Issue #71

Book early for Christmas

And now, a toast to the ladies…

Roy Greenslade reviews Ladies Of The Street by Liz Hodgkinson

It’s called hack-lit, says Garth Gibbs in The Independent, and it’s the latest successful publishing phenomenon

Paul Dacre was right about the Sunday Express, says Michael Watts

But he didn’t put up a good argument for press freedom argues Times columnist Magnus Linklater who says the press cannot use an addiction to exposing the private lives of celebrities as an argument against privacy laws. [Note: if you missed Dacre’s speech to the Society of Editors you can read it here, courtesy of Press Gazette.]

Let’s talk about the war, suggests Harold Heys. So does Tony Delano, in Letters, on the right.



Women on the streets*

Another issue of Ranters, another book – or so it must seem to some readers. And so it sometimes appears from this end.

But this one, Ladies Of The Street by Liz Hodgkinson, is different in a number of ways.

For a start, it is our first commissioned offering. All the others have been reprints – albeit in some cases revisited revised and expanded.

And it’s a history, while the others have been an autobiography, two compilations of columns, an account of a scoop, and a novel.

LOTS (as we call it here) is out this week and available from amazon-uk or at a discount direct from the publisher.

This book is a celebration of the pioneer and leading women of Fleet Street, the courageous spirits who paved the way for current and future generations of female journalists. It records the outstanding contribution made by these women, and in particular, their bravery in writing candidly and honestly about subjects that had never been covered before – at least in the public prints – and who brought into being a whole new style of personal, intimate journalism that is now being avidly copied by today’s male journalists.

Although it’s about women journalists, and written by a woman journalist, it isn’t just a book for women. Aspiring women journalists will of course learn a lot from it; so will a lot of men. And for many men who worked The Street it will refresh memories of the days when newspapers were still developing while not necessarily keeping up with the times.

The excellent Roy Greenslade (as former Times editor Peter Stothard described him last week) reviews it below.

It costs ₤9.99 in the shops, but only ₤9.00 from the publisher – see details of how to buy it on our Books homepage.

But if you want to buy it for somebody (or for yourself) for Christmas, you should order it NOW.

You could buy all six of our classic books about journalism for the amazing price of only ₤50, including post and packaging. (₤60, outside the UK – sorry, it’s the postage.)

What a bloody marvellous Christmas present that would be.

The other titles are Forgive Us Our Press Passes by Ian Skidmore, The Best of Vincent Mulchrone, Cassandra At His Finest And Funniest, Slip-Up (How Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost Him) by Anthony Delano, and A Crooked Sixpence by Murray Sayle.

As a special gesture to the vain and the tightwads, we have attached a special feature to our coverage of this book.

To save you skulking between the shelves and thumbing through the back pages to discover whether you or anybody you know (or who you like, or dislike) is mentioned in it, we have appended the index on the website.

*Yes…It should have been ‘women on The Street’, of course. It started as a misprint – but we wanted to make sure you read it. OK. It is just an old Michael Bentine joke.


An entertaining historical overview

Ladies of The Street by Liz Hodgkinson (Revel Barker Publishing)202pages. ₤9.99

By Roy Greenslade

Reading this book brought back vivid memories of my earliest days in journalism. On my first day as a cub reporter on a local weekly I was delighted to discover that one of my journalistic colleagues was a woman.

It may have helped that she was attractive, though I like to think it would have made no difference if Lesley Brown, as she then was, had not been the most desired female reporter for miles around.

It didn’t strike me as the least bit odd to accept her advice and suffer from her sarcastic asides. She was a talented journalist with a tad more experience than me.

She was a good enough reporter to have landed an interview with The Beatles at the height of their fame, and she wrote features at amazing speed.

As Lesley Salisbury, by then married to an Olympic medal-winning athlete, she eventually moved into magazine writing, becoming Hollywood correspondent for the TV Times and a stringer for national papers.

She was certainly not the only woman in the East London local newspaper community in the 1960s. There were plenty of females on the journalism training course we were required to attend each week at a West Ham college.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that we were on the cusp of a change. National papers were virtually male-only clans. And there was also a north-south divide.

It wasn’t until I started to sub on the Daily Mail in Manchester in 1968 that I became aware of prejudice against women. There were shock waves when the first woman sub-editor was appointed. The older subs were particularly upset, wondering how she should be accommodated.

One said that should she be promoted he would resign because he wasn’t prepared to take orders from ‘a bloody woman.’

Another gallant gent made a formal complaint to the night editor about the threat to the subs’ ‘traditional badinage’. This was a polite way of asking whether subs could go on swearing in front of the female recruit.

He also argued that she couldn’t possibly be expected to work on the stone (an all-male preserve) because of the printers’ ‘rough language’. He was not, however, genuinely concerned about the woman’s welfare or her sensibilities. He was trying to prove that she would inhibit ‘normal working’, that she also wouldn’t be able to carry out the full range of subs’ work and was therefore likely to obtain special treatment (which would be unfair to men).

Liz Hodgkinson has taken this long history of newspaper chauvinism on board in Ladies of The Street by recounting the way in which the women who did make a name for themselves in newspapers were required to be extra special.

Her history shows that although there were plenty of women journalists around, including fashion writers, feature writers, columnists, reporters and sub-editors, there were very few at executive level. For a long time they were confined to ‘women’s page’ ghettos.

Even men who thought themselves enlightened could be guilty of narrow-mindedness. A news editor once told me women reporters ‘had their uses’. They could empathise with women who were reluctant to speak to men, especially those who were bereaved, and they could also ‘use their charms’ to persuade men to talk.

Hodgkinson deals with this aspect in her entertaining historical overview, charting the gradual rise of women into positions of power and influence.

Among her pen portraits, several stand out: the pioneering Sheila Black of the Financial Times, the wonderful Nancy Spain, the unstoppable Ann Leslie, the crusading Mary Stott, and three Daily Mirror staffers I came to know well, Marje Proops, Anne Robinson and Felicity Green,

It was Marje, whose Mirror advice column ran for 40 years, who wisely observed: ‘In the man’s world of newspapers… we just stand out a bit from the crowd because there are comparatively so few of us.’

Early in her career Anne suffered the indignity of being fired from the Daily Mail after marrying her deputy news editor, Charles Wilson, because of a custom that forbade married couples working in the same office.

Felicity, who became Fleet Street’s first female associate editor, combined grace with determination and was one of the most skilful office politicians I ever met. She explained that she took her tactical lead in how to deal with obstreperous men who thought they knew better than her from the Mirror editor, Lee Howard. ‘He once told me, “let them leave the room with their bollocks intact”, so that’s what I always tried to do.’

As Hodgkinson notes, Felicity quit the Mirror Group in 1978 after discovering that, as a director, she was paid £14,000 while the Mirror editor, Mike Molloy, got £26,000. ‘It was because I was a woman,’ she said.

Nor was the bigotry confined to popular papers. When Liz Forgan was women’s editor of The Guardian in the late 1970s, she thought ‘the macho, heavy-drinking, show-off male culture… very strong… The daily banter was… openly and crudely sexist’.

But it’s all changed now, hasn’t it? If you read Hodgkinson’s book right to the end you’ll surely wonder at the way in which, grudgingly, women do seem to have achieved equal status with men on newspapers. But it took far too long and this book finally gives Fleet Street’s pioneering women their due.


Introducing ‘hack-lit’

By Garth Gibbs

The newest genre in the frantic world of book publishing – books by journalists, for journalists, and about journalism – has already been dubbed ‘hack-lit’.

Mike Molloy, when editing the Daily Mirror, once remarked that half of his staff had written the first five chapters of their great novel – and that the other half had written the first chapter of five great novels.

So what is hack-lit? It is a brilliant concept. Revel Barker, a former Mirror Group managing editor who runs a website for old Fleet-Streeters called, started his own ‘macro-publishing’ outfit in spring this year.

Barker had read and enjoyed a book published 25 years earlier called Forgive Us Our Press Passes and persuaded the author, former freelance newspaperman and broadcaster Ian Skidmore, to double its original length. Barker agreed to publish it himself and promote it on his website.

Within weeks, it was in the top 10 of Amazon’s best-sellers list.

Skidmore, who has published 25 books, was amazed by the impact of Forgive Us Our Press Passes. ‘I am prouder of it than any [other] I have ever done. New and splendid artwork, very professional publicity material, with pictures, sent to every media outlet in Chester, Liverpool, Leeds, North Wales and East Anglia, a BBC radio interview, as well as a mention on Start The Week.’

Barker’s second venture was to republish The Best of Vincent Mulchrone – described as ‘a lifetime of wit and observation of the folly and splendour of his fellow humans by the Daily Mail’s finest reporter’.

‘I spoke to his son Paddy, a reporter on the Daily Mirror, about royalties and he and his brothers immediately suggested they should go to Leukaemia Research, which is what got Vincent at the age of 54. The Daily Mail, as copyright holder, readily agreed to the suggestion,’ says Barker. Encouraged by its success, he secured permission to republish Cassandra at His Finest and Funniest, a collection from the Daily Mirror’s legendary diary column.

Barker is now awaiting the printers’ proof of his fourth project, Slip-Up: How Fleet Street Found Ronnie Biggs and Scotland Yard Lost Him by Anthony Delano.

‘It is the only book that out-scoops Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. And it has the extra advantage of being true in every detail,’ says Barker. The novelist Keith Waterhouse described it as ‘perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written,’ and The Times said: ‘No journalist can afford to miss this cautionary tale.’

‘All these books were out of print,’ says Barker. ‘They were still being sold, mainly online, by second-hand bookshops but the authors were not getting a penny from them.’

Barker’s view is that these books are classics and that they should never be out of print. ‘There’s an entire generation out there, lots of them probably studying media, who have never even heard of the authors on my list. They should be given the opportunity to read and learn.

‘If the current teachers of journalism know or care for anything about the business, or want to show examples of how it was properly performed, they should be handing these titles out to their students.’

In addition to his reprints, Barker has commissioned two new titles. Liz Hodgkinson is producing a book about the history of women on Fleet Street, and Shan Davies is writing about her experience as a crime reporter on a Sunday tabloid.

‘There are still no clues at all about what the market can stand,’ admits Barker. ‘Journalists are not natural buyers of books, they are more used to picking them up free in the office or blagging them out of a publisher, so we shall have to see…’


Disconnecting with the readers?

By Michael Watts

Paul Dacre is to be applauded on the excellent review of the old Sunday Express he gave to the Society of Editors’ conference – reported by last week’s Ranters under the head: ‘Connecting with the readers’.

And as he said, the Readers’ Letters column was the most important feature of this paper in the days when it was hitting a circulation of nigh on five million.

Just one quibble. Mr. D asserted: ‘I can exclusively reveal that the staff were paid handsome bonuses to write such letters’.

Handsome bonuses? Er, I don’t think so. Certainly, I never got a sniff of ‘em.

Nevertheless, it is true that members of the staff wrote letters for the SundayExpress. Not all of them (staff or letters), but some of us contributed a fair old whack.

Not that there was a shortage of genuine letters from readers, as in addition to its great circulation the paper had more ABC1s than any other. It was just that – despite ‘connecting with the readers’ – it tended not to run the sort of letters people actually tend to write.

By and large, it didn’t go in for publishing strongly-held opinions – beginning ‘Am I alone in…’ and ‘Why, oh why, do…’ – on topics of the day.

True, the readers would enthusiastically respond to a challenge, eg the one kick-started by Paul’s father Peter Dacre: ‘What is the maximum number of shaves to be had from one blade?’ But the paper largely favoured general anecdotal stuff – say, mildly alarming tales in which (at the end) ‘fortunately we saw the funny side’, or cute kids’ utterances such as the small boy refusing to put his sixpence in the collection plate after the sermon (‘Not worth it’).

Readers would come across with such, but not enough. So midway through the week would often see managing editor Vic Patrick, whose responsibility the letters page was, sailing (stately as a galleon) around the office enquiring: ‘Any letters, cocker?’

It was not an instruction, and it could be a pesky nuisance if one was heavily engaged in ‘proper’ work. But Vic was an affable cove. One rallied round.

In fact I built up quite a repertory of invented characters whose names and (vague) addresses would appear at the foot of such letters.

All was fine, until – Bong! – the week when a nom-de-plume (not one of mine, am pleased to say) happened to coincide with that of a real-life person who, as a result, was held up to ridicule.

The upshot of this was that in future, it was decided, our own names should be used. I said this was a mite dicey – because it might not be difficult to spot the coincidence between these monikers (albeit with initials instead of first names) and bylines, with obvious consequences.

But all was well. Until the ‘readers’ connection’ was severed – by a postal strike.

This, of course, was an inconvenience to all (not just those in Fleet Street), but particularly to compilers of readers’ letters pages. We standby contributors were thus called upon as never before. Then…

Midway through the strike, I had a surprise call at the office. It came from one Bob Greaves, a former colleague I’d first encountered on the Nottingham Evening News, and who was to become a regular on Granada TV’s regional news programmes. That, however, was later – and at this time Ihadn’t heard from (or of) him for quite a while.

‘Well, hello, Bob – how’re things?’ ‘Great – and you?’

And so on for a bit, until, pleasantries exhausted: ‘What are you up to these days, Bob?’ ‘ManchesterGranada Television.’ ‘And what..?’ ‘By the way, you are the ‘M R A Watts’ who writes letters in the Sunday Express, aren’t you?’

I thought, ‘You blighter!’ (or word to that effect).

All I could come up with was: ‘I’d go very carefully about that, Bob, if I were you.’

‘But you are, aren’t you?’

‘I’d go very carefully…’

Too late. Game over. And, regrettably, up.

Greaves, it transpired, had been on a fishing expedition for What The Papers Say. And the programme’s next edition concluded with a triumphant item about the postal strike and the problems this was causing for newspaper letters pages. All, apparently, except those of the Sunday Express.

Cuts of letters and their signatories were flashed up, one after another, as the presenter praised their wit and style etc: ‘How other newspapers must envy this paper. How they must wish that they, too, had correspondents so loyal as to deliver their splendid contributions despite the strike. Sorry, it cannot be – they’re all on the staff of the Sunday Express.’

Wince, wince.


This is not journalism, it is entertainment

By Magnus Linklater

Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, has been speaking up for press freedom and attacking judges who constrain it. He has a case to make, but he argues it badly. He cites the Max Mosley affair, where the News of the World lost its case, as an example of how a valid story was suppressed.

Here is a better (fictional) example: A celebrated publishing tycoon is lounging on the deck of his huge yacht beside a fetching young Russian women who appears to be on terms of some intimacy with her host. There have been rumours that the publisher is negotiating a contract for the memoirs of Vladimir Putin, and that this may be rather more than a publishing deal; petrodollars are said to have changed hands, the Russian mafia lurks in the background. But all the photographer with the long lens knows is that he is snatching a picture of the tycoon – let’s call him Robert Maxwell – and a close personal friend.

Cut to the High Court, where Mr. Maxwell, backed by a phalanx of lawyers, is arguing that his privacy has been grotesquely invaded. He points to a long list of recent cases – Catherine Zeta Jones, Sienna Miller, Max Mosley among them – where judges have ruled that the tabloid press have invaded their privacy, with no possible public interest to justify its intrusion, other than the prurience of readers.

In vain the editor of the Daily Beast protests that he is investigating a story of international significance. His decision to put the young lady on his front page has nothing to do with her décolletage, and everything to do with the fine traditions of investigative journalism for which his paper is celebrated. The judge looks unimpressed.

This, I imagine, is the kind of scenario that Mr. Dacre had in mind when he launched his attack on Mr. Justice Eady whom he accuses of suppressing good stories in favour of protecting the private lives of celebrities. By finding against various papers, but notably the News of the World, for its revelations about the Mosley orgy, the judge was, Mr. Dacre said, creating a privacy law ‘by the back door’, using the ‘wretched Human Rights Act’ to create a body of restrictive law that severely hampered press freedom. The only winners, Mr. Dacre said, are ‘the crooks, the liars, the cheats, the rich and the corrupt sheltering behind a law of privacy being created by an unaccountable judge’.

There are several flaws in his approach. The Mosley affair was never a persuasive example of public interest journalism. Its only flimsy justification was the so-called ‘Nazi’ connection, with its overtones of a throwback to the fascism of a previous generation. Not only was that never proved, there was no evidence that the revelations had any bearing on Mr Mosley’s public role as a promoter of Formula One motor racing. Mr Dacre goes on, however, to claim that he is in favour of a ‘moralising media,’ and to argue that it is the duty of the press to maintain ethical standards. If, he says, newspapers cannot run stories about scandals, then the public will cease buying them and the whole nation will be the poorer.

This is the way he puts it: ‘If mass-circulation newspapers, which, of course, also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.’

This is a rum argument. Its logical conclusion is that the press should be allowed to print any kind of racy tittle-tattle it wants to, because in the end it is the only guarantee it has of surviving. Yet Mr Dacre knows as well as anyone that this is not journalism, it is simply entertainment. The question of public interest is critical, and merely arguing that a story interests the public is not a good enough defence.

Nor is Mr. Dacre right to suggest that Mr. Justice Eady, by passing judgment on the cases that come before him is circumventing Parliament. He is applying the Human Rights Act, which has been passed by Parliament. As four leading lawyers argued in The Times the Act requires the courts ‘to resolve the tension between personal privacy and freedom of expression’.

Where Mr. Dacre is on firmer ground, however, is when he questions the cumulative effect of decisions in court that find in favour of private individuals and which may, collectively, suggest that the balance has tilted against investigation and in favour of protection.

There is no doubt that judges are beginning to hear an increasing number of cases brought by people who believe that they have been harassed by the paparazzi or by intrusive reporters – that of Ms. Miller is only the most recent. The more judges find in their favour, the more these decisions will become what one lawyer described as ‘something akin to a privacy law’.

If this does turn out to be the case, it is inevitable that sooner or later the crooks, the liars, the cheats, the rich and the corrupt whom Mr. Dacre cites, will seek to take advantage of it. My fictional Mr. Maxwell will be the first to shelter behind it. So far there is no evidence that this has happened, and most lawyers I have spoken to think that judges would be the first to spot it when it does – but the risk is there.

We should perhaps, however, put all this in context. As I wrote this column I read about Mr. Nay Phone Latt, a 28-year-old blogger from Burma. He had been writing about the difficulties of daily life in his country. Arrested last January he was given a 20-year prison sentence. Our freedoms may be in danger of minor erosion – but they should be put in context.


Don’t mention the grammarians

By Harold Heys

Stan Solomons was quite right to moan about the wrong use of the word ‘fulsome’. But it’s only one of dozens of words wrongly used in newspapers and the wider media these days.

How about chronic and ironic and inflammable, emulate, protagonist, celibate, refute, obscene, cohort, forego, crescendo; what about imply and infer, masterful, oblivious, pristine, literally, pivotal, unique, sensuous… and all the rest?

One, above all others, makes my blood boil: Nazi.

And here I might rejig a brief letter I wrote to the local evening last week, in the faint hope that some young Ranter who knows sod all about our country’s history, will take it on board…

WHY do newspapers, yours included, insist on referring to our armed forces fighting the Nazis in the Second World War? It’s a nonsense. We, and our Allies, fought Germany and the Axis powers.

Neville Chamberlain’s famous announcement of war in September 1939 included the memorable line: ‘I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’

He didn’t say that a state of war existed between our people and the Nazi Party. I’m sure the Germans didn’t think they were fighting our Conservative Party.

Not every German was a member of the Nazi Party. Far from it. Early regulations required that all Wehrmacht members should be non-political and any Nazi member joining in the 1930s was required to resign from the party, a regulation that was eventually relaxed. Most ideological nutters went into the Waffen SS.

Your newspaper was at it again in the report of the shocking attack on a war veteran who had, apparently, ‘fought Nazi troops’ during the war. I’m sure he always thought he’d been fighting the Germans. It’s not ‘political correctness gone mad’ it’s an insult. Stop it.


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