The Gentlemen Ranters site is a brilliant compendium of reminiscences of the great days of Fleet Street. – The Times


Issue # 221
November 18, 2011


This Week

A funny old week, in which the Daily Mirror apologised in a Page 2 correction (they’re all getting in to this idea) for a mistake in referring to the, er… oh yes… to the Daily Mirror. They got the quote wrong. Well, it happens, I guess. At least, it happens in the modern Mirror.

That was in coverage of the Levenson Inquiry into phone hacking. You’ve heard about the inquiry, of course. It was in all the papers. You may even be bored by it already (and it started in earnest only this week) but, hey, if you’re not interested in newsmen’s behaviour and ‘the culture of the newsroom’, maybe you shouldn’t be here, anyway.

We have a (very) brief critique of the story so far, and a piece about how it drove our man in the press bench back to his roots.

But, by way of a change, we also have a follow-up to last week’s ‘affectionate memoir of Guy Rais’, this time by Stephen Bates… an affectionate memoir of Barbara Taylor Bradford by old-timer Harold Lewis (who worked with her as a child on the Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds)… and a reminder of the days when spelling was still considered important, by Jim Anderson.

So, let’s update you quickly on Levenson, and give reporter John Dale his musing, and then crack on.

We’ll end the column, as usual, with cartoonist James Whitworth (Rudge) watching a movie about tabloids…

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Here’s the (very) brief Levenson:

In his opening address to the Leveson Inquiry last Monday - 14 November 2011 - Robert Jay QC displayed a forensic mastery of his brief which ought to have some potential witnesses quaking in their boots. His performance showed he was in a different league from the keen but sometimes meandering MPs on the select committees. He is Don Bradman to their knockabout village cricket teams.

But at 24,478 words, with few of them wasted, his presentation was the length of a novella.

John Dale has reduced it slightly, to 22,450 words. He sticks faithfully to Jay's text and chronology but has put in subheads and some bold type to give it a clearer structure on the written page. He hopes that helps. Jay sets out the roadmap for the months ahead and, if you’re interested in the big picture, it’s worth taking some time over it. As of this date, it is probably the best overall summary, pulling together the many threads of the story. You can find it at http://johndalejournalist.co.uk/qcs-opening-address-in-full-clarified.php

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Have notebook, will scribble

By John Dale

The reason for the Leveson Inquiry into the media was not actually to set up the Lord Leveson Phonetappers and Pen-Shunters Social Club or, indeed, to indulge any form of Fleet Street nostalgia whatsoever. I know that, of course. But it's a pleasure to stare into some claret-red face from the past, feign horror and exclaim in the disappointed tones of Bernard Manning: ‘%@!* me, but I thought you were dead!’

The face stares back with rheumy, hooded eyes which confirm you have hit a chord before replying with equal disappointment: ‘I thought you were *%@!*&$ dead too!’

‘Well, I’m not.’… ‘Neither am I.’

‘Fancy one in The George?’… ‘Don’t ask silly questions.’

And as you trot over the road, it seems like only yesterday that you were treading these same cobbles made holy by the spilling of blood, sweat and fizzy keg beer.

I used to spend a lot of my time hanging around the lowest dives in EC4 – Scribes, the Harrow, the Cheshire Cheese, El Vino and, even worse, those most notorious haunts of habitual criminals, the Old Bailey and the High Court.

We were reporters. We were a happy bunch of boys and girls. We worked together, drank together, argued together and had fun together.

But then the Murdoch meteor plunged to earth and we were blasted to the four corners. I landed in Camden. Others touched down at Canary Wharf or Kensington High Street. We lost touch. We made new friends.

And then, a few months ago, the finger of serendipity prodded me in the chest.

In a tiresome, argumentative and troubling way, I have always been interested in the theory of popular journalism as well as the practice. It sounds a bit pompous, I know, but for me, as a kid living in a northern town, the Daily Mirror of the 1950s was a window on the world, all the way from The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club to New York and Moscow and the then Peking. Through its inky smudges, it imprinted not just its newsprint on me but its principles. I’ve never been able to wash them away, even if I’d wanted to, and they were the reason I have been a hack for the last 47 years: tabloid journalism with sense as well as sensationalism.

In May I stopped being editor of a woman’s real-life magazine and, a few days later, I saw an old man blinking into a TV camera and murmuring ‘This is the most humble day of my life.’

Ping!

What the Murdoch taketh away, the Murdoch could now giveth back.

I would reclaim the title I love the most. Reporter.

It was Jack Crossley – of the Daily Mail, the Observer, the Express and The Times – who used to tell me ‘reporter’ was the proudest title in newspapers. I reckoned he thought I was simple. Now I know otherwise.

And so I unilaterally appointed myself ‘Your one-stop phone hacking correspondent’ and announced I would be returning to my old game, my old patch, like a gypsy’s dog rediscovering his favourite lamppost.

Ranters readers may be slightly interested in some of the practical points, bearing in mind it is a different world out there from the one I knew in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I had to learn fast. This is what I did.

Website. I googled around and asked for tenders from various web-builders. One priced it at £15,000, another £5,000. Other people showed me what they’d had built for them, often for more than £1000. You gotta be kidding!

Then I discovered Yola. It’s free and DIY. Within an hour or so, I had a prototype up and running without my once threatening to smash up my machine. So it really is idiot proof. Have a look at what I’ve done – http://johndalejournalist.co.uk/ You can do it as well. You can change your content at will. You don’t have to beg someone to do it for you.

Facebook: I set up a separate John Dale Journalist page. It could develop, with attention.

Linkedin: I set up a profile. For building up professional contacts, this has been extremely useful.

Twitter. Mmm, I hesitated. If anything had convinced me that Stephen Fry was bonkers, then it was his twittering obsession. What was the point? Why would I want to tweet? It was moronic. But younger journalists told me otherwise.

Last weekend I registered and tried my first timid tweet. I gazed at the screen and then a miracle happened. I got it! I understood. It all fell into place and now I am a twitterer, with a moderate habit. And I follow Stephen Fry although he doesn’t follow me.

Business cards: I downloaded an App, designed and printed them myself using shiny photographic paper from W H Smiths. I can change them at will, rather deviously, like James Garner in the Rockford Files.

Office: I hired a desk in a media centre in Chiswick High Road, at £5,000 a year. Big mistake. I cancelled it and joined Soho House, at £1,200 a year, getting four very sociable bases in Chiswick, Soho, Shoreditch and Notting Hill, as well as access to others in Berlin, New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

Thus I am up and running.

On Monday, this week, I am disembarking at Temple tube to be down at the tail end of dear old Fleet Street to attend court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice where Lord Leveson has opened his inquiry properly.

I am attending the hearings, although not religiously, and I will also be attending The George and the Cheshire Cheese and El Vino and maybe the Harrow, in the company of some old friends. Sadly, Scribes has gone.

I know, I know. Lord Leveson has other, more important things on his mind than my nostalgia, and I have the insatiable maw of a website to fill, a regular column in Press Gazette to write, and the demands of the Chief Ranter to satisfy. But I still wish to thank his Lordship for accommodating some old memories and nurturing the Lord Leveson Phonetappers and Pen-Shunters Social Club.

Some of the evidence will be broadcast on normal news channels, as it merits. The full evidence, including video, will be streamed on the inquiry’s website.

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More gentleman Guy

By Stephen Bates

Roland Gribben's affectionate memoir of Guy Rais in Gentlemen Ranters has evoked awe-stuck memories of my early days as a junior reporter at the Telegraph in the mid-1980s, watching Guy in action.

Then nearly 40 years into his career on the paper, he was still a formidable – and dauntingly enthusiastic – reporter. I remember the story of his encounter with Churchill at Chartwell slightly differently from Roland; I am pretty sure Guy told me that Churchill had actually started belabouring him with his walking stick as Guy approached him.

‘Rais, Daily Telegraph, I wonder if I could ask how you are, sir?’ After that, he could at least retreat, bruised, to a local phone box to tell the newsdesk that the old boy seemed to be in vigorous health. But the tale may have become exaggerated in the years of telling and the former premier apologised in writing (to the proprietor, not Guy) later.

Sitting at the next bank of desks in the Telegraph Fleet Street newsroom, it was a revelation to me to watch the contrasting telephone techniques of Guy and another Telegraph veteran Alf MacIlroy in action. The latter was all obsequiousness, which even in those days seemed a little excessive: ‘A J MacIlroy, Daily Telegraph, troubling you...’ whereas Guy was volcanically rude as he bustled, usually successfully, past some flunkey of a secretary or a PR person on the line:

‘I don't want to talk to you. I don't want the monkey! Get me the organ-grinder... Stop wasting my time!’ to be completed as the phone went down with the mock-outraged expostulation: ‘Flabby dog!’

Guy really had seen and done it all: beside the court cases, there was the Great Train Robbery, the Paris air crash, glorious Goodwood every year and numerous other trips to France, Guy having long since persuaded the Telegraph authorities on account of his name that he actually spoke French.

And his eye could grow misty at the thought of old stories: when there was a coup in the Seychelles, I can remember him saying: ‘I remember being sent to cover a coup there in the fifties. Boat train to Marseilles, steamer across the Med, train from Alexandria to Mombassa, then hire a dhow across the Indian Ocean… three weeks it took.’

What happened Guy? – ‘Well, I came ashore on the jetty and said: Rais, Daily Telegraph, where's the coup? And they said, It's all over… So I got back on the dhow. Six weeks out of the office and not a word filed…’

Was it all true? I hope so, or at least a little bit, for it brings back the flavour of the old Fleet Street in our drabber, digital first times. Belated happy birthday Guy…

Stephen Bates worked for the Daily Telegraph, 1984-87 before moving to the Daily Mail and, since 1990, the Guardian.

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Leeds and Bradford

By Harold Lewis

Barbara Taylor was little more than a slip of a girl when she taught me the importance of commitment.

No, we are not talking about anything on a personal level here, I barely knew her, but rather about mastering the art of manipulation.

It happened after Alan Woodward, then the bluff but consummately good natured editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post in Leeds, found himself temporarily bereft of his long-time secretary and cast around for an emergency replacement.

As his newly appointed office boy, not that long out of short pants, I was sent scurrying around the building with urgent messages to various department heads.

Eventually, Barbara, who had joined the paper in the typing pool (the reason she was probably short-listed for the stand in secretarial position), but had then rocketed up the editorial ladder, was dragooned into taking the job.

Then, I believe, women's page editor, dressed like a Dior model, svelte and scented, she arrived in the editor's office like a breath of fresh air, the antithesis of the drab harridan who normally carried out Woodward's drudge work.

(It's a fair question to wonder what the union did about this at the time. I'm afraid I have no idea. I do know that it would never have happened on our watch when Ronnie Maxwell was the FOC and I was the deputy at the Sunday Mirror).

What Barbara probably knew, and probably nobody else did, and what probably kept a smile on her face, was that she would be leaving the paper soon to take up a new post as fashion editor at Woman's Own. There was no point in rocking the boat.

What nobody knew, not even Barbara, was that some time after that she would become Barbara Taylor Bradford, the internationally famous author of more than two dozen blockbuster novels and now one of the fifty wealthiest women in Britain.

Her first novel, A Woman of Substance, is an enduring best seller and ranks as one of the ten top selling novels of all time.

Moreover, Barbara also shares what is probably a unique honour with the Queen... her image has graced the postage stamps of no fewer than three islands, Grenada, St Vincent and the Isle of Man.

Back then, either 19 or 20, she exuded charm in spades and more than a measure of subtle cunning. And she was obviously not going to let the unsought temporary job that had been foisted upon her ruin her day. If she felt demeaned, she certainly did not show it.

Nor was she going to allow her temporary transfer deter her from her normal daily agenda.

She explained to me – the details are lost in the mists of time – that she had to go out and would probably not be back by the time the editor returned from lunch. She concocted a carefully crafted story (surely a sign of things to come) that I was to relay.

‘And don't forget,’ she insisted, and these words are indelibly imprinted, ‘When you have explained why I will be late returning to the office, you also say: “That will be all right, won't it?” That's really important. Be sure to get his commitment.’

Of course, when Woodward came back he wanted to know where she had gone. I trotted out my party piece. And then the kicker: ‘That will be all right, won't it, Mr Woodward?’ When he harrumphed his assent, I knew the deal had been sealed and I had learnt a lesson more important than anything I could have culled from a book.

When Barbara returned, burdened as I remember with high-end designer shopping bags, she simply picked up her shorthand notebook, ascertained that I had spoken to the editor, tapped on his door and returned to her secretarial duties.

So far as I know, not another word was said about her absence.

Certainly, he never mentioned it to me and, as he often dropped me off on his way home in the evenings, he had plenty of opportunity to do so.

Get the commitment. It was the credo wily hacks once lived by. Alas, now slaves to their flashing screens, they probably no longer need to resort to such subterfuge. As I hear it, they never talk to anybody any more.

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I before E, except…

By Jim Anderson

Why is the 1911 Siege of Sidney Street still an important event for reporters and authors everywhere? Because it is a mnemonic to help us remember how to spell siege as opposed to seize. When he was chief sub at the Evening Standard in the 1970s, Roger Bryan, walking down Oxford Street in central London, saw a copy of his paper on the news-stand with SEIGE in the splash headline.

‘My first reaction was Oh No, and the second was Well, glad I’m on a day off, he writes in his book It’ll Come In Useful One Day, a wonderful collection of mnemonics, acronyms, verses, old wives’ tales, puns and acrostics designed to help us remember and recall bits of information. The idea for this book was born that day. Roger learnt the mnemonic Siege of Sidney Street (si for siege, si for Sidney) and has been compiling more ever since.

The Standard is not the only London evening newspaper to have fallen into the seize/siege trap. A year or two before the Evening News did it too. It was in those exhilarating days when the evenings published seven or eight editions a day, slamming breaking stories into the paper far faster than any computer can manage today.

One such story that rapidly became a splash was of police trapping a burglar in Kensington that turned into a siege, or as the News had it seige.

The edition had been on sale for at least an hour when the news editor, Percy Trumble, leant across to the backbench and said: ‘I’ve got a reader on the phone who says that we can’t spell siege.’

The outcome was that the backbench supremo who had written the headline himself, the much-loved Phil Wrack, had SIEGE printed in letters two feet high (how many points is that?) and hung it from the ceiling above the subs’ table. The subs, needless to say, felt insulted by the insinuation that it was their error.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of reporters have had reason to thank Roger Bryan over the past 40 years or so. For, as a sub, chief sub and even more exalted posts on the Yorkshire Post and in Fleet Street, he has corrected and polished their disjointed copy to make it presentable for publication. How many actually sought him out to thank him personally? Precious few, I bet. Well, they can make up for it now by buying his book.

And, if they cannot remember how to spell seize, he even has a mnemonic for that: ‘SEize the day, sail the high Seas’, and one to spell mnemonic itself: My Nice Editor Measures Out News In Columns.

The book cautions all of us not to rely on Spellcheck (particularly those who work for Morgan Grenfell which can easily translate into Morning Greenfly); it tells us how to recognise the phases of the moon, how to remember the rivers in Yorkshire (Surely Una Never Was A Careful Driver), the counties of Northern Ireland (FAT LAD), our times tables, how to convert Celsius and, probably most importantly, how to tell Ant from Dec.

The above examples may be flip and not important, but this is a book to amuse and entertain as well as to help us to remember and there are hundreds of clever tricks to stimulate the mind too. As Roger says, It’ll Come In Useful One Day at ‘an examination, an interview, an application for a job, at a dinner party, a pub quiz, an appearance on University Challenge or even Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

One of my favourites sections is Creature Collections, a selection of collective nouns that the late Nigel Thomas compiled for the Mail on Sunday style book: many date back to the fifteenth century and include the magical ‘An exaltation of larks’… ‘A wickedness of ravens’, and finally ‘A siege [correct] of herons’.

The just published second edition even has a world exclusive: Roger has discovered what is probably the oldest written reference to that mnemonic Thirty days hath September… There is a 15th century manuscript in the Harley Collection in the British Library which says:

Thirti dayes hath November,
April, June and Septembir.
Of XXVIIJ is but oon
And alle the remenaunt XXX and i.

It’ll Come In Useful One Day, by Roger Bryan. Second edition now out: £11.99 + £2.80p&p. Order at www.rogerbryan.com

Jim Anderson worked for Roger Bryan on the subs’ table at the Mail on Sunday.

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Rudge

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