He had been in hospital for about 18 hours by the time I got round to asking him what the food was like. “Food’s OK,” he told me. “Spelling’s lousy though.”
He held up a printed hospital menu and ‘factsheet’, which he had already begun to sub. There was a pencil mark circling a rogue apostrophe, a couple of grammatical corrections and some proof-reading marks in the margin.
Geoff Harris liked things to be right. I know this because he was my father. But but anyone who encountered him as a keen young reporter, as a newspaper editor, journalism tutor or mentor will probably know what I mean.
He had a passion for newspapers and fine journalism, starting from the age of 16 as a cub reporter on a retainer of two shillings and sixpence a week. As a young airman in World War II he edited RAF newspapers as a sideline while stationed in the Libyan desert. He had already taught himself shorthand and typing, and was taking photographs on a Luftwaffe-issue Leica he had traded for a packet of cigarettes with a German prisoner.
Back in England after de-mobbing, he worked as a reporter for a series of local newspapers around London before he was spotted by the proprietor of King and Hutchings, later part of Westminster Press, as editor material.
He edited three suburban weeklies before being appointed in a fireman role to turn round the fortunes of one of the group’s most important papers, the Harrow Observer.
It was here that his interest in training youngsters to become journalists began. I can still recall the late-night clatter of his beloved Olympia typewriter as he set about producing a book that would become required reading for anyone entering the profession (and for plenty of older hands who could learn from it too). More than four decades later, Practical Newspaper Reporting, which he co-wrote with David Spark, is still regarded as the standard. It is textbook journalism, in every sense.
In 1967 he moved to Plymouth, Devon, with a brief to turn Hugh Cudlipp’s Mirror Group training scheme into the country’s most best and most prestigious platform for producing top flight journalists. Competition for a place was so fierce that a psychologist was employed to assess whether candidates were likely to withstand the pressure if selected. Some didn’t.
But generations of these trainees – and later, graduates of the United Newspapers training scheme in Preston, which he took over in 1974 – have their professional roots in one of Geoff Harris’s classrooms.
He lost count of the number of eager young students who passed through his hands, but today they include an impressive alumni of leading journalists, newspaper executives, TV presenters and high-flyers, plus some who became high profile figures in politics. Whenever he saw a familiar face or byline he would declare with some pride: “That’s one of mine.”
I was never one of his trainees, and nor was my daughter, Chrissy, who also went into journalism. But he was always there to give advice. When the Leicester Mercury appointed Chrissy as a district reporter, he sent her a handy guide to district reporting, typed on several sheets of foolscap.
This is an extract from it:
“In an area of, say, 100,000 people, there is ALWAYS news happening. It is up to you to find it. There is no such thing as ‘nothing happening’. You are just admitting your own failure if you say so.'”
“It must have been good advice. That year, Chrissy was named Reporter of the Year in the UKPG regional press awards, cited for a series of stories that she found herself.”
Geoffrey Henry Harris died painlessly in his sleep on September 19 aged 89, a few hours after we said goodbye at his hospital bedside. His wife, Margaret, had died 15 years ago and his other son, Martin died in 2007.
I never kept the subbed version of that hospital factsheet. I wish I had.
Paul Harris is chief news feature writer at the Daily Mail