John Coleman remembers how it was before Rupert arrived.
There’s a bronze plaque in a corner of Fleet Street, at Ludgate Circus, dedicated to the reporter/novelist Edgar Wallace, telling how he “walked with kings, knew wealth and poverty” and “of his talents he gave lavishly, but to Fleet Street he gave his heart.”
That summed up my attitude and that of my colleagues to the venerable street in the pre-Murdoch era. It was a street steeped in history, where the ghosts of great writers and poets such as Samuel Johnson, Milton, Dryden and Goldsmith and, more contemporary, Graham Greene and Edgar Wallace, walked its pavements and narrow lanes. It was lined with towering newspaper offices and warm, hospitable pubs.
The building that dominated it all, within a few paces of that Edgar Wallace plaque, was the black marbled Express building with its gold-leaf ceiling in the grand foyer.
I worked there for six years, for The Sunday Express under legendary editor John (later Sir John) Junor, and some of the street’s famous names including Chapman Pincher and Brendan Mulholland, who went to jail in 1963 for refusing to disclose his sources in the Vassall spy case.
The paper, founded by Lord Beaverbrook, was in the hands of his son, Battle of Britain fighter pilot Sir Max Aitken; The Daily Express and Evening Standard were part of the chain.
My years there ran up to 1970. By the previous year, Murdoch had acquired the News of the World and the workers’ paper, the former Daily Herald which was renamed The Sun in its declining years and which Murdoch converted into a sensational tabloid.
The 1960s was a different era: the aftermath of the Great Train Robbery and the Profumo scandal, of great broadsheet newspapers and, yes, intense competition. The Sunday Express had 4,250,000 readers and was determined not only to keep its market share but add to it.
The paper was interested only in exclusives. Arthur Christiansen, famous editor of The Daily Express, was no longer around, but his influence was all-pervasive. “Ban the word ‘exclusive’,” said his stylebook, still in the desk allotted to me. “Our aim is to make every story exclusive. Therefore we have no need to boast.”
Phone hacking and other criminal conduct exposed in the News of the World scandal was unknown. The Australian Journalists’ Association Code of Ethics, calling on its members to report the news honestly, fairly, balanced and accurately, had been a way of life for me since I began in newspapers at 17 – I was never asked to do otherwise on the Express.
While I can’t speak first-hand for the other Fleet Street newspapers that were flourishing, unethical conduct was not apparent although, of course, there were instances of chequebook journalism (as opposed to criminal bribery of public officials) to gain exclusives.
“Is it new – and true?” was the test from the Express news desk. The Sunday Express reporters’ room was on the fifth floor of that black marbled building and on Saturdays, when the paper went to press, we moved down to The Daily Express’s huge second floor, with a stream of subeditors and reporters. Above the news desk, where the news editor and his assistants presided with a battery of phones, was a gigantic sign attached to the ceiling urging all to “Get it right the first time!”
As a weekly paper, The Sunday Express was not so much interested in the tired rhetoric of politicians, but in holding them to account. We tracked still-at-large Great Train Robbers, wrote of Cold War spies and the gangster Kray brothers. The paper, too, delighted in highlighting the blunders of bureaucracy at all levels, in exposing swindlers and, above all, focusing on human interest – in tried and true Beaverbrook formula, stories had to be built around people, the more heart-warming the better.
We travelled across Britain, Europe and the world for stories. I had a round-the-world assignment to cover stories ranging from how British migrants were faring in Australia, to Hong Kong and Singapore as tourist destinations and a tropical island for sale off the north Queensland coast.
The young foreign editor, Tom Jenkins, flew across the deserts of the Middle East and in a memorable feature wrote of finding the wreck of one of the trains blown up by Lawrence of Arabia on the Hejaz railway.
The Press Council in those days had plenty of teeth and the papers took its adjudications seriously. It came down heavily on intrusion into private grief and papers steered clear of it. (I was threatened on one occasion with a report to the Council when, determined to get a balanced account to a story, I rang an Orthodox Jewish official several times on a Saturday to get his response to allegations, unaware that he was not supposed to answer the phone on the Sabbath. The Express sent me to the official’s office to apologise, and it was accepted.)
The Express papers, unlike many of those I had left in Australia, were writers’ papers rather than stories owing their merit to skilful rewriting by subeditors. If, for instance, the introduction didn’t – in Arthur Christiansen’s words – “flow like honey”, the story would be spiked. We competed for space in the paper not only against other papers, but each other and correspondents in every town and village across Britain, as well as our own foreign correspondents.
Hours were long – as long as an assignment or story took. On press day we began early and finished late, after 10pm, often midnight or the early hours of the morning. We needed to complete our stories and gain editor Junor’s attention. John Junor and his executives remained on the back bench for as long as the rest of us, with chain-smoking Junor tearing up the front page near press time if it didn’t suit him.
It’s true there was a preoccupation with the doings of the royals and nobility, but the reporting by and large was tame compared with today’s standards. Among my contacts was a young Western Australian, Bill Heseltine, who was appointed to the Buckingham Palace press office, later becoming the Queen’ s private secretary and knighted. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, although I never scored a page one story from him, and we remained good friends.
Another key contact during the Rhodesian crisis, when the country made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, was Angus Ogilvy, Princess Alexandra’s husband, who was a director of Lonrho (London-Rhodesia) with interests in an oil pipeline blockaded by the British at Beira in Mozambique.
I became in effect The Sunday Express Commonwealth correspondent with a range of contacts in the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) high commissions as well as the South African embassy. I wrote a series of exposés about young Australians being jailed for overstaying as visitors at a time when immigration controls were being tightened. Among exclusive interviews were the Dambusters’ Sir Barnes Wallis and the inventor of the hovercraft, Sir Christopher Cockerell.
Most Fleet Street papers, including The Sunday Express and Daily Express, were, as already noted, broadsheets. An exception was The Daily Mirror which, right down to its one-paragraph fillers, was brilliantly edited. The News of the World, too, was a broadsheet with a modest circulation compared with recent times. It was also produced cheaply, relying heavily on court reports about the activities of paedophiles and other sex cases.
Circulations of other papers also ran into millions and management was in the hands of editors more interested in scoops than economics.
The time was ripe for Rupert to move in. From 1969 on he gradually dominated the industry, adding The Times and Sunday Times to his stable, and moving them to the docklands district of Wapping. Other great newspaper titles also moved from Fleet Street. The Express changed owners and shifted somewhere beyond Blackfriars Bridge. Its original black marbled building was torn down and replaced by investment bankers Goldman Sachs.
It seems the heart, too, has gone from the street that Edgar Wallace, my colleagues and I loved.
John Coleman joined the Australian Information Service in Canberra, then Australia’s official information agency, after his stint on Fleet Street. Later, as editor of The Catholic Leader, he led the team which in 1989 shared a United Nations Media Peace Prize with TIME Magazine. He now freelances. This was first published in The Canberra Times August 27, 2011