JC (John Clucas) Cannell was a man of two, seemingly completely separate, careers. He was a Fleet Street journalist, but also a magician. In that latter capacity he became vice-president of The Magician’s Club. After his fellow (and more illustrious) Club member Harry Houdini died in 1926, Cannell wrote the book-length The Secrets of Houdini (1931) which painstakingly explains exactly how each of Houdini’s famous tricks worked. In 1935 Cannell collaborated with Quaker Oats to distribute to Quaker customers copies of The Master Book of Magic; again a book which explained how magic tricks worked.
Sources that relate to Cannell’s work as a magician are silent about his other career as a Fleet Street journalist. Yet the books Cannell wrote about magic show his reporting appetite. He was driven to lift the curtain on how magic worked; a stance that his fellow magicians did not necessarily appreciate. Cannell’s instinct to reveal the ‘truth’ to his readers would have served him well as a tabloid journalist in interwar London.
Aside from his books on magic, JC Cannell also wrote an autobiographical account of his work as a reporter: When Fleet Street Calls. This book, which unfortunately has not been reprinted since its first issue, not only gives insight to journalism practices of the period but also to how journalists wanted to present themselves. In the 1930s British tabloid newspapers were in stiff competition with one another, and all tried to increase their circulation.
This decade also saw the launch of the first university-level course on journalism, at King’s College London. There was ongoing public debate about the training and education of journalists. Traditionally most journalists had no formal qualifications but learnt on the job, usually starting out as teenagers on local and provincial papers before making the move to Fleet Street in their 20s. This group of journalists commonly stated that university graduates did not have enough ‘real-life experience’ to be good journalists. The counterargument was that journalists had a duty to explain increasingly complex political, technological and scientific news to their readers; and that without a formal education journalists would not be able to understand the topics they were reporting on.
Cannell’s autobiography is published in the midst of these discussions. In it, he builds a very specific picture of the job and the type of person suited to it. It is an early example of the mythologising of the journalist, that has been expanded on by many subsequent books and films.
For example, Cannell states authoritatively:
“In no profession are contrasts so swift and strange, or is life more full of the unexpected than in that of Fleet Street journalism.”
“Because Fleet Street journalism is so unlike every other profession or occupation, the people who follow it are totally different from, may I say, the normal folk.”
His argument is clear: journalism is a very varied job, and not everyone is cut out for it. The role’s fast pace requires stamina and wits. Cannell also implies that whether someone is ‘cut out’ to be a journalist is innate; you either are the right type of person or you are not. A university degree in the subject would not make any difference if you are part of the ‘normal folk’ who are not able to grapple with the challenges of the job.
A bit later on, Cannell addresses the arguments about journalists’ supposed lack of formal education, more head-on:
“There is at least as much culture and accomplishment per head in journalism as in any other of the professions, and the journalist has an additional advantage of more worldly knowledge and shrewdness than the others, apart from, I think I may say, the law.”
The foregrounding here of ‘worldly knowledge and shrewdness’ again plays against the popular stereotype of the educated man as ‘bookish’; it evokes notions of journalists being scrappy and surviving on their wits.
The final part of the above quote concedes some respect only to those enforcing law and order, the most visible exponents of which were police. Cannell considers journalists and police officers as partners, with both groups contributing complimentary skills that allow criminals to be arrested. He describes reporting on a murder story, and going to visit the suspect’s family. Whilst Cannell is in their neighbourhood, he actually spots the main suspect:
“I was bound to inform the police that I had seen the wanted man. (…) The police are well aware that they cannot ignore the Press in their fight against crime, and I know of many cases in which detectives of national repute have asked the opinion of journalists covering a big murder story.”
It is clear that in Cannell’s view journalists, like everyone else, had a duty to respect the rule of law. However, he also makes it clear that in his opinion, the police would not get very far without assistance from journalists. Although it is no doubt true that journalists occasionally provided the police with tips and information, the same happened in the other direction. The police were able to use the press to their advantage when they needed information, such as the description of a suspect, to be distributed quickly. The relationship between police and journalists was more symbiotic than Cannell wants to make it appear. He prefers a more macho representation in which even the police are dependent on the tough journalist to give them clues.
It unfortunately goes almost without saying that Cannell’s ideal, imagined journalist is indisputably male. Although women had worked in British journalism since the Victorian times, and their numbers increased steadily in the run-up to the Second World War, Cannell does not acknowledge their existence at all. Cannell’s description of his job implies that it is unsuitable for women; for example, he boasts that when King George V was seriously ill in 1928, Cannell spent eight nights outside Buckingham Palace, waiting for news. He also describes that journalists can receive a call from their editor any time of the day or night that requires them to stop what they are doing and pursue a story. These working conditions were simply not safe or feasible for women, particularly if they had caring responsibilities.
JC Cannell’s autobiography not only gives insight to the working conditions of tabloid journalists in the interwar period; it also shows how journalists of that period wanted to present the profession. He describes journalism as a challenging job, one that only those with natural aptitude are able to succeed at. Cannell also presents journalism as an essential part of the law enforcement apparatus, to give the profession more legitimacy. When Fleet Street Calls purports to reveal to the reader the inner workings of tabloid journalism, in the same way that Cannell’s magic books revealed the workings of magic tricks. However, in reality the journalism book rather reveals to the reader contemporary attempts to shape the image of journalism in the public imagination.
 JC Cannell, The Secrets of Houdini (London: Hutchinson & Son, 1931). The book was re-issued in 1973 by Dover Publications in New York – that version is still readily available for purchase.
 JC Cannell, The Master Book of Magic (London: Quaker Oats Ltd, 1935). Second-hand copies of this book are also available online.
 JC Cannell, When Fleet Street Calls: being the experiences of a London journalist (London: Jarrolds ltd, 1932)
 Political and Economic Planning. Report on the British Press: a survey of its current operations and problems with special reference to national newspapers and their part in public affairs (London: PEP, 1938), p. 14
 Cannell, When Fleet Street Calls, p. 92
 Ibid., p. 200
 Ibid., p. 201
 Ibid., p. 177
 Ibid., p. 140
 Ibid., p. 100