The Chilling Case of Sam Bourne and the Over-reaching Ego

There is a great piece of newspaper and literary gossip at the moment surrounding an author called Sam Bourne.

Sam Bourne is the pen-name for Guardian top-nob Jonathan Freedland, and the gossip surrounds not only how awful his first novel is but the fact that he got a devastating review of it pulled from the pages of, yes, The Guardian.

It may never have come to light were it not for the fact that the freelancer reviewer tasked with covering The Righteous Men, crime writer and reviewer Michael Dibdin, was told that the review was “too negative” and it was spiked.

It certainly was negative. The review begins: “Reading this book is like dating someone who seems attractive if rather conventional at first, then maybe a little eccentric in a colourful way, but gradually gets weirder and weirder until finally, around four in the morning, you realise that you’ve invited a raving lunatic into your life.”

It adds later: “The style is very much that of the most boring newspaper in the world since Pravda reinvented itself: a mixture of plonking facts and breathless platitudes.”

Dibdin wasn’t happy about his review being spiked and, spying an opportunity, took it to The Times, which not only happily published it (on 11 February) but also stuck a little snipe covering the history behind it in a column, complete with cartoon.

Unfortunately for Freedland, Private Eye – never one to miss an opportunity to deflate journalists’ egos – then decided the issue was worth its attention. The Eye reported the facts and then a month later added that following a few inquiries it had discovered that the Guardian’s literary editor Claire Armitstead had taken the review to editor Alan Rusbridger when she saw how critical it was. Rusbridger, apparently, then gave it to Freedland to decide upon its inclusion. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, he decided it might be better if it wasn’t published after all.

The Eye then reported with some glee that The Times review – Dibdin’s – remained the sole review of the novel despite it being published a month earlier. And it claimed that Freedland had decreed that Dibdin never again be allowed to write for The Guardian. It’s hard to know whether that’s true – Dibdin has written about three pieces a year for The Guardian, so he isn’t due to write another piece for a few months anyway – but we shall see.

But then things got worse. Guardian sister paper The Observer then did a review of the book. Was there more pressure applied? If there was, it backfired a second time. The review – on 12 March – called it “an overly familiar and overly silly collision of codes, cabals and conspiracies”. The reviewer, Matilda Lisle, said it “isn’t much of a book” and then damned it with feint praise, saying Jonathan Freedland “should not feel shy to call it his own”.

If this wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that Matilda Lisle is herself a pseudonym. At which point this all starts getting a bit uncomfortable. A journalist working for the same company as the author of a book, writing under a pseudonym, writes a review of that book under a psedonym. What is going on here?

Private Eye, still following the saga, then reported that Matilda Lisle is in fact Alex Clark, the assistant literary editor of the Observer. Why is she writing under a false name? What is this false name business all about?

How to be modest and famous?

Rather fortunately, and hilariously, Freedland chooses to answer this question himself in his Guardian column on 29 March. In fact he dedicates the entire column to plugging his book and going on a long-winded explanation of how he came up with the name “Sam Bourne”.

What he doesn’t mention while waffling on about his son Sam and the film The Bourne Identity was that everyone was mocking Freeland for blatantly trying to cash in on the Dan Brown, Da Vinci Code nonsense. Sam Bourne – Dan Brown, hmmmm.

Oddly enough Freeland doesn’t mention the trashing of his book or spiking of the negative review, or the Private Eye articles. And there is no mention either how the pen-name was so extraordinarily easy to uncover. What is the point in creating a pseudonym if you then give away your true identity in the very first line of the publisher’s note about the author?

This is all getting a bit much isn’t it? At what point does this self-created mini-universe of journalists implode? Aren’t newspapers supposed to be informing people about what is going on rather than acting as advertising hoardings and noticeboards for egotistical journalists?

Grumpy – and right

Michael Allen – a writer and blogger under the, yes, pseudonym, Grumpy Old Bookman – certain thinks so. In fact, he has been strangely prescient about the whole Freeland/Bourne/Righteous Men saga. He got annoyed about it first back in September 2004 when Freeland’s book deal was announced.

When the book finally appeared and Dibdin’s review was pulled, Allen mused: “If there is one cast-iron rule in what used to be called Fleet Street (i.e. the UK newspaper business) it is that any journalist who writes a book can absolutely guarantee that said book will be reviewed in his own and every other major newspaper. Why? Because every journalist is going to write a book sooner or later, and they will all want their books to be reviewed everywhere. QED.” And went on to complain about the Fleet Street mafia.

But it actually gets worse. Yesterday, The Sunday Times ran a piece by, yep Jonathan Freedland, which yet again was little more than a plug for his book. It begins: “Here’s a message for the political class. Put aside the polls and focus groups; if you really want to know what’s going on, take a good look at the bestseller lists. On both sides of the Atlantic a new form has come to dominate mass-market fiction: the religious thriller.”

His book – did I mention he had written a book? – is, guess what, a religious thriller.

Freddie and me

And then, if you couldn’t bear any more self-promotion laughingly dressed up as journalism, Freedland appears this morning on the Today programme trying somehow to make a news point out of his book. He appeared alongside legendary author Frederick Forsyth – who he for some bizarre reason insisted on calling “Freddie” – and guffed on about how thrillers were now dictated by the dangerous sects growing up around religions around the world. In particular Al Queda. You won’t be surprised to know that Jonathan Freedland is also a self-proclaimed expert on Al Queda.

Finally some reality appeared to be dawning in this drawn-out advertisment when Frederick Forsyth completed refuted that any such was happening at all. I’ve grabbed an MP3 of the start of the discussion which you can listen to here [mp3] – although you should go to Today’s website to listen to it [real player].

Michael Allen worried recently that he was being unfair to Freedland: “I do wonder, sometimes, if I am not being a bit hard on Freedland by banging on about all this Fleet Street mafia stuff, and the cashing in of markers for favours past. I dare say you and I would do a bit of it if we had the chance. But there is a serious point here. It is one which I set out at great length when Freedland got his contract, namely that writing a good book is far from sufficient on its own. Indeed, if you have the right connections, you don’t even need a book to get a contract. And a pretty handsome contract at that.”

I don’t think Mr Allen has been hard enough to be honest. Jonathan Freedland has an extraordinarily high opinion of himself and a good ego-prick would probably do him some good. What is remarkable about him is that he seems to think that he can turn his hand to anything and be instantly brilliant at it.

Imitation and flattery

But he will never be more than a second-rate copy because all Freedland does is see someone getting huge credit and kudos for something and simply copy them. He has attempted to do an Andrew Marr with Radio 4’s The Long View. But where Marr’s Start The Week is captivating because of his enthusiatic interest in what people are saying, Freedland can’t help but butt in all the time because he’s just realised something and that is bound to be of greater interest than whatever the expert is saying. He’s like a thicker version of Melvyn Bragg

He sees Dan Brown’s huge success and thinks “I can do that” and then copies him, no doubt settling down on his throne waiting for the thronging hordes of worshippers to arrive while reminding himself to keep an eye out for the bankers with the cheques.

As I understand it, he is also waiting for Guardian staff to recognise his overwhelming talent. It’s a little known fact that the editor of The Guardian is chosen by the newspaper’s staff every few years. Every time since 1995, Alan Rusbridger has been chosen but, brimming with self-confidence, this hasn’t prevented Jonathan Freedland from putting himself forward – to be rejected time and again by those unthinking fools that make up the human race.

You can find out more about this wonderful, talented man on his own website at

  1. This is what I would describe as an’aeroplane’ book as it is not great literature but fills the time and is a relatively good read. I would also agree with some critics that it is better than Dan Brown and certainly better than the drivel I have just read!!!!!

  2. One of the best reads around, far better than Dan Brown and I have read all of his books. Keeps you enthralled until the end. You just do not want to put it down once you start reading it !!!! Brilliant !!!!

  3. Snobbery aside, it’s actually pretty difficult to write a bestseler, and, though The Righteous Men is very much an airport style thriller, it is nevertheless an incredibly readable one – many many times better than Dan Brown. I spent many years free and easy with my criticism. Until I tried writing a ‘bestseller’ myself. Furthermore, regardless of fleet street mafia criticisms, if the book was really poor, it would not have sold…

  4. Forget how rubbish his books are, he is stealing his plotlines from the X files! Golems, Right wing revolutionaries in the American mountains, conspiracies, Lazarus bowls…he’s blatantly just watching X files episodes and stealing the plot lines…what a joke…how the hell did he get published and onto the Richard n Judy reading list? they should be ashamed of themselves.

  5. Highly amusing. I went to university with ‘Johnnie’, as he then known. He was also then known as a jumped up little prick, so rest assured that his high self regard began in very tender years.

  6. Why not pat eachother on the back instead…..lalala
    I listened to the interview and the way freedland connected thrillers to faith and religion seems reasonable since people tend to focus on/want the irrational the more rational the world gets. Congratulations to a fairly good read and this Forsyth fellow could in my view behaved a little better in the enclosed interview.

  7. I think your all mad. The books written by Johnothan are perfectly balanced with an ‘un-put-a-down-able’ feel when i read his books the filled me with excitment and fear. I absolutley loved them.

  8. Well after reading some of the upper class, political comments and also some rubbish about the author’s history, which, frankly, I could care less about, I would like to comment on the fact that although it isn’t Shakespeare, it was a damn good read. Incidentally, despite Dan Brown not being PC or flavour of the month for the snobs that like to be SEEN reading a “good book”, I also like his books as well as do many others judging by the sales. Even if it does appeal more to the middle and lower class section perhaps it is better that the population read any book than just a “good” one.

  9. I am half way through this book and have spent most of that time trying to convince myself that it’s not as bad as it seems. Unfortunately I have failed and I am now putting it in the great book cemetary that is the back of my garage and am going to return to a classic to lift my spirits up

  10. I have to admit,i had just recently started reading novels.’The Righteous Man’ is the sixth novel that I read.I can assure you the novel is surely a great piece by Jonathan Freedland.You guys out there will surely love every page of it.

  11. iv read all 3 of sam bourne books, the last testament, the rightous men and the latest one, the final reckoning! each book has only lasted me a week and i never want to put it down, and am gutted when i finish them!! no other writers do that for me, kathy reichs comes close, and gerald seymour on occasions, for me he isnt writing enough books!! fantastic read,

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