We passed our third anniversary as a website this week – a massive thank-you to all our loyal contributors – and celebrate the birthday with a string of stories about Harry Procter, one of the truly great reporters of distant memory.
Almost needless to say, there’s a book out, although that won’t bother most of our readers who are genetically unable to put hand to pocket and buy a book that (if they have even any passing interest in the trade) they should read.
They can probably make do with the website copy.
For those who don’t know, Harry was a terrifying rival on a job. Keith Waterhouse, on his first day as a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, was sent to cover an inquest in Leeds. It was worth no more than a couple of pars so he wasn’t much bothered when Harry, working for the Yorkshire Evening News, beat him to the phone. But as he emerged from the kiosk Harry ripped the phone out of its socket, and passed the handset to him, saying: ‘All yours…’
Keith said: ‘I knew then that he would go far.’
He’d already been as far as Teesside (chief reporter of the Cleveland Standard at 18) before returning to Leeds, his home town. He’d started on the Armley and Wortley News after bombarding the paper with so many stories that the editor reckoned it was cheaper to give him a job. His mother, wise old lady, had told him always to carry a pencil and paper, and to write down anything he saw that interested him. He followed that instruction for the rest of his short but frantic life.
For a generation that’s heard of Harry Potter but not of Harry Procter, Revel Barker attempts to explain why Procter is genuinely entitled to be remembered as a Fleet Street ‘legend’.
Tom Mangold, who followed Harry to the Sunday Pictorial (before it rebranded as the Sunday Mirror) reviews the book.
And John Rodgers (Fleet Street News Agency) describes the Procter newspaper dynasty, most of which he employed.
If you want to read more, buy the book, The Street of Disillusion. It’s wonderful holiday reading and it’s available from amazon, Waterstones, and (with free delivery, worldwide) the Book Depository or on order from any half-decent bookshop.
All the pieces are on this page, this week.
To find them, just scroll down.
Harry Procter and the Legends of the Lost Street
By Revel Barker
It is a disappointing sign of the laziness of what used to be called Fleet Street that journalists – whose craft, after all, is the use of words – when looking for an adjective to describe any former colleague (or, at least, anyone that they actually remember) are frequently content to reach for ‘Legendary’.
Future generations may debate whether more recent names (Harry Evans, say, or Keith Waterhouse or David English) deserve the epithet. Meanwhile, the newspapermen in living memory who can fairly and honestly be described in that way can probably be numbered in single figures.
Arthur Christiansen, long-serving editor of the Daily Express (The World’s Greatest Newspaper) in an age when editors would rather be seen dead than on the telly – although, remarkably, he played himself in a British movie, The Day The Earth Caught Fire, in 1961 – and Hugh ‘Publish And Be Damned!’ Cudlipp might be the only Fleet Street executive on the list.
Bill Connor, ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror (The World’s Biggest Daily Sale) would surely be on it; James Cameron, who is remembered and revered long after his paper, the News Chronicle, has folded and been forgotten, Hannen Swaffer and Duncan Webb (the People) and Vincent Mulchrone (Daily Mail) would probably make it.
Sir Linton Andrews, editor of the Leeds Mercury and the Yorkshire Post (1939-60), founder member and then chairman of the Press Council, an acknowledged expert on the Brontë family of authors, was certainly a famous name among journalists (by no means confined to the provinces) during the period covered by this book. But it’s a fair guess that his name has been forgotten, even in Leeds, now…
And then there’s Harry Procter.
Twenty-five years after he had left the Sunday Pictorial people were still talking about him in The Stab In The Back, the Mirror pub that hadn’t even existed during his days on the paper, and in El Vino, the Fleet Street watering hole. They carried their Harry Procter stories – about how they’d worked with (or, more likely, against) him – like a badge to signify that they too belonged to a special generation of newspaperman; that they, too, were part of the folk tale that was Fleet Street in its rapidly disappearing glory days.
The problem was that they didn’t tell the stories half as well as the related them in his own book.
Harry Procter believed that reporters on rival newspapers hated him for his consistent string of scoops. That isn’t the way they saw it. Or, anyway, not the way they remembered it. Certainly, they feared him – and the most disheartening thing a journalist on an opposition paper could hear on a job was that the Daily Mail (or, later, the Sunday Pic) was sending Procter along to cover it. And, worse, reporters on his own paper must surely have resented the fact that, after they had failed to get a story, their editor would despatch his ‘ace reporter’ to sort it out in full confidence that he’d return – and quickly – with the goods.
It wasn’t so much hatred, then, as of approbation. And yet there was no secret about his technique. While whole teams of experienced reporters pussyfooted around on the periphery of a situation trying to find a way into the story, Harry Procter got off the train or out of the car and stormed straight to the center of it. Then he went to the phone with his copy and also, frequently, with the assurance that a full statement or confession, signed on every page by the elusive interviewee, was on its way to the office by registered post.
Anybody with what his old Mum would have called ‘the nous’, and with the self-confidence of a reporter who didn’t count the word failure in his vocabulary, could have done the same.
Harry Procter’s Street was a period piece that is totally unrecognizable today. Apart from the simple fact that it was an age packed by scoops – most of them home-grown, generated by contacts and conversations in the newsroom or in the pub, and never bought in from agencies or public relations people – it was a time capsule that can be opened only by reading this book.
New kids on the block who are on first-name terms with everybody from the Chief Reporter to the Editor (capital letters people, in his day) and even with the proprietor will smile at the way reporters addressed everybody higher up in the pecking order as Sir – even if they didn’t respect, like, or agree with them.
They will doubtless guffaw at the idea of phoning in to (‘politely’) ask permission to speak to the Assistant News Editor, then say, ‘Sir, I have a story to offer, would you be kind enough to tell me when I may dictate it?’
Or to plead: ‘I wonder if I can dictate at once, because, Sir, if you will forgive the phrase, it is rather hot stuff.’
It was, indeed, hot stuff and an altogether different world. But it was an era in which newspaper circulations were growing all the time.
In the end, it all became too much for our hero. He grew weary of writing the sordid details of murders and of exposing scandals and begged to be taken off crime and allowed to write light stories – what he called the ‘corn’. But his boss Colin Valdar, and his boss’s boss Hugh Cudlipp wouldn’t let him. How could they, when every story he wrote increased the sales of the paper?
He tired of intruding – even when, as was usually the case, he was invited to intrude – into private grief.
Even his mother, who had set him off as a youngster on the road to Fleet Street, thought he had eventually taken a wrong turning. His wife despaired of disapproval from neighbors about the yellow-press stories and death-cell revelations he was writing (but how would they know, unless they were among the millions who paid to read his articles every Sunday…?)
He was also (although half a dozen threats of libel writs ensured that he didn’t go into it in any depth in this book) clearly frustrated and dejected by the unsupportive and carping attitude of his immediate boss, Reg Payne, who criticized his stories but always used them.
His health was starting to suffer. Nowadays it would almost certainly be diagnosed as depression, but an over-indulgence in booze and cigarettes (occupational hazards in a generation of journalists that rarely lived to enjoy retirement), the adrenalin highs created by a relentless chasing of exclusive stories, lack of sleep on out-of-town overnight jobs, and rarely seeing his young family meant that having reached Fleet Street at 22 he was burnt out before he was 40. And eventually, that became his ticket out.
‘If this is Fleet Street, it’s time I left it,’ he wrote.
He returned to the north, to Manchester, and back to the Daily Mail. His disillusion with the great game in which he’d had such high hopes and made himself a household name provided the obvious title for a book.
He sent the manuscript to Philip Gibbs, author of The Street of Adventure – the book that had inspired him as a teenager – and Gibbs, by now a publisher, read it ‘with very great interest and with admiration’, wrote to the author saying he had done ‘magnificently well as a journalist’ and published it.
Harry Procter didn’t live much longer. The former virtuoso in the art of wheedling confessions and revelations from people who were otherwise afraid to speak, the man who had imposed himself between the King and the US President when they held ‘secret’ talks on an American warship, died of lung cancer in 1965 aged only 48.
But he had quit at the top, while still Fleet Street’s most famous ‘ace reporter’ and while the catch-phrase, applied to anybody with a story to tell, was still ‘Tell Harry Procter about it’. Thousands did.
And that’s why he was and is a legend.
By Tom Mangold
I never met Harry Procter. I didn’t need to. When, shortly after he had left the Sunday Pictorial, I walked into the paper’s Geraldine House newsroom in Breams Buildings, off London’s Fetter Lane, his spirit hung over the desks like mountain mist. Besides, I’d read his book and knew him only too well.
R T (Reg) Payne had been Harry’s assistant editor, now he was the deputy editor. I was the clean-shaven, anxious, straight-man from the local paper. I’d studied shorthand, law, local administration… and I had three A-levels.
‘Come in, Tom,’ rasped Payne, known then as a rough diamond (ie, uncouth, vulgar, and talented). I stood to attention in front of him. ‘The Pic wants to do a serious sociological [Payne had trouble with the word] experiment. Go out and dress yourself up as a fuckin’ nigger.’
Ah, I was in Procter-land at last.
Harry’s book Street of Disillusion was to be, for me and many others, the reverse of a warning exposure of the worst of Fleet Street; it was a red-top handbook on how to succeed and enjoy the best of tabloid journalism. I’d learnt much on the Croydon Advertiser, but they never taught me about buy-ups, chequebook journalism, stunt journalism, spending days and nights with the client, ruthless car pursuits of or by the opposition and 24/7 dedication. After I read the book, I didn’t just lust for Fleet Street, I frequently took the train to it from East Croydon, just to walk up and down and drink in an atmosphere headier than Hollywood Boulevard. It was Procter’s book that gave language and substance to my dreams.
So I blacked myself up for a week and showed how colour prejudice was alive in London, and I interviewed a sexy lady underwater (‘Oh, water reporter!’ wrote the chief sub), and I bought up people in the news and repelled the opposition, and for three years copied nearly every move Procter’s book had taught me.
Not bad for a rookie who didn’t even know the meaning of the word ‘con’ when he arrived at the paper.
We had so much in common, my hero and I. He started on a local paper for 30 shillings a week; I started for seventeen shillings a week. Tommy Riley gave Procter his first real job up north; Riley was my deputy news editor on the Pic. Procter eschewed specialisation; I stayed a general reporter all my life.
‘I just worked and worked and worked to get to Fleet Street,’ wrote Procter. And I must have written 50 letters before being hired first as a humble Saturday shifter.
‘I was never off duty,’ wrote Procter. And I soon learnt there was no such thing as a private life or time off.
‘I don’t want reporters,’ my wonderful news editor Vic Sims told me. ‘I want operators. Any fool can write a story, not many can get it in the first place.’
Procter’s anecdotes are of legendary stories: a brother who married his sister; Derek Bentley’s (of the Craig and Bentley PC murder) final letter before he was hanged; an exclusive on the meeting between President Harry Truman and King George VI – an endless list of sensational journalistic achievements delivered to the most exciting and outrageous tabloid in Fleet Street. Fred ‘Red’ Redman was Harry’s news editor. By the time I joined he was an assistant editor. I couldn’t believe I was actually talking to this great executive and star of Harry’s book.
Red, who always looked as if he had just fallen out of a tumble dryer, lit a cheap cigar, leaned back in his chair, and gave me the ‘welcome to the Pic’ briefing. ‘It’s nice here,’ he warmed, hurling the cigar around his wide mouth.
‘It’s not like the Croydon Advertiser. Here you can get drunk, I don’t mind. You can cheat a little on your exes.’ His eyes smiled. ‘You can sleep with the secretaries, but not the clients. There’s only two things you must never do or I’ll fire you on the spot. Never, ever make a single factual error in your copy, and never, ever try to stand a story up when it wants to fall down.’ My heart glowed. Harry believed the Pic had the most efficient newspaper team ‘the world has ever known’. Allowing for the touch of hyperbole, I agree.
One day, Colin Valdar (Harry’s editor and, briefly, mine) called a conference and asked for ideas for a center-page picture spread. ‘We’re going for six million this week, Cudlipp’s on my back. I need a great spread with sex, violence, and religion.’ Frank Charman, chief photographer and a great hero of Procter’s, took over.
‘What about a sexy nun, Colin?’
‘OK, Frank, where’s the violence?’ Silence.
‘Goddit,’ yelled Frank, ‘I know of a convent in the midlands where the nuns go pigeon shooting.’
‘Christ,’ shouted Valdar, nearly biting through the stem of his invariable pipe. ‘That’s it.’ He seized a layout pad and slashed at it with a red pencil. He gave the picture most of the space, with room for a tiny bit of copy, but it was the headline that glued eyeballs to paper: NUN WITH A GUN.
No wonder Harry loved it: he was so much part of it. And his book taught me the most important word in journalism… not Beaverbrook’s famous IMPACT, which hung over the reporters’ desk at the Express, but INVOLVEMENT. That was Harry’s secret. He didn’t just report the story, he infiltrated, then inhabited, it – it was so much more than the roses he sent to the recently bereaved widow, or half a pint of whiskey in a pub with the major player.
Procter taught all of us that success in this type of journalism involved an emotional and physical dedication that transcended normality. It usually meant door-stepping, if necessary, all night; it meant lying, cheating, seducing, buying, horse-trading; it meant using rat-like cunning that can only be inherited from a defective gene. For the brother who married his sister exclusive, Harry quietly stole the sister away while 20 other hacks were bidding for her story at auction. He also bought up the entire Christopher Craig family and kept them from an infuriated and impotent opposition for months.
I took Street of Disillusion with me when I moved to the Daily Express and the Christine Keeler/John Profumo scandal. I bought up both Stephen Ward and ‘Miss Whiplash’, screwed the opposition, ruined my marriage in the process, and grew 20 years older in two years.
Harry would have been proud of me.
Tom Mangold joined the Sunday Pictorial in 1959 and was at the Daily Express 1962-1964 before moving to the BBC, becoming senior correspondent for Panorama from 1976 until his retirement in 2004. He is now a freelance broadcaster and writer.
Reprinted from British Journalism Review.
The legend’s dynasty
By John Rodgers
My memory is not as sharp as it once was and I am probably not the best person to retell the adventures of Harry Procter but I did know his family as well as anyone.
I first heard of the author of Street of Disillusion from my friend and colleague Lynn Lewis when we were both cub reporters at the Orpington and Kentish Times in 1957.
Lynn was dating Valerie, a reporter on the opposition weekly and one of Harry’s many daughters. Lynn told fascinating tales of his future father-in-law’s exploits at the Daily Mail and Sunday Pictorial. On one occasion, he allegedly acted as the best man at a wedding. Afterward, he revealed to the couple that they were brother and sister. (At least, that’s the tale as it reached me. Pub stories were not spoiled by factual accuracy.)
The opportunity to meet this legend was not to be missed and my chance came when Harry was between jobs. He allowed Lynn and me to buy him a beer following his visit to the dole office in Orpington. It was probably not the best time for him to make an impression. All I can recall of that first meeting was his geniality and a rumpled, cherubic figure reminiscent of the poet Dylan Thomas.
Phyllis, another of Harry’s daughters, intrigued me much more than her father. The problem was she lived in Kent and worked at the South London Advertiser while my trip to work from Holloway took me in the opposite direction. Our steamy encounters on Orpington station were too brief to lead to greater knowledge of her father. He and I did not meet again until the early 60s when, by chance, he moved into my block of council flats in Holloway. He re-introduced himself with a request to borrow a coin for the gas meter. I was happy to oblige and catch up on family news at the local boozer.
Harry’s glory days were now over and he was a bit down on his luck. He worked for Tommy Bryant at Fleet Street News Agency before I bought it. He fell out with Tommy when he could not remember where he had parked the office car after an evening of ‘reciprocal hospitality to necessary contacts’. It was some days before the car was recovered.
I was still living in the council flat when Lynn’s newspaper venture in Corby folded. Regretfully, my freelance partnership with Lee Lester was not sufficiently established to enable us to employ either Lynn or Val at the time but I tried to make up for it later. In fact, Lynn went to the Pic (or the Sunday Mirror as it was just becoming). He told me of Harry’s advice: ‘Get yourself a desk behind the door on the hinge side where they will never see you when they come in to fire somebody. You’ll be there comfortably for life.’
I came across Phyllis again when she and her new husband, Bill White of the Evening Standard, occupied a house in Muswell Hill and I had made enough money to move to nearby Highgate.
Before his untimely death in a road accident one Christmas, Bill and I conned our way to Prague to cover the 1968 Russian invasion. We chortled unkindly at somehow managing to upstage his usually wily brother-in-law Lynn, who remained kicking his heels at the border.
Bill persuaded the British Embassy in Vienna to issue him with a new passport, one that no longer described his occupation as a journalist. Inspired by his father-in-law, I adopted a cheekier ploy. I altered the word journalist to philologist and told the border guards at Regensburg that it meant I dealt in lemons.
When I took over Fleet Street News Agency in 1972, I discovered I’d acquired another Procter daughter, Jane, who worked at the Kingston office. Her elder sister Valerie also came to my aid, covering Thames Valley courts in between bringing up her two children, Carol and Lindon.
In time, both Carol and Lindon did reporting apprenticeships with the agency. It was journalism’s loss when they followed their father into Nauticalia, the successful marine business he set up on leaving television.
Lynn wanted to make more money, Carol wanted to get married while Lindon’s disenchantment with Fleet Street followed undercover work for Derek Jameson at the News of the World. He found he’d become more in sympathy with the left-wing group he was sent to infiltrate than his spymasters.
I never got to employ Harry’s other daughters nor his only son, Barry, (Bob Procter) who remained a fixture at the Birmingham Mail and Post for so many years. Barry and I did our National Service in Egypt at the same time so we had that in common.
Harry Procter’s flag in journalism is now carried by his great-grandson, Dan Murdoch, Carol’s son, now working for Channel 4 and BBC TV. If I was still fully in the game, I would relish the chance to add him to my team. At a recent Journalists Charity do, I realized he has all of Harry’s charm, drive, and nous but has yet to get me to buy him a drink.