Vernon Halliday and the Judge: Editorship and Newspaper Power in Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 1999 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1. Introduction

2. Vernon Halliday and „Entrepreneurial Editorship“

3. George and Vernon - The Owner-Editor Relationship

4. The Judge, Vernon and Politics

5. Steering the Judge Downmarket

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Ian McEwan’s ability to present his settings and themes in detail has been already noticed. In his novel Amsterdam he exellently describes for example the Lake District when Clive Linley hikes to find inspiration or the composing process when Clive tries to write the perfect ending for his symphony.[1] But these are not the only passages where he uses his knowledge of perfectly drawing the reader into a certain theme. He also shows in this novel that he has deep insight into the media and especially in how modern newspapers are made.

Media and especially the newspaper is one of Ian McEwan’s main themes in Amsterdam. Besides Vernon Halliday, who as the editor of the British national daily The Judge is the character the most involved in the printing press, also George Lane and McEwan’s secret main character Molly Lane are linked with the media. George owns a small part of the Judge and therefore is one of the proprietors to whom Vernon is responsible. Molly was part of the media establishment as well. She worked as critic for a magazine and later married George.

I will show in this paper that McEwan succeeded in portraying his character Vernon Halliday in a way that strongly resembles an editor of a national daily newspaper in Great Britain today. He even managed to hint at changes that happened during the last decades in how editorship is characterized by using George Lane as old fashioned proprietor to counterbalance the modern editorship of the Judge. It will also become obvious how comprehensive McEwan’s knowledge of the relationship between the media and politics is and how he weaved this aspect into the novel. Furthermore, I will point out that Ian McEwan portrays the Judge throughout his novel as a quality paper on its way to become a downmarket tabloid. By doing this the author again achieves to establish a direct link to current criticism of British national newspapers.

2. Vernon Halliday and „Entrepreneurial Editorship“

This chapter will focus on McEwan’s portrayal of Vernon Halliday, who as chief editor of the Judge is the character the most involved in media affairs. Everything in the novel that has to do directly or indirectly with Vernon is also linked in some way to his position at the newspaper. The reader gets to know Vernon in the course of the novel pretty well. McEwan shows his career, his position at the Judge and also a lot about Vernon’s private life. To point out that Vernon resembles a modern entrepreneurial editor in a lot of aspects I will focus on the first two points and exclude his private life.

The very beginning of Vernon’s career, that is his training for a job, is not explained by McEwan. The first thing the reader learns of Vernon’s curriculum vitae is that he got a job working for a news agency: „He had lived [...] in Paris in’74, when he had his first job with Reuters“[2]. By then he must have been already a trained journalist because otherwise he would not have been sent to a foreign country for one of the biggest news agencies. After another blank in Vernon’s CV the reader learns that Vernon had changed his employer by the mid-eightes when „he was Rome correspondent for the paper he now edited“[3] - the British national daily The Judge. Both facts about Vernon’s working life so far are mentioned rather casually when the relationships between Molly and her former lovers are explained. Later in the novel the form of presenting Vernon’s career changes into a more direct approch when McEwan starts to portray „the manner in which he had become editor of the Judge “.[4] After his work as correspondent in Italy Vernon became assistant for the editor and later for his successor. After becoming correspondent in Washington by chance his career was pushed when Vernon succeeded in breaking an affair that involved the president. This ‘big story’ coincided with the sacking of the chief editor and was therefore the reason why he became editor when he returned to London.[5]

After having shown Vernon’s rather straight way of becoming editor it is now important to compare his editorship to the characteristics of British editors of today. To show that Vernon Halliday as portrayed by Ian McEwan is indeed a modern leader of a newspaper it is necessary to see his position in comparison with Jeremy Tunstall’s definition of an „entrepreneurial editor“. Tunstall developped this model after having interviewed almost all leading editors of today’s British newspapers.[6] Therefore, the „entrepreneurial editor“ is characterized as a person who „combines creative and business skills and who, subject to successful performance, is allowed a high degree of autonomy.“[7] This definition shows two aspects of newspaper editorship that I will explain and compare to Vernon Halliday and the Judge in Amsterdam. The first is the importance of business interests that rank higher than anything else, the second is the dominant position of the editor.

First of all it is obvious that an editor who is in charge today has to define his work as creative management. Newspapers are more than ever before linked to business interests and are mostly part of national and even global business empires that do not only include media companies. The editorship of today is a highly paid manager profession that links journalism with business. Therefore, like a manager an editor is judged primarily on results in business terms, that is in the world of newspapers the circulation. Like in every other company an editor will be sacked if the management is unhappy with his results and the newspaper’s performance.[8]

This thinking becomes very obvious in McEwan’s presentation of Vernon and the Judge. Vernon knows that he will only keep his position if he succeeds in raising the circulation of his paper. Otherwise he will have to face the same fate as his predecessors. Before he moved into the leading position

one gifted editor was falling to another in bloody battles with a meddlesome board of directors. [...] The stage was littered with several limbs and torsos of titans cut to size. Jack Mobey, the board’s own placeman, had failed [...].[9]

Vernon followed on Mobey who was the „fourth editor in succession to fail to reverse the Judge ’s declining circulation. Vernon Halliday was trying not to be the fifth.“[10] Being a ‘gifted’ newspaper ‘titan’ does not guarantee a successful editorship any more as it was still judged in the 1960s when Bruce Rothwell, a Daily Mail assistant editor in 1966, claimed: „A newspaper should be run on the assumption that the editor is a genius.“[11] Vernon, who sees that the circulation of the Judge is still falling, is under pressure to save not only the paper but also his job. „Last month’s circulation average was seven thousand lower than the month before. Time was running out for the Judge[12] and for Vernon! He constantly has to justify the circulation figures. That is shown for example when he meets George at his house to get the pictures.[13]

To accomplish the task of fulfilling the directors’ expectations and to save his job Vernon sticks to the other aspect of editorship that was mentioned above: the fact that an editor can also claim like a manager to be in charge. Ross Benson, in 1994 a Daily Express diary editor, explained the work of the editor:

[A] national newspaper is a one-man show. [...] Newspapers are led by the man at the front. If the editor gets it wrong, then the paper gets it wrong. [...] If the editor doesn’t find something interesting, it won’t go in the paper.[14]


[1] Cf. McEwan, Ian, Amsterdam, (New York: Nan A. Talese, 1999), pp. 81-97 and 145-146.

[2] McEwan, Amsterdam, p. 5.

[3] Ibid., p. 8.

[4] Ibid., p. 32.

[5] Cf. Ibid., pp. 32-33.

[6] Tunstall also compared the picture he gained by evaluating these many interviews to a study he had performed in the 1960s and was therefore able to point out changes in the British newspaper world. His results are published in: Tunstall, Jeremy, Newspaper Power: The New National Press in Britain, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[7] Ibid., p. 95.

[8] Cf. ibid., p. 117.

[9] McEwan, Amsterdam, p. 33.

[10] Ibid., p. 34.

[11] Quoted in Tunstall, Newspaper Power, p. 116.

[12] McEwan, Amsterdam, p. 35.

[13] Ibid., p. 56: „‘I’ve seen the circulation figures’, George said gravely. ‘Not good.’ ‘The rate of decline is slowing,’ was Vernon’s automatic response, his mantra. ‘But it’s still a decline.’ ‘These things take time to turn around.’“

[14] Quoted in Tunstall, Newspaper Power, p. 116.


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Vernon Halliday Judge Editorship Newspaper Power McEwan Amsterdam




Title: Vernon Halliday and the Judge: Editorship and Newspaper Power in Ian McEwan's  "Amsterdam"