The Steel Balloon – a ’60s atomic thriller on political and science reporting.

The Steel Balloon Hugh McLeave, Pan edition, 1967.

Wise words from a 1960s thriller, on the quality of the press. Wise words for Brexit time, written by the novelist the Daily Mail science correspondent. A now very old fashioned seeming thriller set amid the early British atomic energy programme. The hero, naturally a Fleet Street science correspondent, has to stop every five minutes at a phone box to call his newsroom. A fairly straightforward plot compared with modern movies, mysterious death and disappearances, blackmail, spies, sabotage. And the obligatory road trip through Scotland (39 Steps, Enigma – or is it a train journey in Enigma?). (1st ed. Frederick Muller, 1964). Pre-motorway of course. And a nice little cameo for a George Smiley, presumably a comic tribute to the Smiley who John Le Carre had created three years earlier.

The quote about political reporting, p. 55 I thought at the time was a call for more in depth and better quality reporting on political matters. And a moral that the public get the press that they deserve, now I’m not sure about the former and this quote is not about the latter. I was struck by the relevance when I read the book last Summer but it equally applies now in the time of Coronacrisis. When the popular British press are being a bit more responsible (the quality British and US outlets and others doing great work) but many people, in sharing information, videos and pictures of unknown provenance and validity on social media, are helping spread confusion, ignorance or prejudice. Fortunately far more people are thinking carefully about what they are doing to help tackle the crisis. Of course the hero of ‘The Steel Balloon’, reporter David Lovatt, is regularly reminding us of the need for better public understanding of science. Page 56 is a reminder by a Jewish professor of the stupidity of prejudice based on religion or race. The Coronavirus is also showing us that.