Scoop and scooped
By Desmond Zwar
Every desk in the Daily Mail newsroom was suddenly deserted, with sub-editors, reporters, and photographers jammed around a Foreign Room teleprinter clacking furiously.
A sub dashing back to his desk said an astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, had been launched into space by the Russians. The news-desk phones had gone mad. Reporters in Mail offices around the world were being ordered into action. ‘Interview scientists and leaders’, the foreign editor was shouting over the phone to Moscow. ‘Get the background on Gagarin.’
‘Zwar!’ I hurried into the home newsroom. ‘We want a backgrounder London piece. Get up to the Soviet Embassy and find out what they’re doing. Are they celebrating? What’s going on? Get a talk with the ambassador.’ I raced to Kensington Palace Gardens, better known as ‘Millionaires’ Row’, the centre of foreign embassies. I found the high-walled Soviet Embassy already surrounded by milling reporters and photographers.
‘They’re not playing,’ a disgruntled Daily Mirror man told me. ‘They say Come back in the bloody morning.’ I pushed past him and made my way to a great oaken door, pressing the buzzer. The door took a while to creak open and a fair-haired man in blue suit and brown sandals glared at me. He didn’t even want to know who I was.
‘In ze morning …’ And the door slammed closed. The mob waited, staring up at the sky as if expecting the spaceship Soyez 11 to appear above. Then Eddie Laxton, a burly, foot-in-the-door specialist who looked more like a boxer than an Express reporter, suggested we ‘doorstep’ somewhere more comfortable; like the nearest pub. To my amazement, as one, the pack departed, heading for Kensington High Street.
I was unsure. I had just joined the Daily Mail and I knew I wasn’t going to get the story in a pub. I went with them because it was obviously expected; but once they were gathered at the bar – I did what I later learnt to be unforgivable in the street-smart code of journalism – I broke ranks. I left them and headed for a bottle shop, an ‘off-licence’ as I found they were quaintly called.
I saw on the shelf a bottle of Stenochka vodka, labelled ‘Very Strong. 150 Proof’. I bought it and headed back up the leafy pathway to the embassy, rehearsing my speech and glancing about to see if there were other reporters around. Mercifully there were none. I walked through the embassy gates and knocked on the formidable brown door and waited, clutching the bottle wrapped in brown paper. The brown sandalled servant opened the door and before he could say, ‘in ze …’ I launched into my prepared speech.
‘I am from Australia. I come here on behalf of the Australian people who are delighted to congratulate the glorious achievement of the cosmonaut Comrade Gagarin. I wish to ask Soviet Ambassador Soldatov if he will take this as a gift and toast Major Gagarin with the people of Australia.’ Then I drew breath.
Brown sandals peered suspiciously, first at me and then at the brown paper wrapping, slowly removing it from the bottle in case it was a bomb. ‘You vill vait,’ he said. And taking the bottle, closed the doors. Heart thumping, I looked around to see if by now any of my rivals were around. I stood on the step for what seemed like 10 minutes and the doors swung open. It was the stony-faced flunky.
‘Come!’ he beckoned. And I followed him into the Soviet Embassy, down a long corridor to a great room lit by a heavy chandelier. There stood the egg-bald Ambassador Soldatov I had often seen on television; beside him stood a waiter with my bottle on a tray and two small glasses that were already filled. Ambassador Soldatov then smiled, lifted his glass and motioned me to take the other. We drank. ‘To Comrade Gagarin!’ he said. ‘Comrade Gagarin!’ I said enthusiastically. He turned on his heel and left.
The Daily Mail now had its ‘London end’ to the story; I had an exclusive on the front page: ‘AMBASSADOR TOASTS ASTRONAUT’.
But I had become a marked man. The threat filtered through from the Daily Express night duty driver to our night driver, (the recognised backstairs communication between rival newspapers). I had erred by breaking ranks. The ‘heavy mob’ was upset. I was to be punished.
And they didn’t wait long to deliver.
One wet, miserable winter’s night I was told to get to a police station on the M1 motorway where a bus-load of young convicts had overpowered their guards and the driver delivering them to Birmingham. The prisoners had all escaped.
The Heavy Mob arrived in their duffle-coats and sheepskin jackets at the same time as I got there; and I heard mutterings of my recognition. The police were adamant: the guards had already left, and the bus-driver, whose coach stood in the mist-covered yard, was not going to talk to anybody. We might as well all go home.
Reporters and photographers climbed back into their cars and waited, staring through the fug of tobacco smoke and frosted windscreens at the ‘nick’. Every hour one of us went to the front counter and pleaded. We were told a statement would be issued by Scotland Yard Press Bureau next morning and really, we had better all go home to our beds because even the coach driver had been whisked away and his coach would remain where it was.
At 1am, after I had called my news desk for the fourth time saying there would be no interview, they told me to go home. I had just emerged from the phone box when one of the mob said, ‘We’re all calling it a day. They’re not going to play.’ And half a dozen cars drove off. I got into mine and headed back to London. The next morning I got all nine newspapers. To my dismay I saw, in six of them, quotes from the coach driver that he had been overpowered and had been in fear of his life. It had been a ‘dreadful experience.’
I was carpeted and told in no uncertain terms that my record had been smudged. The Daily Mail had been the only national newspaper without the quotes.
That night Alf, the night driver, taking me out on a job said, ‘They got you, didn’t they? The Mob didn’t talk to that coach fella. They got together and made up a quote. They all used it. Except you.’