Issue # 162

This Week

A couple of weeks ago we were asked by a reader (in Australia) whether anybody could define what a journalist is.

Quick as a flash, Bernard Long replied (from Malaysia) that decades ago, when he was nobbut a lad on t’Batley News, he was told that a journalist was somebody who borrowed money from a reporter. Then Cathy Hollowell (Cathy Couzens as was) wrote from Houston, Texas, with a piece that might answer the question.

It all looks pretty international from here (on the island of San Serif, somewhere in the middle of the Med).

Closer to home, Nick Jenkins, now an assistant editor at PA, remembers the night Keith Waterhouse’s book came out, the first time round. Rather than risk learning anything from it, the news subs scoured the pages to check whether they’d got what they considered to be honourable mentions in it. Yes: that’s Mirror subs, for you.

The new version of Waterhouse On Newspaper Style is actually published today. Last week’s mentionof the book sent quite a few readers scurrying to their shelves in search of their original copies. Guess what? Almost without exception they failed to find the book, before eventually remembering that they had – yes – loaned it to a “friend”. So if you are one of the few with a copy of the old Mirror or Penguin version, ask yourself: Who does it belong to?

If you want one of your own, it is available, now, from Book Depository (with free postage, worldwide), or on-line from amazon or Waterstones, or on order from any half-decent bookshop, anywhere in the world. No need to nick one.

The funeral of Gordon Amory was held this week. Phil Aris did the eulogy, which we have added to the Amory memorial page.

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What is a journalist?

cathyhatBy Cathy Couzens

Bit like who is Sylvia, what is she? I never did like that title, journalist. There was no writing of journals. I prefer the trade of reporting, it sounds more honest, less slick, and somehow more descriptive of the actual work done.

There are way too many people pretending to be journalists. Rarely does anyone pretend to be a reporter. The talking heads on telly all seem to have degrees in pomposity. The nicest, funniest, most generous people I ever met were reporters – they never pretended to be more important than the story.

How do you tell the difference between a journalist and a reporter (sounds like the beginning of a pub joke), you look at the way the story is written. Does it ‘Mirror’ the real tale, does it ‘Telegraph’ it to the reader? Does it say Who, When, What and sometimes Why? If it rambles on about sheep on the hillside or ducks on the water it was written by someone who describes themselves as a journalist.

Of course, they cannot write shorthand… mine can still be read by anyone else and if you speak too fast my short forms flash through the sixty–year–old brain like arrows from the past. My former senior reporter, Ron Pidgeon, used to read my shorthand and I read his. Roger Lacey could read both, it came in useful with long court cases, endless town council events and hotel and pier fires in Brighton.

A Houston business acquaintance phoned the other day, she was trying to do too much. She had house chores, children to taxi, work to do and now she was faced with writing an obituary for a dear friend whose ex-husband had died of cancer. Why she had to write the obit was made obvious: the ex-wife wanted people to know how much her son was loved and how much time the father had spent with the son; she also needed money for college. I heard myself say ‘I’ll do it, give me the details’… she was stunned. She had no idea of my former life or that I had written hundreds of obits in my time. You know you are a reporter when you have births, deaths and marriages, baby shows and school sports days permanently in your brain file undeleted. I did so many that when Elvis died it was synch… five pages all done by 3 am.

This one was not too long (obits cost a fortune these days); it said it all with just enough care that people contributed heavily to the bereaved boy’s college fund. No one knew who wrote it but people apparently asked the boy’s mother – it did not read like the other obits. Good, I learned my craft well.

That is what it used to be, a trade, a craft, something for which we were indentured. I was on probation for six months, apprenticed for three years. I learnt my laws of libel, shorthand, how to read type in metal. Actually, I cannot remember what I was taught, all I know was that I must have learnt it well because bits of useless information float through the grey cells every now and then just to remind me.

Bob Hill, a lovely old deceased night editor of the Daily Mail could make a story out of anything. He was the sort of guy who made it fun to work, he loved his craft and could not abide laziness. He once gave me an A – Z of London with the inscription – ‘so you don’t get lost next time’. Oh heck, I got so lost one night I missed the whole damn story. Only did it once. Learnt that lesson well, too. Now I am never late for anything, nearly always early. It drives my family mad but as I explain to them if you get there and the fire is over the newspaper will fire you!!

So what is a journalist…. Who knows? I probably know a few dozen who claim to be… but when I think back to days when yards of paper clacked out of PA and Reuters machines when you could hear someone yell ‘Copy’, when a trolley clattered around with a giant teapot and squashy ham buns and when renowned idiots like Owen Summers and Jim, the Prince of Darkness, would put their left-over bacon and egg plates in my desk drawer because they were too lazy to go back to the canteen. We were all reporters, always working on ‘the big one’ or our expenses, loving the smell of ink and the rumble of those arm eating machines in the depths of the inky building of mediocrity.

When I became that strange being, a columnist, it was not as much fun. I had an office and a secretary (and a waste of space she was, she always thought the famous people calling me back were jokers and not really who they said they were), a parking space in the building, and carte blanche to spend money on trips, lunches, dinners. Very fattening stuff being a columnist. Having a table at Regines, The Ivy, Mortons and always being allowed into Tramp was weight gaining also. Being a reporter was still more fun and less stressful, more about real people and less crapola about the entertainment business.

Every time there is a decent story I wonder why certain questions were not asked, why did they gloss over a huge loophole in the tale? Reporting is a skill, something you can teach but some just have the knack of asking the right questions… What DO they teach in college these days? What exactly is a communications degree? Do you actually have to have a degree to get a newspaper job now?

If so there are a lot of us who made it then who would never be allowed in now.

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Subs without shame

By Nick Jenkins

When I joined the Daily Mirror news subs desk in 1979 after the sinking of Reveille, night editor Phil Walker told me Keith Waterhouse’s stylebook was imminent. I can remember his exact words: ‘It’s not going to be the sort of style book that tells you whether to spell Tokyo with a Y or an I.’

To put that book into a bit more context, it was all part of editor Mike Molloy’s attempt to create a new tabloid English, ditching the old clichés of the fifties and sixties. It was a drive that was only partly successful. If I were to mention ‘new matter after the definite article’ – one Molloyism – I would probably get blank looks from anyone who wasn’t a Mirror sub at the time (though I have to say it is a principle I have stuck to ever since – if you want to know what it is, ask anyone who subbed in the Molloy era).

But if Waterhouse’s intention had been to shame subs, it failed miserably.

On the night the book was distributed, Mirror subs quickly flicked through it to find quoted examples of their own work. It was regarded as a badge of honour to have been held up to ridicule by Waterhouse. Thugs bunny, anyone?

Thirty years on, my only regret is the one that is probably shared by all my old colleagues… what DID happen to my copy?

I’m looking forward to buying the new edition.

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