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0 "Evening All" - Memories of a local reporter

  • Thoughts
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 21-07-2011
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In the mid 1960s I worked as a reporter on a newspaper in Richmond, Surrey which is on the fringes of London's built up area. It was town rather than country and had something of the atmosphere of the so-called " swinging sixties" about it. The Rolling Stones, then one of a number of imitators of black American blues music, played there and Richmond had its jazz festivals. The phone hacking scandal, which has put senior policemen in the Parliamentary dock, has brought back memories of that time and had me mulling over the relationship we had then with the local police. 

We got a great many stories from the police and my memory is that we were keen to keep in their good books. I do not recall any criticisms of police operations or police behaviour. As reporters we inevitably got to know the local bobbies. We made regular calls to the police station to look through the OB book. This Occurrence Book listed all kinds of incidents that had been reported to the police most of them too trivial to make a story. In fact I cannot remember a single story I got from the OB book: perhaps a fellow reporter from that time could help me out.

As well as regular calls to the police station we covered the local Magistrates Courts, both juvenile and adult. These provided us with a great many stories, everything from burglary to minor driving offences. There were, too, in the sixties, heart rending cases of men who had been caught having sex in the public lavatories along by the River Thames which runs through Richmond. Hauled before the public would be, typically, a very respectable chap who was a lawyer or businessman and a rugged labourer. 

We were alerted to cases coming up by the police. We did not pay them for this information, it was just part of the jovial banter between young reporters and young coppers. More aloof and less friendly were the CID–the detectives of the Criminal Investigation Department. They wore suits and were clean cut and, so it seemed to me, always looked around warily. Occasionally, if there was a bigger than usual story coming up, they would brief us and rehearse the address they would make to the magistrates which ensured a good headline. This would be along the lines of: "I can only describe the criminal actions of these young men as a rampage." 

However, I am not sure the police ever had any information worth paying for even if we had wanted to bribe them. We were not that kind of newspaper. Our diary column was called " Across the walnuts and wine. " Not exactly hard hitting. But then most newspapers did not muck rake. And–this is a glaringly obvious point but one that I think is sometimes missed in debates about the ethics of journalism–if you do not publish muck you do not have any reason to pay for it. Muck was the stock in trade of only a few newspapers, the most notorious–and popular– of which was News of the World. 

Local newspaper reporters were very poorly paid . To make extra money you became what was known as a "stringer" for one of the nationals. If you came across a story that might be of national rather than merely local interest you would phone Fleet Street. On the other end of the line–this is how I remember it anyway–would be a species of journalist whose manner was in sharp contrast to your own. He ( or sometimes she) would be curt, wanting to get quickly to the point, clearly dubious about the judgement of a mere stringer. If you said, for example, that there was a tragedy in which a boy had been fatally injured and you could give them the number of the family you might be asked: " Was the mother in tears?" If you said you were not sure there would be a sigh of frustration. You had not yet learned your trade. 

From time to time we had a national story locally. I can remember only one or two. There was the incident when a plane went down and it was discovered an air hostess who should have been on it had stayed at home in Richmond because she was ill. Fleet Street descended on us. Most of us were badly dressed and covered in cigarette ash, as we were interrogated by sharply suited reporters with oiled her and tiny notebooks who grabbed phones wherever they could and called up the news desk every few minutes to report if the story was "standing up" or not. As well as the snappily dressed Fleet Street boys there were shady characters who often looked bedraggled and a little tramp like. These were the Agency reporters and the local freelancers anxious to get one move ahead of the pack. They were unscrupulous: one once snatched a picture from my hand that had just been given to me at the front door by the family of someone who had gone missing. He ran off down the road and sold it to a National. 

A murder locally would bring in the Fleet Street sleuths and we might get a hint of a relationship between them and the local CID. The reporters from the Nationals seemed more at ease than us with the detectives. In fact, my memory is that reporters and the plain clothes police looked very alike. They seemed to talk the same way, to be from the same kind of background. This impression was confirmed by the arrival in our news room of a reporter who was clearly on his way to Fleet Street and treated us with disdain. His speciality was crime and we regarded him with a degree of awe. It turned out he had a brother who was a detective constable and I found myself invited to one or two social occasions at which police and journalists mingled. My abiding image is of them doing " the Twist". 

I have been reminded by a fellow reporter from those days, who is now a distinguished journalist in North America, that we did indulge in a little bit of corruption in those days. He remembers: " Every Christmas we'd all go around our districts handing out cartons of cigarettes and spirits---I remember jolly faced station Sgts making nice as they accepted the largesse." A sub editor also organised a few drinking sessions with the force. I do not remember that: I did not drink much in those days as I could not afford it. However I do remember how the new "crime reporter" introduced an unfamiliar and rather sinister tone to the newsroom. 

We would be bashing away on our old manual typewriters reporting on local darts tournaments and garden parties when the crime man would arrive red faced, his shirt collar pulled open, his tie askew ( we all had to wear ties then. ) . He reeked of beer and spirits. He looked bleak as he took from his pocket a tiny notebook, fed a sheet of paper into the typewriter and began to hit the keys with two shaky fingers. There was no doubt about where he had been: drinking with a police contact. We wondered what he could have unearthed at risk to his health and his journalistic integrity. The first story he tapped out made the front page of the Barnes edition. 

It was a time when road traffic was building up rapidly with an increase in car ownership. The world looked to America, and Los Angeles in particular, for a vision of a future dominated by the motor car. We saw pictures of five lane highways jammed for miles. Within the circulation area of our newspaper was a road called Castlenau which was becoming very busy. In rush hour it was often jammed. What our crime man had tracked down was a quote from a senior police officer who was prepared to say ( off the record ) that Castlenau was in danger of becoming " a little Los Angeles". This, though it is hard to credit it now, was regarded as a scoop. 

The crime reporter did not stay with us long. He was soon in Fleet Street with his greatest treasure: a contacts book with the names of police who might just be helpful to him with a tip off in return for a "drink. " In fact "drink" became a euphemism for money. He got some notable scoops later on in his career, stories of escaped prisoners and the like. But most of us who pursued a career in journalism had very little to do with the police once we had moved on to work on magazines or national newspapers. We left crime to the specialists.  

Among the several eccentrics who worked on the local paper there was one who stood out. I cannot give his real name as I have no idea where he is now and whether or not he might read this. I will call him Horace. He had the most extraordinary voice, a very British accent rather like an Ealing comedy version of upper class military. He spoke very slowly and deliberately. When he answered the phone callers were startled by his greeting of " Heelow". On more than one occasion they hung up and called again to ask if there was someone in the News Room who had had too much to drink. 

Horace had his own way of checking out the integrity of informants before he would listen to their story. From time to time people called in the front office on the ground floor and asked to talk to a reporter. On one occasion Horace took responsibility and disappeared for a while. He seemed to be away a long time when we got a sense of some kind of commotion at the front desk. Then I answered the phone to a man in a frothing rage asking who this drunk bastard was he was supposed to be talking to. Others calmed everything down and when it was quiet again I asked Horace what had happened.

He said he has asked the man: " Are you married?" I looked puzzled:

 "Why?" Horace said: "Becorze I thought he would be more reliable if he was married. "I said: "But you are not married Horace. " He began to laugh and simply said: "No!"

 Next: the great Morning Glory seed scandal