This is a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and important book, although also a somewhat dangerous one. Its claim to be a 'history' of the journalistic profession in modern times in Europe and America will not be accepted by everyone. More on these points a little later.

Fred Inglis

A few months ago, I heard myself one high noon saying to the BBC's Jimmy Young on his popular Radio Two show that I had made a "longer-term decision" never to read a column written by my former editor Simon Jenkins of the Times if it dealt with foreign matters. "Simon is superb when it comes to English culture, the development of London and, specially, architecture", I went on, "but the problem with columnists these days is that they are under pressure to write on every possible issue of the day, even when they know little about it."

This was after (Sir) Jimmy had quoted to me what Simon Jenkins had told him the previous day about the Israelis and the Palestinians, and my own sweeping reply surprised me. Then I remembered that once upon a time on a London underground train I had overheard one passenger telling another: "The only reason I buy the Times is for Bernard Levin". Hence, I thought, why editors wooed famous personalities to pronounce on every subject under the sun for them. Some of their readers would go elsewhere if they were deprived of the company of their worshiped celebrities as they prepared for a hard day's work at the office. My fellow passenger had, it seemed, not only come to think of Bernard Levin as almost a member of his family, he apparently also believed Levin's reasoning on whatever subject he had thought able to put 800 words together.

If it is just a single conclusion that the author, Fred Inglis, professor of cultural studies at Sheffield University, derives from his massive study, it is this continuing near-takeover of the opinion columns of broadsheet newspapers by celebrity faces, and it naturally pains him, to the extent that he devotes a whole chapter to it. Nevertheless, his book remains full of hope for the future and confident that the western world, at least, will continue to enjoy a vibrant, free press for the time being. This is not only because some major newspapers, such as the Guardian and Observer, are owned by trusts set up to protect their independence, but also because there will be profit for owners in publications that are seen to be free of the grip of governments and corporations. There are enough of us customers to buy such newspapers.

In recent press reviews of this book, professor Inglis has been universally described as 'left-wing', even 'Old Left', which would immediately cast doubt on his credentials to write reliable history. But the good thing about him is that he himself admits he has been selective in choosing the cases he studies to illustrate his points. Furthermore, his open partisanship allows him to be passionate in his language and carry us with him on a fast-moving cloud of high ideals and entertainment rather than lead us gently into sleep with a worthy book slipping from our fingers.

Closer examination also makes clear that he gives credit where it is due, even in the case of newspapers that he himself does not admire. I found, for example, his description of the importance of the Times before Rupert Murdoch sacked Harry Evans as editor in 1982 to 'dumb it down' and boost circulation, well judged and wise:

"The sudden crumpling of a cultural and political authority is not a slight matter. The Times had its several pomposities and egregiousness. It was wholly conservative. It opposed reform and obstructed social improvement. It was intensely inegalitarian. But continuity, unshakeable self-satisfaction, a calm habit of command, moralising the defence of the-way-things-should-be-done are necessary foundations of any society and Britain's leading newspaper commemorated these attributes…"

Not that I would agree with all those criticisms of the paper I served for nearly two decades, but the left-wing Inglis is also fair when he describes the hair-raising practices of "the corrupt" print unions that were "strangling the British press" and paved the way for the moral midgets and monsters such as Murdoch and Maxwell to take over the bulk of it from the previous, relatively benign owners. Just before I joined the Times in 1980, for example, the gentlemanly Roy Thomson, who used to keep in his wallet his promissory pledge not to interfere in the decisions of his editors, closed the paper for a whole year to earn for his journalists the right to use word-processors instead of typewriters. A few years later the possibility that the oldest newspaper in the world might be shut down forever was instrumental in persuading the great majority of the paper's journalists – including myself – to risk daily stoning by picketing print unions to reach the new "Bucharest-style" fortress that Murdoch had secretly constructed for us in Wapping.

The detailed profiles of many of the heroes of journalism that Inglis has drawn from the past 100 years are vivid and often moving, particularly those, for me, of Martha Gellhorn, the American war correspondent who later chose England as her home; Andre Malraux, the French reporter and resistance fighter who later joined General de Gaulle's first government; William Shirer, the American observer of the rise of Nazism; and Harry Evans, the son of an engine driver in County Durham who became the editor of the Sunday Times at the age of 38.

Equally satisfactory, but damning, are Inglis' portraits of such "lords of the dance" as Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Lord Northcliffe and Murdoch. Democracy has not found a satisfactory remedy to their phenomenon without concentrating too much power in the hands of the state, but this may be because there has not been the will. Surely one newspaper in each country could be 'nationalised' along the lines of the BBC to enable them to be 'the house journal of the political class' through which we could all talk to each other again. Their editorial boards could be appointed by a parliamentary committee of all parties to ensure their independence.

Fred Inglis has done us a service by putting a lifetime's harvest of reading, thinking and wit in between two covers, and I enjoyed his passion and verve tremendously.

However, cowardly a father as I am, I'll keep his book out of the sight of my young daughter, who has recently joined the BBC. I fear that some of his heroes, such as the "free-born women of England" who set up camp at Greenham Common in the 1980s, or the Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci, who was imprisoned by his former friend and colleague Benito Mussolini, might become her heroes. This book is best read by old foxes like her dad.

The People's Witness is available from Amazon (UK).