We are like Jews in our love of telling long, lugubrious and insulting stories about ourselves, and our fierce resentment of anyone else doing so. – Nicholas Tomalin in the Sunday Times


Issue # 203
July 1, 2011


This Week

We start with the republication of a piece that appears here in response to popular demand.

True, the folk who have asked for it remember it the first time round, more than 40 years ago. For some it was inspirational, for some motivational; some it encouraged to seek work on newspapers.

Whatever, it’s a piece that should be (if it isn’t already, automatically) read to and handed to aspiring newspaper people. Unless the job has altered so much, which would be a pity.

Nicholas Tomalin wrote it for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1969 as Stop The Press, I Want to Get On. (There had been a briefly run musical, in 1961-2, called Stop The World, I Want to Get Off, starring Anthony Newley. Ah… memories… Ah, headline writers…)

Plain John Smith continues our series of How I Started on The Job (other people’s contributions still welcome) which, unlike Nick Tomalin, he managed without the benefit of a Cambridge education – indeed, part of the attraction appears to have been that (unlike, say, becoming an architect) journalism didn’t appear to require much education at all.

Derek Roylance has been to yet another funeral and has suddenly realised that the congregations at these services are getting smaller. Reminds me of Bernard McElwaine, seeing off a Sunday Mirror colleague at Golders Green Crem, pointing to Jack Bentley and commenting, ‘It hardly seems worth his going home…’

Rudge, the cartoonist, has joined the trend and outsourced his subbing.

But wait… All those words and barely a mention of drink, let alone of anybody getting pissed. And this website (apparently) has a reputation to uphold, a tradition to maintain.

Then in comes a message from new reader Mick Davis, a former wireroom telegraphist at the Daily Mail in Manchester, with a touching story about Vincent Mulchrone being visited in hospital in his dying days by his chum John Edwards.

He found Vincent had lapsed into a coma, but sat by the bedside for a while talking quietly to him about various times they had shared and about the people they both knew in the business.

John was aware that Vincent was close to death and was somewhat distressed when he came to say what he knew would be a final farewell to his old friend and colleague. As he leaned over the bed to whisper goodbye he glanced upwards to find a small plaque attached to the bed head on which was the dedication, This bed has been donated by The Vintners' Society.

So there you go. There’s no getting away from it. Even at the end.

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Stop the Press I want to get on

By Nicholas Tomalin

The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability. If you look at the jewels of the profession, you will see that this must be so… Some are more literary and less cunning than others; some certainly are more plausible; but it is these shared qualifications that make all of them recognisably of the same breed.

The ratlike cunning is needed to ferret out and publish things that people don’t want to be known (which is – and always will be – the best definition of news). The plausible manner is useful for surviving while this is going on, helpful with the entertaining presentation of it, and even more useful in later life when the successful journalist may have to become a successful executive on his newspaper. The literary ability is of obvious use.

Other qualities are helpful but not diagnostic. These include a knack with telephones, trains and petty officials; a good digestion and a steady head; total recall; enough idealism to inspire indignant prose (but not enough to inhibit detached professionalism); a paranoid temperament; an ability to believe passionately in second-rate projects; well-placed relatives; good luck; the willingness to betray, if not friends, acquaintances; a reluctance to understand too much too well (because tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner and tout pardonner makes dull copy); an implacable hatred of spokesmen, administrators, lawyers, public-relations men, and all those who would rather purvey words than policies; and the strength of character to lead a disrupted life without going absolutely haywire. The capacity to steal other people’s ideas and phrases – that one about ratlike cunning was invented by my colleague Murray Sayle – is also invaluable.

None of these things makes the difference between a good journalist and a bad one. Goodness and badness in journalism are difficult to define, and depend roughly on the same qualities as they do anywhere else.

It is more difficult to get into journalism proper (by which, I’m afraid, I mean metropolitan national journalism) than it is to succeed once you are there. Once in (given the ratlike, plausible and literary knacks), things are reasonably easy. But to get in, at the right level and the right time to display your talents, is extraordinarily difficult. This explains the widespread resentment and bewilderment felt by non-journalists who feel – frequently quite justifiably – that they could do as well, if not better, than those within the charmed circle.

Anyone who has got into the club, however, has no right to complain. His talents are constantly and publicly on display to his colleagues and his customers. He needs no formal system of grading, no office politics, to demonstrate how good, or bad, he is...

There are three reasons why the club is so difficult to join. Firstly, it is because journalism (or ‘the communications industry’ as aspirants like to call it) is now the fashionable profession in this country… it is obvious that the old prestige careers like the civil service, Foreign Office and even politics offer no glamorous prospects. The only enjoyable job is to stand back and earn a living describing our [the UK’s] predicament.

Secondly, it is because there are surprisingly few good journalistic jobs available. Thirdly, it is because journalism is so complex and various that editors and publishers usually don’t really know what they want…

Your greatest test, therefore, will be getting your first good job. Persistence is probably the most valuable quality here. If you read the industry’s brochures you may imagine employers are searching for new talent, winnowing out contenders, and selecting the finest. In an intermittent undisciplined way this does go on occasionally, but the best editors are far too busy editing to bother with it. In practice what happens is that a constant stream of applicants are interviewed and forgotten, and no one thinks about hiring until a gap or a sacking occurs. Then the first plausible candidate to turn up gets the job.

Friends can help. The best Fleet Street newspapers are not the open-ended institutions they like to appear, but feudal fiefdoms all bound up in intimate friendships and shared values. All good publications are communities essentially cliquish and inward-looking; the best editors are good because they have the most talented friends. Therefore you need to cultivate likemindedness, and pals at court…

An even more powerful help is a famous mother or father. Journalism, being fashionable, is a privilege profession. In its present state it shows many of the aspects of the aristocracy, and lineal descent is one of them.

However, the best – and more honest – way of all to get into the club is to offer a unique selling proposition. You can get a really good, exclusive story. Discover something that no one else could discover, write it down well, and take it to the correct man. If he wants it, he will subsequently want you, provided you don’t sell yourself short.

If this is an unsatisfactory situation, it is because journalists are always better at describing than doing, at telling others what is wrong than in practising what we preach. We are also oddly incompetent at examining ourselves. We are like Englishmen with our tender – and false – stereotype of ourselves as rough-hewn, cynical, full of endearing faults, incomprehensible to outsiders, but at heart absolutely splendid. We are like Jews in our love of telling long, lugubrious and insulting stories about ourselves, and our fierce resentment of anyone else doing so. We are like doctors: we make the worst, most touchy and litigious subjects of other people’s journalism (which is strange, because we are forever writing, fascinatedly, about ourselves in the fond pretence that others are as interested in our parochial problems as we are). We are obsessed with our professionalism, and convinced that there is not only a mystery to our craft, but a whole spectrum of laboriously learned techniques. We demand an apprenticeship, examination results, and years of drudgery before we allow entrants a proper chance to show their talents, and yet virtually all the really successful (and really good) journalists have somehow or other managed to escape such a cumbrous ordeal.

There are, of course, difficult techniques to master. An apprenticeship is essential. But one year, or even six months’ hard work, should be enough for anyone to learn all the practical techniques necessary. And this, in a just world, should be done by being in contact with the brightest minds and best institutions in journalism, that is to say, in Fleet Street...

A man who has served his apprenticeship on the Frensham Clarion is, according to orthodox teachings, meant to have had a far better training. He knows in his bones the correct form of address for a mayor, the legal intricacies of probate courts... and always to get the number of dead into his first subordinate clause. With such a superb start, he won’t necessarily spend his life in Frensham, but he is in terrible danger of doing so unless he unlearns it all in favour of the totally different, and no doubt disreputable, disciplines demanded by Fleet Street newspapers. Officially he is imbibing that precious indefinable thing, ‘a news sense’, at the grass roots. But he may not immediately realise that local news like weddings, funerals, road-widening schemes, magistrates’ courts, and aldermanic elections isn’t really news at all. It’s information, vitally necessary to that local society and to sell the local newspaper, but in real terms frivolous and trivial, properly fit only to be transmitted in some data-processing fashion, by computer.

While trotting round the flower shows the apprentice will have it continuously drummed into his head that the journalist’s job is to transmit something called ‘facts’. C P Scott’s antique motto ‘Comment is free, facts are sacred’ will be inscribed in pokerwork above his apprentice desk.

This idea is adequate only at the data-processing level of journalism. For anyone more talented than a news agency man, the idea of a ‘fact’ is so simplistic it is a lie. Facts are not sacred; the moment any reporter begins to write his story he has selected some and not others, and has distorted the situation. The moment he composes the ‘facts’ into a narrative form he has commented on the situation. The idea of ‘facts’, to be shoved at readers like little lumps, is best forgotten very swiftly.

To say a journalist’s job is to record facts is like saying an architect’s job is to lay bricks – true, but missing the point. A journalist’s real function, at any rate his required talent, is the creation of interest. A good journalist takes a dull, or specialist, or esoteric situation, and makes newspaper readers want to know about it. By doing so he both sells newspapers and educates people. It is a noble, dignified and useful calling. (All this is not, of course, to say that a journalist should ever be inaccurate, or false to the truth as he sees it. He must create interest while being truthful...)

The most valuable lesson a small local newspaper can teach an apprentice is that its most interesting contents, which sell the paper, are the classified advertisements. Even less real journalism can be gathered from schools of journalism, or from some academic course.

The only good teaching institutions in journalism are, I repeat, good newspapers…

To attack the idea of a comprehensive training scheme in journalism, and to assert that really good reporters and editors are born and not made, is difficult and dangerous. It appears to derogate a lot of brilliant people. It also smacks of arrogance, dilettantism, and a kind of whimsical disregard of honest craftsmanship...

The trouble is that journalism in Britain is crucially divided. Half, or three-quarters, or perhaps even seven-eighths of it, is a service industry, shovelling out perishable facts and names just as the United Dairies deliver milk. The other half, or fragment, is a collection of wayward anarchistic talents responding to, and usually opposing, the society which they are supposed to report.

It serves no purpose to pretend that these two traditions aren’t in many ways opposed to each other. No one denies life is tougher, and more real, for foot soldiers and general practitioners than it is for generals and specialists. No one denies this is so for the yearly batch of... trainees. But it really is a nonsense, born of a vague egalitarian urge to improve the public relations image of an unjust world, to pretend that they are cleverer, or even man for man more valuable, than the men who try to be brilliant on their wits alone.

Nick Tomalin’s first jobs in journalism after leaving Cambridge in the 1950s were as a gossip columnist and diary writer on the Daily Express, Evening Standard and Sunday Times. In 1967 he became literary editor of the New Statesman. He also established himself as a special correspondent, covering the Viet Nam war for the Sunday Times. He went to Israel for the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and was killed in a rocket attack.

#

Those first inky steps…

By Plain John Smith

It was my Billy Elliott moment.

At the age of 16, I announced to my astounded family that I planned to be a journalist. In a household steeped in the oil-stained rigours of the motor trade, it was tantamount to expressing ambitions to become a ballet dancer.

My father, having retreated to the nearest pub to get over the shock, returned to deliver a gloomy homily on the perils of the journalistic profession. It was, he warned, riddled with insecurity, ruthless competition and wayward living.

He concluded: ‘For every one who makes it to the top, there are a dozen lying drunk in the gutters of Fleet Street.’ (For someone more skilled with carburettors than composition, my dad had a surprisingly graphic turn of phrase).

No, he insisted, what I needed was a proper job. And he had found me one, thanks to one of his garage customers who could introduce me to a much more suitable and stable career.

So it was that I became a thirty-bob-a-week apprentice at Sutcliffe and Partners, a firm of architects with offices in Manchester Square, just off London’s Oxford Street.

I hated it, particularly when I learnt that qualification as an architect would involve seven years of night school.

After two months I began planning my escape. Deliverance arrived in the form of a three line advertisement in World’s Press News, the journalists’ trade paper in which I regularly invested a scarcely affordable shilling from my meagre wages:

‘Smart boy wanted for London office of major provincial newspaper group.’

Smart boy? They need look no further.

The group was Westminster Press Provincial Newspapers, publishers of scattered titles like the Darlington Northern Echo and the Bradford Telegraph and Argus. Their offices fronted onto the heart of Fleet Street, curling round the corner into Red Lion Court.

The entrance, scuffed wooden doors, was my stairway to Heaven.

I became an editorial dogsbody and I loved every minute of it.

They first put me to work in the City Office, staffed by two elderly gentlemen who arrived in mid-morning smelling slightly of sherry and wearing bowler hats, black jackets and striped trousers. After a couple of hours shuffling through company reports and making a few phone calls, they took up their perfectly rolled umbrellas and departed, muttering: ‘Lunch… contacts… stock exchange… might be some time.’

I was left alone at a corner table, with strict instructions to keep an eye on the Exchange Telegraph teleprinter for any fluctuations in the price of wool or cotton – vital information for the textile towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire, heartland of the Westminster Press readership.

Periodically I filled in a proforma with the latest stock market prices for these commodities which I then took down to the wire room for transmission to our northern outposts. This I did with all the urgency and self importance of Winston Churchill delivering another dramatic front line dispatch from the Boer War.

I moved on to the library, filing endless cuttings that the head librarian clipped from a huge pile of newspaper, all the while humming arias from La Traviata or Madame Butterfly, a reminder that by night he was also the Westminster Press opera critic.

Saturday afternoons found me at one of London’s soccer stadiums, stationed at the back of the Press box and eagerly awaiting hand written copy from the group’s sole London sports reporter which I then dictated to a copytaker from one of the few available pay phones.

For the Rugby League Cup Final I met up with a team of cloth capped photographers from Oop North who arrived at Wembley Stadium in a mobile darkroom. This was a converted bakery delivery van, somewhat sketchily repainted so that beneath the Westminster Press livery one could still see traces of the homely slogan: ‘Try our fresh bread, cakes and pies.’

I crouched with this crack team of snappers behind the goal posts, their urgent instruction, ‘Get that one away, lad’, sending me sprinting down the touchline with film from their Speed Graphic cameras, plus a hurriedly scrawled caption (‘Ackroyd goes close in the opening minutes’).

Then it was a breathless race across the car park to the bread van (sorry, mobile darkroom) where technicians waited to wire the pictures north for that evening’s sports Pink ’Un in Barnsley or Bradford.

Other Saturday afternoons saw me criss-crossing Fleet Street to collect football pictures from the Press Association offices, the prints still damp from the darkroom and smelling strongly of fluid from the Roneo copying machine that they used for the pasted-on captions on the back.

Every working day I was surrounded by the glamour, energy and excitement of Fleet Street. Photographers on assignment dashed in and out of the Keystone Press agency, next door in Red Lion Court. Ribald laughter filtered through the doors of pubs where raffish reporters gathered to booze and boast. Suntanned foreign correspondents in lightweight suits tailored in Hong Kong arrived by taxi at the doors of the Daily Express, fresh from world flashpoints like the Congo, Malaya or Cyprus.

At night I took shorthand and typing lessons at Pitman’s College in Finsbury Park, surrounded by aspiring secretaries who were quite impressed to find a real, live Fleet Street journalist in their midst (I had already acquired the essential tabloid trait of exaggeration when defining my exact role in the newspaper world).

But I was almost 17 and it was time to move on.

‘Junior reporter required for lively north London weekly,’ said the advert in World’s Press News.

New challenges awaited at the Muswell Hill Record.

So I said a sad farewell to Fleet Street.

But, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’d be back.

#

Diminishing returns

By Derek Roylance

This week I attended the funeral of a former workmate and was reunited with other former workmates and acquaintances I hadn’t seen for years.

Nothing unusual about that you might think, but as I enjoy my octogenarian years I realised that I only ever see some of these people at funerals. The realisation took me back more than half a century.

In 1946 when I left school to become a cub reporter on the old Rhyl Leader it was one of my jobs to cover all the deaths and weddings in the town. But it was the coverage of the deaths and funerals that sparked my memory bank.

After calling on undertakers (they call them funeral directors now) and the local registrar to find out who their customers were, I set off on my bicycle armed with a pad of forms on which were printed the basic questions I had to ask; name, age, occupation, associations to which the deceased belonged, etc, etc.

I recalled that I approached the first few homes of the bereaved with some degree of trepidation. Would the family be annoyed at the intrusion of a callow youth on their grief? There was no need for concern however, I was expected.

I had hardly got out the fact that I was from one of the local newspapers – the Rhyl Journal was the other, and, I believe is still going – when I was whisked inside. Every death in the town was reported so the visit by reporters from the local rags was part of the grieving process.

Usually I was ushered into the front room, gloomy because the curtains were drawn, and invited to take a seat.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom and started to ask my questions I often sensed there was someone other than myself and the family member in the room. I was right. There, lying in his or her coffin on a pair of trestles was the deceased.

At first this was a bit disconcerting to a 16 year old and I noticed that my voice dropped to a whisper. Why, I don’t know… perhaps it was because I didn’t want to wake them up…

But all this is the precursor to the main point of this story. The follow up to the visit to the deceased’s home was the funeral. This did not mean we young reporters had to sit through endless eulogies and the like. We hung around outside the church (or chapel – this was Wales) until the cortege had departed and then went inside to gather the cards left by the undertakers in the pews to enable the mourners to fill in their names and addresses for the benefit of the newshounds.

It was a source of amusement to me at the time to note that a small group of what I then considered to be old men gathered in a huddle outside the church and, at the appropriate time filed inside. After the service they reconvened in a solid little group and after a few words and a round of handshakes they all went their separate ways.

It was always the same group, less perhaps one of their number, and I remember commenting more than once that ‘these guys seem to meet only at funerals’.

More than half a century later I realise I am now one of a similar group. I have a new set of friends developed through various voluntary organisations I belong to. The mates made during my working life I only see at funerals… and their number is diminishing.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

After Rhyl (and National Service) Derek Roylance worked on the Walsall Times, Walsall Observer, Staffordshire Advertiser and Chronicle, Express and Star, then the Lincolnshire Echo. In 1965 he moved to Australia and the ABC national newsroom in Sydney, followed by 18 Years in Army public relations then 11 years as media liaison manager of the Civil Aviation Authority.

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Rudge


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The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 204
July 8, 2011


This Week

Our (alleged) reputation is (again) seriously at stake this week with yet another fun-packed offering, but with nary a mention of expenses or the demon drink.

Arnie Wilson went out for lunch with a bunch of former colleagues but – here’s the scandalous bit – they paid for it themselves. Not an exes docket in sight. It’s heartbreaking, especially when one remembers Robert Maxwell moaning about being ‘the uninvited host at all these staff lunches’.

Anthony Peagam continues our series about starting in the inky game (prompted by Walter Schwarz’s Guardian memoirs, The Ideal Occupation), but there’s no drinking in it – chiefly because Tony’s start was on newspapers run by the Sally Army.

It’s enough to drive a Ranter to the bottle.

Now, gather round, children, and whist while you learn some social history. Before you were given a telephone the size of a credit card that also served as a camera, a contacts book, and a typewriter, your predecessors had to rely on something considerably bigger. We called it a phone box, or sometimes a telephone ‘kiosk’.

Bob Cameron, who left Nottingham to find fame and glory south of the equator, has been exercising the grey cells to recall those days. (He actually wrote the piece for a newspaper’s Nostalgia pages, but it works well as a reminder of days of yore…)

This week’s a two-Bob week and Bob Waterhouse, who wrote the definitive story of the northern presses – The Other Fleet Street, has been counting the unsold copies of a (rightfully) highly praised book that everybody who worked in or to Manchester, or even visited the place, or dealt with them on the phone, should read. Or should already have read. It harks back to the days when Manchester was the biggest print centre on earth. Most newspapers were represented there. There was even a door in Withy Grove with a sign proclaiming it was the office of the General Manager of The World…

Bob’s rant also goes a long way to explaining why all authors hate publishers.

While on books, take a moment to look at the rave reviews for Geoffrey Seed’s excellent journo-novel, A Place Of Strangers, on amazon. There are 14 of them, and not one that doesn’t give the book a five-star rating. It’s another title that everybody in the game should (or should already have) read. It’s also great holiday reading.

And finally Rudge discovers that, while he wasn’t looking, they’ve started a campaign to tidy up the office.

Enough. I’m going for a pint. If you've got a piece about how you got started (or about anything else) please send it now...

#

For Petes’ sake

By Arnie Wilson

What’s in a name? Some are so common that the world seems full of them. Or at least the UK does. There are lots of Peters out there, not to mention Davids, Johns and Michaels of course. And Fleet Street was no exception. How many thousands of by-lines were devoted to Christopher this, Edward that or James this?

My world seems to be full of Peters. It’s been like that for years – particularly in Fleet Street. Peters have dominated my working life. But thanks to my rather itinerant career, not many of ‘my’ Peters knew each other. So I had this daft idea. Wouldn’t it be fun – maybe – to invite six of my closest pals called Peter to lunch? Although I was warned by one ex colleague – Graham Lord, I think it was – that ‘they might all hate each other’, the more I thought about it, the more I warmed to the idea.

There was my first chief reporter, on the Kent Messenger, Peter Edwards – we’d shared a flat in Maidstone. Two of my bosses – at the Financial Times where I’d been the paper’s ski correspondent for 15 years, and on the diary pages of the Star and the Sunday Express, were Peters – Whitehead and Tory respectively. The best-selling crime writer Peter James’s partner Helen is one of my wife Vivianne’s closest friends, and Peter’s become a very close friend too. Peter Hardy, a former Evening Standard and Daily Express reporter, is my oldest skiing chum, and was my best man when Vivianne and I married in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 2000. Peter Magness, the only ‘non-writer’ is a good friend from my home town, Haywards Heath, Sussex.

So, carefully blind-copying them, I spent months emailing them all to sort out a date these busy wordsmiths could all agree to. ‘Dear Peter,’ I wrote. ‘You are invited to join a handful of mystery diners at a very special luncheon at the Ivy Club. The bill – plus a suitable gratuity – will be divided equally. Dissatisfied invitees [and this was dangerous] may – at my discretion, and with sufficient excuse – ask for their money back.’

I built in one clue. I called the lunch ‘unre-Pete-able’. And dammit, one of them – but only one, The FT’s Peter Whitehead – finally guessed. But he promised not to spoil the fun when they were all introducing each other, which I hoped would be the best part of the occasion – watching them all gradually twig what the lunch was all about. And since Peter Magness was the only non-writer and the only one who didn’t know any of the others, I did take pity on him and tipped him off.

I even had helpful name tags made for them all. Helpfully, each one said ‘Peter’.

One Peter (Edwards) couldn’t make it, and another (Peter Hardy) – was more than a touch reluctant. Not knowing what sparkling company he was going to enjoy, he’d emailed me to say: ‘Hmmm… I'm not sure about this at all. Fact is, I don't really like the company of men (apart from yours) – I far prefer women and dogs. The idea of sitting down to lunch with all these guys for no reason fills me with dread… if half of them (or all) were women or Labradors I would feel very differently. I’m not a team player, I don't like football (perhaps they'd want to talk about football… aargh), and don't drink real ale. But if you insist…’

I did. And he said later that he thoroughly enjoyed himself. And he didn’t ask for his money back.

When the highly amusing introductions were over and they had all settled down behind closed doors in a private dining room, I made a little speech (just about the only time I could possibly make myself heard in a room full of great story tellers).

‘I expect you’re all wondering why I’ve sent for you,’ I started. Ha ha. Yes, that old line. ‘It’s not a complete coincidence that you are all called Peter.’

I went on to explain that since I have three friends (although none called Peter) who were struggling with life-threatening illnesses, I wanted to grab some of my best friends while they were still in good health and – in this case – celebrate Peterhood before any of us became frail or ill!

To my relief the lunch was hilarious. No-one appeared to hate anyone. They were all great story tellers, and got on really well. Tory was brilliant on his starring role in the new documentary, Tabloid, about Joyce McKinney, who famously kidnapped a Mormon missionary (the full story is in Anthony Delano’s book, Joyce McKinney and the case of the Manacled Mormon – now available in both paperback and e-book). Peter James, who has also produced some major movies, came up with some great behind the scenes anecdotes, and Peter Hardy who could and sometimes does talk entertainingly for hours about his Fleet Street war-reporting adventures gave as good he got. I have a few good tales of my own but in this company there wasn’t much point in trying to get a story or even a word in.

My only worry is that I can’t remember if I said goodbye properly to all of them. I remember saying good bye to Peter when he left and I think I said good bye to Peter when he left, and Peter escorted me to home on the train where we managed another bottle or two. But I’m not sure if I said goodbye to Peter, Peter or Peter!

Arnie Wilson is the author of Big Name Hunting, published by Revel Barker at £9.99.

Pictured, left to right: Peters James, Magness, Whitehead and Tory; front: Peter Hardy. All are wearing name-tags which say simply ‘Peter’.

#

The army game

By Anthony Peagam

I only ever wanted to be a journalist, and in July 1956, the age of 16, having curled my lip at the careers master’s offer of help, I left Tiffin’s to start my training.

My grandfather Tom was a printer’s warehouseman. My father Fred was a comp who wanted his son to be one of the ‘gentlemen’ who produced the words that he set in hot metal. Dad had a word at the Argus Press, where he worked on titles like Speedway Gazette, Photoplay and Competitors’ Journal, and after the family holiday I was to start on Argus’s detective monthlies, brought in from the US to be anglicised, redesigned and re-printed: True Detective and Master Detective.

Only I didn’t. A letter to our caravan site on Hayling Island brought the bad news. Argus had had to withdraw the job offer. So sorry, cost-cutting and all that. Perhaps next year?

I was too proud to go back to the careers master. We sat in the caravan and watched the rain, and Dad had his next good idea.

Most tales like this conjure up memories of editorial lessons learnt at the knees of hard-living, kind-hearted old sods and three-minute sprints from the Post/Dispatch/ Messenger/Courier/West Nowhere Echo to greasy pubs where a pint cost 11d and you really learnt what being a journalist was all about.

Mine doesn’t, for my father’s second good idea was to write to the editor-in-chief of the editorial department of the Salvation Army to see if there might be an opportunity for a keen young grammar school kid on one of its newspapers – War Cry or The Musician or The Deliverer, or even Young Soldier.

It needs at this point to be said that we were a long-established Salvation Army family. Indeed, in the 1880s my mother’s mother had, as a young SA lieutenant, battled against the brewers’ organised gangs – the Skeleton Army – in Folkestone, Christchurch and Macclesfield.

I played trombone in the SA band in Kingston upon Thames, and every member of our family was a fully committed Salvationist – Mum, Dad, both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, the lot. Most girlfriends, too (other than the glamorous Julia Bailey, who smoked as well as drank, and worried my parents no end.)

Thus it was that my editorial training began at the Army’s international headquarters, not then rebuilt in Queen Victoria Street but in its wartime home, the William Booth Memorial Training College on Denmark Hill, to which I often cycled from home in Surbiton.

I was the first trainee to be employed since 1938, and it was on War Cry that I started. I worked on it Mondays-Fridays for £3 a week plus 6s recognition of my O-Level results; my dear mother – adored by her regulars – put on her bonnet and took it round the pubs on Saturday nights.

The Argus Press did remember to come back to me in 1957, and I did get to work on Master Detective, sharing a bare office with Phil Ashcroft, who was later to carve out a great career with News International. But it was on War Cry that I laid the foundations of my own so-called career, beginning with responsibility for the P to Gs, the weekly listings of Promotions to Glory – the SA’s gentle expression for death that so delighted Malcolm Muggeridge – and the evangelical campaigns of the Army’s great and especially good.

Within a few months I moved over to The Musician, the weekly newspaper for SA bandsmen and songsters, and for the first time took a blue pencil to the copy of others – the Army’s army of local correspondents, who reported on SA musical events throughout the British Isles. I was also encouraged to research and write features, and still have my cuttings… which, bewilderingly, include a fairly arcane piece on campanology.

Over time I came to appreciate how good were the Salvation Army officer-journalists who welcomed me to Denmark Hill and got me started: Albert Kenyon, Brindley Boon and Will Pratt, Fred Brown and Miriam Richards, Bernard McCarthy and Will Burrows, almost all of whom have been P to G. They made me understand what was news and what was information, though without the expletives. They made me respect a deadline and to value accuracy, with nary a pint glass thumped on a bar-top…

Eighteen years later, freelancing as a photojournalist, the Observer Magazine sent me to Uruguay to meet, interview and photograph the schoolboy survivors of the famous air crash in the Andes. I had knocked the pre-publication manuscript of Piers Paul Read’s book Alive into a three-parter for the magazine and it was due to run a week later, so there was little time to get myself to Montevideo, meet Read and receive introductions to Nando Parrado, Roberto Canessa and others, then get back to London with my own copy and unprocessed colour film.

Fog had closed in on Heathrow. Air France wasn’t flying to Montevideo. So I got myself to Paris and on to an Aerolineas Argentinas flight to Buenos Aires, where I found myself marooned for the best part of a day in the transit lounge. My ticket said Montevideo; what was I doing in BA?

I tried to explain, made a bit of a fuss and had my passport taken away. Then, after a few more hours sitting on my camera case, I took a taxi in to the city centre to find the Air France office and get my ticket altered. Traffic was light, and grew lighter. The taxi driver clearly knew that it was a public holiday, but merely shrugged as I stared with dismay at the shuttered Air France building.

I ordered him back to the airport, panicked about missing the connection with Piers Paul Read and getting off to a bad start with the Andes survivors. Then, as we waited at a red light on a deserted suburban street, to my astonishment a chap in full Salvation Army uniform strode by.

I hurled myself out of the cab. ‘Please can you help me?’ I shouted. ‘I’m a Salvationist, a bandsman at Chalk Farm, and I need help at the airport.’ Which was not strictly true as I’d loosened the Army’s grip on me a while before.

He took off his SA cap and joined me in the taxi. At the airport he retrieved my passport and had my ticket changed. I flew in to Montevideo just before Piers Paul Read left for London. I got my interviews and my pictures, also my one and only scoop while paying my respects to the father of one of those who had died in the Andes. The US publishers of Read’s book stopped the presses to include it – a snap, overlooked by picture agencies Sygma and Gamma, of the fated schoolboys fooling around inside the aircraft minutes before it hit the mountain.

I have never forgotten the kindness of that Argentinian Salvationist. And never stopped kicking myself for not getting his name.

Anthony Peagam was a sub-editor on Woman’s Mirror after Argus Press, under the tutelage of the late Brian Checkley, and worked for Ford Motor Company publications and for Reader’s Digest, on the original Drive magazine, before going freelance and working mainly for the Observer Magazine and Radio Times. He later twice edited the AA members’ magazine, and was for seven years editor of TVTimes (and in 1983 chairman of the British Society of Magazine Editors) before retiring in 1999 after 11 years as Group Director of Public Relations at the Automobile Association. Now 71, he still freelances – and still plays the trombone, though no longer, alas, for The Salvation Army.

#

Press button B…

By Bob Cameron

I come from an age when phone boxes in all their fire engine red and lattice windowed glory were so rare – and treated with such reverence – that nobody dreamed of vandalising them. You’d probably have been lynched from one of the nearby lamp posts, with its handy hangman’s crossbar at the top if you did.

The cast-iron telephone box had a domed roof and in shape resembled an old sedan chair without the carrying poles. People were very polite and would stick their heads out of the ‘phone box door to tell those patiently waiting that he, or she, wouldn’t be long; even if they were in the middle of making an emergency call to the police, or the family doctor.

‘I’m just telling Dr Clarke me mam’s waters have broken,’ would elicit murmurs of sympathy and replies of, ‘You just take your time, me duck,’ from those waiting. They all knew what it was like when waters were breaking.

Vivid descriptions such as ‘Mine were like a flood,’ would invariably ripple along the queue, producing much shaking of heads and pursing of lips as memories of painful and gruelling births were recalled and exchanged. ‘I were in labour for 30 hours I was. The midwife fainted under the strain of it all.’

Grown men who’d served in the trenches would go pale and scarper when such talk started, but it was just a woman’s version of an old soldier’s war stories, and often with a happier ending.

The telephones themselves were large black bakelite devices perched like a matador’s hat on top of a black metal box. The box had a slot for copper pennies and two silver buttons marked Button A and Button B for pressing at the right moment, which made it an instrument of torture for those with shaky nerves.

(The father of my future wife installed one of these contraptions in his home, so that his three teenage daughters had to pay for every call they made. It worked miracles with his phone bill, but his missus made him remove it after she had to nip next door to borrow four pennies to make a call from her own house).

When making a call in a phone box you first had to lift the phone from the cradle and listen for the dial tone before inserting four copper pennies into the slot. Then you’d dial the number you wanted on a big silver dial, which made pleasantly satisfying clicking and whirring sounds as it went round and round.

When the person at the other end answered the call an urgent pip-pip-pip noise would echo down the line. This was the signal to press Button A and your coins clinked and clunked into a waiting receptacle inside the box; it was a robust piece of engineering perfection. The connection was now complete and your conversation could proceed, but only for three minutes and then you’d have to feed in more coins.

All this could be quite nerve-wracking, particularly as you had to remember NOT to press Button B by mistake and cut off the call, meaning you’d have to start all over again.

Most of us did not know anyone who owned a phone at home, so most of our calls were of the business or emergency variety. This meant speaking in that posh telephone voice we all had to develop back then; a step perhaps more evolutionary than revolutionary.

In particular this meant not dropping your aitches or allowing them to migrate to the wrong place in a sentence, such as, ‘I ham calling you in response to the hadvertisement about ’ome hinsurance.’ Telephone ‘electrocution’ lessons were all the rage for a while, my mam once remarked to me.

If the call remained unanswered at the other end, and this could be quite irritating as people should be there when you’ve made all this effort to ring them, then you pressed Button B and your returned coins clinked and clattered into a little silver half bowl also at the bottom the box.

The same would happen if the line was engaged. Telephone companies did not rip people off in those days; possibly because we didn’t automatically smash-up their boxes if our pennies were accidentally retained.

Instructions on how to make a call correctly were printed on a glass-fronted poster above the phone, and were quite easy to follow if you weren’t in a hurry. Below the metal box was a shelf holding the A-to-Z phone book and this was quite a slim volume in the early 1950s. Again the book tended to be in a more-or-less pristine state, apart from the occasional greasy fingerprint left by a caller who’d just been to the nearby fish-and-chip shop.

This telephone box stood like a red punctuation mark at the end of the street in my childhood and youth. It was me making that call about me mam’s waters breaking; I was nine at the time and making my first telephone call. I practised the message all the way down the street. ‘Hello, (not ‘ello) is Doctor Clarke there please? He’s busy? Could you please tell ’im me mam’s waters have broken, but she’s not started screaming yet.’

I added that last bit myself, but I have no idea why. Perhaps I didn’t want to panic him. Mam had five babies at home and not once did we hear a sound from her. ‘I don’t like to make a fuss,’ she’d say.

I rang to make an appointment for my first newspaper job interview on that telephone and I nearly dropped it when the managing director himself answered the call. I was only 16 and had never spoken to anyone higher than a headmaster or parish priest before. I even forgot to use my posh telephone voice and stammered like an idiot.

‘I don’t understand a word you’re saying boy,’ he growled. ‘I ’ope you collect your wits before you grace us with your presence.’ I couldn’t believe my ears; he’d dropped an aitch. There was ’ope for me yet…

Bob Cameron worked on the Beeston Gazette & Echo (Nottingham), Willesden Mercury, Island Sun (Jersey), Hounslow Post, Sunday News (Belfast), and then as a Ten-Pound-Pom sailed to Sydney where he joined the Sun-Herald (Fairfax), eventually becoming deputy editor of New Idea (Murdoch) and editor-in-chief of Kerry Packer’s Woman’s Day and the Australian Women’s Weekly. He also created and launched a still thriving weekly magazine, Take 5, for Packer.

#

Pulp friction

By Robert Waterhouse

I have a problem. Well, I have 1,025 problems. That’s approximately the number of copies of my book, The Other Fleet Street, stacked in Orca Book Services’ warehouse near Poole. For a paperback, it’s a heavyweight – I’m talking size, not intellect. It measures 24.5 x 18.5 x 1.5 cm and weighs in at 715 grams. Multiplied by 1,025, that means around 733 kilos and the best part of three pallet loads. The problem is that the book belongs to me.

In May 2008 (the book was published in September 2004), having received none of the royalties owed, I hired a lawyer. It transpired that the publishing house, First Edition Ltd, had been dissolved by its owner, Henry Hochland, now publishing under the name of At Heart Ltd. Remember him from my late 2007 rant, Publish and be dumped?

Henry offered me the then remaining 1,545 copies of the book in lieu of royalties. According to his lawyer, ‘Our client is actually losing money by selling the book as the cost in storing the book is greater than the profit it makes through sales. Our client only sold the book as he felt that the book had high literary value and it was important that the book was given an outlet for distribution.’ I was to be offered the chance to relieve him of his burden.

What with one thing or another, I did not take up Henry’s 2008 offer. What with one thing or another, Henry continued to sell the book – at a loss? – and never contacted me. A couple of months ago, wishing to give someone the book, I realised I owned just three copies myself. So I sent it via Amazon, costing me about £12 in all, and mitigating Henry’s ‘losses’. I decided I must finally act.

I discovered from Companies House sources (via CheckSure) that Henry Hochland had put At Heart Ltd into receivership. Along with First Edition Ltd and At Heart Ltd, Hochland has dissolved or liquidated Hochland Communications Ltd, Maslow Ltd, Pictures by Post Ltd, I Picture Ltd, I Archive Ltd and D M Comm Ltd in the time since I first met him in 2002. In fact, at the time I checked in April 2011 he had acted as a director of seven dissolved companies plus five that were either insolvent or being liquidated.

Currently, Henry sells his books (including mine) via another new company, Manchester Press Ltd. He’s also a director of Apps 4 Ltd, which claims to develop apps for mobile phones, as well as of Cars for Less Ltd – all these businesses being based in and around the Altrincham area of South Manchester.

The point about such details is that we are obviously dealing here with a businessman of some agility. Meantime, between May 2008 and April 2011, Henry had managed to dispose of more than 500 of my books (at a loss?) as well as a company or two. Since Orca’s records show only 54 sales since late 2009, several hundred would appear to have been remaindered at about the time At Heart Ltd went into receivership.

I contacted Orca’s commercial manager, Martyn Chapman, who put me in touch with Geoff Cowen of Star Book Sales, agents representing small publishers like Manchester Press (well, I hope they’re unlike Manchester Press). Neither, apparently, knew of Hochland’s offer, and both had been representing/supplying my book for Manchester Press in good faith.

I put it to them that they might just as easily sell my book for me as for Henry. Not on, they quickly replied. We deal only with companies of a certain turnover. Ditto for Gardners, the wholesalers, who in fact stock the books ordered via Amazon as part of a convoluted supply chain. Cowen tactfully pointed out that, in his view, I had three alternatives: move the books to a private warehouse, remainder them, or pulp them. Each costs cash.

I also talked to Steve Potter, commercial director of The Book Depository, the major online bookseller which has carried my book for some years. It seems he is in the process of evaluating a scheme for taking stock from small publishers or individuals, but it will not happen for 3-6 months and the most stock he’s likely to take is ten copies. From my perspective, not really a depository.

Of course, I have a fall back plan. That is to move 100 books to the cellar of a Manchester friend, books which I can sell/distribute as the occasion demands. The other 925 will be pulped.

They could, of course, be remaindered instead – but I have a sneaking suspicion that Henry Hochland might pick them up for virtually nothing and carry on selling them as before. That, I’m afraid, I cannot allow.

I will insist that the destruction certificate tallies with the number of books remaining in the Orca warehouse. Barring a miracle, I will order pulping on August 1 2011. RIP The Other Fleet Street, the place and the book.

#

Rudge


###


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The phone-hacking scandal is in some ways a quintessentially British affair, the product of a small and inbred society in which the elites in every sector are connected with one another through ties of business, family, politics, money, and sex. – Sarah Ellison, Vanity Fair


Issue # 205
July 15, 2011


This Week

Would Robert Maxwell have reacted in a similar manner to Rupert Murdoch and shut down a newspaper that made money but allegedly offended public morals (assuming that Joe Public actually cares a toss about where the stories come from, so long as they’re there)?

I don’t think so. Cap’n Bob never felt fettered by such inhibiting factors as good taste. Although he kept The Sporting Life going even after telling me it would be cheaper to fold it and to instruct newsagents to give a pound to everybody who asked to buy a copy, he might have closed a newspaper on business grounds, though not on the basis of ethics.

But I believe that he would have demanded to know the truth – the whole truth – and would probably have set up an internal inquiry and fired anybody who lied to it, whoever they were. And (it may not be a popular thing to say) in so doing – thief, cheat and bully though he was – he would have acted in a more honourable fashion than his great rival down Wapping way.

Hard though it may be for Mirror pensioners to swallow, Maxwell believed that he never told lies. He reserved the right, he said, to change his mind, but when he spoke it was only the truth. (That’s just reporting, not trying to start a debate.) So woe betide anybody, whatever their position, who lied to him.

In fact on Day One (27 years ago this week) he addressed all the MGN FoCs and told them that he’d give a million pounds to anybody who caught him out in a lie. At the time of his death, more than seven years later, there had been no takers.

On the other hand, if he were alive today he’d be offering jobs to everybody sacked by the News of the World in the incredibly perverse belief that it would ‘annoy’ Rupert if he took on people who’d been paid off or fired by him.

[Murdoch, we learnt this week, also once offered a million dollar bet. Angered by a piece about him in America’s Advertising Age, he bet its editor that he couldn’t name the source of the story. Wily old bugger… if you won’t identify your source on moral or professional grounds, how about revealing it for money? It wasn’t taken up. The story can be found here.]

But that was the mode in our beer and baccy generation. What of today’s cress-&-Evian young Turks?

Yet another journalist got his collar felt yesterday (Thursday). Word is that 45 Daily Mirror hacks have been fingered to the Plod as hackers. And 58 on the Daily Mail. Can this be true? Another 50 have allegedly been identified on the People. But, hang on… even if you count sports and snappers and subs, they don’t employ that many staff journalists.

Things have come to a pretty pass when you can’t believe anything you read about the newspapers.

Ranters received a lot of enquires following the announcement about the News of the World, as if it were some sort of pundit (it doesn’t pretend to be) and from people looking for sources. Sourcing sources – especially for newspapers behind a paywall or for non-contributors – is a service we should think about charging for.

When Leo White, who’d run an agency, became northern news editor of the Daily Mirror he told all his reporters and desk men: ‘If you ask a freelance for a contact number, or even to answer the phone, you should put him on the credits list. That’s how he pays the rent.’

Old standards and courtesies. Long forgotten. Today’s staffmen think it’s their right to ask, and your privilege to do their work for them. And a please or a thank-you would be nice.

Revel Barker answers some more of the silly questions he was asked in the past week or so.

Harold Heys watches NoW editor Colin Myler bang out his staff. After which they all moved down to the staff entrance (or, more correctly, the exit) and clapped him out.

[Is Rupert also clapped out? The current edition of Ad Age (see above) suggests the folding of the Screws was the beginning of his end. But events may have overtaken it, by the time you read this]

Roy Stockdill, who wrote the book, contributes an obit for his old newspaper.

Alan Whitaker offers a eulogy for a quite different newspaper, ‘the old News of the World’.

Roy Greenslade says it may be the end of the World, but it’s not the end of red-top Sundays, who have a fine history (if they can but remember it). When newspapers were newspapers and reporters were reporters, not the spoonfed milksops who are playing the game today. (Oops. Roy didn’t say that. That bit just slipped out.)

Ken Ashton winds up this ‘Nuts Screw Screws And Bolt’ litany with a rant about the overpaid and under-informed people who have been commenting on it.

Then Rudge adds his two-penn’orth about the technical ability of hacking hacks who face the axe.

Back to real Ranters life next week…

#

The old buggers

By Revel Barker

Looking back, as one sometimes does, it might – obliquely – have been the Daily Mirror that started it.

Remember the ‘Camilla Tape’ – the telephone conversation in which the heir to the throne mused that he might like to be reincarnated as a pair of his mistress’s knickers, ‘Or, God forbid, a Tampax… just my luck’?

Around 2am on a December Monday in 1989 a ham radio enthusiast who’d ingested several pints of lager and a curry (yes: the devil is in the detail) settled down to play with his latest toy, a radio scanner. After a few minutes of fiddling, he accidentally homed in on Prince Charles, talking dirty on a mobile phone to the wife of Andrew Parker Bowles, his allegedly close friend, and he decided to record the conversation.

Later he did what any right-thinking member of the public would do; he walked into the Manchester office of the Daily Mirror and flogged the tape to them.

Editor Richard Stott’s decision to publish it not only revealed the secrecy and lies emanating from Buck House about Chas ’n’ Di (‘they’re both working desperately hard to save their marriage’) but also the fact that mobile phone calls could be intercepted, or ‘hacked’ in to.

Reporters rushed to that shop near the Ritz to invest in scanners, and set up listening posts all over the place, including the end of The Mall, just outside the palace.

And people never learn. For years – even to this day – illicit lovers talked freely over the airwaves forgetting, or ignorant of, the fact that any form of radioed conversation can be overheard, by accident or on purpose.

But I’d said ‘obliquely’ because the Mirror hadn’t set Charles and Camilla up; it hadn’t employed a ‘private investigator’ to intercept anybody’s phone calls. The paper hadn’t itself done any bugging, nor commissioned any hacking (nor had it even realised that such a thing was possible).

Oh yes… and if you have proof that the royal family is cynically and purposely deceiving the nation, publication is quite clearly ‘in the pubic interest’.

As security of mobile telephony became more (but not much more) sophisticated, more (but not much more) sophisticated methods were adopted to intercept it. And the rest is history, even historic.

It’s all a far cry from the tradition of taping conversations, as was increasingly common in the old days. Some newsrooms recorded all (or most) telephone calls, mainly for their own protection, or peace of mind.

Sometimes – in those circumstances where a reporter daren’t produce a notebook – it was, and is, considered acceptable to use a hidden tape-recorder. (I remember an interview like that with Tony Benn, when there was suddenly an audible electronic bleep and Benn said to the reporter: ‘Is that your machine or mine?’)

With the near-total demise of Pitman’s, every reporter appears to use a tape these days for everything. God help them with the transcription, which must take for ever.

But that’s not hacking, and definitely not ‘blagging’. Nothing that happened in those days comes even close to what the Screws – and its Murdoch stablemates – has been up to. Not within a million miles of the stuff in this week’s disclosures in the Guardian from Nick Davies and David Leigh.

Before hacking we had bugging. About as daring as it could get, we thought.

If you could gain access inside a building, you could plant a ‘bug’ – one of those miniature James Bond wireless transmitters to be hidden in a plant pot or a lampshade, or a transmitter that looked like an innocent three-pin adapter – and sit outside and listen in on the car radio. You bought the kit from that same shop in Mayfair.

Here’s some maybe important information. When I was doing Sunday Mirror investigations a retailer loaned us some of this stuff to test. We played with it, but never used it on a story. The editor wasn’t aware that we had it. If I had bought it, I would have disguised the purchase and wouldn’t have told him.

The Daily Mail investigations department, under Jack Crossley in the early 70s, had a stock of such devices. Reporters Harry Longmuir and George Gordon didn’t have much opportunity to use them because many were borrowed, then broken or lost, by a senior Mail editorial executive who wanted to bug his own house while he was at the office and his wife was supposedly home alone.

And, anyway, the equipment didn’t always work in the way it was planned.

The Mail once wanted to find out what was going on inside the Labour Party office of a London borough where it was believed an election was about to be rigged in favour of the ‘loony left’.

They identified a sympathetic councillor who would be attending the meeting and he agreed to be wired up. But first he had to learn how to operate the equipment and switch on at the appropriate stage in the agenda. So they did some practising in the street outside.

Came the moment and the Labour man pressed the button. The wrong button. And the committee room was filled with the echoing sound of: ‘Testing, testing, one-two-three-four, Mary had a little lamb…’

Oh, the innocence of the good old days, eh?

Back to the pair of incurable romantics, with whom we came in.

Charles: ‘Bye. I’m going to press the tit.’

Camilla: ‘Oooh, darling. I wish you were pressing mine.’

#

End of the world

By Harold Heys

Colin Myler will now always be remembered as the last editor of the News of the World; rather a sad finale for a popular northern lad who never changed much over the years.

I always thought he’d have been even happier playing in the front row for his home town Rugby League club of Widnes before turning to journalism. Not that he’d have lasted long without a few extra inches and another couple of stone.

I remember him in the early 80s as news editor of the People and he went on to edit the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror again and the New York Post before joining the News of the World early in 2007.

At nearly 60 years of age, and on the last day of the News of the World, he looked back, briefly, on his career as he addressed staff in the newsroom from on top of a desk.

His career hadn’t been too bad, he reflected. ‘I’ve managed to take most newspapers down in circulation. Unfortunately I’ve got another first – I’d never managed to close one (Cries of 'Not your fault, boss. Not your fault.' And 'cheers').

As the last edition neared he said he wanted to thank everybody and joked about the irony of the last ‘mark’ on the paper being a legal.

He went on: ‘I can’t find enough adjectives for all of you. They say Cometh the hour; cometh the man. Well I say Cometh the hour, cometh the team.

‘You have been absolutely fantastic. You know when I read… Jane! Stop crying. Stop! You see all these southerners keep saying we’re northern wussies and we’re just proving it by crying. Stop blubbing! (Laughter).

‘I said this morning in a note what a difficult day this would be. I can’t imagine, as a journalist, a more difficult day. You are coming into the office and the paper is going to be the last paper you’re going to produce.

‘It’s pretty difficult and as I said it’s not a place that we wanted to be and absolutely not a place we deserve to be. So thank you for your professionalism.

‘You know, when I read somewhere in the week that the Sun were on standby because it was thought that maybe people wouldn’t come in here, it was risible and it was laughable and it was insulting. Never… (Prolonged applause and cheers). Never in a million years would that have happened.

‘You are the best professionals I have ever worked with and I have been privileged to work with a few. I mean that sincerely. I’ve been here four and a half years. It’s been a difficult journey for all of us. Very difficult. And I have to say that the way you have supported me and the executive team is exemplary. Beyond exemplary.

‘I don’t want to get too maudlin because I think enough tears have been shed over the last 48 hours. This is our – what is it? – our 8,674th edition. It’s a history of 168 years. I actually don’t think it will be surpassed and I think that we have not had a chance to even digest what we have done, what we have become, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it will only be when people go to the news stands and into the supermarkets and the newsagents on Sunday mornings and they find out that the News of the World is not there that they’ll realise what they’ve lost.’

He promised the staff ‘one helluva party’ when the dust had settled and said he was confident they would all get jobs ‘whether here or in other places’.

‘You are the best,’ he told them. 'Thank you.’

Myler arranged for secretaries to take some mugs of hot coffee out to the camera crews, photographers and reporters outside the plant and told his colleagues that he wanted them to walk out at the end with their heads held high and their dignity intact.

And, in a rather touching finale for the hard-edged world of newspapers, Colin Myler, the last editor of the News of the World, then banged them all out in the time-honoured fashion.

#

Farewell, cruel World

By Roy Stockdill

It was one of the best moments of my life when, on a summer’s day in 1967, I walked under the ornate clock outside the News of the World offices at 30 Bouverie Street and through the front doors to start a three-months’ stint as a holiday relief reporter.

After nine years in the provinces and two years on a long-forgotten socialist paper called the Sunday Citizen in Grays Inn Road, which made me temporarily jobless when it shut down, I had finally made it to The Street.

Twenty-six years later I co-authored the official history of the News of the World, a 352-page paperback published to mark the paper’s 150th anniversary. There was a huge and expensive party in a converted warehouse at Wapping, with a cabaret by Bob Monkhouse – whose memoirs I had just serialised in my role as the NoW series editor – and attended by hundreds of staff and many guests from the great and the good of Fleet Street and the media world.

There seemed no reason that night why, 50 years on, the NoW shouldn’t be celebrating its double century. Which makes it all the more unbelievable that a great newspaper, with the largest circulation on the planet, once topping eight million, on a Sunday, should have come to such an ignominious and inglorious end, mired in disgrace.

How ironic it is that, 14 years after I’d retired from Fleet Street, the very last-ever issue of the paper should feature my byline once more. It appeared in a 48-page souvenir pullout of some of the NoW greatest exclusives, on a front-page splash I had with the serialisation of a book about Princess Margaret’s love affair with pianist William Douglas Home, who later killed himself.

Even more ironic was the fact that I was asked to write a piece for the media section of the Guardian, the paper that did more than most to bring the News of the World to its knees.

It seems appropriate, if only for historical reasons and to give a flavour of what the News of the World was all about, to cite in full the blurb that appeared on the back cover of my book:

When the News of the World was first launched in 1843 it was billed as the ‘Novelty of the Nation and the Wonder of the World’ – and so it has proved to be throughout its colourful history.

Under the legendary leadership of Lord Riddell and Sir Emsley Carr (editor for fifty years) the paper prospered and reached a record-breaking circulation of four and a half million in 1941, setting the targets for mass circulation and distribution. By the 1950s sales had reached eight and a half million and the News of the World was the envy of Fleet Street, acquiring a reputation as ‘an uncommonly good newspaper’. In 1969 it became the foundation on which Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch built his British media empire and in the last twenty-five years has continued to flourish, often earning praise, sometimes earning censure, but always appealing to the heart of the nation.

From the Crimean War to the Swinging Sixties, from the First World War to the Profumo affair, from a quaint Victorian broadsheet to the thrusting tabloid newspaper of today, the News of the World Story is a fascinating chronicle of the life and times of our country.

The term ‘an uncommonly good newspaper’ came from a rival editor, R D Blumenfeld of the Daily Express in the 1930s. He was one of many, including lawyers and judges, who admired the NoW’s reliable and factual reporting, especially of crime and court cases. Under the strap line All Human Life Is Here, the paper’s penchant for covering salacious and juicy cases which titillated millions of readers every Sunday was legendary.

However, it wasn’t all sex, beer and skittles. Throughout its long history, the News of the World had a proud record of campaigning, investigative journalism. Many criminals and charlatans were put behind bars after the paper had exposed their nefarious activities.

I was responsible for a few such stories myself in my 10 years as a reporter and I once received a Christmas card threatening to ‘see me’ from a rogue about whom I’d written a front-page splash. He’d stolen a briefcase full of Cabinet secrets and subsequently turned out to be a mass murderer.

Years later, when I was serialising the memoirs of the Kray twins’ henchman Tony Lambrianou, he regaled me over a rare steak in a Fleet Street pub with an eye-witness account of how Reggie Kray stabbed Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie through the throat with a carving knife. I went off my steak and I think nearby diners were turning a bit pale, too!

Because so many words have been written in recent weeks about the history of the News of the World, I am confining myself to a just a few of the lesser known tales. How many people know, for example, that during the First World War large consignments of copies of the paper were sent to the troops fighting in France – a show of support for ‘our boys’ in the armed forces that continued through World War II and right up to the present day?

An unusual contribution to the war effort in WWI was made by NoW readers in response to an appeal in the paper for pigeons, the birds being needed for the army intelligence services to carry messages. Thousands of pigeons were supplied and the paper’s pigeon editor – yes, seriously, there was such a role filled by a gentleman called A H Osman – was appointed head of the government’s pigeon service with the rank of colonel.

In the early years of the 20th century the newspaper ran a Popular Barmaids Competition, as a result of which it acquired a nickname, the Barmaids’ Bible. The winning barmaid won a bicycle which was hung in her bar, festooned with ribbons. It was said that some staff reporters got to know the barmaids rather well.

Much later, of course, the paper attained another popular nickname, News of the Screws. This ignores the fact that over its (mostly) illustrious history many very famous and celebrated people wrote for it, probably the greatest of them all being Winston Churchill, a frequent contributor in the 1930s, and whose son Randolph was also a regular political commentator in the 1960s.

Just about every prime minister for the last 50 years or so wrote for the paper and so did Archbishops of Canterbury. Even some of those MPS who are now dancing on its grave were contributors too – hypocrisy rules, OK.

I have written on this website previously about Sir William Carr, the eccentric baronet who was chairman of the News of the World from 1952 to 1969 but a couple of stories perhaps bear repeating. Bill Carr, a two-bottles-of-scotch-a-day man, once told the then editor Stafford Somerfield to hire a boat to take the paper’s competition winners on a cruise. By ‘boat’ he meant the Queen Mary and the paper took 1,000 readers to Las Palmas for Christmas. Carr insisted on meeting them all, so the cocktail parties began at 10.30am and went on all day.

And I can reveal that Rupert Murdoch got the News of the World – the paper that was to be the launching lynchpin and basis of his vast global empire – on a sort-of fiddle. Faced with a battle between Murdoch and Robert Maxwell, the Carr family preferred Murdoch. So they issued shares on a temporary basis to a substantial number of NoW employees. At a special meeting at the Connaught Rooms, London, on 2 January 1969, they were urged to vote for Murdoch and had to give the shares back later.

Murdoch, of course, was fully grateful because it took him only three months to kick Bill Carr upstairs as ‘Life President’. Then, soon after, he sacked Stafford Somerfield, Carr’s protégée, as editor.

Can any story about the News of the World possibly be complete without re-iterating what is possibly the greatest headline in the history of popular newspapers? In early 1970 there appeared, sprawling four lines deep across five columns of the then broadsheet paper: nudist welfare man’s model wife fell for the chinese hypnotist from the co-op bacon factory.

My own view is that the downfall of the News of the World is partly to do with the nation’s obsession with the cult of celebrity. I stopped reading it, and any of the red-top tabloids, when bonking footballers and druggie models and pop stars became the agenda.

Is it not the final irony that one of the people looking to win a million quid payout for invasion of his privacy is Max Clifford, the man responsible for stoking much of this bogus, venal celebrity culture?

I wouldn’t deny that I played a role myself in the celebrity game by buying for serialisation the memoirs of Bob Monkhouse, Jim Davidson, Barbara Windsor and Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins. But I would argue that… at least, they were people the readers had heard of.

#

Out with the new, in with the old

By Alan Whittaker

In the last issue of the Screws the former Australian cricket captain Richie Benaud, who contributed to the paper, was in valedictory vein.

He summed up the sentiments of that dwindling band of survivors from the pre-Murdoch era by castigating the slimy coterie of self-preservationist buck passers who have scuttled the big ship of Fleet Street and confided that he and his wife would mourn its demise by raising a fond glass to ‘the old News of the World’.

The vessel may have been scuttled but it appears some of the rats remain.

The ‘old News of the World’… That’s the antediluvian newspaper I joined fifty odd years ago. A marvellous backwater of civilised serenity that had a matchless affinity with its readers while supplying them with a weekly diet of salacious court stories, and regaling them with riveting ‘hue and cry’ murder inquiries that bore the unmistakable hallmark of Bouverie Street.

Late last night the naked body of a young woman was discovered in a locked trunk by a vigilant porter at Brighton station. Her head was missing, and her arms and legs had been severed and were decomposing. But an initial examination showed she had not been interfered with.

The final sentence was added by the editor, Stafford Somerfield, who, more than any of his many successors instinctively knew what made the paper tick because he was an old News of the World man.

Norman Rae, a chummily cantakerous Aberdonian with a discreet regiment of senior police contacts was chief crime reporter.

Norman might have difficulty writing a note to his milkman but he regularly produced crime-related scoops without the tendency to involve the accounts department, as deemed necessary by some of his successors. A few pints and the occasional bottle of Scotch did the trick.

I worked alongside Norman and knew the extent of his contacts which ranged from chief constables to inspectors. In the early 60s we were in the bar of the Castle Hotel in Ruthin covering a murder trial at Denbighshire Assizes when he ordered me to phone police HQ and tell the chief constable that he was on his territory.

It was midnight. I was decidedly miffed, Norman was decidedly pissed, and the duty inspector was decidedly sniffy. The chief, he said icily, was attending a ball but he would enter my request in the occurrence book.

Two hours, and a bottle of malt later, a delighted CC phoned and arranged to meet ‘his old pal’ for lunch.

That was how Norman operated. A network of contacts, carefully nursed from their days at Hendon police college, provided him the ‘exclusive background material’ but it was also a combination of diligent legwork and subterranean cunning which enabled him to point detectives in the direction of two murderers who were subsequently hanged.

This form of ‘helping police with their inquiries’ has had a slightly different connotation in the News of the World newsroom in recent years, usually involving a supervised and involuntary ride in a police car to a police station at an inconvenient time. People in prominent positions at Wapping have repeatedly assured a bemused public that with the jailing of the royal correspondent, the wretched and disgraced Clive Goodman, the Augean stable that was the newsroom has been cleansed. But inevitably doubts persist.

And it is the prospect of more collar fingering at a higher level that intrigues retired foot soldiers of the old News of the World who feel betrayed by the folly of people who wouldn’t have got past the suspicious eyes of the Bouverie Street commissionaire never mind Stafford Somerfield or his irascible news editor, Charlie Markus.

We have heard Murdoch-appointed editors openly admit or claim they didn’t know what was going on in their own newsroom! But they were not old News of the World men.

One of them arrived straight from a provincial evening with as much experience of Fleet Street as the keeper of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse.

The News of the World staff, untainted by the toxic cloud that may soon choke some of the mis-management team, were told they had lost their jobs by the Medusa look-alike who presided over the scuttling of the paper.

This is a creature whose CV would fail to impress the proprietor of another long-departed Fleet Street institution – Mick’s Cafe.

Dismay. Disgust. Disbelief. That’s what the remnants of the old News of the World staff have experienced this past week.

Perhaps, when the dust has settled and the anger abated, we’ll follow Richie Benaud’s example and clink a glass in fond memory.

#

Celebrating the ghosts of Sundays past

By Roy Greenslade

The demise of the News of the World need not, and should not, spell the end of Sunday red-top tabloid journalism. It has a fine tradition, stretching back into the 19th century, and reached its zenith in the 1950s. Even though it became warped from the 1990s onwards, that does not mean that it has no place in modern Britain.

It's also fair to say that amid the muck that has passed for journalism in the contemporary News of the World there have been occasional stories of genuine public interest.

One obvious example was the revelation that members of Pakistan's test match cricket team were involved in a betting fraud, a story that won the paper the 2010 scoop of the year award. It was mentioned by David Wooding, the paper's associate editor, during his passionate defence of the current News of the World staff in various TV interviews within hours of News International's announcement that it was closing the title.

It's a great campaigning paper, he said several times over. Like others who have spoken up for the paper in recent days, he affected to overlook the kiss'n'tell vulgarity, acres of female flesh and celebrity tittle-tattle that have formed the bulk of the paper's content by pointing instead to the odd moment of genuine journalistic initiative.

In reality, the NoW – in company, it should be said, with other tabloids – lost the plot. There may yet be a way to rebuild a worthwhile form of tabloid journalism that serves the public interest rather than merely playing to the lowest common denominator.

But it's going to be a very difficult exercise in current circumstances, requiring a skilful editor and a committed owner who both understand where things went wrong and why. In order to move forwards, to explore the possibilities of a red-top renaissance, it is necessary to go backwards by taking a trip into a glorious tabloid past.

The classic mission statement in defence of the sensationalist popular paper approach as ‘a necessary and valuable public service’ was made in 1949 by the then Daily Mirror editor, Sylvester Bolam.

It ‘does not mean distorting the truth,’ he wrote. ‘It means the vivid and dramatic presentation of events so as to give them a forceful impact on the mind of the reader. It means big headlines, vigorous writing, simplification into familiar everyday language.’

By the time Bolam spelled out that formula, which was so successfully employed by the Mirror in the following two decades, it was already the watchword of a campaigning Sunday title, the People.

Though the NoW of that period was far and away the biggest-selling national paper with more than 8 million buyers an issue, it was the Sunday People that pioneered a form of investigative and campaigning journalism that was to influence its rival.

Both papers were broadsheet-shaped in those days, but it would be fair to say that the People adopted what we would recognise today as a tabloid style under the editorship of a colourful character called Sam Campbell.

He oversaw a prolonged period of groundbreaking investigative endeavour and enterprise that was to influence the following generations. He transformed reporters into quasi-detectives who set out to expose black marketeers, evil landlords and petrol thieves.

One of Campbell's reporters, the flamboyant and eccentric Duncan Webb, became the most famous popular journalist of the period, dubbed by Time magazine in 1955 as ‘the greatest crime reporter of our time’. In a series of increasingly hysterical front-page stories, he exposed the brothers behind a prostitution racket in London's Soho.

By the end of the 1950s, circulation of the People – with its brash slogan ‘Frank, fearless and free’ – had risen beyond 5m, while its once dominant rival the NoW – slogan: ‘All human life is there’ – saw its sales start to slip away. Sensationalist campaigning was winning readers by the week.

By common consent, the man who best grasped Campbell's theory and practice was Laurie Manifold, who had joined the paper out of an unashamed admiration for Duncan Webb.

It is no exaggeration to describe Manifold as the father of modern popular paper investigative journalism. He trained a legion of journalists in a range of investigatory techniques, which they went on to practise in the NoW (notably, Trevor Kempson, Mike Gabbert and the ‘fake sheikh’ himself, Mazher Mahmood).

Manifold initiated the use of subterfuge, covert tape recording and even the setting up of fake companies. But he was scrupulous. He drew up sets of rules for reporters on how they should behave. Though he was not above breaking the law on special occasions, he refused to take short-cuts and demanded complete honesty from his reporters.

His former staff still venerate him. A former editor of the People, Bob Edwards, called him ‘a remarkable figure... who would have made an inspired and incorruptible police chief.’

Manifold was responsible for a series of successes. In 1964, the People exposed a high-profile football betting scandal that ended with players being jailed. Far and away the most remarkable scoop was the revelation of widespread corruption within the Metropolitan police that resulted in the conviction of 13 officers and the suspension and early retirements of 90 other policemen.

One of his best remembered investigations, in 1975, revealed cruelty at a vivisection laboratory in which dogs were hooked up to machines that forced them to inhale cigarettes. The ‘smoking beagles’ image is one of the most memorable ever published by a newspaper.

By that time the People had switched to tabloid format and in the ensuing years its public interest investigations gave way to series about sex and celebrity stories. Sales have fallen away ever since.

Well before that, many of Manifold's techniques had been carried across to the News of the World by defecting People staff. During the newspaper feeding frenzy surrounding the scandal that led to the resignation of war minister John Profumo in 1963, the NoW began to use subterfuge on a regular basis.

The paper's stock-in-trade became the exposure of the sexual peccadilloes of various pillars of supposed moral authority – vicars, scout leaders, politicians and peers. Running in parallel were kiss'n'tell stories about TV and movie celebrities.

Initially, they were not so hard-edged as they became from the late 1980s onwards. But there was no genuine public interest reason for many of them.

Most importantly, however, there was a sense of proportion in the paper's overall content, what was then known in the tabloid trade as ‘balance’. And this is the key to understanding where the News of the World went wrong and, therefore, where it might just be possible to put popular journalism right.

The editors of tabloids in their heyday sought to maintain a subtle balance between serious and sexy content, between significant public interest stories and sensational ones that interested the public.

When the London Evening Standard reported the NoW's closure last week, it illustrated its story with a picture of a subeditor checking the front page proof of a November 1953 issue of the paper with the splash headline ‘Five weeks change the face of Sudan’. That was the serious face of a paper with plenty of court reports inside to titillate its vast audience of readers. Balance.

At about the same time, a Daily Mirror editor famously shouted to his picture editor ‘Have you got any tits to go with the rail strike?’

The NoW, and in this sense the paper is little different from several other red-tops, gradually eschewed any attempt at providing anything other than celebrity-based material.

Worse than that. In order to fulfil the remit, its reporters were encouraged to use any means necessary to obtain it. That led to an increasing use of suspect methods. For example, instead of using subterfuge sparingly, it became a matter of routine. Similarly, it has now become clear that the interception of voicemail messages was also a matter of habit.

There would be no point in producing a new red-top that purveys only salacious content relying on intruding into the privacy of the rich and famous. The kiss'n'tell game is up.

But there remains a need for a paper that can balance the heavy and the light, that can both entertain and inform and, most importantly, does investigate and campaign on matters of genuine public interest.

It is a tough call. The NoW's main rivals, the Sunday Mirror and the People, have seen their sales slip away despite being altogether less aggressive in their methods and somewhat more balanced in their journalistic output. But they have also been notably less successful as campaigning papers.

And that brings us to an uncomfortable truth that needs to be understood by those who scorn modern tabloids and what they represent.

The changes in newspapers have, to an extent, mirrored changes in society.

The News of the World, which laid claim to 7 million readers with its 2.6m regular sale, published increasingly sordid stories about sexual shenanigans, replete with intimate details, because people clearly wished to read them.

Though its sales did slide, they did so roughly in line with the overall decline of print. In other words, there was a viable market for its style of journalism.

Despite that, in creating a new tabloid, it would, paradoxically, be a breath of fresh air to see a reborn paper return to the virtues of the past.

#

Who screwed the Screws?

By Ken Ashton

According to a report published this week by energy advisers Alert Me (http://www.alertme.com/) if you have £10 in your wallet, enjoy a Friday fish supper and will almost certainly have a couple of rows with your loved ones this week, then consider yourself normal. You are, in fact, officially Mr or Mrs Average. A study into the nation’s habits revealed that the typical family lives in a semi-detached house, owns a silver Ford Focus and enjoys meals with predictable regularity.

And may I suggest it probably doesn’t give a chimpanzee’s sexual antics about the closure of a national newspaper and certainly didn’t join the campaign to shut it down.

Yet if you listen to the media commentators, it was ‘Mr Average’, accompanied by his missus that campaigned and brought about the closure of the most popular newspaper in the land.

The final edition of the News of the World sold out – four and a half million copies. Spares were selling on e-Bay for up to £50 a time. And the commentators dancing on its grave were claiming this was ‘a victory for public opinion’.

The Great British Public had risen against the bully boys of the Murdoch empire and struck back. Oh, beam me up…

Mark Sweeney in the Guardian – ‘…as members of the public put aside their feelings of animosity over phone hacking to snap up a final souvenir copy of the 168-year-old paper.’

Mary Ann Sieghart, Independent – ‘Politicians will be more worried about incurring the wrath of voters than the wrath of a proprietor of a discredited company… And what had happened to public opinion? Well, at last readers had started to question what went into the stories that they so enjoyed reading. Just as shoppers eventually turned against battery-farmed chicken and clothes made by child labour, so they finally began to take an interest in the methods used to fuel their diet of tittle-tattle.’

‘The fallout from the phone hacking affair will be felt by journalists well beyond Wapping,’ says Ian Reeves, a lecturer at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent. ‘One regional newspaper editor is concerned over what will happen the next time he sends a reporter on a “death knock” to talk to the family of a fatal accident or a murder victim – never an easy job even at the best of times.’

Whoa! The last time I looked, the shoppers I saw were still buying their cheap chickens from Tesco et al, whatever their sourcing, still buying slave-stitched clothes from High Street shops because they can’t afford the prices the London fashion pages display.

And as for doing the ‘death knock’, why – my local papers seem only to web search local police PR pages and the victim’s Facebook page and nick pix and tributes – mainly because they haven’t the staff to spare for knocking on doors. Is that intruding into privacy? They haven't even the staff to spare for looking into local scandals or simply reporting anything other than what comes into the office.

A local councillor tells me his council has removed the Press table from its chamber because it's a few years since any reporter attended, so it was not needed.

I venture to suggest the media commentators are totally out of touch. They think it was the public who persuaded the major advertisers to pull the plug on the NoW, when it is more likely that their own PR advisers did the job. Can you imagine Mr or Mrs Average emailing Boots or M&S and threatening not to shop there if they continued to advertise in the Screws?

I've worked on newspapers that closed, for one reason or another – the Daily Sketch because the owners decided to put all of their eggs in the Daily Mail basket. I can’t recall anyone rushing into the streets with banners, shouting ‘Save the Sketch!’

My local paper, the Rhyl Journal, closed its Prestatyn office to save money, without demonstrations from its citizens. The paper then moved its operations to Colwyn Bay – 15 miles away – and it is still called the Rhyl Journal. The readers don’t mind.

The Great British Public doesn’t do calls for anything – it’s the interested parties who lead the charge. The GBP usually sighs wearily when the Afghanistan War drags on, the Libya ‘help’ ratchets up the price we are paying, the news bulletins flash another Africa crisis, the Greeks go broke or British Gas hike their prices.

I suggest it’s the way the GBP, Alert Me’s Mr Average and his family, think. In these economic times, don’t you think they see the closure of a newspaper as the loss of one of their weekend entertainment sources, wonder which one they'll switch to and start to wonder who will win next season’s Premier League title? And where to get the best fish and chips and when they can afford to upgrade the Focus.

They don’t understand the BSkyB furore, can’t interpret Robert Peston when he’s expounding financial and economic matters and don’t even listen when politicians are spouting on the TV evening news while they are dining after a hard day’s work.

And will the GBP fret about the good, honest workers who are now on the dole? Or be moved by the scenes on YouTube – I doubt it.

But as we drive a Fiat Punto and I’m banned from fish and chips on cholesterol grounds, maybe I’m not average. Maybe it’s me who is out of step with the Great British Commentator. Ah, well, as we used to say…

#

Rudge


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The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 206
July 22, 2011


This Week

More or less back to normal this week, after a totally Screw-y edition. But the News of the World fiasco is not going to go away, at least in the foreseeable future.

However, two pieces in last week’s Ranters prompted Alan Hart to bring us back into synch with a more typical contribution on the ‘gentlemen-that-reminds-me’ scheme of things. Which is how it should be.

The goings on (it was in all the newspapers) also reminded Andy Jackson of his own cash-for-questions or bribe-an-official experience.

Michael Morton-Evans’ grey cells were stirred by Bob Cameron’s piece two weeks ago on red phone boxes.

Neil Marr continues our series of getting started on the job. (This is a series that may soon be drawing to a close, although contributions are still welcome.)

But back to the story of the week, or the fortnight, or the year.

Revel Barker has been watching the telly as MPs, all of whom are of course experts on newspapers, quiz people in the business: 'Are your editors under pressure to get good stories?'

And Rudge – cartoonist James Whitworth – is propping the whole thing up at the foot of the page.

#

Winged messengers

By Alan Hart

The reminiscences of two of my former News of the World colleagues in last week’s issue of Ranters brought both a manly tear to my eye for the loss of a once-loved newspaper and fond memories of happier times.

Roy Stockdill’s piece, which included the fact that the NoW once had a pigeon editor, reminded me of a tale told by father, Len Hart.

He was born in Manchester in 1896 and started his journalistic career as a messenger, interrupted by the call of Kitchener in 1914, when he stole his older brother’s birth certificate, ran away from home to enlist and got himself wounded with the Manchester Pals’ Regiment during the Battle of the Somme.

He resumed his career in 1918, working for a variety of publications including the Athletic News, the Daily Express and, finally, the Daily Telegraph, from which he retired as northern features sub-editor at the age of 70.

My brother Ted and I followed his footsteps into journalism and enjoyed the times when he would regale us with stories of his early days in newspapers.

These included the fact that most newspapers had pigeon lofts at the top of their buildings, where flocks of birds would be housed and fed. Reporters going out on big stories would take a couple of homing pigeons in baskets with them to send back articles in what was then the quickest form of communication.

This was especially vital when soccer writers were covering big games. They would take three birds with them – one for the half-time report, one for the remainder of the match report, and the final score would be attached to the leg of the last bird, which was judged to be the fastest flyer.

While dad was learning the ropes, accompanying a writer to a top game, two of the birds had already been despatched with the match descriptions. The score was 1-0 and the final whistle was imminent. (There was no injury-time in those days: players weren’t allowed to get injured).

The writer had already written the final score, attached it to the leg of Daisy and waited for the whistle. On hearing a long blast from the referee, he launched her skywards.

Unfortunately, the referee was not signalling the end of the game but pointing to the penalty spot. The writer watched in horror as Daisy disappeared from view at the same time as the ball hit the back of the net for a 1-1 draw.

It was the last kick of the game and the writer had no pigeons left. After penning his correction and the scorer’s name, the writer thrust the piece of paper into my father’s hand and said: ‘There’s a pint in it if you can beat the pigeon back to the office.’

The other article which stirred my memory was that by Alan Whittaker, who recalled the News of the World coverage of what was known as “The Brighton Trunk Murder” in 1934. Amazingly, police were investigating the discovery of a headless torso in a trunk in Brighton, when they discovered the body of a second woman in a trunk in the same seaside town.

The two cases (or trunks) were not connected and it was just an extraordinary coincidence.

The second victim was Violet Kaye, whose boyfriend, Tony Mancini, was arrested and charged with her murder. He pleaded not guilty and told the jury how he came home from work, found her body in their rented home, panicked and hid it in a trunk.

The jury found him not guilty, but in 1976 Mancini moved to Merseyside and contacted me because he was planning to write a book. He told me that his story to the jury was a pack of lies. He claimed they had a row and he threw a hammer at Violet.

It hit her on the temple and he finished her off by banging her head repeatedly against the fire surround. He said he had lied to escape the gallows. It made the front-page splash in that weekend’s News of the World, at a time when our circulation was around 6 million. To my embarrassment the headline read i’ve got away with murder, By Alan Hart.

Alan Hart was a staff reporter based in the Manchester office of the News of the World from 1971 until 2000. He would like to make it clear that he is not helping police with their inquiries.

#

Cash for questions

By Andrew Jackson

I shall not resign.

These days I have nothing to resign from except retirement – and we all know what that means.

But, way back then, a certain piquant moment was the closest I ever got to cash for favours journalism.

In the late ‘60s I left newspapers and entered the world of television, swapping lunches of beer and cheese and pickle sandwiches for moments of white wine and chicken breast in a cradle of lettuce.

David Frost was at his peak. Three programmes a week, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, plus a show in the States. The Friday shows were topical and featured interviews with headline figures such as fraudster Emil Savundra that often led to follow-ups in the morning papers.

They usually went out live and part of my job was to be at LWT’s Wembley studios ready to file copy to the Press Association and elsewhere if anything newsworthy came up. Sometimes the papers sent reporters along so that they could get extra quotes from the interviewee in the green room after the show.

On this occasion the ‘guest’ was Kenneth Kaunda, president of Zambia, and a controversial figure at the time.

So interest was high and The Times, Telegraph and Guardian sent their men along because Kaunda had been evading the media and they thought they might have a chance of cornering him at some stage.

The programme went out as planned and Kaunda and Frost bandied words for the best part of an hour. Then the lights dimmed and the audience dispersed – but the boys from the blacktops wanted a little bit more. Could I get them into the green room for a chat with the Prez?

Usually, the green room – basically a backstage bar – was a relaxed haven where production staff and performers would wind down after the show. This time, however, it had been commandeered by Kaunda’s entourage and the door closed to all but an elite few.

But it was worth a try. I led the three reporters down the stairs from the viewing gallery and tapped on the green room door. It was opened by a massive figure, a macaroni decked out in all manner of epaulettes, insignia, braiding, piping, ironmongery and scrambled egg. He would have been a credit to the Odeon Leicester Square. But he was no commissionaire. This was Kaunda’s security chief and he didn’t look pleased to see us.

Behind him I could just see Kaunda sitting on a throne-like seat that could only have come from the props department. Someone was wafting a fan over him.

The macaroni’s eyes bored into mine. Would it be possible for three journalists from the most respected British newspapers to have a few words with Mr Kaunda following his brilliant interview with Mr Frost?

He said nothing.

An involuntary, nervous movement of my arm took it across my body towards my right shoulder. The macaroni’s eyes flickered and his head inclined slightly as if to prompt me. I realised my hand had come to rest over my wallet. A very brief smile crossed his face, little more than a twitch. Gingerly, I reached inside my jacket. The wallet contained a fiver intended for petrol on the way home. He beamed the sunniest of smiles, shook my hand warmly and trousered the fiver.

He turned, muttered a few words to Kaunda and we were waved inside. The boys got their quotes and a glass or three, filed their copy and went home happy. My new best friend said I should visit Zambia at the earliest opportunity.

A week later, filling in the expenses form, I wondered how to account for the fiver. Giving up, I just put ‘bribe to Kenneth Kaunda’.

It was paid without question.

To this day I kick myself for not claiming a tenner.

Andy Jackson joined the Surrey Mirror series from school in 1960 and worked in all its regional offices before going to the Hendon Times series as chief reporter for the Edgware Times and Post. In 1966 he became a press officer for Lew Grade's ATV and in 1968 he joined London Weekend Television where he later became chief press officer. He left LWT after 21 years to start Southbank Communications, a PR and marketing company and then worked both as a freelance consultant and in-house for a local government agency. He continues to write and edit publications for a number of clients.

#

Boxing clever

By Michael Morton-Evans

Bob Cameron's piece about the old phone boxes reminded me of my first day as a very junior reporter on the London Evening Standard back in 1960.

Arriving in the news room in Shoe Lane, I was told to seek out our crime reporter, Nelson ‘Sully’ Sullivan and do what he told me. Obediently I found Sully at his desk, preparing to go out. ‘Follow me, boy,’ he growled.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked. ‘You'll see,’ was his reply. We ended up at a magistrate's court somewhere in South London.

This promised to be exciting, I thought. My first experience of watching some villain getting banged up for something or other.

Parking the car, Sully got out and handed me a card on a string. ‘See that phone box over there,’ he said, pointing to the pillar box-red, and in those days largely unvandalised, edifice on the other side of the road. ‘Take this card in there and hang it on the phone, then meet me inside.’

Obedient as ever, I trotted across the road and did his bidding. And the card? It read simply ‘Out of Order.’

When the hearing was over and a stream of reporters flooded from the court, descending on the nearest phone box like a tsunami, the muttered curses could have been heard a mile away.

The tide rushed on to find other means of communication, at which point Sully sauntered out casually, into the box, popped the card in his pocket and once again the Evening Standard beat the Evening News to the story.

Mobile phones have changed all that…

Michael Morton-Evans went on to BBC TV for 5 years, then features editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong King, finance editor of the Daily Mirror in Sydney, show business editor of the Sunday Mirror, then ABC Radio in Sydney. He is now a classical music presenter on 2MBS-FM 102.5 (2mbs.com).

#

Pitman’s progress

By Neil Marr

One day, a ‘careers adviser’ (that’s a teacher who can’t teach and can’t find himself a better job than telling kids how to fall flat on their arses and lead lives of uninspiring drudgery like his own) arrived at my school.

It would have been 1964. Summer. Sun blazing through the plate glass wall of Room Four. I was fifteen. Sun gave me terrible hay-fever sneezing fits and streaming eyes, but sunglasses were not part of the uniform and strictly interdit. And I was at the butt end of the charts in Class 5G. You don’t drop lower than that unless you’re being intensively trained by specialist profs to get through an interview to become a dustman’s mate in Wigan or an unskilled moulder at the local car mat factory. Gee thanks, Wigan, Lancs.

Everyone wanted to be teachers and doctors and lawyers and engineers and town clerks and fancy stuff like that. Suddenly Room Four became Room 101. I stayed mum because all I really wanted to do was the girls’ gym instructor, who went bra-less and had nipples you could hang splashes from. Then one kid – his name, I recall, was ‘Kev the Rev’ because he was a chapel boy from Llandudno – stuck up his hand and said he wanted to be a journalist.

The ‘adviser’ and all the clever kids scoffed and giggled at his audacity and hopeless dreaming. Kev agreed to give up journalism there and then and later became a real Rev in some church in North Wales. I was as thick as a pit prop and merely bemused by such a bewilderingly long and mysterious word. I had no idea what a journalist was (almost half a century later, I’m still unclear on that).

I didn’t giggle with my chums, though. I found out with an immediate trip to the public library that day and its boss Carlon Melling. He’d been Orwell’s researcher on The Road to Wigan Pier and he knew, off the top of his head, exactly how many books I’d devoured in any given month – because he dished them out and later tested me on their content. And then I read every paper I could get my hands on; most in Carlton’s library’s reading room for strays. down-and-outs, racing form gamblers and pests like me who couldn’t afford tuppence to actually buy the rags. And I thought – that’s me. I’ll do journalism. Easy peasy.

And, oddly enough, it was. Eventually.

My mum thought otherwise. ‘You want to spend your life ruining honeymoons?’ she sensibly asked (she was a News of the World reader). My dad – a man of greater wit, some practicality and more influence than Mum – called in his special NCB contacts (Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board, was a good buddy) and sent me down the pit at sixteen.

Shine a bloody light! I’d already spent three years from the very day of my thirteenth birthday, when such child labour became legal in Britain, before and after grammar school as a butcher’s delivery boy, pedalling an Open-All-Hours bike the size and weight of a small tank up and down steep hills in Arctic conditions. I also had to cycle to slaughter houses to pick up buckets of unidentifiable animal bits and pieces and blood used in the manufacture of sausage and black pudding by Jack Mackie, High Class Family Butcher. More manual labour – for life, and where the sun don’t ever shine – didn’t greatly appeal.

But I did what Dad said. Down the pit I went, as a privileged ‘student apprentice’ electrician. That distinction meant I had different coloured dungarees. At least to start with. After an hour, they were the same colour as everyone else’s – coal black. After every shift (we had pit-head baths by then at the more modern mines), I’d shower and change into my snazzy Burton’s six-quid suit and nifty tie (two bob from Woolworths) to knock on the doors of local newspaper editors. Always uninvited – cold-calling, salesmen call it; we call it door-stepping).

I had been a pretty neat typist for years and I’d learnt shorthand from Mum, who’d been a secretary in the WRENS, which is how she met the Old Man when their ships both docked in Malta. They cast racism aside and my fiercely Scottish father was united with a Welsh witch from the Rhondda. I strongly suspect that I was conceived there, not far from Sans Serif, in fact. I own a calculator now and can work out the time span between a marriage and a birth.

In my early teens, I used to write trash for school mags and even the captions for an illiterate Wigan Observer snapper who lived over the road. My curiosity was boundless. People and what they got up to – good or bad – interested the hell out of me because I’m a nosey bastard. I’d picked up the art of mind-recording tittle-tattle on my butcher’s rounds and down the pit. And if I was interested... well, everyone must be, eh?

I’d also picked up a number of ‘blue scars’. They are indelible tattoos collected when you cut yourself down the pit and the coal dust gets in there before you have a chance to wash. I’ve got more tattoos than the late (and I think great) Bill Hornby of the Mirror, a hero, early mentor and a former military grunt and gent. Hence his more artistic blue marks.

Eventually one door opened when the receptionist was away from her desk for a pee. It was that of the antediluvian editor of the Bolton Evening News. He wore a bow tie the size of a bat, only lots more colourful. What did I envisage (envisage?) as a journalist? ‘Oh, I will be arts critic on the Manchester Guardian or in the foreign pool at the Daily Mail in Fleet Street one of these days, I think.’ I did cartoons and caricatures, you see, and always wanted to visit places farther afield than Edinburgh, where I was born, and Wigan, where I was dragged up and trapped.

‘What’s in that duffle bag?’ he asked. I opened it. No impressive books or newspapers, no spiral-hinged notepads with skilful Pitman’s to show off; just scuffed pit boots, a tattered helmet and my snap tin (the equivalent of lunch in Fleet Street language). I’d been down Clockface pit in St Helens an hour earlier.

‘Honesty counts,’ he said. ’You start next Monday on the Horwich and Westhoughton Journal. Horwich office first because you own a scooter, many of the other young members of staff do not enjoy such freedom of travel and Horwich is right up Rivington Pike.’ Then he chucked me out before I could tell him my scooter was bust and I owed the NCB a week’s notice.

I didn’t care about the pay. The subject had not been raised. It turned out to be less than half of what little I made down the hole, and the work was tougher, the shifts much, much longer. Expenses were sixpence a night return bus fare to my Bolton NCTJ lessons and for seeing the paper to bed on Thursdays. I had to attach clipped bus tickets to my claims or I got nowt. And I still don’t know if I ever got an NCTJ certificate.

Ian ‘Skiddy’ Skidmore wrote to me last week to remind me of when we did a Mirror job together and passed a coal mine. ‘I’d hate to be down there,’ he said. ‘Must be hell.’ Seems I murmured, ‘Used to work down there miself.’ Skiddy – with his own amazingly extraordinary intro into the job (read Forgive us our Press Passes: RBP paperback and BeWrite Books for ebook editions) – said it ‘put him in his place’. He didn’t realise that he was putting me in mine.

You might think this is all romantic twaddle and balderdash, but I always did work for the man in the street or the man working his bollox off half a mile under it. I kicked off, with sound reason, to put the reader first. Just like my first hero, Skiddy. I’m happy to have met many others of that ilk along the long and winding road.

A week or so after I started on the Horwich and Westhoughton paper, I met for the first time on the (after-hours) NCTJ training course other newcomers to the scene who were working on various BEN weekly journals in Lancashire and were aged sixteen or seventeen then. There was Andy Leatham, with whom I shared desks at a freelance agency and the Sunday People) and another good ol’ pal, the late Steve Crowther (a firm mate all his life), and there were many others who moved on from Bolton. Some for better, some for worse.

One was Paddy Weaver who ended up disgruntled to Irish hell as fired city editor of the Daily Express. He expressed his feelings about the dismissal to me with beautifully Celtic charm and Guinness in the City Golf Club one day over several tubs of the black stuff.

Paddy and I shared a grotty old room in Bolton for a while in our teens to split the rent. Paddy’s mammy was a staunch Catholic and used to send him bibles to inspire prayer. Paddy was a devout atheist and the books were lined up on the mantelpiece, each one bearing the legend on its spine: ‘The Holy Babble by Patrick Joseph Weaver’. We were pals with inkies who could do that stuff. We also shared a wonderfully talented contortionist from the Blue Parrot Club in town and a few Miss Milk Marketing Board contestants and even the lovely young lady who came second in the 1965 Lancashire Coal Queen contest. She’d been, we learnt over intensive interviews in our flat, a belly dancer in Turkey.

The Bolton Evening News news editor – a man of non-Boltonian accent and authoritative squadron leader moustache – asked us where we were all from that first night of the NCTJ ‘training’ course. Most boasted grammar schools (I’d done that, didn’t like it and wasn’t proud of the experience). Some spoke of minor public schools and universities (not Andy, Steve and Paddy, I must stress – they were drug up like I was). I told him I’d come from down t’pit. For some odd reason that helped tremendously. He took me under his wing (the pit of which always smelled of Old Spice).

Later in what I laughingly call my ‘career’ (that great future behind me), I discovered that reporters and pitmen have much in common. To find what we want, we must crawl on our bellies into the darkest and most uninviting corners and hack away, hoping the roof doesn’t fall in, to find what we’re digging for. There lies the mother-lode. Sometimes. They don’t know the time of day, pitmen, and they’re always thirsty. Around the bar top, there are few secrets – no matter which pit you dig in – and everyone stands his corner. Ring any bells, lads?

Those months down the pit prepared me better for journalism than all the mock GCE examinations I’d failed and then passed at real-thing time with flying colours with a mere six-months’ cramming (that’s what journos do. We become expert at anything before a deadline). When I learnt that the NUJ demanded a minimum of five, I got seven. Just because I wanted to qualify for the NUJ and work underground in the light of day. Maybe even pick up the chicks like Snoopy’s Joe Cool.

These days, I’m pretty well out of the beautiful game. I edit and publish books – merely another form of fiction – and am running (in cahoots with Ranters and its authors) the ebook editions of its wonderful hack-lit series. Better than working down t’pit.

And isn’t it an odd coincidence that journalism died exactly at the same time the mines closed? For me, there’s something most profound about that. What we lost was – as Dylan says – the right to have our faces dirty but keep our hands clean.

But you can’t become a freelance collier. So I was better fixed than my old workmates.

Neil Marr worked for several national newspapers before becoming a freelance in the UK, US and Europe. He now lives in the south of France and is editor in chief of BeWrite Books (www.bewrite.net), publishing mainly fiction, plus the e-book version of a number of Ranters’ books.

#

Beyond belief

By Revel Barker

The highlight of my TV viewing week was not the prat with the pie, or even Wendi Murdoch’s impressive forehand smash.

Nor was it Rupert Murdoch’s evidence that he would occasionally – though not every week, because the News of the World was a relatively insignificant part of his empire, amounting to something less than one per cent of his conglomerate – ring the editor around edition time on a Saturday night, and the conversation apparently might typically go like this:

RM: G’day, Colin. What’s happening tonight?

Editor: Not much.

RM: OK, cobber. Have a bonza weekend. Cheers mate…

(And if you believe that…)

It wasn’t even the fact that one of the MPs repeatedly asked questions about ‘celebrated CNN anchor man’ Piers Morgan, while quoting an extract from his book without having read it (because the quote she kept referring to isn’t in it).

It wasn’t the revelation that offended parties could be bought off for £700,000 or a million quid without anybody upstairs being aware of it.

Nope, as Rupe would, and frequently did, say. It was more remarkable than any of that.

It wasn’t the fact that the top three people in the business didn’t know what was going on at the time inside the Screws...

It was the astonishing claims that they didn’t know what had been happening, even now. Worse (and more unlikely) that they presumably still hadn’t asked.

Let’s shed any silly pretence. There are occasions when reporters and news editors resort to tactics that they don’t want the editor to know about, if only because if he did know, he’d be morally obliged to tell them not to do it.

A good editor doesn’t ask for sources (maybe beyond the question about ‘what sort of source’ is involved). He doesn’t want to know. And if he doesn’t know he won’t be sent to jail for refusing to reveal something he doesn’t know. He can go to jail on other grounds, but not for that.

Reporters protect their editors and in return the editor protects his reporters including – no surprise to anybody in the real world – paying their defence costs if they screw up while acting, even misguidedly, on behalf of the paper.

Editors, and the lawyers who advise them, have to trust reporters. They trust them not to make up facts, not to invent quotes and on those rare instances where they might have overstepped the mark, legally, to be able to convince the lawyer that there was a public interest justification, in order to run the story.

So far, so good.

But when the shit hits the fan… what sort of editor doesn’t ask what went wrong? How did that happen? What are we doing that exposes us to this action? And… warn that whatever it was should be stopped, forthwith.

And what sort of chairman or chief executive isn’t immediately coming down on the editor with a demand for an explanation, and even for the rolling of heads?

Rupert and son James may have been a bit remote from this insignificant area of their empire. But Rebekah was in the building and had edited two of the papers.

(Ah yes, Rebekah… It’s difficult to guess what goes on in her head but there are people living in that hair who don’t know the war is over. She tells the committee that at a later stage she’d welcome the opportunity to give a ‘more fulsome’ account. She’s reverted to typist. She’s become a Sun reader.)

The story has been running for years, and none of them asked what it was all about? Not even when they were paying people off with seven-figure cheques? They didn’t ask at the time, and they haven’t enquired since – oh really?

Well, they wouldn’t lie to Parliament, even to MPs who knew more – far more – about what was happening at Wapping than the executives did, or still do.

All three of them need a bloody good slapping. And Mrs Murdoch is the one to administer it.

Last thought. Apparently it’s now common practice in Fleet Street to employ ‘private detectives’ to do ‘research’, including finding people’s phone numbers and addresses.

In the old days we had reporters who could do that.

#

Rudge


###


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Issue # 207
July 29, 2011


This Week

Working life, and the rest of it, often is (or was) a series of chances and opportunities missed or taken. The what-if and the if-only. An American (multi) millionaire once asked me how much I’d want to write a series of pieces for him and I said five dollars a word. I was just thinking that it was more than Ernest Hemingway ever earned. The Yank said: ‘Fine.’ And I thought, what if I’d asked for ten…

What if I’d taken the redundo package when it was real money and there were jobs galore along the length of The Street? If only I’d gone home at night instead of frittering away my exes in the Stab… what if I’d asked for a pay rise that day when the editor was in such a good mood? If only I hadn’t bought (or sold) the house at that time…

What if Robert Maxwell hadn’t dropped off the back of his yacht?

Rupert and James Murdoch must be wondering, today, what would have happened – how much happier (and even richer) they’d both be – if only they’d kept a closer eye on the outposts of their empire, or had employed better people to do it for them.

Editors everywhere, constantly looking over their shoulders and awaiting the tap of Plod, should be wishing they’d employed reporters who were able to find and check facts, and do their own research. If only…

Ken Ashton explores some what-if memories of his own life, starting around the time the Daily Sketch folded under him.

Harold Heys describes the opportunity grasped by his old mate Maddo in restoring the north of England as a print centre.

Keith Graves describes what happened when he opted for journalism instead of becoming an engine fitter. Keith, one of the best known names and faces in TV news broadcasting, is continuing our series about How I Got Started In The Job (more contributions still welcome; we’ve been running this since April and it’s easy – it’s Chapter One of that book you never finished).

Then – back to Rupe and Jimmy-the-one – Revel Barker returns to the great Wapping What-If.

And cartoonist Rudge wonders what life would be like if it were not for summer students…

#

What if… the Runcorn initiative

By Ken Ashton

Life is full of ‘what ifs’, as any journalist will tell you. What if I hadn't read that edition of World’s Press News and spotted that interesting job? What if I’d decided on applying for Job A, rather than Job B? What if I had gone to Southport, rather than Runcorn?

Runcorn would seem the least likely place to figure on anyone’s What If list, but bear with me as I explore how fate’s fickle finger can hinge on the toss of a coin or the whim of an editor.

After I left the Sketch, I took a month in the sunshine of a lazy summer to decide where to try next. Another national? I’d had enough of late shifts. An evening? Sub or reporter? A weekly? Two ads popped up in that week’s edition of the trade mag, one for a chief sub on the Southport Visiter, another for a chief reporter on the Runcorn Guardian.

I tossed that coin and Runcorn won. So I applied, drove over the bridge to meet the manager – the old-fashioned Guardian group had managers to run their weekly offices – and met the team, mainly juniors. The first was a chubby lad from Warrington, known to his friends as ‘Archie’, the second was Alf, a scholarly looking lad from Whitehaven, and the third a wide-eyed titian haired lass from Cheshire with a smile that lit up the office. She told her mother I was a pain the posterior because I allotted her the wasteland of Weston Point as a district.

So, I started the next Monday and found an office full of chirpy characters striving to fill a wall-mounted chart that I had to tick off in column inches every story each of them wrote.

As well as being a savvy reporter who could make stories out of nothing, Archie was character-in-chief, always up to pranks, always flying close to the flames. He sat in a round-backed chair and such was his width that when he stood, the chair rose with him. His practical jokes were legend and kept the office alive. He phoned the opposition one lunchtime, posing as a Norwegian ship's captain who had just docked and complaining they had used a travel piece featuring his brother's castle in some fjord and threatening libel action for mistakes. The opposition went into panic mode and when asked for a name, Archie responded with ‘Ole Padola.’ Pressed to spell Padola, he replied ‘Padola, as in padolo your own canoe.’

Archie was always threatening to quit, especially when in a huff, and one day, he pronounced – again - he’d had enough. He scraped all of his belongings into a waste bin, stormed out of the office and declared, 'That's it!'

Two minutes later, he was back, asking the titian-haired girl if he could borrow the bus fare. He changed his mind about quitting when the office declared they were all skint.

We survived on a diet of fish cakes and chips from next door-but-one, apple and cream pies from next door-but-two and sweets from next door. Archie returned some outdated ‘Black Jack’ liquorice chews to the manufacturer because they were sticky lumps and got a box full as compensation. He opened the office back window and threw handfuls to eager schoolchildren.

He once covered the Warrington Whit Walks – a major town event – from his tent on Anglesey. He’d been diaried to report, decided he would scam it by rewriting the previous year’s piece with extra colour, decamped for a weekend on Anglesey and filed his copy on return. The fact that it had rained moggies and hounds in Warrington, forcing the event to be cancelled for the first time, had escaped him. 'It was sunny on Anglesey,’ he told the news editor. He kept his job.

Alf, on the other hand, was a noble, diligent and exceptionally good reporter and a year on, when I was head-hunted by a company launching a football scheme, I poached Alf to come with me.

The job I took should have made me a millionaire, but a what-if? appeared to ruin it all. A London businessman had bought Quicks, a printing company in Clacton-on-Sea, and spotted a great opportunity. Soccer was blossoming, England had not long since won the World Cup and my own stock was high, having covered that, done some Euro football travelling and produced a book on Bill Shankly's first 10 years at Liverpool FC.

The genius idea was to produce simple magazines, forerunners of today’s money-spinning fanzines. The plan was simple – supporters’ clubs would provide the material, I would edit it and write extra stuff, the ads would bring in the revenue. I travelled the length and breadth signing up clubs and it was all systems go, cutting and pasting in Clacton.

I dragged Alf down to be my deputy and we were all systems go. But the business hit the buffers and we parted by mutual agreement.

Alf returned north and then became a first-class media chief with Bolton Council.

Archie went on to greater things – Archie’s real name is David Banks, later to become a top dog as editor and editorial director at the Daily Mirror.

I ended up on the Rhyl Journal in North Wales and one day became, for my sins, mayor of Prestatyn.

The titian-haired lass with the beautiful smile? I married her.

#

Jobs for the boys

By Harold Heys

It’s coming up to ten years since the idea of national newspaper production returning to the North of England was first mooted. The idea was up-and-running within a few months and it quickly proved to be an exciting challenge.

In the past few years Broughton has become something of a haven for a younger generation of hacks as well as some thankful veterans. For some it has been a staging post; for others, down on their luck and struggling, it has been a lifeline. Some of the older production men have edged through to retirement and it has given some youngsters a taste of what a national newspaper office used to be like in the Good Old Days.

That might be pushing it a bit. After all, the office pubs are lengthy hikes away and there’s no longer the gentle blue haze of cigarette smoke and the screaming fits that used to brighten many an evening. It’s slightly more laid back. I blame the computers, or ‘new technology’ as we pioneers called it all a quarter of a century ago.

Broughton, a leafy northern suburb of Preston, just off the M6, is the centre of the Express Newspapers production of national newspapers and magazines. And it’s largely thanks to John Maddock, a complex character who has a determined, bull-at-a-gate approach to newspapers. He’s loud, he’s brash, he knows what he wants and nothing seems to faze him. He rubbed along genially enough with Cap’n Bob who scared most people and he is still friendly enough with Express owner Richard Desmond although they have parted company after some 15 years.

Maddock was only 18 when he did his first holiday relief shift on the Daily Express sports desk in Manchester, just up the road from his home near Warrington. He was given the simple job of handling a piece by Desmond Hackett, the star writer. Maddock trimmed it down to six inches which was what chief sub Bill Fryer had asked for, before announcing to the desk: 'That's all it deserved. It's the biggest load of crap I've ever subbed!' It was quite an entrance.

However, back to Broughton. The concept started off at the usual Express editorial meeting, one Wednesday early in 2002. Desmond was in the chair and also there were the three editors, editorial director Paul Ashford and Maddock who had been a consultant to Desmond’s Northern & Shell media group since 1994. Desmond said he wanted a Sunday edition of the Daily Star. And he wanted it on the streets by the early autumn.

No problem, said Maddock who was never one to shirk a challenge. ‘It’s all yours,’ said Desmond. It would have been difficult for London to accommodate another full subbing production team and the former Sunday People assistant editor said he reckoned it could be done in the North where there were enough journalists around with national daily experience to do the job. Most importantly, costs would be considerably lower.

Maddock brought in Mike Woods, a former colleague from his People days, to head up the team as permanent chief sub on the fledgling Daily Star Sunday. He also hired other People men Ray Ansbro and Ed Barry to run the sports desk. It quickly became clear that the Daily Star team in London didn’t have the numbers to fulfil the demands of a Saturday-for-Sunday operation and instead of a mere subbing desk they had to set up a full-blown sports department.

Paul Hetherington was poached from the Sunday Mirror to be chief football writer and he was supported by several freelances including Steve Millar who had worked for the both Mirror titles.

I went over there a few times that summer and liaised with Maddo – my former boss at the Sunday People – as staff and casuals and IT cover was discussed. It was all done a dusted in six weeks.

Broughton was ideal. The new operation could draw staff from as far away as the North East and east Yorkshire. Manchester, Liverpool and the Potteries and about 50 staff and casuals got the first of four editions out without a hitch on September 15.

The venture started life in a downstairs room close by the Lancashire Evening Post offices and Desmond’s Broughton Printers publishing site. It had been part of the Farmer’s Guardian set-up. After that initial success it quickly became obvious that considerable expansion was on the cards.

Mike Woods is now 60 and taking a back-seat from managing the Express operation at Broughton although he continues as chief sub of the Daily Star Sunday.

He told me: ‘I can't believe it ever happened. When I walked out of the Sunday People in London in August 2000 I never thought I would be sitting in Lancashire subbing a national newspaper in my own backyard just two years later – and still doing it a further nine years down the line. And that is down to the vision of John Maddock who saw that satellite subbing could work brilliantly with the right people and the right technology.’

Maddo told me: ‘It was a tremendous challenge and I’m proud I was able to establish the North as a centre for subbing and production excellence once again.’

John Maddock isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I don’t think it keeps him awake at night. One thing is for sure: a lot of people have a lot to thank him for.

#

A pillar of the community

By Keith Graves

They surely do not make editors like J Watt Mackie any more. And more is the pity.

Sometime during my last term at the local grammar school in Lincoln I had written a letter to him at the Lincolnshire Echo asking for a job as a reporter. It seemed a better fate than the alternative – a five year apprenticeship at a local factory training as an engine fitter like my father and many of my contemporaries. It sounded like a fate worse than death but I was resigned to it when I arrived home at lunchtime on my final day as a schoolboy, university being (a) beyond my academic capabilities and (b) beyond my parents’ financial means.

I had received no response from the Echo and had probably forgotten I had written to J Watt Mackie.

So the letter that awaited me came as something of a surprise – and a life changing one.

It said simply: ‘Report to my chief reporter Mr Morton at 9am on Monday.’

My mother was aghast. I was destined for the security of Ruston’s, the city’s main employer. Now I announced I was turning my back on that job. What would she tell the neighbours?

And so, abandoning a fortnight’s family holiday in Brighton, I set out on my working life two weeks early and entered what my parents, maybe with a wisdom that belied their somewhat narrow view of life, regarded as the murky world of newspapers.

Watt Mackie was a dour and alcoholic Scot but an honourable newspaperman through and through as two stories will bear witness. Pubs closed after lunch but on Friday the hostelry next to Lincoln cattle market stayed open until 4pm to give the farmers and cattle dealers the chance to imbibe after the market closed. And it was in the deserted market, in a cattle pen, that J Watt Mackie was found totally legless late one afternoon.

I know not why the local constabulary did not, in that closed community, drop him off at home and instead charged him with being drunk and incapable. Maybe he had offended some senior officer. But on the Monday morning there was J Watt Mackie in the dock at the magistrates’ court.

As the (by far) most junior member of the newsroom staff I was not involved in the heated debate about how to treat the story, a dilemma that was settled when the man himself made a rare appearance and announced in his broad Scots accent: ‘Great story. Pillar of local community, chairman of the Con Club, editor of the local paper, found drunk in cattle pen. Great story. Give it space.’

And they did. I’ll wager not many editors would have done that.

A few months later a particularly sordid divorce case involving the owner of a local car dealership came before the local divorce court. In those days such cases were fully aired in the public domain and this was a real beauty. But the man involved was one of the Echo’s major advertisers and he ‘suggested’ to J Watt Mackie that he would withdraw his advertising if the case was given much prominence.

That honourable man ordered that the case should be the front page lead and then wrote a leader explaining how an attempt had been made to stop the story appearing.

I have one more story about a man who, alas, drank himself to death.

After two years he called me in, after I had been involved in a heated exchange with the chief reporter. It was the first time I had been in to his office and the first time, as far as I remember, that he actually spoke to me.

‘Do you play cards laddie?’ he asked, and before I could answer added: ‘Play with these.’

He fired me (but that’s another story); but I never met a more honest and honourable news executive in the 51 years in the business that followed.

Keith Graves left the Lincolnshire Echo for the Sheffield Telegraph, before moving to the Daily Express (Manchester and London), BBC and Sky News. He is now retired and lives in Spain.

#

Two RMs, not knowing when
to hold ’em, when to fold ’em

By Revel Barker

I never thought the day would dawn when I found myself comparing Robert Maxwell with Rupert Murdoch and coming down on the side of Cap’n Bob. (Although, strictly speaking, I sort of found in his favour a couple of weeks ago; sometimes I surprise even myself.)

The Mirror boss used to say ‘nobody plays poker with Robert Maxwell’. He meant nobody played and won, chiefly because he could always up the ante. But in truth he played against Murdoch too many times and got his fingers burnt – when they went head-to-head bidding for new titles Rupe would keep upping the stakes and then withdrawing when the pot was ridiculously high, often leaving Maxwell holding an expensive baby that Murdoch didn’t really want in the first place.

The latest hypothesis is that, in giving evidence to the Commons committee, Murdoch (one, or the other, or both) may have been playing with a dodgy hand.

According to stories last week – I read them in Roy Greenslade’s Media Guardian column – Max Mosley, the former motorsport magnate, wrote a letter to Murdoch and also sent him an email, specifically about the then chief reporter of the News of the World, Neville Thurlbeck.

Even more specifically, Mosley asked Murdoch why no disciplinary procedures had been taken following disclosures that his reporter appeared to have been trying to blackmail witnesses. [You need to insert a lot of ‘allegeds’ into the reading of this story; I’m just reporting what people said that they’d said.]

But when asked, during the hearing, why he hadn’t sacked Thurlbeck, Murdoch told the committee: ‘I’d never heard of him.’

Mmm. The owner of the News of the World had never heard of the paper’s chief reporter? It’s possible, I suppose.

And he’d never seen a personal letter from the guy whose story cost the newspaper a (then) record payment of £60,000?

As Prof Greenslade, bending over backwards to be fair, wrote: ‘It is possible that Murdoch's staff did not pass it to him.’ But nor was he even aware that the stuff had come out in evidence during a court case?

What sort of organisation was Rupert running?

If a similar situation had arisen under the Maxwell regime, the likelihood is that the Mosley letter would have first landed on my desk. I’d have discussed it immediately with the editor because Maxwell would have wanted to ask questions, and would have demanded answers.

Cap’n Bob didn’t care much for reading letters and he told me: ‘If you’ve read it, I’ve read it.’ And, most days, I’d go into his office, take a bottle of lager from the filing cabinet, light a cigar and tell him, in fairly general terms, what people (specifically the great and the good) were telling him. Then we’d discuss what to do about it.

But I never tried, nor wanted, to protect him from bad news. Nor did anybody else. Some days that was the only fun we got.

And Maxwell (who also ran a giant international publishing conglomerate) knew, or would have recognised, the names of most of his executives and his by-lined writers, even those he never met. Even those he never met who tell us, years after the event, how they stood up to his outrages.

Of course, millionaires – and perhaps more so multi-millionaires – probably run their empires in different ways.

Professional observers remarked at the time that Rupert and James Murdoch appeared to have received professional coaching before appearing in front of the Parliamentary committee.

Thus, Rupe opened by saying: ‘This is the most humble day of my life,’ (which I thought at the time was interesting, because apparently it was the day that was humble, rather than him).

And Sonny Jim kept addressing the committee members by name in his responses, and congratulating them on asking him ‘good’ questions, even if he didn’t reply with good answers.

But the first piece of professional advice would surely have been that they mustn’t lie.

I don’t know (maybe somebody will tell us) what power, if any, the English Parliament has to summon witnesses who have opted to become American citizens but I have read that the penalties for giving false evidence could be severe.

So when James Murdoch denies any knowledge of information that NoW lawyer Tom Crone and editor Colin Myler both say they briefed him on, and when his old dad says he’s never heard of the chief reporter that the paper’s foremost litigant specifically wrote to him about, you have to wonder what game is being played and how the cards are (or were) being stacked, and by whom

Somebody, somewhere, is dealing from a dishonest pack.

If I were Rupert I think I’d remind the committee that I was 80 years old, and play the memory card, and stay away from the table.

#

Rudge


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