Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Good opera-tors

The Mail on Sunday's Northern staffer Andy Chapman offers this wonderful piece of nostalgia. Back in the good old days when Ken Tucker was news editor at The Sun in Manchester he punctually rang news agencies around 9am and then again at 4pm looking for stories with the immortal words "anything for the schedule" (in the morning) and "any overnights" (in the afternoon). In honour of these regular calls hacks around Manchester produced a song to the tune of Giussepe Verde's La Donna e Mobile from Rigoletto. It was regularly sung in the 'Withy Grove' (Thomson House) then home to the Mirror, Sun, Telegraph, the Crown and Kettle and 'Yacht Club' (Yates's Wine Lodge) populated by journalists from the Express and The Abercrombie, Deansgate, home of the Mail titles. This is how it went.

Give me an overnight,
Anything will be alright,
We don't care if it's shite,
Our schedule's very light,
Bum tit or whore,
Ring 1-2-3-4"

(which was the old phone number for The Sun, Manchester)

Friday, 12 June 2009

A tall story

Journalism is often like potholing. You think you know where you are going but end up fumbling around in the dark. Sometimes your journey ends with you feeling wet, tired and depressed. Sometimes, however, you find yourself open mouthed in awe with a feeling of great elation.

The late Screaming Lord Sutch was a good contact of mine. And through David I was introduced to a dozen or more raving loony eccentrics including a man who had changed his name by deed poll to John Major. He even altered his address to 10 Downing Street despite actually living somewhere like 3 Acacia Avenue. The local postmen, however, always impeccably delivered his mail. Strange, because I regularly get post for a Chinese restaurant.

One day John telephoned and asked in a matter of fact voice: “Can you find me a dwarf for the UK’s first ever dwarf throwing contest?” Apparently the pastime was a hit in Australia and John thought he could become rich here by turning people of restricted growth into missiles. Always ready for a challenge, I began my search and within a day I had contacted Britain’s tiniest man Mike Henbury Ballan. Sometimes it pays to start small.

Even at just 2ft 11in Mike, 32, was a larger than life character. He worked as a customs and excise officer in Hampshire and even managed the office football team. But he also had showbiz experience, appearing in movies like Labyrinth and Return of the Jedi. He warmed immediately to the idea and thought he could go far as a human projectile, although in reality it was unlikely to be more than about five feet. I sensed a big page lead in a Sunday tabloid and a decent pay day.

Then tragedy. John had been told by the venue he would need a licence for dwarf throwing and when he applied for the document a local authority pen pusher not only told him it was impossible he also alerted every other local authority in the land. Suddenly dwarf throwing was on a par with dog fighting. Another world exclusive bites the dust. Another wrong turn in the pothole of life. I broke the sad news to Mike, who, like a true gentleman, was not short with me.

A few months later the telephone rang and a voice said: “It’s Mike Ballan, do you remember me?” He explained that he was getting married to his 4ft tall girlfriend Debbie Spencer and wanted me to write the exclusive story. The ceremony made a heart warming page lead in the Sun on May 31st 1991 (see picture).

A day later, because Mike had a brother of normal size, an American magazine rang and asked me to adapt the story - for very generous remuneration - to coincide with the release of the hit Hollywood movie Twins starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Kerching. Large ones all round, or not as the case may be.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Falsie Towers

I was drawn to journalism as a schoolboy by reading about writers like James Cameron. His book Point of Departure is still one of my favourites.

I was enthralled by stories like the time the news editor stunned Cameron by ordering him to go out and buy a pith helmet and a mosquito net because he was off to interview the Dalai Lama.

I found myself similarly surprised the day I was assigned to go undercover in a transvestite hotel in Oldham. It was my own fault for having a good idea and not keeping it to myself.

I had just turned in to do a casual night shift on the Sun in
Manchester to find two senior executives and several reporters in conference. Police had been tipped off that a security guard, who had disappeared with a large some of money, was in fact a cross-dresser and was holed up in a £60 a night hotel dressed as a French maid. The bobbies raided the place and carted the felon away, mascara doubtless running. But the establishment’s owner, a snake-hipped American called Rupert (pictured) who looked like any real man’s dream date, adamantly refused to let Fleet Street’s finest cross the threshold. Increasingly large sums had been offered – up to £10,000 I believe – but Rupert was determined that privacy and client confidentiality should not be breached.

“Look,” I said, almost absent mindedly, “it’s a hotel for goodness’ sake. Why don’t you just get someone to book in?” The look on the faces of my colleagues must have been very similar to the expression of Archimedes when his spilling bath water told him the volume of irregular objects could be calculated with precision.

Minutes later I was on my way to the Victorian terrace house, which was soon to be dubbed
Falsie Towers. Rupert, a Tina Turner look-alike, greeted me at the front door and showed me to my room. He advised me on what dress to wear for dinner, applied my make up, then disappeared to prepare the meal.

If there were other guests booked in they did not stray from their rooms. Rupert sat and chatted throughout dinner. But every time he departed to collect the next course I removed an auto-focus camera from my cleavage and captured the ambience of the mysterious dwelling. In the lounge I found dozens of photographs of satisfied customers, one carrying the message “who’s a naughty girl, then?”

My report duly appeared two days later. But I was mortified to be ordered to telephone Rupert and seek his reaction. Over dessert he had told me how he hired a private eye to track down one customer who didn’t pay up. My hand trembling, I dialled the number and soon heard Rupert’s honeyed drawl on the line. “You were very naughty,” he chided. “But since the piece appeared in the paper the telephone hasn’t stopped ringing with bookings!” It’s nice to do something for local businesses I always think. Luckily he never offered me a loyalty card.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A worrying trend

News here that one of the biggest and most important court reporting agencies in the land cannot cover its overheads is not only shocking it has serious implications for society.

When I started in journalism a staff or freelance reporter attended almost every case in every court in the UK. The shame of being convicted was part of the sentence, in my view. Nowadays, with the sad demise of local and national newspapers, only a tiny fraction of cases are properly covered. In 2002 when I attended Glossop magistrates to see former Manchester United star
Lee Martin convicted of benefit fraud the clerk to the court told me I was the first national reporter who had set foot in the chamber for five years. The man who scored the winning goal in an F A Cup Final had swindled £3,000 while earning thousands as a television pundit. The court heard that Martin felt ''nothing but shame and embarrassment''. Quite. There may always be mitigating circumstances and these can be put before the court. But surely a genuine show of contrition is part of the rehabilitation process. I doubt whether Martin transgressed again.

Clever people talk of micro-blogging replacing local journalism. But what blogger will sit in Glossop magistrates court all day? And court reporting is an art, for which an impeccable shorthand note is needed. Even if he was willing, does that micro-blogger have the relevant skills? Of course, newspapers should not be immune from general economic pressures. But the plight of companies like Strand News is an example of the very serious consequences that will follow the breakdown of traditional news coverage.

The day I brought down a Prime Minister

It was 1979 and the end of another busy day in Fleet Street. I was on the Daily Star, housed in what Private Eye always called the Black Lubyanka.

The stunning glass fronted building, designed by Sir Owen Williams, boasted a spectacular front hall with an ornate floor and curving marble staircase and featured in the 1961 film The Day The Earth caught Fire. It had an identical twin in Ancoats, Manchester, where I normally worked, which was briefly glimpsed in the 1951 movie The Man In The White Suit.

In the London office I remember a sign which read "Starway to the Stairs", which I thought was very clever. In Manchester, we had a writer called Pat Codd and there was a sign on the wall there with extracts from his work below the headline "Codds-wallop".

That evening the requisite number of celebrity reputations had been puffed or poisoned, the weather story had been done (was it “hailstones as big as golfballs” or “paving-stone cracking sunshine”? I can’t recall) and a few jars in The Old Bell beckoned. However, tonight was different.

My accomplice reporter Pam Francis and I had taken ownership of two invitations to a swanky PR event in The Savoy. We strolled in, mingled and sank as many glasses of champagne as decorum allowed. Now to find the exit before the tedious speeches began. Unfortunately, the Press officers had done their logistics and in a pincer movement of which von Clausewitz would have been proud, Pam and I were ushered into a large auditorium where someone began droning about something like fluoridation or animal rights in Kazakhstan.

We had to find a way out before deep vein thrombosis took hold. I spied a door so we wriggled along a side wall as inconspicuously as two Turkish greasy wrestlers in a nunnery and dashed for freedom. We found ourselves in the hotel’s kitchens, where the sharpening of knives did wonders for our slight inebriation. Having negotiated the stainless steel maze for less than a minute I spotted another door and urged Pam to follow me through it as quickly as possible.

I was still checking that Pam was right behind me as I burst through the door and collided shoulder to shoulder with Harold Wilson, who ended up on his back. Amid profuse apologies we both hauled the statesman to his feet, brushed him down and as befits our calling made our excuses and left. Luckily, he wasn’t smoking his pipe at the time.

Monday, 1 June 2009

All that glisters...

I used to be proud to call myself a journalist at one time. But over the years I feel my profession has been badly let down by many of its practitioners. Top of my list is Piers Morgan. How that man has the brass neck to sit on the Britain's Got Talent panel when he presided over the City Slickers scandal at the Mirror I don't know. But similar examples of poor journalism occur weekly. The latest incident to rile me follows. Take a look at this website. Impressive huh? Now go here. If the link does not work the two journos wrote a piece about Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for which The Guardian in June had to publish a lengthy apology and correction. The article contained more than a dozen errors.As Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice: "All that glisters is not gold."