshot of a creaking modern Britain where prejudices over-rule reason from bus driver, to editor, to prime minister. It is also a warning that in volatile times the fuse is short and most people have a match.

It also carries the truth that the older generation have had the best of it in the currency of house prices, working conditions and pension arrangements.

But in its heart and soul it is a newspaper novel. The non-journalist may wince at its passages. Some journalists, including this one, will merely nod in recognition.

The reader in me commends it. The old sub-editor in me points out it needs a cut and a general tidy up, but adds that the lad is a writer and one worth keeping an eye on.

The Beast by Alexander Starritt is published by Apollo, priced £14.99