Issue # 149

This Week

What was that saying? Oh yes: you couldn’t make it up.

It was a funny old world, was it not, where you could be fired for getting a fact* wrong, but applauded for inventing an entire story… where a story stood up if you could persuade somebody to say something because then the story was based on the fact that they said it, even if everybody knew it was bollocks.

We, of course, would never do anything like that.

OK, then: Skiddy would, and the rest of the Liverpool press corps would. And if the newsdesk people suspected anybody was doing it, they were not daft enough to enquire.

Oh, and Andy Jackson did.

And Harold Heys did, but – as far as we know – the only people affected by the inventions were the mates from the office.

And if you are ready to believe – as Geoff Seed reports – that Ken Clarke, that last colourful character in politics, wandered off into the Colombian jungle in search of a rare bird when he was supposed to be watching a drugs bust… well, you’ll believe anything, I guess.

Follow the birdie by clicking on the links, or in the Contents column on the far left.

*Ah yes… there’s an old sub out there already reaching for his keyboard to tell us that you can’t get facts wrong because a fact, by definition, is true. The up-yours response to that, however, is that anybody who has ever been involved with what editors call fact-checking knows that you can have a wad of copy absolutely chock-full of facts… until you check ‘em, and discover that many are not actually true at all. Maybe we should put fact in quotes. But I’m not prepared to pander to the miserable moaner.

Them as can, write. Them as can’t, complain about what other people write.

Twas ever thus. And that’s a fact.

Get clicking.

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Not so grim fairy tales

skidmore 2By Ian Skidmore

There was the girl for whom we bought fifty tickets on the Liverpool ferry and then photographed plying across the Mersey to New Brighton and back. The story we sold our news editors was that her doctor had ordered her to take a cruise for health reasons: the ferry trip was the only one she could afford.

Then there was the dog we tied to the railings of the police Bridewell, a note attached to its collar ‘My daddy threatens to shoot my dog. Please Mr. Policeman would you hide him somewhere safe?’ Which we signed ‘Simon 11’ after cleverly misspelling ‘threaten’.

Both stories were page leads in our newspapers and aroused much comment. Animal stories always caused comment.

I almost lost my job by suggesting the Daily Mirror motto should be ‘Every Day Has Its Dog’. In my defense, I pointed out two stories that we had run the day before. One on page one told how stray dogs were moved from cages each day at the RSPCA kennels until they reached the one labeled ‘Tuesday’. When a dog reached the ‘Tuesday’ cage it was put down. The day that ‘Tuesday’s Dog’ appeared, the paper was snowed under with cheques and postal orders to pay for its continued life; our phone lines jammed with calls. One caller offered a thousand pounds to have the dog brought out to Italy and a life of luxury. In the same issue, I’d written a story of some limbless ex-servicemen who after superhuman efforts got themselves a workshop to make things to sell. They were a month behind with their rent and their landlord threatened to evict them. Only five readers rang up about that story and not enough cheques arrived to meet the arrears.

Liverpool district reporters on national newspapers in those days would have got a ‘first’ on any Creative Writing course. Nor were we without help. We had to find a story a week for our sister Sunday papers. Bert Balmer, the city’s assistant chief constable and a Press Club member, used to make them up for us on request, over a convivial glass in the club bar.

So it might seem a bit odd that I have canceled my subscription to Daily Mail newspapers in disgust at their treatment of Lord Triesman, the chairman of the Football Association. I think little of the FA and when I saw the photograph of the Lord and his lady (?) Melissa Jacobs I thought of the judgment of a commanding officer on one of his subalterns: ‘One would hesitate to breed from this officer’. But love is allowable, even among the unsightly. What is not allowable was for her to pass on an innocent remark he made about his fear of bribery of referees to the Mail on Sunday and for that paper to give her £75,000.

I wasn’t sorry to see the paper go. I had been reading the facsimile edition on-line and, though in bribery the Mail group is second to none, it has yet to turn out readable facsimiles. I see The Times is offering a similar service. I will try it without hope.

Certainly, it is time our newspapers caught up with the computer world. As I sat at my news desk surrounded by the most modern gadgets, I used to reflect on the expense and labour involved in gathering, illustrating, printing and publishing the day’s news. Yet all depended on a small boy on a bicycle. If he slept in or forgot to deliver the morning paper, the whole costly process collapsed.

Now that news has been largely supplanted by the vapourings of celebrities one wonders whether my trade deserves to survive.

Ian Skidmore, former reporter, news editor, freelance, broadcaster, columnist and the author of 26 books including Forgive Us Our Press Passes, is marooned weekly on his own delightful and rantful beach on Skidmore’s Island.

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Heidi Hi

By Andrew Jackson

In those days, long before the digital era, the thing to have was a particular Sony radio-alarm clock. Instead of a dial and hands, this much-prized cutting-edge device used a Rolodex-like system, with the hours and minutes displayed on plastic wafers that flipped over with an audible and distinctive click as time went by.

The alarm was set, as it always was, for seven-thirty. That particular Friday morning, publication day, I heard the click and a second or two later the voice of Jack de Manio reading the news headlines: ‘…and in Edgware…’

I froze. My story, that story, was being discussed on the Today programme. The game was up. Disgrace was inevitable. I’d be sacked within hours.

With a feeling of dread I washed, dressed and drove the few miles to the high-street office of the Edgware Times and the Edgware Post (identical in terms of copy but not format – the Times was broadsheet and the Post tabloid).

As with many local paper district offices the reporters’ room was at the back of a greetings card and stationery shop, a smoke-filled, window-less cuddy for two reporters, two sit-up-and-beg typewriters and one telephone.

I parked in the service road at the rear of the building and entered warily via the back door. Mr. Harvey, who ran the shop, was waiting for me. ‘Ooh, now see what you’ve done,’ he scolded. ‘I’ve had to shut the shop and lock the door.’

A glance over his shoulder revealed a throng of men and women milling on the pavement outside, some of them bearing fully loaded Speed Graphics, one with an Arriflex news camera and tripod and another with a tape recorder slung over his shoulder. Most carried a copy of the paper.

‘You’d better sort it out,’ said Mr. Harvey. ‘It’s all your fault.’

I gulped a lungful of air, lit my first Woodbine of the day, and went out the door.

‘Did you write this?’ asked one of the group, pointing to the lead story. ‘Where can we find them?’ asked another. ‘Do you have their phone numbers?’

What could I say? How had it come to this?

To explain my predicament we must go back a few days to the start of a scenario that was now running out of control.

Aged 23 I ran the Edgware office of the Hendon Times series, assisted by my chum and colleague Brian Stratton. There was a similar set-up in Finchley but the senior reporter there, a woman, had fallen out with Alan Davies, editor of the group. We’ll call her Annette.

Alan had called a week earlier to say he was sending Annette to Edgware, where I was to ‘work her hard’ in the hope that she would foul up and he would have grounds to sack her, while Brian would switch to head office.

So, Annette turned up on Monday and we got on with the chores – wedding reports, flower show results and so on – and agreed which of us would cover the jobs in the diary for that week.

Annette was much older than me and a tad prickly – she knew the pressure was on and wasn’t going to take any nonsense from a whippersnapper like me. For my part, my management style was more pleading than assertive but nevertheless, we rubbed along without conflict.

The lead story that week was expected to come from a council meeting on Wednesday evening. Annette’s shorthand was far superior to mine so we agreed that she would cover the council meeting and file her copy before covering the local magistrates’ court on Thursday morning.

Come the Thursday I did police and fire calls on the way in and pitched up around ten o’clock. The phone rang. Alan wanted to know when the lead would be coming over. I said I thought he had it already but I would check with Annette. The copy deadline for the issue was noon.

I took a look at Annette’s desk. No sign of any relevant copy there. Nothing on the spike, no blacks, nothing in the bin. I hurried over to the court building but there was no sign of her. Back in the office, Alan was on the phone again. ‘Where’s that bloody lead boyo? You’ve only got an hour.’ I explained that Annette appeared to have gone AWOL, taking the lead with her. ‘Then use your initiative,’ said Alan. ‘The clock is ticking.’

What to do? Fear and the specter of a white hole where the lead should be produced an adrenaline rush and a flash of inspiration.

The previous week we’d carried a letter from two women who wanted to warn others of the unreliability of au pairs. Theirs, they wrote, had run off without warning, taking items belonging to their employers with them.

This week, I decided, the au pairs would hit back.

I quickly knocked out a completely fictitious story about how au pairs were exploited, made to do work they shouldn’t and how their lives were made a misery by thoughtless and uncaring employers. To help stand it up I quoted ‘Heidi from Switzerland’, ‘Lotte from Germany’, ‘Isabella from Italy’ and their friends.

I phoned it over to Hendon and within minutes Alan was back on the phone. ‘Bloody brilliant, boyo, but why couldn’t you have sent it earlier?’ I mumbled something about waiting for a quote and breathed a sigh of relief.

Now, here I was on Friday morning facing a Fleet Street pack intent on following up the story. I had no alternative but to brazen it out. I told them that I couldn’t reveal my sources as Heidi and her chums had spoken to me in confidence – but said that au pairs tended to hang out at a local coffee bar further up the high street. Off they went in pursuit of their quarry.

Readers of Ranters will not be surprised to learn that most of the nationals carried their versions of the story the following day, duly quoting ‘Ingrid from Norway’, ‘Anna from Austria’, and so on. Then, of course, the employers hit back and the story ran for another two or three days. There was even a question in the House.

We sold a lot more papers that week and Alan told me what we needed were ‘more stories like that’.

And Annette? She’d done a runner and was not heard of again. Brian Stratton returned from head office and life went on. You couldn’t make it up, eh…?

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Winding-up motions

haroldheys1 5By Harold Heys

It was an excellent wind-up of Lou Yaffa, that Mark Howard recalled last week. I remember you had to be pretty wide to get one past Big Lou in the Good Old Days.

It was a tale that must draw out other wind-up recollections and here’s a quickie about getting one over on Andy Rosthorn, Daily Mail and Mirror Group hack, a contributor to Private Eye, Lobster and most everything else, raconteur of strange and lengthy tales – and world authority on Rudolf Hess.

For years Andy played in my pub quiz team which can best be described as an odd, but successful, mix. Gordon Taylor the PFA supremo played with us. Martin Samuel had a few games. We were once a man short and the pub dog sat in to make us up. His first question: What’s another name for rabies? The poor mutt just sat there and dribbled. Useless. Andy Rosthorn was a regular and often managed to get the round-the-bar chat on to his pet subject of Hitler’s deputy.

It was never boring but there’s not a lot of general interest in the disputed trajectory of the bullet Hess took through his chest in the Great War. No one dared to mention the mysterious ME fighter-bomber he flew over or we’d have been there all night. Was it really Hess or a doppelganger? How many years have you got to chew that one?

Anyhow, after a few years on the quiz circuit and late-night discussions with assorted hacks in dingy dives, it was finally time for The Wind-Up. At the quiz interval, as Andy was trying to interest the barman in a map of Spandau, hastily drawn on a beermat, I gave the question master a piece of paper. ‘This is Andy’s question,’ I told him. ‘And whatever he says he’s wrong. Ok?’

Off we went for the second half and the first question went to Andy. ‘Where was Rudolf Hess imprisoned immediately after his war-time flight to Scotland?’

Andy spread his arms in amazement. ‘I can’t believe it,’ he smirked. ‘I know exactly where it was!’

He took a deep breath, we all sat back and off he went (I recall it almost word for word):

‘Well… I suppose the strict answer to this excellent question would be the Scout hut at Busby. He had landed in a nearby field and the local Home Guard marched him to the hut for the night. (Pausing to scan the rapt attention of the assembled company, he pressed on cheerily).

‘He was then taken to Maryhill Barracks in Glasgow where he was under the guard of a drunken Scottish regiment for a couple of days and then he was taken by train to Euston and on to the Tower of London. (Mouths of assembled company suitably agape with awe at this point.)

‘Psychiatrists looked him over closely at someplace in south London and eventually he was taken to an old hospital in south Wales, near Abergavenny –he used to go walking over the hills with a little dog – and when the war ended he was hauled off to Luxemburg, to a place called Ashcan, under the command of a strange American colonel, prior to Nuremberg. So, to recap: Scout hut at Busby.’ (At this point Andy sat back to receive the acclaim of his peers after probably the most exhaustive answer to any question in the long history of pub quizzes.)

Instead, the question master, keeping a very straight face, told him: ‘Nah. Bollocks.’ Warming quickly to his theme, he told Andy: ‘Says here: Cardiff Castle.’

Andy went purple. He was spluttering even more than he was on the night he threatened to fire-bomb the sponsoring brewery over a regular cock-up question about what a sea captain means when he flies a yellow flag. The penny finally dropped as everyone roared with laughter.

‘Bastards,’ muttered the World Authority on Rudolf Hess…

A long wind-up… Wind-ups were a regular occurrence in the days of yore. Everybody was fair game – and the longer a plot took the more the satisfaction. Hacks, comps, even copy-takers and young messengers copped for it. I remember we convinced one kid that Clint Eastwood was Stan Laurel’s nephew with some elaborate deceptions. The clincher came when he was persuaded to ring the British Film Institute in London for a final check before his money went down. The poor sap didn’t know that he was actually phoning a friend of Martin Samuel who was expecting the call and who happily confirmed the daft story. The lad was lucky. Norman Wynne only took a tenner off him.

A short wind-up… Bill Bradshaw had an awful time with traffic wardens when he was in Manchester. We were ready for him one day. As soon as he pulled up at the front of the Sunday People office one of the lads shot down with a neatly-produced yellow ‘fine’ in a plastic envelope and stuck it under his wipers – as Bill raced upstairs. ‘Keep an eye on the car lads,’ he pleaded. ‘Too late,’ someone shouted. He took one horrified look, raced back down and grabbed the ‘fine.’ It was one of those moments… you know that when you look up there’s going to be a gang of newspapermen at the windows, waving and smiling. Bill had the grace to smile and wave back. At least with a couple of fingers.

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Feathered friends

geoffseed 4By Geoffrey Seed

Imagine the scene – the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke QC, MP, portly, cigar-smoking bon viveur and our newly be-wigged Lord Chancellor, leaping from a helicopter gunship in a bulletproof vest and bounding through a murderous cocaine baron’s prize crop in search of that rarest of creatures… the Great Crested Colombian Screech Owl.

Forget Mash. Think Carry On Up The Cartel.

Clarke’s Huey – the warhorses of Vietnam – had just put down in a clearing in the Andean jungle planted with acres of coca bushes when our hero, the jazz-loving Gray’s Inn bencher and amateur ornithologist, felt sure he saw… The Bird.

With little or no regard for his safety, the then Home Secretary strode off into the perilous unknown followed by (1) a bewildered mob of SAS-trained, cammed up Colombian para-militaries laboring under massive bandoliers of bullets and assorted heavy weaponry (2) a Scotland Yard protection officer pouring sweat in his dark suit, white shirt, brogues and tie and carrying what appeared to be a water pistol (3) Tom Mangold, another bird-spotter and legendary BBC correspondent and (4) myself and Panorama cameraman Mike Spooner, who thought we there to ruin a bad guy’s day by filming his cocaine kitchen being fire-bombed.

I suppose I should confess that I might have misremembered our feathered friend’s actual moniker, Latin or otherwise, but the nearness of all that Colombian marching powder has played hell with my faculties ever since.

Anyway, however hard Clarke and Mangold stared into the steamy claustrophobic jungle canopy, the bird had flown. All we could hear was the second Huey, circling, watching, machine-guns primed and ready for serious trouble.

The Colombian security team on the ground was growing ever more nervous at Clarke’s unfathomable interest in the local flora and fauna. They had a good reason. This was a battleground being fought over by shifting alliances of leftist guerrillas and the psychotic billionaires who ran the region’s cartels. That year’s drug-related homicides alone would top 27,000 so Clarke was ordered back into the chopper – no arguments – and we took off for the high Andes and another anti-drugs operation.

Spooner and I sat either side of the starboard gunner, breathing in pure testosterone and suddenly aware of a wonderful terror… that of being in the crosshairs of some bloke down there with a missile launcher who was on wages if he ruined our day.

In the end, we got great pictures despite a Home Office press department drone trying to restrict our access to Clarke donating some Amstrads in an office in Bogotá. Mangold, a brilliant veteran of Fleet Street and one of the most astute and insightful reporters the BBC has ever had, handed out a few words of advice.

More than six million people watched our Panorama investigation into cocaine smuggling. Clarke knew the political value of being seen on it and played his part like the old pro he is. The election has now delivered him back into premiership politics and the sketch writers should rejoice. If nothing else, Ken Clarke is a highly colourful, combative, and unflappable operator – in fact, not unlike his fellow twitcher, Tom Mangold.

Former Daily Mail reporter Geoffrey Seed worked for every leading TV current affairs programme – Granada’s World in Action, BBC Panorama and the ITV series Real Crime – and is the author of A Place Of Strangers, his first novel, about an investigative TV journalist who finds himself embroiled in the ultimate investigation… into his own life.

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