Gentlemenranters.com, that wonderful new media outfit that celebrates old media history. – Roy Greenslade, Media Guardian

Issue #70

November 14, 2008

 

Down Memory Lane (contd.)

Two new reviews of Murray Sayle’s great novel about the ‘red-top’ or ‘tabloid’ days – long before the titlepiece was done in red, and even before the papers were necessarily tabloid in size.

Roy Greenslade (Media Guardian) says every journalist should read A Crooked Sixpence.

And Peter Stothard, former editor of The Times and now editing The TLS, reveals that he is reading – in fact, re-reading – his copy, which he rightly describes as a ‘classic’, right now.

In the opening speech to the Society of Editors’ annual conference in Bristol, Paul Dacre, editor in chief of the Daily Mail, explains how and why he became an editor, and how newspapers used to connect with their readers.

Revel Barker recaptures the northeast frontier in the days when content (and connectivity) sold newspapers..

William Hall, fireworks fanatic and showbiz reporter extraordinaire, finally goes out with a bang, reports Juliette Otterburn.

Stan Solomons fulminates against fulsome descriptive writing.

And Sue Bullivant has a rant about jerk-reaction reporting. (And, hey, Mr Dacre should read it, too.)

#

Classic novel republished

By Roy Greenslade

In the summer I published several extracts from Murray Sayle's classic novel about yellow journalism in the 1950s, A Crooked Sixpence.

Several people wrote asking me to tip them off should it be republished.

Well, I'm delighted to say it's now back in print after 47 years, courtesy of gentlemenranters.com, that wonderful new media outfit that celebrates old media history. You can order copies here.

You can also obtain it direct from the publisher, paying by PayPal (£9 including UK postage and packing or £10 for the rest of the world).

I see the book has another fan in Peter Stothard, the former Times editor who now edits the Times Literary Supplement. And in his Daily Mail column on Wednesday, Richard Kay explained why the book was removed from sale soon after it was originally published in 1961, A novel end to a literary mystery...

Sayle's landlord, a minor and penniless sprig of the aristocracy, Michael Alexander (Macedon in the novel, geddit?), decided to cash in by suing for libel. He, and Sayle, thought the publisher's insurance company would pay up. Instead, the book was withdrawn from sale.

Some copies did get distributed before the axe fell, which is how Stothard came to have one. Another was tracked down by a German journalism academic, Lorenz Lorenz Meyer, who kindly provided me with the copy that allowed me to run extracts.

Anyway, every journalist should read A Crooked Sixpence. So go get yours now.

 

 

My Crooked Sixpence

By Peter Stothard

Congratulations to TLS contributor Murray Sayle on the news that readers finally have the chance to read his Fleet Street classic, A Crooked Sixpence, almost fifty years after the whole print-run was pulped to avoid a libel action.

My bright yellow 1960 copy is on the desk in front of me now – and, by all accounts, it is one of very few survivors.

The excellent Roy Greenslade has been running a daily Guardian summary of the plot this week, rejoicing that a portrait of the red-top press in its yellowest heyday is back now to educate a new generation.

Richard Kay in The Daily Mail has explained the saga of the author's 'friend' who thought back in 1960 that he could get some cash from the publisher's libel insurers.

And a publisher has a new paperback edition that will soon be here to join its hardback original at the TLS – now that the opportunist 'friend' is dead,

Both booksellers and journalists tend to exaggerate when it comes to claiming an edition's rarity.

Perhaps there were many survivors of the legal flames.

But I'm taking now that special pleasure in reading the book here in hardback as it was originally intended - from the Australian reporter hero's first unforgettable encounter with a small British Babycham.

#

Connecting with the readers

By Paul Dacre

May God strike me down but as this is a Society of Editors’ Conference I have a grotesquely hubristic confession to make – from virtually the moment I was born, I wanted to be an editor.

Not just wanted, if I’m being honest. Hungered... Lusted with a passion that while unfulfilled, would gnaw at my entrails. Thus it was that my early years were but a long frustrating apprenticeship for the editorship I had to have.

Hugh Cudlipp’s Publish and Be Damned, and Arthur Christiansen’s Headlines All My Life were my much-thumbed bibles. All those glorious memoirs by James Cameron, that brilliant reporter, were my text books.

At the wonderful school, to which I was lucky enough to win a state scholarship, I edited the school’s magazine.

I decided to devote a whole issue to the evangelical preacher Billy Graham whose mass revivalist meetings were a phenomenon of mid-60’s Britain.

Doubtless influenced by the possibility that they might view my A-Level essays in a more benign light, I asked several of the most intellectually impressive masters to attend a Graham gathering and write about their impressions.

It was a journalistic disaster. Without exception, their words were ponderous, prolix and achingly dull. The issue went down like a sodden hot cross bun.

Lesson One: Brains and education have little to do with the craft of journalism which is to ferret for information and then explain it clearly, informatively and above all, entertainingly. Journalists are born, not made, and all the media schools in the world won’t change that. Also: dull doesn’t sell newspapers. Boring doesn’t pay the mortgage.

In the next issue, I discretely secreted a couple of expletives into an article. It was child’s stuff by the standards of Messrs Brand and Ross but they got me into terrible trouble with the headmaster. The magazine, needless to say, sold out but my relationship with the school was never quite the same again.

Lesson Two: Sensation sells papers. Editors are troublemakers who invariably fall out with the authorities. Editors can’t get too close to anyone. Too often those who befriend them do it for one of two reasons: they want to get something into the paper or, more likely, keep it out. A good editor has to be an outsider. Being an outsider can be very lonely.

At Leeds University, my tutor was the modern poet, Geoffrey Hill. Probably wisely, he never bothered to mark my essays. In tutorials, wearing the comically opaque glasses that were his hallmark, he would, while holding forth on the metaphysical poets, peck at sunflower seeds from an old yeast jar, while occasionally fulminating against the Rothermere press. What John Donne had to do with the Harmsworths, I don’t recall. I am, however, delighted, over the years, to have made my own small contribution to the chattering classes’ dyspepsia with the Rothermere press – but then no day is too busy or too short not to find time to tweak the noses of the liberalocracy which effectively runs Britain.

At university, I edited the student newspaper. I’m afraid I took a product that looked like the then Times on Prozac and turned it into a raucous version of Cudlipp’s Mirror complete, I shudder to admit, with Page 3 girl students whom I dubbed ‘Leeds Lovelies’.

We mounted an undercover investigation, complete with photographers, into seemingly respectable pubs that were putting on strip shows. Family entertainment it wasn’t. The Yorkshire Post which engraved the blocks for our pictures – remember those Neanderthal days – refused to process the photographs on the grounds they were obscene. With preposterous pomposity, I accused the Post’s editor of abusing freedom of the press. He wouldn’t budge so we got the blocks made elsewhere and ran a front page story about censorship by the Post and a student paper that couldn’t be gagged.

And, of course, we sold the pictures to the News of the World for a vast sum and dined out on the proceeds for months to come.

Though I say it myself, the paper was pretty good. It was named Student Newspaper of the Year. A national newspaper wrote a feature about it, praising the wealth of content. This was the year of student demonstrations and its headline above the article was ‘Why Not All Students Are Revolting’. The national newspaper was the Daily Mail.

I wrote thundering front page editorials in support of a student sit-in at the university’s administration block. It was to protest against the university keeping our academic records on file – tame stuff compared to the Brown government’s terrifying proposals that the authorities should have access to every citizen’s internet and mobile phone records.

The sit-in was organised by our student union president, a certain Jack Straw, who some 30 years later would as Home Secretary introduce the Human Rights Act and who now presides over no win, no fee legislation, two issues causing our industry so much grief – more of which later.

For a series titled ‘The Men Who Make Britain’, I interviewed the most powerful man in television – Lew Grade. The only time he could see me was 6 o’clock in the morning on New Year’s Day. Hard work, insanely hard work, has been my opium ever since.

Meanwhile, I had become hopelessly addicted to another drug that was made up in equal parts of words, intros, picture crops, headline counts, ideas, campaigns, passions, sensation and the sheer bloody mischief that is the chemistry of any good paper.

Yes, it was in my blood. My father was a journalist. After leaving school at 15, he’d worked on the Doncaster Gazette and a soon-to-close magazine called News Review before arriving at 21 in the Fleet Street of the fifties where journalists were fired in the morning, hired by another paper in the afternoon and where salaries were low, expenses high and alcohol consumption was stratospheric.

Eventually my father was to get a job on the Sunday Express where he would stay for the rest of his life as, respectively, a reporter, editor of their gossip column called Ephraim Hardcastle, American correspondent, foreign editor and showbusiness editor in those exciting pioneering days of television, when programmes would attract audiences of 20 million and the medium was run by men of moral vision.

At that time, the Sunday Express – much parodied but never equalled – was arguably one of the most successful newspapers in post-war history. It was produced by a handful of highly creative journalists, had a vast high-quality circulation and was hugely profitable. That paper was my journalistic primer.

Most Sundays in the sixties, my father and I would spend hours discussing the merits or otherwise of that week’s issue. And if I digress here it is because I worry that some of the journalistic skills and values behind the Sunday Express’s success are in danger of being lost today.

So what was the editorial formula identified originally by the brilliant Scottish editor John Gordon and followed with ruthless will by John Junor? Firstly, the paper never, ever, forgot who its readers were and what interested them and their families. Secondly, it told everything through the prism of people.

Page 3 of the Sunday Express said it all. The lead article under the title ‘Meeting People’ was an interview – not with the kind of half-baked trollop who passes as a celebrity these days, but with, say, the mother of a newly chosen British Nobel Prize winner.

Next to it was a large cartoon by Giles whose genius for clean, gloriously warm family humour is matched today only by the Mail’s magnificent Mac. Why this genre of cartooning – which combines superb draftsmanship with a timeless universal humour that often contains great truths – is dying out is a subject for another speech. Anyway, underneath was the ‘You the Lawyer’ column addressing the problems of everyday life such as fencing disputes and dog bites. What paper today would have such a low-key, non-newsy page 3? Yet all human life was on that page.

Elsewhere in the paper, the book editor’s reviews were beautifully crafted digests with barely a nod to literary criticism. Motoring correspondent Bobby Glenton’s road tests were exquisitely oblivious to the technical qualities of the vehicle he was driving but consisted of glorious chuckle-rich evocations of the joys of life that appealed to even those who hated cars. And in Hollywood, Roddy Mann’s drop-dead intros, magical words and pyrotechnical metaphors transformed the stars into fabulously witty, romantic creatures that they almost certainly weren’t.

But the most important page in the Sunday Express was the Readers’ Letters column which was placed early in the paper and was the responsibility of the deputy editor who did very little else but captain the paper’s cricket team and vet and sub every letter. His challenge was to capture the tears, the tribulations, the laughter, the quirks and the wisdom of everyday family life.

And today, at the risk of provoking collective cardiac seizure among the army of ethics professors at our proliferating media colleges, I can exclusively reveal that the staff were paid handsome bonuses to write such letters. My father’s contributions were addressed to the two great mysteries of the cosmos: ‘Why does a pack of razor blades always have one rogue blade?’ and ‘What is the maximum number of shaves to be had from one blade?’. Both themes – taken up by countless other readers – ran on the page for many months.

The paper was warm, aspirational, unashamedly traditional, dedicated to decency, middle brow, beautifully written and subbed, accessible, and, above all, utterly relevant to the lives of its readers.

‘Only connect,’ urged EM Forster. The Mail’s Keith Waterhouse possesses that genius to connect. But then there wasn’t one aspect of our craft – reporting, feature writing, sub-editing – that he hadn’t mastered before graduating to his legendary column. Today, I worry that too many journalists write only for other journalists. Columnists, who have never really lived in the real world let alone knocked on hundreds of doors, write columns only for their friends. Large parts of the media are increasingly populated by a privileged elite of top university graduates who, too often, have only ever operated in subsidised environments, and are impervious to what the great majority of people are thinking, removed as they are from the commercial imperative of actually connecting with enough readers to make their papers – or media outlets – financially viable.

Some of you, I suspect, may sneer at the kind of family-values paper I’ve just described – that almost comic obsession with the letters page. Those values, you’ll argue, belong to another era. Well, maybe. My own view is that some values are timeless. And the fact is that, at its height, the Sunday Express had a circulation of about five million, of whom a staggeringly high percentage were ABC1 readers.

Today, the Sunday Express barely manages a circulation of 600,000. It is, of course, owned by a pornographer, who is contemptuous of journalists and journalism, who’s just curtailed the paper’s pension scheme and who’s now doing away with sub-editors. It was, I would suggest, one of the great acts of perfidy to our profession – one that speaks volumes for the tawdry values of the Blair/Campbell years – that Richard Desmond was judged to meet the legal requirement of being ‘a fit and proper’ person to own a newspaper.

But enough of the past. Donning my hat as Chairman of the PCC’s Editors’ Code Committee, I would like to talk to you a little about where we are on regulation and press freedom issues.

  • And if you’d like to read Paul Dacre on the more current tribulations of Fleet Street, go to Press Gazette (then click the back arrow at top left of the page to return to this site).

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Life on the district line

By Revel Barker

Before I’d fully recovered from the annual general meeting of Newcastle plc (report, Last Week) came news that Trinity Mirror was to shed 23 editorial jobs in my old stamping ground.

And I thought, Bugger – has the old team really grown to such a size? I mean, it was big in my day, but nearly two dozen did seem to smack of over-manning.

After all, we had coped on little more than half that number, and filled half the paper.

What I was forgetting, momentarily, was that Trinity, these days, is more than just the Mirror Group. It’s now the Newcastle Chronicle, The Journal and the Sunday Sun as well as the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette and about a dozen free weeklies; it has offices (that it is keeping, after the cuts) in Newcastle, Teesside, Hexham and Bedlington, and others that it will be shedding in Guisborough, Stockton, Redcar, Durham and North Shields.

And that’s only in the north east.

But the news took me back down Memory Lane; we called it Gallowgate, when I was a lad. Our office was dead opposite the brewery, and beside St James’ Park. You can’t get more Geordiefied than that.

On Daily Mirror news there was Rupert Morters, this correspondent, Chris Sheridan (later, Clive Crickmer), and Dickie Williams who covered the western end of the ‘district’ from a rented castle on the edge of the Lake District. On pictures, Johnny Robson and Tom Buist (before him, Bobby Young) with Jimmy ‘It’s my round, chaps’ Hunter on near-permanent shifts. Covering sport were Charlie Summerbell and Colin Diball.

Along the corridor was Mike Barron doing news for the Sunday Mirror, with Joe Cummings on sport.

In another building the Daily Herald – later, the ‘old’ Sun – had Syd Foxcroft and Clive Crickmer (news), Norman Finnegan doing pictures with Johnny Learwood (ex-Sketch) in reserve,  and Dennis Hutchinson on People pictures and the legendary (correct use of the word) Len Shackleton on sport.

The non-editorial part of the MGN team included four circulation men, plus two wiremen on daily roster, transmitting photographs seven days a week.

What on earth did we all find to do, every day?

Indulge me. I will tell you – although only about the Daily Mirror operation; I won’t bore you with the fact that Syd filed more stories to the Herald before lunch most days than some people did in a good month. Or, if they were in ‘head office’, in a good year.

We covered five northern counties: North Yorkshire, Co Durham, Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmoreland, plus the Scottish borders (where we were in serious competition with our ‘sister’ paper, the Daily Record).

Twice a week we had to fill four extra pages that were inserted for the region. And they had to be filled with quality copy so that readers wouldn’t see the join – and would not be aware that the stories, although mainly locally centred, were not appearing elsewhere for the nation.

This meant two or three full-page Mirror-quality features a week, and a load of page leads that could have been justifiably run for readers in Golders Green as well as in Gateshead.

And as a result the three-star edition of the daily sold more copies every day than all the local morning papers, or more than the total of any two other national papers. Or more than any one of them plus any of the regionals.

The deadline was about 10.15pm, but we did calls until midnight (when the night desk in Manchester took over) and we were on call 24/7. The working day started at home at 7am with the local radio news and the first round of police, fire and ambulance calls; it didn’t end with edition time, but when the latest story was exhausted, because there were other editions running on through the night.

What did we give them?

Well, we had the biggest coalmines, some stretching out miles under the North Sea (in 1939 some people thought that the war with Germany was because we were nicking their coal). We built the biggest oil tankers, and ships for the Royal Navy (Swan Hunter), plus guns and tanks (Vickers-Armstrong).

We had massive development schemes as well as record levels of unemployment; North Sea oil, a fishing fleet and air-sea rescue; army camps and RAF stations. There was an annual cull of those furry – but ferocious – animals, the grey seals. We enjoyed world-famous brewing and the home of the Working Men’s Club.  There was ground-breaking research at the universities and the teaching hospitals.

We more or less created the provincial night-club and casino scene (La Dolce Vita, La Bamba) where people flocked to see Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Gene Pitney, and even Jayne Mansfield and boxer Joe Louis. Long before Lindisfarne we had Alan Price, Chas Chandler, and the Animals.

And the night club circuit gave us a colourful casino murder: ‘Dennis Stafford’ reported the Evening Chronicle, ‘who was sentenced to life for the murder of a one-armed bandit…’

We had bent politicians by the bucketload, encouraged by John Poulson and T Dan Smith. And straight ones who were accused of being bent – deputy Labour leader Ted Short and the ‘dirty tricks department’.

Long before the James Bulger horror, Newcastle had Mary Bell.

There was Britain’s top security prison at Durham where the Great Train Robbers, then the Krays and the Richardsons and later Ian Brady and Myra Hindley (although not at the same time) and IRA bombers and child killers were banged up. And this gave us a famous Colditz-style escape (John McVicar) and also a prison siege.

We gave them the first full-blown tug-of-love story (Linda Desramault) when a woman magistrate handed a Geordie baby over to her French father.

Princess Anne (whose father was president of the World Wildlife Foundation) opted to do her fox-hunting, and her courting, on our patch.

These were all stories that ran and ran.

There were even Sunderland and Newcastle cup finals at Wembley in successive years.

It was said (admittedly mainly by us) that there was rarely a story breaking down south – and sometimes elsewhere in the north – that didn’t have a northeast angle.

It wasn’t just that any train or plane crash, anywhere in the world, involved people from our patch; every district man has that experience. More, it appeared that the north east was inextricably linked with everybody else’s breaking news stories.

When defence minister Lord Lambton (northeast MP) opted to be indiscreet in St John’s Wood, it was with a girl from Teesside. When Miss World (Helen Morgan, from Wales) decided to resign she happened to be travelling by car from Carlisle to Newcastle.

The first soldier shot and killed in Belfast was a Geordie. Then the Green Howards went from Teesside and were dropped like ninepins.

The Yorkshire Ripper kept everybody busy for months, 100 miles away from his actual location; the man who broke into the palace and sat on the Queen’s bed, and asked for a light for his cigarette, was from up north… and so was the maid who found them together.

More recently, troops killed in friendly fire in the Gulf War – more than half of them were from the north-east; the Piper Alpha oil rig ablaze, the casualties came from the north east. And so it went on.

Newcastle did the work but London often got the by-lines.

The aforementioned Poulson is an excellent example. He was from Yorkshire (and therefore in theory outside our patch) and ran the biggest architectural practice in Europe and built hospitals in the Middle East, Malta and Mexico – but the politicians he bribed, and much of the work that he did, happened to be between the Tyne and the Tees. Covering that string of stories took more than two years full-time work for the Newcastle office.

And that’s without the daily bread… routine robberies and murders, the train crashes and ship sinkings and the strikes, the girls being sent home from school for wearing earrings and the boys for having their hair too long, or the office girls fired for wearing trousers to work.

Small wonder that readers sometimes asked: ‘Does the Daily Mirror print in the south of England, too?’

When the inmates staged their siege in Durham Jail’s notorious E-wing it was the Daily Mirror they rang to announce the news.

When train robber Bruce Reynolds decided, in the hope of getting an early parole, to return what was left of his loot, it was to the Newcastle office of the Daily Mirror that he made the offer, rather than to one of the Crombie-clad crime reporters in the south.

When the Kray twins were arrested in London, it was Newcastle office, not Holborn, that got the first call.

On a quiet day we could always fall back on Hadrian’s Wall, and discover that the Roman soldiers wove their own toilet paper and wrote letters home complaining about the cold. Or there’d be an enterprising Geordie businessman who was exporting curry to Hong Kong.

And the result of all this was that the Daily Mirror sold more copies in the north east than in the south east, where they all fondly imagined they were actually running the show.

So when the lads in Guisborough (Guisborough? – What need was there ever for a newspaper office in Guisborough?) heard that they were going to be joined with the mighty Mirror they must have been cock-a-hoop.

Maxwell had gone, so their pensions would at least be secure and so, with the holy Trinity around them, must have been their jobs.

But (back, at last, to the plot) it was not to be.

The original Mirror Group had never bothered too much about making a profit. It made millions, and spent almost every penny on producing great newspapers. Some of it, even, went on just having a bloody good time.

We felt entitled, to tell you the truth. The current crop of Evian-and-lettuce correspondents may sneer that we spent a lot of time on the piss. We did. We spent a helluva lot of time working, too.

In mid-December 1973 we got a memo reminding us to take any days off that were accrued because management had decreed that they couldn’t be ‘carried over’ into the new year. The ridiculous rule was abandoned when Clive Crickmer and I explained that we were each owed more than 30 days, for rostered time-off that we had been forced to work.

We hadn’t even bothered to tot them up, until we got the memo. Small wonder that we spent a lot of time in the pub.

In the last year of real life (1983-4) on a turnover of something like ?440million, the group was set to make a profit of around ?156,000. That can’t have been easy to do. The following year, under new management but before any jobs had been lost, the profit was ?80million.

But by this time the future, and the jobs – and the circulation – were all in a fast freefall.

Only the profits were on the up. But any fool can do that, for a while, if they just sack people.

It could explain why provincial papers are selling only half the number of copies that they were selling 20 years ago.

The Daily Mirror – sorry to bore you with ‘it sold 5 million a day, in my day’ but it did – is down to 1.4million in the latest ABCs.

That’s almost exactly what the Mirror was printing in Manchester – without any promotional budget –in 1975 when Derek Jameson was northern editor.

We’d had the best days out of it. We’d given it our best shot and we’d found time to enjoy ourselves while doing it.

And that, my babies, is why we call them the good old days.

#

Going out with a bang

By Juliette Otterburn

On what would have been his 73rd birthday, author, broadcaster and journalist William Hall’s final wish was granted. In his final will and testament Hall, who was renowned for his love of fireworks and who had founded the Fleet Street Gunpowder Club, had written that he wanted ‘half my ashes placed in a rocket and fired from Blackfriars Bridge in the direction of Fleet Street’.  

After a few recces to the bridge, a small group of mischievous friends were seen converging to the agreed meeting spot just as night set in. Alongside the clinking Champagne bottles in ice buckets was a family member with two carefully prepared jumbo rockets concealed under his cloak.

One member of the party had got there early, to strap a rocket launcher to the side of the bridge.

The other had spent the afternoon working out the best way to get Hall’s ashes into the rocket. ‘I was a little bit nervous,’ claimed one of the party, ‘I had shopped around for the largest rocket I could find, but wasn’t sure how much of William I could fit in a rocket and still ensure that he would make it over the buildings and on to Fleet Street.’

So two rockets were made... just in case.  

‘In the first one, I sliced open the top of the rocket and pushed in some ashes and then sealed the firework up with tape. The second one was more ambitious, and I bagged up quite a bit of Hall and taped him around it. An old friend had sent over a goodbye message so I taped that on as well. But I really wasn’t sure if it would be too heavy to go anywhere.’

After raising a glass to the late Fleet Street journalist, and toasting his birthday, two of the party set off along the bridge to launch the first. Leaning over the railings, one held the launch tube and another tried to light the touch paper. ‘It was a beautiful night, and there was hardly any wind, but it was still hard to light the darn thing.’ The rest of the party looked on rather anxiously, waiting to be arrested or for the firework to misfire.

After three attempts to light it, the touchpaper caught. Suddenly – whoosh! – and the firework ripped away from the bridge and soared into the sky.

‘It looked as though Hall was aiming straight for the big building in between Embankment and Fleet Street, but then it soared higher and deployed right on target. There was this most beautiful array of colours. It was a perfect shot. Hall would have loved it.’

The two silhouetted figures walked back along the bridge, leaving a cloud of smoke behind them.

‘The second one was more nerve wracking. It was just too heavy to settle in the launch tube, and each time either of us turned it to face Fleet Street, it rolled the other way, facing the South Bank. And we knew Hall wouldn’t have wanted that. So this time I had to light the rocket while holding it in my hand, as it was just too heavy to settle in the launch tube. When it lit we let go and made a run for it.’

Another perfect shot. And William’s ashes were scattered from on high.

Hall went just the way he wanted.

#

Disgusting by excess

By Stan Solomons

Without going to the excess of using four letter words, I am pissed off with the number of newspapers and TV companies who at the drop of a hat heap ‘fulsome’ praise on anyone who has achieved fame.

Over the past seven or eight years I’ve fired off emails to the BBC, ITN, the Daily Mail, The Times, Daily Telegraph and Guardian as well as local papers asking them to stop using the word ‘fulsome’ because it means almost the exact opposite of what they are trying to convey.

Subs please note. Fulsome simply means, ‘Cloying excessive, disgusting by excess’. Fine if you are trying to take the piss but not if you are genuine in your desire to praise the man or woman you are writing or talking about.

Why this fetish, this obsession? Well it all started about fifteen years ago when a young reporter who had joined our agency in West Yorkshire – he’s now churning out words of wisdom on a national daily – wrote a report for our local evening paper on the retirement of the area’s chief probation officer.

Tributes were paid to her by magistrates and police at the magistrates’ court which we covered for the paper and in his report our man wrote of the ‘fulsome’ praise she had been given. The day after the report appeared she phoned us to complain bitterly that fulsome was the exact opposite of what our reporter had intended.

Since then I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen and heard the word being wrongly used in the media. It has become a kind of cause celebre for me. I feel like screaming every time I see some deserving person or organisation receiving a ‘fulsome’ tribute.

So make an old man happy. Stop using that bloody word.

Incidentally I’ve also been campaigning for the abolition of ‘Undergo’, ‘Undergoing’ and ‘Underwent’. I mean can you imagine walking into a pub and hearing this conversation: ‘I hear old Fred is not too good. What’s wrong with him?’

‘They don’t know yet, but he’s undergoing tests.’

Or: I hear old Fred’s in hospital. Yes, he underwent an operation yesterday.

It really is barmy. In general conversation people from all walks of life simply say that so and so has had or is having tests or had an operation. Why then do newspapers, television and radio persist in using ridiculous words like undergo, undergoing and underwent?

Does anyone out there have the answer?

And do you remember back in the good old days when you could ring a hospital and get a condition on an accident victim. Hospitals are no longer allowed to issue bulletins about patients’ conditions but weren’t they bloody stupid? They were ‘comfortable’, ‘satisfactory’ or ‘stable’. So there’s this poor sod lying in a hospital bed with two cracked ribs, a fractured leg, and a broken jaw taking in liquids through a straw. You rang up for his condition and you were told ‘he’s comfortable’.

That’s comfortable?

Satisfactory presumably meant they were satisfied with his progress. Fair enough, but ‘stable’ is another matter. What in heaven’s name ‘firmly fixed or established, not easily to be moved, firm, resolute, not wavering or fickle’ had to do with a patient’s condition is anyone’s guess, unless the patient happened to be a horse.

It never happened during my forty odd years as a freelance and I still live in hopes of one day seeing, ‘Injured racehorse in stable condition.’

And isn’t it really amazing how often newspapers, including the quality sheets, wrongly use the apostrophe and use full stops instead of commas and vice-versa?

So never mind the bleedin’ indefinite article like Mr Coren (previous issues). Let’s clean up the language so that we mean what we say and say what we mean.

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Social workers kill another baby

By Sue Bullivant

Consider these reports following the death of a baby.

Daily Telegraph:
A public inquiry should be held into the failings that led to the death from abuse of a 17-month-old baby, say campaigners. An investigation into the handling of the case, in which the boy died despite being seen by care workers 60 times in eight months, is necessary to prevent a repeat of the tragedy, it is claimed.

Daily Mail:
Not a single social worker will lose their job over the blunders which let the little boy suffer 50 injuries including a broken back, eight fractured ribs and ripped fingernails. Officials will instead be let off with written warnings despite being accused of passing a ‘death sentence’ on the 17-month-old by handing him back to his mother when she was being investigated by police for assault.

The Guardian:
Baby P death sparks national child protection review.
Chairman of Victoria Climbié inquiry to produce progress report on social service reforms

The Sun:
INJURED Baby P was seen SIXTY times by workers, yet NO ONE saved him from abuse.

So… Social workers kill another baby?

But they didn't, did they? Baby P's slut of a mother and the two sadistic, murdering lowlifes she was living with tortured him to death.

Am I the only one to be disgusted by the coverage of this case? At least three times yesterday, and I do not exaggerate, I heard on the ‘media’ that social services were responsible for his death.

Now, I hold no brief for social workers – the only one I know well is sweet and good hearted but I wouldn't trust her to protect my cat, let alone a baby.

But whatever happened to collective responsibility? Call me old fashioned, but in my day child protection was the responsibility of the family, then of friends, neighbours, society… in other words me and you. When did this shadowy group of people, ‘them’ – the schools, the NHS, social workers etc etc become the scapegoats for everything?

I don't think I've ever been so angry while watching news coverage – there was barely a mention of the evil of these three scumbags (and all this on Armistice Day. Boy, did they ever die in vain if it was to keep tossers like this on the dole) – no, it was all the fault of the dozy social workers.

Pass the sickbag, Alice.

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