Issue # 144 – Wild about Harry

Wild about Harry

By Mike Gallemore

The world of journalism has lost one of its most respected characters and one of its few genuine socialists. Harry Conroy, former FoC of the Daily Record and general secretary of the NUJ, died in hospital in Glasgow last week. He was 67.

For years he had been Public Enemy No 1 to most national newspaper journalists due to his misguided (as we saw them) efforts to wrest power from the individual newspaper chapels and return it to the NUJ.

But to those who knew Harry well, he was a man of principle who went out of his way to help anyone he could. Although almost all Fleet Street chapel officials were diametrically opposed to Harry’s heartfelt beliefs we had all the time in the world for the guy himself. He had a crazy sense of humour and could see the funny side of most bizarre situations – and there were many.

Like when Harry rang the chairman’s office at Mirror Group in London on Friday, July 13, 1984, the day he’d bought a half-page ad in the Record explaining why they’d never allow themselves to be taken over by Maxwell.

Expecting to speak to Clive Thornton, Harry opened with: ‘Hey, Clive. Good news! I think I’ve found a way to keep the bastard out.’ Robert Maxwell’s unmistakable voice boomed back; ‘Is that you Scotch Harry? What’s the matter – don’t you read the papers? I own the fucking place.’ Then he invited him to come for a drink.

I think Harry knew from the very beginning that he was fighting a totally lost cause and that he was preaching to people who could never be converted to his way of thinking. Yet, despite that wall of opposition, Harry didn’t falter in his beliefs.

I can remember when we went on strike in Manchester, led by Mike Gagie and Harry King, in furtherance of our claim to have the right to negotiate our own house agreement. This was triggered by the news that the Mirror telephoto guys (SOGAT) had just received a house agreement increase, which gave them more than twice the average salary of the journalists.

The two Kens came up from Acorn House and threatened to throw us all out of the NUJ unless we returned to work immediately and dropped our claim. For me, that was the beginning of the end of the NUJ as a union for national newspaper journalists.

The power-base suddenly switched from the union to the chapels. The NUJ made no attempt to harness the strength of the chapels and inevitably, it became a war that the chapels couldn’t afford to lose and the NUJ couldn’t win.

Harry’s argument was that the little guy working on a provincial newspaper didn’t have the strength of the big Fleet Street chapels to be able to fight his corner. If he were to go on strike he would lose his job and the paper would still come out because the NGA and SOGAT would make sure it did.

Harry’s ideological beliefs were well-founded but impractical. He believed that unless we worked closely with the NGA and gained their support the NUJ was powerless to stop the job. Which is why he suggested the two unions should amalgamate.

Ultimately, new technology settled the issue. I can remember being a delegate at the NUJ ADM in Buxton (only because it was on my doorstep and I was curious) and being the only speaker in the hall to talk against the resolution to get into bed with the NGA. I suggested the NUJ made it possible for the NGA to train to become page-make-up men. Afterward Harry told me I wasn’t fit to be a member of the NUJ and that I was a voice in the wilderness and the only journalist at the ADM to hold those views. I made the point that the vast majority of journalists in the hall were not representative of national newspaper journalists.

Harry was a caring, thoughtful and understanding Gen Sec of the NUJ (1985-1990) but by then the union had lost its teeth – if it ever had any.

Harry didn’t support the initiatives of the Fleet Street chapels and failed to acknowledge the issues at stake. He was in a position to bring the various newspaper chapels together when Revel Barker, David Thompson and I put ourselves up as test cases to fight – and win – the battle at the City of London Tax Commissioners to stop our fixed allowances from being taxed.

He didn’t understand the issues at stake when he tried to prevent the Sun journalists from leaving Fleet Street for Wapping, still believing that journalists should consider the wellbeing of NGA members, who had never shown any consideration to journalists.

Harry was a believer. He was a fun guy who never gave up on his principles. But how he could stand up in front of an audience of national newspaper journalists, who opposed every word he was preaching, is beyond me. That takes great strength of character – and he was one of the strongest characters I’ve ever met.

Harry, born and bred in Pollok in the suburbs of South Glasgow got into journalism the old-fashioned way – as a copy boy on the Scottish Daily Express in 1962.

From there he joined the Daily Record mainly covering crime, switched to the Sunday Mail and went back again to the Record as finance editor. He was also held in high regard at the Record as an all-round reporter.

In recent years Harry wrote on business and finance for the Herald and the Evening Times in Glasgow. He was also editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer before setting up his own public relations consultancy, working mainly for charities.

Harry’s funeral is at 10am today (Friday) at St Bride’s Church, Cambuslang, and then Rutherglen Cemetery, Mill Street, Rutherglen, at 11.30am.

Mike Gallemore was FoC and convenor of the Daily Mirror Manchester chapels in the 70s and 80s and MGN NUJ convenor from 1984. He edited the Sporting Life from 1988 to 93 and is now MD and editor-in-chief of Worldwide Sporting Publications (www.wsp.global.com ).

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