Issue # 191

This Week

So… how did you get into journalism? It’s a question you’ve surely been asked before, although it possibly started with ‘how on earth did you ever…’

What are (or were) we doing here (or there)? That’s a question we probably asked ourselves, possibly often. Why journalism? Were all the brain surgery vacancies taken when we were leaving school?

Most people have a different answer although in the end, says Revel Barker, the common line is that there was nothing else that we were equipped to do. There’s a new book out – published today – by Walter Schwarz who for years was a foreign correspondent for the Guardian. At the age of 13 he identified the reporter’s life as the one for him. Hence the title for his excellent memoirs: The Ideal Occupation.

So we’ll have a competition. Tell us how or why you got into the game and the writer of the best piece could win a million pounds. Or a copy of the book. (As usual, the editor’s decision will be final.)

And for those who want to know more, foreign corr Alan Dean reviews the book.

While for those readers who imagine that life at the receiving end of the foreign desk’s phone might be at least verging on the romantic, sometime stringer Rick Wilson spills the Dutch beans.

Back in the real(?) world, Harold Heys reports on the demise of a newspaper(?), the Sunday Sport.

Anthony Peagam adds to the memories of Phil Ashcroft (obit last week).

And cartoonist Rudge (James Whitworth) has a joke about something that some of us actually remember happening in the Daily Mirror newsroom.

What else…?

You’ll have read that the chief reporter and the former news editor of the News of the World have been arrested over the phone-hacking fiasco. If not, catch up here. (Our man in the trilby and the trenchcoat reports trembling among staff at the Mirror.)

And if you’re still at a loss for something to read (and not up to coping with anything as cerebral as a real book) there’s a list of Press Council complaints (described as an ‘unofficial list’) set up by that tireless charity-in-search-of-a-cause, the Media Standards Trust, that you could skim through.

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The ideal occupation

rb3 3By Revel Barker

One day when Whispering Smith, who taught history, failed to turn up, the headmaster came in to entertain us instead. He knew sod-all about history so asked us, in a pseudo-caring, headmasterly sort of way, what we intended to do when we left school.

One kid said he fancied being a policeman and the head went apoplectic. ‘If that’s all you want to do with your life you should have given your place at grammar school to somebody who could make proper use of it,’ he sneered (no other word for it).

Callow youth though I was, I remember thinking, what an arse. Why didn’t he tell the boy to study science and go for forensics (Murder Bag – Supt Lockhart, Raymond Francis – was our favourite TV programme at the time), or to take the arts route, study law and become a prosecuting inspector – we had them, in those days?

When the history teacher returned he said: ‘So, Barker, you think you’ll be a journalist…’ It was a no-brainer for me; I was already writing for the local weekly and had had a good story (across two columns) on Page One the previous week. Got it from the headmaster’s secretary, no less.

‘What sort of journalism do you have in mind?’

I read the Daily Mirror and the Guardian every morning, so I thought I wouldn’t mind doing politics.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I suppose you might become a political correspondent, although God knows, you’ll never be a diplomatic one.’

(Years later, when I became foreign editor and was ploughing the embassy beat, among others, I thought of dropping him a line. But he’d left the school for pastures unknown, and he was called Smith…)

What prompts this reminiscence from days of yore is The Ideal Occupation, a new book by Walter Schwarz who spent most of his life as a foreign corr for the Guardian.

When he was 13 he had to write an essay called… The Ideal Occupation. After dismissing ‘rich bank manager’ on one hand and ‘quiet life with lots of free time’ on the other, he opted for ‘a life of travel, excitement, freedom: in short a journalist’. He had the foresight to add that he didn’t want to be controlled in an office by an editor and plagued by deadlines, but ‘to visit places (ordinary places), and talk to people (ordinary people), and build up my articles from that.’

His teacher wrote at the bottom: ‘Pleasantly written. An interesting ambition, not easily realised.’

Decades later, as the Guardian man in Nigeria (1964-67), Israel (1970-72), India (1972-75) and France and Germany (1975-84), visiting ordinary places and talking to ordinary people, with or without a notebook in his hand, life as a reporter was as much fun as he had imagined.

When one talks, as we used to do, in the pub, about what brought individual members of this unlikely gallimaufry into the Great Game, the most common answer is that we looked around, maybe even listened to the uninspiring advice of the careers master (who, personally, hadn’t been able to think of anything beyond teaching), and finally realised that journalism was the only thing we could do.

Certainly in Walter’s case it’s difficult to imagine what else he could have done as a career, except write (although at Oxford he thought that if he got a First, which he didn’t, he might have become ‘an academic’) – because when he wasn’t filing for the Oxford Mail, the Evening Standard, Jewish Observer, Spectator, West Africa magazine, Newsweek and eventually fulltime for the Guardian, he was maintaining a diary and writing letters home.

And one is forced to ask, how many journalists do we know who actually keep a diary? And how many write regular letters home? Most of them write hardly anything, even for the paper, unless there’s a promise upfront of money.

But Walter had the enormous benefit of the diaries and collected family letters, in addition to his cuttings books, when he sat down to type his autobiography.

It makes for a great read. Not only because it was a fascinating life, but because we are privy to his thoughts while he was living it.

There will be people reading this who, perhaps vaguely nowadays, remember how and why they came into the job. So for the best bits submitted on the subject in the next couple of weeks, we’ll give a copy of Walter’s book, The Ideal Occupation, by way of ‘payment’.

The rest, who still don’t know what they’re doing, or can’t remember, can buy the book.

The Ideal Occupation by Walter Schwarz is published today by Revel Barker Publishing at £9.99 and is available from amazon or (with free delivery worldwide) from Book Depository and in the US (with a discount) from Barnes & Noble.

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Stuff that dramas are made on

alandeanBy Alan Dean

In the introduction to his bookThe Ideal Occupation, Walter Schwarz, a former foreign correspondent for the Guardian, muses that his reports from Nigeria, Israel, India and France might have mattered less if he had worked in the digital age where everyone has instant access to news, comment and background.

That goes for us all. But Schwarz, without doubt, would have succeeded as a blogger (a hack with an HTML attitude) if only because of his meticulously kept diary – the Pepys syndrome developed as a teenage boy. And it is those diary entries that have helped him go beyond the average I-was-there anecdotes that are often embellished with age in Fleet Street hackiography (or should that be FleetLit?)

I missed the civil war in breakway Biafra (I was caught up with the Six-Day War in Israel) but Schwarz was there with his pen, diary and Cable & Wireless credit card: he landed up in a Nigerian jail and was later deported. His description of that period benefits from having kept up with his diary entries.

I first met Schwarz, an erudite character, a couple of years later at a kosher restaurant in Mea Shearim, one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem if memory serves: alas, I did not keep a detailed diary. Schwarz, who first went to Israel in the late fifties on a retainer for the Jewish Observer, had returned to Jerusalem in the seventies as a staffer for the Guardian, but he was often mistrusted by the Israelis because of his longstanding friendship with several Israeli Arabs.

I know how he must have felt: I was once hauled over the coals by ‘the authorities’ and berated by the local Daily Mirror stringer, Ted Levite, for my supposed sympathetic coverage of an Israeli Arab at one of the first post-Six Day War trials for alleged terrorist activities, written for the Observer Foreign News Service: it would have been worse for Schwarz at that time because he was Jewish.

Strangely, Schwarz does not talk much of the uber-pro Israel coverage that came from most of the foreign press corps based in Israel in the somewhat gung-ho period between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, but he does single out the BBC’s Michael Elkins for his ‘heroic tones’ in reporting.

It was after reading the chapter on his Israel experiences in the seventies that I went back to the earlier chapters on Schwarz’s childhood and his early days as a member of a family that had escaped to London from Vienna just before World War Two. Maybe that’s how The Ideal Occupation should be read, and it should be read.

Methinks there’s a decent BBC 4 mini-drama series in the making.

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Only an inch away

rickwilson2By Rick Wilson

Reading about some old hacks’ exotic experiences on this site, you could be forgiven for seeing most British journalists as a sophisticated lot, impressively familiar with the wonderful ways of the wider world. That first-mentioned brotherhood perhaps excepted, I suggest you could be wrong.

It would be hard to beat the insularity of some back-in-the-London-office directors of foreign operations.

Revel Barker’s tale (March 4) of being asked to drive to Libya from Tunisia ‘because it was only an inch away on the map’ clanged a loud bell with me. And my memories were not of some Sirocco-blown desert.

As a former Express sub writing in English about tulips and suchlike for KLM’s in-flight magazine I was managing, despite the obvious distractions of the sexy seventies, to stay connected to Fleet Street through a stringership in long-haired, cannabis-wafting Amsterdam. Which, in case you didn’t know, is a few minutes’ flight from London but a good hour’s drive from The Hague (seat of government) and nearly double that to Rotterdam (then the world’s biggest port).

Let’s get this straight. The Express foreign desk did not actually deal in foreigners as such, or real foreign news, or anything quite so tediously non-English. Indeed, when I met him in the Popinjay pub next to his black-glass office, Express editor Derek Jameson tried briefly to be civil by mumbling something of foreign interest before glazing over completely. ‘I’m going to abolish the foreign pages, mate,’ he said, as if proud of it. ‘Foreign stories will only get in the main paper if they’re worth it.’

So. Change of Dutch government? Abdication of Dutch queen? Not interesting. To me, the foreign desk’s function seemed to exist mainly to follow the antics of the English abroad. Preferably of the football-hooligan variety.

Thus every so often, despite being engaged in gainful daily employment, I was asked to get in my car and check out this or that riot involving ‘our’ boys in, say, Rotterdam.

I would get back with the latest in a flash and they wouldn’t even ask how (it was, after all, only an inch away on the map). The secret – I can now reveal – was not a super-fast car but an excellent telephonic news service supplied by the Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (General Dutch Pressbureau). You just dialled up and got the latest domestic development. In Dutch, of course; that was the challenge.

Nevertheless, my old jalopy stood ready for anything. Except… well, I drew the line at a request to set about tracing the body of an Expressman’s brother who had just expired in Vlissingen (Flushing) in the deep south, and could be laid out in a police station, hospital or even a morgue.

I also drew another line at an even more bizarre request, issued in 1977: ‘We think Idi Amin is somewhere in the skies over Europe, on his way to the Commonwealth heads of government conference in London. We want you to find him.’

‘Eh?’ I burst out laughing but there was grim silence at the other end.

What I did use the car for was the hostage drama mounted by the South Moluccans, also in 1977. These aggrieved immigrants were trying to win independence for their part of Indonesia by putting terror pressure on the Dutch – holding 50 passengers on a train.

Unusually, and presumably because of its potential for a bloodbath, the Express wanted this extremely foreign story monitored daily. So I took a fortnight off my day job to drive every day 100 miles up to Bovensmilde in Drente and file regular reports – until I was joined by a London-office man, John Warden. After two days he scooped the world with an early morning final-edition report by instinctively staying awake on the night fighter jets screamed over the train to give the Dutch Marines shock advantage for a stunning rescue. While everyone else, including me, was abed. ‘I just had a feeling about that night,’ he told me.

Credit where it’s due. That was some professional. Through him the Express re-earned my respect. Until I was even more awestruck by a pre-emptive strike payment for all my efforts (including local advice to said London star reporter): Fifteen measly quid! It didn’t cover one day’s petrol…

And on the subject of respect, there was another moment when London sent over another star with somewhat less success. A schoolboy had gone missing in Exeter and it was reckoned the world’s top clairvoyant, Gerard Croiset, would be the man to pinpoint his whereabouts. He told me he needed some of the boy’s clothing. I collected the relevant parcel from the airport and took it to him at his Utrecht home, where he said: ‘I will help the police in this case only if no story is published until there is a successful outcome.’

Well, you don’t argue with someone who can put a curse on your house, do you? So I told the desk of his key condition. Nonetheless, they kept pumping me for ‘background to use when the story does break’.

The seer’s notes and drawings were then flown back to the police, and the following day someone was ringing my doorbell.

‘I’m from the Express – to do the story when the shit hits the fan,’ said the latest red-of-face dynamo.

‘When would that be?’ I asked.

‘Tonight,’ he said. ‘It’s to be the splash.’

Now I like to generate a national splash as much as any hack, but this was an outrageous breach of trust.

‘No, no, no,’ I protested – then called the editor and told him that if the story appeared he would be taken to the Press Council by his own correspondent.

‘Oh dear,’ he said. Yes, it was ‘oh dear’ all round. A political piece on Rhodesia took its place, and the Express and I drifted apart.

As far as it was concerned, I had gone boringly native and really wasn’t on its British side anymore.

Rick Wilson has been a sub-editor with the Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and Sunday Mirror, and a magazine executive in Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Edinburgh – where he edited the Scotsman Magazine for 10 years.

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Gone tits up

By Harold Heys

So the Sunday Sport and its daily have finally gone tits up. Nobody can be really surprised. The writing has been on the lavatory wall for a few years and it’s been something of a miracle that the operation had lasted this long.

Media commentators have been wrapped up in figures and graphs in the past few days, but Peter Preston in the Observer got it right. ‘Don’t get caught up in dissertations on the death of newspapers as a result of this collapse. The Sports didn’t deal in news – just something the net, for its sins, could do faster, bolder and bawdier in full, living colour.’

It’s been downhill since editor-in-chief Tony Livesey packed his bags in the late summer of 2006 and headed off to a new career at the BBC. He was the man with the big, daft ideas. He was the man with the larger-than-life profile. He wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but his loss, combined with the inexorable rise of Internet sleaze, proved fatal.

It was probably back in 1987 that I first heard of him. An old pal, Dave Allin, the tough, ex-Royal Marines news editor on the Blackburn Telegraph rang me: ‘I’ve just taken on a good ’un,’ he said. ‘Bloke called Tony Livesey.’

‘What’s he done? Where’s he been?’ I asked. ‘Dunno,’ said Dave whose interview technique was rather brusque. ‘Nah, then, Tony,’ he’d said. ‘Are. You. Any. Fuckin’. Good?’

As he said, that’s what you wanted to know. None of the fanny about where-have-you-worked, and have-you-brought-some-cuttings and tell-me-about-your-hobbies and all that crap.

tonyliveseyLivesey didn’t hesitate. ‘I’m fuckin’ better than you,’ he told Dave. Next question: ‘When can you start?’ And Burnley-born Livesey, just back from Dubai, suggested the following Monday. End of interview. Dave knew all he needed to know: Livesey had balls. Tony had about 18 months on the Telegraph, where he won the North West Reporter of the Year title, and moved on to the Sunday Sport in 1989. He enjoyed a speedy rise through the ranks of sports editor, assistant editor, deputy editor and, in the blinking of an eye, he became editor-in-chief of the two papers. Tits and bums were indeed the order of the day but there was plenty of room for fun and froth.

To glance through the Internet references to the demise of the Sport papers you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only daft tale they ever came up with was the one about the World War II bomber being found on the moon – which was probably before Livesey’s time there.

bomberI interviewed him for a feature in Lancashire Magazine a couple of years back and we had a few laughs at some of the other madcap tales.

How about such world exclusives as ‘London bus found at South Pole’… ‘Hitler was a woman’… ‘Bagpipes strangled grandma’… ‘Donkey robs bank’… ‘Lovesick gardener marries lettuce’… and the tragic follow-up a week later: ‘Greenfly ate my wife’.

He told me: ‘We had a simple editorial rule. If two of us believed a story then it must be true.’ He kept a straight face while telling me this. It couldn’t have been easy.

But probably the strangest story he ever handled was the memorable ‘Aliens turned our son into a fish finger’. It was a story regaled by Les Hinton, once described as media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s ‘special envoy on earth’, to an international gathering of eminent editors in Hawaii as ‘the finest example in the history of investigative journalism.’

‘Hope you didn’t mind,’ Hinton told him when they bumped into each other a few weeks later. Not at all. The Lancashire lad was quite impressed. ‘Cracking that tale was hard work,’ he recalled. It was a great story and had something for everyone. Science fiction, family heartache, mystery, cookery, cannibalism…

The fish finger story featured in Sex, Lies and Aliens, a riotous TV film about madcap life on Sport newspapers which got great reviews back in 1997. It made his name and led gradually to a change of direction – away from newspapers and firmly into radio and television.

The last shot of him on his car phone telling a hapless hack to go to Asda and buy a packet of fish fingers, stick ‘the child’ in the box and see if his mum could recognise, him was the stuff of newspaper legend.

You probably think you’ve had some tough assignments over the years, but it’s a safe bet you can’t top that! Oh, and the tale did have a happy ending: The anxious mum immediately recognised her little lad.

It was even dafter in the office. Tony was the man with the big crazy ideas as Phil Smith, who was sports editor in the early 2000s, recalled. ‘He came over one day and said he’d had an idea for a competition. He got one of the Page 3 girls to strip off, sit on the desk and put her legs up onto my shoulders while I was working at the computer.’ The competition? Has anybody got a better job than Phil Smith?

It ran every day for a week. And the guy who won was a beer-taster at Boddingtons Brewery just down the road.

I often wondered how many of the staff over the years – and I’ve known a lot of ’em – were happy to mention where they worked. Phil, for one, was rather cautious. He was looking ahead to his fourth marriage but was rather cagy about where exactly he worked. Eventually, after stalling for a few months, he brought a copy home. Maureen took it surprisingly well, he remembered. Donna Gee, who had two spells there as Gerry Greenberg, used to tell friends that she was a freelance.

Daily perks for staff included a couple of models parading up and down on top of the desks (naked of course), and there was always the daily phone-in call where the lovely ladies fielded calls from frustrated guys opening their hearts about their various sex problems. Completely naked, of course. The birds – not sure about the guys.

A devil-may-care atmosphere pervaded everywhere. One young lass I knew – let’s call her Rosie – dropped Tony a line asking for some shifts. ‘Dear Tony,’ it ran. ‘Gizza fuckin’ job. With loads of dosh. Might even be a jump in it for you.’ I remember it ended, ‘Yours, If you’re lucky.’ And yes, she got some shifts.

Anybody beat that for a job application?

I must say that while most of the staff rated Tony Livesey’s enthusiasm and ideas, many thought his man-management skills were lacking. Donna Gee and another two subs were seen off randomly in a cost-saving exercise in 1994 and they picked up close on £30,000 in compensation at a tribunal. Livesey didn’t seem to take it very seriously.

In the early days I, like so many hacks, got some daft stories in the Sunday Sport. One I remember was about a well-endowed sizzler called Shirley who had a list of ten things she wanted to do before she hit 40. One was to pose topless in a national newspaper. Happy to oblige Shirley! I snapped off some cracking pictures as she posed astride her husband’s Harley. Oh, have I not mentioned that she was a local leader in the Girl Guides? They weren’t best pleased; she was ecstatic.

Among the staff men in the early days at Salford were Peter Grimsditch, Jeff McGowan, Andy Carson, Jim Copeland, George Grammer and Steve Millar, as I remember. Production soon moved on to Ancoats in central Manchester.

However, in the end, the tacky formula of tits, bums and cheeky stories had become tired. The experiment of James Brown (he founded Loaded magazine) of producing a lads’ magazine didn’t work. The relaunch was a disaster and lost 30 per cent of its circulation almost overnight.

An insider told me: ‘The other problem was David Sullivan, whose tentacles were everywhere. As honorary publisher, he exercised the right of choosing the cover on a daily basis. He persisted in his format of If a cover works, use it again. It was a standing joke in the office about Rosie Webster of Coronation Street fame. He’d had a great circulation boost by using pix of her in a school uniform and he kept repeating them until readers said they were fed up with them.

‘The Sport didn’t keep up with the new generation. Lack of finance prevented any serious marketing and didn’t target the student audience, for example. The recession, bad mid-winter weather and the demise of the building industry and associated trades also hit circulation hard.’

Characters were sadly lacking. Murray Morse, editor-in-chief, was heavyweight in build but never really made an impact. Animal lover and kick boxing exponent Pam McVitie, the first woman editor, was promoted from within and lacked national newspaper experience. Management were far too cautious, but when you are dog-paddling in a rusting hulk it’s not easy to start slapping on a fresh coat of gloss paint and hanging out the flags and buntings.

• The Sunday Sport was founded by David Sullivan in 1986 as ‘the world’s most outrageous newspaper.’ The daily was launched in 1991, initially on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sullivan sold out to Interactive World in 2007 and the company then became Sport Media Group. Sullivan was called on in 2009 to shovel in more money.

• For more than a decade the papers had been printed by Richard Desmond’s Broughton Printers near Preston. Daily circulation peaked several years ago at over 200,000 but had tailed off to an average of not much over 60,000. The Sunday sold over half a million in its hey-day. At the death Saturday sales were down to 42,000. while the Sunday was selling just 50,000. It didn’t help when management slashed the pagination to 40pp on a daily basis and charged 50p a pop.

• Cost-cutting and redundancies had knocked the stuffing out of the papers in the past two or three years but they certainly provided something of a redoubt for Northern hacks ditched by the loss of the nationals to London, and aspiring subs from the northern evenings. The last line-up was a cracking mix of experienced pros. I’m desperately sorry for them.

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The Street’s design guru

By Anthony Peagam

I met Philip Ashcroft in 1957, when we were both 17. We shared a bleak office in Tudor Avenue and worked for Argus Press, which was ‘training’ us to be magazine sub-editors – which mostly consisted of anglicising text that had already been published in the US.

Fresh-faced and enthusiastic, south-London streetwise and ambitious, the snappiest of dressers, Phil was a striking and immediately attractive personality – always cheerful and (as we didn’t say then) ‘up for it’.

A bright youngster with an excellent grammar-school education, he soon made the move into magazine design, and became one of those rare editorial beings: an articulate layout-man who cared about the words as much as the pictures.

Our paths criss-crossed over the years. We were together on Woman’s Mirror in the 1960s, but worked at different times for Ford Motor Company and for TV Times and regrettably not again once Phil had reached the fork in the road that led to a long and remarkably successful career with News International.

Things took off when he joined the Sun. Kelvin Mackenzie says, ‘I worked closely with Phil for more than a decade. He was a star. In the midst of the gunfire in the newsroom he was an oasis of calm. No matter what the drama, the shouting, the angst, Phil would rise above it with a smile, a joke and a warmth so very rare in that explosive arena.

‘Nothing was ever too much trouble. No matter how many times I changed my mind about page one, Phil never raised an eyebrow, curled a lip or snapped a pencil. It was always, How can I help to make the paper better? Actually, that was true of Phil’s approach to life – it was never about him, it was always about everybody else.’

Patsy Chapman, who worked with Phil on the Sun and News of the World, echoes Mackenzie’s tribute: ‘Phil was a superb layout man and always cool in a crisis. He drew the pages with even more of a flourish than he modelled his clothes. He was a handsome and happy man who was loved by all his colleagues.

‘He always made an impact. He had an incredible career working on wars, royal and celebrity weddings and big scandals and disasters. You would always want him on your team, with his talent, good nature and boyish giggle.’

Phil moved on to the News of the World when it went tabloid and became assistant editor in the late 1990s – famously clashing with Rupert Murdoch one night when the pressure was on, and equally famously earning an apology from the big man.

Piers Morgan described Phil as ‘the design guru of Fleet Street’, and speaks appreciatively of the ‘fantastic’ relationship he had with him.

Phil Ashcroft was to remain at the News of the World until his retirement in 2001, and briefly art-directed Punch before its closure. He will be sadly missed by his friends, many of whom attended his funeral last week in Forest Hill.

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Rudge

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