Issue #32

The reporter Harry Pugh

The reporter Harry Pugh

As we put this week’s edition to bed we heard the sad news of the death of Harry Pugh, reporter, at his home in Leek (Staffs).

Obit and tributes will appear next week.

Funeral details will appear on this site when they are available.

UPDATE (Sunday):

Harry’s funeral will be held at 11.15 on Friday (September 19) at St Luke’s Church, Fountain Street, Leek, Staffs, followed by a private committal and afterwards at The Flying Horse, 130 Ashbourne Rd, Leek, from about 12 noon.

The family requests no flowers but donations instead, please, to Douglas Macmillan Hospice (Hospice at Home).



The Beast goes daily

Grey Cardigan, scourge of new technocrats, useless reporters, fearsome subs and stupid management at the Evening Beast and elsewhere, has turned his column into a daily blog on the Press Gazette website.

While we were in recess here it might well have escaped the notice of our readers that Press Gazette had converted from a weekly to a monthly (first monthly edition available by subscription this month).

One of PG’s recent desperate efforts to get people to fork out hard cash for the hard copy edition of the mag was to remove Mr Cardigan’s column from the on-line version and make it available only in the print version.

Alas, they learnt too late that their readers don’t actually put their hands into their own pockets to buy the industry’s own newspaper, whether weekly or monthly; people got Press Gazette via the office or not at all – its contents were therefore largely of academic concern.

It has been suggested, perhaps unkindly, that the print version is being maintained only because it really needs to be published on paper in order to justify its ownership of the Press Awards, which had become its main revenue source. It is difficult selling space to advertisers if journalists are your market – nobody knows what journalists spend their money on (their own money, that is). The likely answer is on not much.

Now PG is hoping to operate on a double front with the monthly mag and the website, for which they want more readers… which may attract more advertisers, even if only of jobs in the trade. For at last count the Ranters website was getting 50% more visitors every week than Press Gazette.

Hence the emergence of our old friend Grey as a daily blogger.

He may not know (as we here at Ranter House were warned when we started this website with the announced intention of refreshing it only once a week) what he is letting himself in for.

I mean… he hasn’t been at it a fortnight yet and his intro yesterday (Thursday) was:

There is no worse place to be on this Earth than to be a columnist staring at a blank screen. You leaf through the papers, you click on the old favourites, just looking for something that will trigger the muse.

His interests, and apparent experience, run the gamut of editorial knowledge, but he is competing with Roy Greenslade and the considerable back-up of Media Guardian and of the Guardian itself, and as a professor of journalism Roy’s patch is world-wide. Grey’s success is his humorous and biting reporting from a provincial evening’s back bench with occasional references to what used to be The Street.

He’s not allowing himself to be restricted, as his spotting of a magazine cover (brainchild of those people he refers to as red-socked twats) shows… although for some strange reason it won’t copy here, so you’ll just have to look it up for yourself at

But Prof Greenslade claims (see his blog, passim, and also back issues of the Gazette editor’s own blog) that the magazine’s demise may be not unrelated to the success of his own offerings, which cover the industry on a newsy and daily basis.

So Green Cardigan and Greyslade may be going head to head.

Let’s hope there is no loser in this friendly tourney. The blogs could turn out to be self-complementary (even if not self-complimentary). It could be that there’s room for both, especially if people keep feeding them with news.

Just so long as their short-armed, deep-pocketed readers don’t have to spend anything on the reading of it.


Headline goes here

By Harold Heys

We read about how reporters wrote or dreamt up stories, and how photographers dreamt up and took pictures and of the joys and tribulations of the job. But are subs being left sitting on the subs bench? How about some suggestions for My Favourite Headline?

My all-time favourite was over a court case in the Oldham Chronicle years ago: Steak pudding and chips (twice) slapped on wife’s head’

Perhaps it’s my warped sense of humour but that ‘twice’ just made it!

I’ve always remembered a page lead headline in the Daily Express many years ago about a rugby union club that had been getting up to all sorts of rum goings on in the early hours: The Old Canoodlians summed up the tale perfectly.

And in the Express on a short about a DC-10 in a minor scrape before taking off at Manchester airport: Bumps a DC

And one of many from former Sunday People colleague Phil Smith, perhaps from his days on the Mirror, after Manchester United had lost a European clash in Spain: Ee-ay-adios!

Another of Smithy’s was over a picture of lanky American boxer ‘Hairpin’ Jones, stretched out after being flattened by some British fighter: The straightening of ‘Hairpin’ Jones

I could be here all night…!


Thatcher in live sex show

By Liz Hodgkinson

Carol Thatcher is rarely out of the news these days, but she may shudder to remember the incident that first put her on the front page.

It was September 1984. The country was embroiled in the miners’ strike and Carol and myself were living it up in Thailand on a press trip organised by Kuoni, the upmarket long-haul travel company.

At the time, Carol, aged 31, was on the Daily Telegraph and I was working for the Mail on Sunday YOU magazine. There were about ten other journalists on the trip.

At first Carol was wary and kept herself to herself but soon she and I were having long heart-to-hearts in hotel bars about her delicate position in the world, especially as a national newspaper journalist.

She admitted there were downsides to being the daughter of the first female prime minister in the Western world, but agreed that, in the main, she was hugely privileged and very lucky. As she relaxed, she began to join in the fun of the trip. A bit too enthusiastically, as it turned out.

One night, our organisers suggested that we should all go to a live sex show at a night club in Bangkok. Well, it made a change from powerpoint presentations and being shown round hotels, so we readily agreed. We were on our honour not to write about it, as it was ‘secret’, a special concession, and most emphatically not part of the advertised itinerary. Kuoni had their good name to preserve.

There was a small stage in the middle of the floor on which a group of young and completely naked men and women were having full sex with each other, pounding away in time to heavy beat music.

None of us had seen anything like it before and we were mesmerised. Then, suddenly, Carol got up on the stage and began dancing around the naked couples, gyrating to the music although she did keep most of her clothes on. ‘Come off the stage, Carol,’ we implored. ‘You’re not supposed to be part of the act.’

But Carol was enjoying herself too much and carried on dancing among the writhing couples. Eventually, we managed to pull her off the stage and back to the hotel.

By the time we returned, all hell had let loose. The Sun, Daily Mirror and all the other papers had somehow already heard that Carol Thatcher, the prime minister’s daughter, had taken part in a live sex show in Bangkok, and reporters were ringing each of us in turn, including Carol, for more juicy titbits to add to the story.

It didn’t help that this was the time of the Tory party’s Victorian values, and of course the story was too good to miss. None of said a single word to the papers, but even so, we were caught up in the unsettling phenomenon of the press hounding the press.

The upshot was that a version of the story was in every single newspaper the next day.

Kuoni were predictably furious. They threatened to cancel the rest of the trip and abandon us there and then. But then they realised, probably, this would make an even better story (‘Journalists abandoned in Bangkok by leading travel company’) and they calmed down. But the trip never recovered from this betrayal and although Carol was desperately ashamed of the consequences of her exuberant prank, it was far worse knowing that one of our own party must have tipped off the newspapers.

There was. sadly, on this occasion, no honour among thieves. We never discovered which of us was responsible, but Carol soon recovered her high spirits, put the incident behind her, and went on to become something of a celebrity in her own right.


Maxwell’s millions

By Tom Brown

The intriguing story (see August) of the secret mission to Australia to buy a newspaper for Robert Maxwell reminded me of my own clandestine operation to hide away potential bingo winners – and the mystery of the million-pound cheque …

When Maxwell launched his million-pound bingo, two Scottish winners emerged and were put on stand-by to go to London for the great draw, in which they would win either £25,000 or £1 million.

But the weeks dragged by and, while Maxwell milked the running story in the Mirror and the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, there was concern about when the winners – a single mum in her 20s from back-of-beyond Carstairs in deepest, darkest Lanarkshire and the rather more genteel wife of a young lawyer in Glasgow – would get their money.

When the lady in Lanarkshire ran up a sizeable tab in the local social club buying celebration drinks for her friends, family and neighbours, questions began to be asked. It was decided that until Black Bob showed the colour of his money, they would have to be kept out of reach of prying rival papers.

I was ordered to take the two families – single mum, her nine-year-old boy and her sister. plus the lawyer, his wife and their newborn baby – to a posh hotel on the coast south of Dublin, where we were stuck for three weeks. For them, it was a high-living holiday; for me it was pure hell.

There was a hint of trouble ahead as we rode in from the airport and the Angelus came on the taxi radio. The lasses from Lanarkshire, a hotbed of ‘Proddie v. Tim’ rivalry demanded what it was. On being told, the response was: ‘Is this an effing Cafflick country?’

Once installed in the hotel, our first dinner showed what I was in for. Having taken the precaution of organizing an out-of-the-way table and sitting the lawyer’s family some distance away, fellow diners were still looking at us in appalled fascination as loud questions were asked about the rubbish on the menu, the absence of hamburgers and chips and the availability of lager-and-lime and Irn Bru, and around wee Jimmy’s seat there was more food on the floor than on his plate.

Said lad’s behaviour left much to be desired. He would monopolise the hotel lifts, riding up and down, until he finally prised loose one of the floor-buttons and stuck his finger in the hole, blowing himself against the opposite wall. The next morning, I took him swimming off the beach in front of the hotel and, once he was out of his depth, I took him by the hair and threatened to drown him if he didn’t shape up. Afterwards, though not exactly angelic, he was much more muted; all he needed was father’s firm hand…

The Lanarkshire ladies were beginning to miss their usual social life (Palm court music and a once-a-week disco was not their style) so I took them up to Dublin, gave them a few quid and dumped them in a night club at the foot of O’Connell Street. After a convivial evening in the pub next to the Irish Independent, I returned to find a full-scale riot in progress and my two ‘ladies’ outside on the pavement. Apparently, there had been a theological argument and references to the IRA…

The highlight of Week Two was the weeks-old baby falling from the bed onto the floor. Luckily, the mother was a nurse and did not collapse. I did. I phoned the office and said the families – actually, me – were demanding to go home.

The Sunday Mirror announced in its Irish edition, with pix, that the million-pound draw would be held in London. That night, the DJ at the hotel disco announced ‘We have among us two young ladies who may soon be worth a million pounds’ – at which every young bucko in the place made a beeline for my charges and I didn’t see them until they joined us the next morning, tired but v-e-r-y happy.

The draw at the Mirror HQ was a typically Maxwell ballyhoo production, compete with a boy piper and non-stop champagne. The draw was made from a Take Your Pick style pyramid of boxes, each box containing a cheque either for £25,000 or a million. Tension built as each winner took a key and opened a box. Surprise, surprise – nobody found the million-pound cheque.

Amid the excitement, as the ‘winners’ were photographed with Bob and their cheques, I saw his personal assistant slip behind the unopened boxes, empty them – and feed the cheques into a shredder. Call me cynical, but don’t you think Bob should have been photographed holding the million-pound cheque and saying: ‘This has still to be won’? Other media were there, but not one of them thought to ask for a look at the seven-figure prize. Hmm…

I introduced myself to Maxwell and told him: ‘I wonder if you realise how lucky we were? If I had been the editor of the Scottish Sun I’d have had a Page One story weeks ago asking Where’s the money, Mr Maxwell?’ He glared at me and rumbled: ‘Around here, we make our own luck.’

On the other side of the room, Maxwell commandeered a member of the Scottish board and was pointing menacingly in my direction. When the director approached me, I got in first: ‘I was just telling Mr Maxwell that we were lucky none of the winners complained about being virtually kidnapped and held in Ireland, then not even getting a look at the million pounds they might have won…’ He retreated for another conference with The Great Man and I carried on working for the Daily Record for a few more turbulent years.

Long enough to appreciate the irony when Maxwell’s million quid was won by someone who turned out to be just as bent as he was.


Peter Earle, the stuff of legend

By Roy Stockdill

In my 30 years on the News of the World as a reporter, features executive and finally series editor in charge of book serialisations, a positive cornucopia of ‘characters’ strutted the stage in Bouverie Street and, later, Wapping.

However, none was more colourful, eccentric or gloriously imperturbable than reporter Peter Earle, the man credited with breaking one of the biggest political scandals of the century, the Profumo Affair.

I expect there were a number of contenders for the title of the original of the Private Eye ‘Legend in His Own Lunchtime’ but no-one at the NoW ever looked beyond Earle as the inspiration.

For Peter’s bottomless capacity for Scotch whisky, his eccentric behaviour and flamboyant manner of speaking, not to mention an ability to produce extraordinary exclusives, were indeed the stuff of legend, if such is not an overworked word nowadays.

Earle was a tall, thin, gangling figure who loudly declaimed his views in a manner that was straight out of the pages of a Dickens novel. He was unfailingly courteous to ladies in an old-fashioned, gentlemanly style of a bygone age and his conversation was peppered with phrases such as ‘I say, my dear fellow’, while favoured colleagues would be addressed as ‘My old china’.

Peter was fond of declaring himself ‘a simple foot soldier of the line’ and frequently announced his contempt for what he called the ‘bastard generals’, by which he meant proprietors, editors and executives indeed, anyone in authority over him.

He carried on a permanent war with his bank manager, whom he referred to as ‘Baron Von Barclay’ and frequently amused us with references to his formidable wife, on whom he dubbed the soubriquet ‘Dumbo’. Whether this was intended to be affectionate or not I never really did work out.

Earle had already been on the paper for some years when I joined it in 1967, Peter having been recruited from the Empire News, a long-gone Manchester Sunday newspaper that the NoW took over in 1960.

He made his name when the Profumo Affair drove everything else from the front pages in 1963, that story of scandal in high places that had all the classic ingredients of sex, spying, political intrigue, wild parties on Lord Astor’s estate, crime, passion and the law.

Peter was ahead of the pack, for he had been investigating rumours of a high-class call girl ring for months beforehand and knew the West End osteopath-pimp Stephen Ward, who had fixed up the parties on Astor’s Cliveden estate.

Millions of words have been written about Christine Keeler’s affair with the War Minister, John Profumo, while she was also sleeping with a Russian defence attaché, Eugene Ivanov, her colourful friend Mandy Rice Davies and Ward’s suicide during his Old Bailey trial, and I shall certainly not give the details more than a passing reference.

However, one story from that extraordinary saga remained untold until the publication of an original paperback, The News of the World Story, which I co-authored in 1993 to mark the paper’s 150th anniversary.

When the Profumo Affair was breaking, the NoW bought up Christine Keeler for £23,000, a pretty hefty sum in 1963. Peter Earle and Noyes Thomas, the paper’s distinguished political correspondent, were deputed to take her away from the rest of the Fleet Street pack and ‘mind’ her.

They had her tucked away in a hideaway when one afternoon the telephone rang. It was the editor, Stafford Somerfield, a portly and equally flamboyant figure. He demanded that Earle interrogate Keeler as to whether any other government minister was involved.

Peter quizzed Keeler to the point of reducing her to tears until she swore there was no-one else involved, which information Earle relayed to Somerfield.

What he did not find out until much later was that on another line in Somerfield’s office was Randolph Churchill, the paper’s former political writer, who was acting as a go-between with the News of the World and 10 Downing Street, where Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was facing an angry Cabinet clamouring to know the extent of the damage.

Thus, Peter Earle was unwittingly and effectively at one end of a direct line to the Cabinet room, where matters of very high politics indeed – history in the making – were being debated.

Peter’s reputation was already known to me when I joined the paper, but he was generous in his acceptance of a new youthful colleague making his first hesitant steps into the Fleet Street big-time, and never less than delightful and amusing company in the top bar of the Tipperary, the NoW reporters’ pub in those far-off Bouverie Street days.

He often wore a Gannex raincoat of the type favoured by Harold Wilson, which I found somewhat surprising since Peter was a rabid Tory. And when he went off on a story he always clutched a large and portentous briefcase, which rarely contained much more than a bottle of Scotch.

Notwithstanding his eccentricities, Peter had remarkable contacts among policemen and members of the criminal underground, his network of informants extending into the security services and even Buckingham Palace.

Naturally, like any good reporter, he preferred to keep them to himself, so he gave them exotic codenames. Frequently, a bemused colleague would pick up Earle’s phone and find himself taking messages from ‘Grey Wolf’ and another regular contact, ‘The Fiery Horseman’.

Peter had one serious drawback, however. Though he could bring in the most remarkable stories, he couldn’t write for toffee! His copy was a mish-mash of jumbled facts, usually in the wrong order and virtually unintelligible to anyone else. Whether an excess of the amber liquid was the cause of this or whether he simply was incapable of writing proper English is hard to say – probably it was a combination of both.

Fortunately, the paper had some old-fashioned, erudite and patient subs and many’s the time I saw one wander into the reporters’ room with Peter’s copy in his hand, plonk himself down alongside Earle’s desk and say ‘Now, Peter, what is this all about?’

The sub would then proceed to interrogate Peter until, little by little, the story emerged in a fashion fit to be printed.

I have mentioned Peter’s fondness for the bottle and I rarely saw him eat. This extended even to Saturday nights when the NoW editorial staff used to be given a free dinner in another of our regular haunts, the Printer’s Pie in Fleet Street, just round the corner from Bouverie Street.

We all signed a list and the bill went to the management, but Peter rarely, if ever, took advantage of this. Instead, he had a private arrangement with the owners, Stanley and Carlos, by which the office – unbeknown to them, of course bought him several large Scotches!

In his later years Peter discovered the delights of junk food. He returned from the pub one lunchtime clutching a hamburger in a paper bag, sat at his desk and bit into it. After a few moments of chewing, he declaimed to the newsroom in general: ‘I say, not much meat in these f***ing hamburgers.’

What he’d failed to notice was that his first bite had caused the burger to fly out of the bun and it was now reclining, still hot and sizzling, in his lap.

Peter could be a tartar when he thought someone had insulted either a lady or the newspaper and was fierce in his defence of both. Fiona Macdonald Hull, an NoW reporter and later a Sun columnist, told a hysterical story of when she wrote the life story of P J Proby, the American pants-splitting rock singer.

Proby turned up in the newsroom at Bouverie Street in a Stetson and cowboy boots, loudly demanding his money. Peter Earle, who had been gently dozing at his desk, was not amused at being rudely awakened by this outrageous character, especially since he was not renowned for his love of loud, brash Americans.

Immaculate in a pin-striped suit, Peter grabbed his umbrella, advancing menacingly on the unfortunate Proby and pinned him against the wall with the point at his chest like a sabre. ‘What do you want me to do with it?’ he demanded of Macdonald Hull, while news editor Robert Warren was beside himself with laughter.

Fiona explained that they needed to take him to the cashiers, whereupon Earle marched the errant rock singer out of the newsroom, still at the point of his umbrella, down two flights of stairs to the cashiers, and then right out of the building into Bouverie Street.

Peter pushed Proby into a waiting car and uttered his parting shot: ‘Don’t you ever speak to a member of the News of the World like that again!’ he said.

Next day, P J Proby remarked to Fiona Macdonald Hull: ‘Hell of a guy, that Peter Earle. I really liked him.’

Even though he couldn’t write, one thing Peter was a master of was the opening gambit – by which I mean not the intro to a story but his extraordinary introductions to a ‘victim’ he was interviewing or exposing.

Once he was despatched to Rome to try to interview the Earl of Warwick, whose son was causing a bit of a rumpus by selling off some of the family silver and heirlooms from Warwick Castle, which were supposed to belong to the nation.

Earle tracked down the aristocrat to his Roman villa and introduced himself in dramatic style, declaiming in tones of pure Shakespeare: ‘My Lord of Warwick, a great storm gathers against you in England!’ The Earl, astounded to be so addressed, invited Peter in and gave him a full interview.

Another time, Earle was sent to interview an old acquaintance and adversary, a conman against whom an arrest warrant had been issued and who was living in Spain on the Costa del Crooks.

On that occasion his opening gambit was somewhat less Shakespearian, since he announced his arrival on the crook’s doorstep with: ‘Not to put too fine a point on it, old cock, the shit has hit the fan.’

But my favourite story of all concerning Peter Earle was when he was sent to knock on a woman’s door and interview her about a story the paper was chasing. The woman was dubious about whether the swaying, eccentric figure before her was a genuine pressman.

‘How do I know you’re from the News of the World?’ she demanded.

Earle drew himself up to his full height and replied indignantly: ‘Madam, I’ve just admitted it!’

They don’t make them like Peter Earle anymore.


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