A bow tie and an open door

By David North
 
COLIN VALDAR first came into my life through the genial Fred Redman,
his co-conspirator in the unmasking of many a randy vicar and shady
financier in the Sunday

Pictorial.
Red was the sole journalist member of the editorial board of Liberal
News, the party’s news-sheet, which I then edited. I felt outnumbered
by politicians at its meetings and asked him for reinforcements. “I
know just the man,” he replied.

It was comforting to have Colin
at the table, although he didn’t say much. But when I handed in my
notice, having decided to abandon my flirtation with politics, he took
me aside. “If ever you are at a loose end, give me a ring,” he said. “I
might have something for you.”

About a year later, in September
1965, I showed up at the Salisbury Court offices of Bouverie Publishing
Co. just off Fleet Street, to start my duties as editor of a
non-existent publication which, except in the minds of its proprietor
and very close associates, didn’t have a name either. Colin himself was
on holiday. But a note on my desk offered a glimpse of the future.
“Enjoy my absence,” it concluded. “It will not happen often and the
pressure will need to be full-on when I return.”

Just so. The
plan was to start a closed circulation weekly for newspaper people – an
apparently quixotic gesture, given that both Newspaper World and
World’s Press News had proved the truth of the old saying: nobody wants
to advertise to journalists.

But Colin thought he had found an
ingenious solution – PR firms would be keen to pay to place their
releases in Project X in order to get them directly into the hands of
editorial decision-makers.

In the next weeks, we called every
daily paper in the country to create a card index of editorial
executives (reporters and subs didn’t count). It was, as the Duke of
Wellington said after Waterloo: “Hard pounding, gentlemen.” Respondents
were suspicious of the detail we required and unimpressed by the yarn
we spun them: that we needed to know to whom we should address our own
press releases. Perhaps they thought we were solicitors’ clerks
concealing writs.

Still, we managed somehow.

Selective
amnesia shrouds the events of the week before the first issue of UK
Press Gazette went to bed at Simpson’s of Richmond, a contract printing
firm that produced posters, brochures and a few trade journals. But the
day itself remains a vivid kaleidoscope of mangled makeups, headline
literals and stories that didn’t fit. Still, Colin’s wife Jill Valdar
and I thought we had things under control by 5pm, when the proprietor
himself appeared.

We thought wrong. A succession of passed pages
plastered with new marks found their way back to the case room. As the
hours went by, the printer became hotter under the collar, while
fatigue vied with panic in the editor’s heart. Eventually, at about
10.30pm, Simpson’s manager John Rowlands appeared, red of face, and
called a halt. He also threatened to cancel the print contract on the
spot, but was dissuaded by promises of better behaviour from Colin and
his advertisement director, Geoffrey Parkes.

That hurdle
surmounted, the editorial team settled down to something approaching a
routine. We were a tiny but, we thought, rather select bunch. Colin had
long been a legend in Fleet Street, having taken the Pictorial to sales
of more than five million and saved the Daily Sketch from Lord (Esmond)
Rothermere’s axe. I’d gone down with The Star when Laurence Cadbury
opted for chocolate rather than newspapers, but survived to work on the
start of London printing at The Guardian. Chris Dunkley, fresh from
weekly journalism, was a former member of the Committee of 100 during
the CND protests of the early 1960s and claimed to have had his letters
opened by MI5.

Colin kept close control of his baby at first,
although he loosened the reins a lot later. He made all the big
decisions, did the final edit on most stories, pasted up the layouts
and wrote the Dog Watches Dog column, which his instincts and
experience quickly made compulsory reading. Chris Dunkley, like his
successors Stuart Patrick and Lance Sheppard, was billed as news
editor. But in practice he worked as a reporter, albeit one with talent
and ambition. He was quickly on easy terms with Fleet Street newsdesks
and wrote with style.

My part, as “editor”, was to handle
contributors – Jeffrey Blyth, the Daily Mail’s diarist in New York was
an early recruit – and run a string of (mainly Sketch)n freelances in
the provinces. I also did some reporting of my own, rewrote most of the
stuff that came in unsolicited, ran the copy down to Richmond at night
and put the paper to bed on Fridays.

Other members of the
“family” – the proprietor’s term for those who crammed into the two
floors he rented – included his older brother Stewart, originator of
several of the ploys that kept Press Gazette afloat; his younger son
Peter, who operated as production manager and drove racing cars at
weekends; Jean de Lemos, whose weekly cartoons often ended up on the
walls of newspaper offices; Ken Brown, former night editor at the
Sketch and editor of The Probe, who read proofs for me on press day;
and his personal secretary and gatekeeper Beryl Chapman. Jill Valdar
kept the books.

In these hands, the paper prospered editorially (it later boasted a 95 per cent subscription renewal rate).

But
finances were another matter. PR firms showed no inclination to fall in
with our plans and Colin’s face grew more and more strained after his
weekly visits to the bank manager. A few media contemporaries who owed
him – Lew Grade and Hugh Cudlipp among them – chipped in. But most
stayed aloof and, very quickly, the paper was on the point of closing.

Enter
Jack Reeves, a one-time advertisement director of the Daily Mail, whose
personality dwarfed his impressive girth and whose voice, in full cry,
penetrated every office in the building.

Jack started each day
with a glass of wine or two to get his juices flowing. Once at his
desk, he would skim the nationals for a promising supplement and set
about scalping the ads on the telephone. His practice was to avoid
agencies, which he scorned. Instead, he charmed or bludgeoned his way
past telephonists and secretaries to the men at the top of the
companies that had advertised. Two samples from Chris Dunkley’s
gleanings, The Best of Reeves: 1) “Madam, kindly stop interrupting
while I’m talking to you. I came through and you said there was nobody
there. I ask for Sir Anthony Mullard and you treat me as though I’m
asking for the Pope. Now maybe Sir Anthony is actually addressing Jesus
or the Pope or somebody. In that case I’ll come through again later.” –
To an unco-operative secretary.

2) “The money’s nothing. I’m
really ashamed to mention it to you… it’s 52 quid… Now… although we
don’t really go in for advertising – we don’t have to, you understand –
I think you’ll be very pleased with the result if you come in. It’s not
the money. Let’s face it, once we’ve paid the agent and my salary,
there’s nothing in it for us at all. You will? That’s very good of you,
Sir.

So that will be a full page, facing matter, at £75, right?”

– To a receptive client.

It
was all very entertaining, except that whenever he managed to get a few
pages (I think the record was nine) we had to provide the words to go
alongside them, at very short notice and on top of our normal workload.
We just about managed, by re-interviewing people quoted in the original
stories and rewriting or lifting text to fit.

This was a risky
business. But fortunately we only came unstuck once, when we misquoted
the Sunday Times wine writer Cyril Ray, who promptly claimed we had
damaged his reputation. The dispute grumbled on for months, but ended
in handshakes when Ray came round to Salisbury Court and succumbed to
the proprietor’s charm.

Eventually, of course, Reeves ran out of steam.

There
had always been a few refusals to pay from people he claimed had agreed
to advertise. But the number increased to the point where we suspected
he was making up orders. By then, however, classifieds were doing
better, subscriptions were flooding in, and Stewart Valdar’s
innovations – painstakingly researched and immaculately laid out Press
Briefings from banks and other bankable organisations; Capital Ideas, a
quarterly update on trade names; and the News Contact Directory – were
beginning to provide serious money.

Those early years were
notable for a number of seismic events in British journalism, and some
of them registered high on the Richter scale. In 1968, Colin’s former
boss Cecil King was caught conspiring to oust the Wilson government and
was dismissed as chairman of International Publishing Corporation,
which he had made into the biggest media conglomerate in the world.

The
following year, Rupert Murdoch laid the foundations of his British
empire by acquiring the News of the World and The Sun. Preparations for
the latter’s relaunch included several visits to The Sun’s new quarters
in Bouverie Street by Press Gazette’s proprietor, who held the view
that Cudlipp had moved the Daily Mirror too far up-market, creating an
opportunity for Murdoch to woo “the dirty mackintosh crowd”.

The
Night of the Long Envelopes, so-called because dismissal notices were
delivered to victims after that night’s paper had been put away, was
another high-profile event. The Daily Mail’s NUJ chapel had angered
Lord Rothermere by preventing the paper from appearing during a
December 1970 dispute over proposed redundancies. The following March,
Associated Newspapers announced the impending closure of the ailing
Daily Sketch and dismissed 277 editorial staff from the two papers.

Most
of the casualties were on the Mail, whose editor Arthur Brittenden was
replaced by the Sketch’s David English. Our excellent contacts at the
Mail and the NUJ enabled Lance Sheppard to compile a detailed insider’s
account of the bloodletting.

Chapel Power, analysed in a three-page feature, was another phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s.

Employers
had dictated journalists’ pay and conditions for decades, because the
NUJ could not mobilise enough members for strikes to succeed. But that
changed when the Reuters chapel, sick of rolling shifts and wages much
lower than those paid at the nationals, started holding lengthy
“impromptu”

meetings in the evenings, when the agency’s newspaper
clients were desperate to get the next day’s papers away. Reuters
resisted briefly, then caved in, and soon chapels all over the country
were following the lead.

Press Gazette also took a close and not
altogether disinterested look at the tele-ad revolution, started by the
first Lord Thomson, which transformed classified advertisement revenues
around the country, and ran regular features on offset printing and
computerised typesetting in Scandinavia and elsewhere. The print unions
still had a stranglehold on the British press.

But we reckoned the information would help loosen their grip.

Those stories still resonate, almost 40 years later.

But
my abiding memory of Press Gazette is of a man in a bow tie and
shirtsleeves, sitting at his desk in an office, whose door was
permanently wedged open.

Colin Valdar was at once the most
exacting and the easiest of employers: exacting in that he knew
precisely what he wanted and knew how to get it, easy in that he was
also patient, funny and generous.

In seven years of close
encounters, I never saw him lose his temper. We irritated each other
from time to time, usually during the many evenings when we set about
putting the world to rights long after everyone else had left. Colin
was essentially a small ‘c’

conservative, I was (and remain)
somewhere to the left of centre. But such differences of opinion only
strengthened the bonds between us.

These remained strong after I
left for places far removed from Salisbury Court. We renewed them
whenever chance brought me within hailing distance of Fleet Street. It
feels entirely appropriate to celebrate them again, on its 40th
anniversary, in the pages of the paper we all worked so hard to create.

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