UPDATE: 26/11/2012 - Noel Botham died on Thursday, 22 November, at home in Sussex after suffering from a heart condition and diabetes for the past four years.
Many journalists assured Lord Justice Leveson that they rarely wine and dine contacts when they appeared at the inquiry earlier this year – and that they definitely never get police officers drunk. Here, former Take a Break editor John Dale argues that alcohol is a weapon which journalists should wield to get to the truth, after a very long lunch with former chief investigator at the News of the World, Noel Botham.
Alcohol is a truth drug. Reporters use it as the weapon of choice to breach the carapace of lies erected by prime ministers, politicians, police and anyone else tempted to become tinpot Hitlers.
With drink you don’t hack with a keyboard. You hack with the clink of a glass and then download your personal malware and intellectual trojans directly into someone else’s brain.
Occasionally you get inside their heart as well, which is a cruel bonus. Alcohol, when applied by good reporters, brings the powerful and the pompous crashing to earth, face down in the gutter right in front of the paps shooting for posterity at 40 frames a second.
Next morning the prototype tyrant wakes up a nicer, gentler human being. So, for me, the most alarming feature of the Leveson Inquiry was that it turned anti-alcohol, as if coveting the pulpit at a temperance meeting.
Any moment I expected Leveson to raise a placard saying: ‘Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.’
My absolutely worst nightmare was realised when the crime correspondent of the late News of the World said she’d never set out to get a police officer drunk and did not live a ‘champagne lifestyle’.
I broke into a cold sweat. Trying not to spill my drink, I shuddered not only for myself but for all those whose fatty livers have gone bravely before to the upstairs saloon bar in the sky.
It was an insult to the hundreds of Lunchtime O’Booze figures who once populated newsrooms everywhere. Today they are ridiculed, dismissed as hangovers from the dark ages, to be written out of our official history.
That is wrong. I knew them. They are my heroes...
The last cavalier
It is Thursday and I take a stroll down Dean Street, Soho, and push open the door of the French House.
Noel Botham is sitting at the bar, practising what he does best, being a legend in his own lunchtime, dinner time and any time.
So I buy a bottle of the truth drug, the bubbly French kind, and begin to ply him with it.
“Noel,” I say, “what do you think about buying meals and drinks for the police?” “Nothing wrong with it.”
“What about getting them drunk.” “If they’re silly enough to fall for it, that’s fair game.”
He raises his glass, giving it a tilt as if it were a journalistic rapier. He adds: “There’s always time for a drink between a crisis and a catastrophe – that’s a quote from my old friend, Dan Farson.”
A youthful 72, Botham is relevant because he is a lifelong bon viveur who has used his taste for the high life to pursue a form of free-range journalism which is the antithesis of that promoted by most Leveson witnesses, the reborn PCC and various journo professors. He’s the last cavalier in a world of roundheads. He symbolises free range against the battery farms of Canary Wharf and other media plantations.
I have taken along Sarah Trotter, 25, a young journalist assisting at Press Gazette, to give another viewpoint. She says to him: “I’ve done eight weeks’ work experience at various places and in that time I left the office once.”
The living legend recoils, shaken to the core, and self-administers some truth drug to steady his nerves. I do the same.
“How...how do you write a headline,” he says incredulously, “if you haven’t had a drink at lunchtime?”
It’s a question which has never been satisfactorily answered despite being ruminated upon up and down Ye Olde Fleet Street for nearly 100 years.
I ask: “Do you think the papers were as good then, Noel?” Botham: “Much better. The stories were better. The Mirror was a real newspaper with serious, bloody good stories. Now they’re a fanzine like all the newspapers, except the Mail.”
Signal for a round of competitive bragging. I say: “I remember at the old Mail all the reporters would go down to the Mucky Duck and have a drink at 11am every morning during editorial conference. It was the same everywhere. Next it was lunch and we’d go to the Dive Bar and have four pints of Young’s Special. We were all Lunchtime O’Booze, me included.”
Don’t get drunk or you’re fired
Botham: “When I was on the newsdesk and there were no stories, I’d say to the reporters: ‘Go to the pub – but don’t get drunk or you’re fired.’ Treated them like adults not children.”
Me: “I was assistant to the Mail’s top reporter who specialised in corruption stories. He’d apply the truth drug copiously – to cops, MPs, councillors, officials, anyone we could get in a pub or restaurant. He was brilliant but sometimes he’d have too much truth drug himself. My job was to remember what beans were being spilled.”
Botham nods at the strategic wisdom. I say: “He joined AA.” He says: “I set up the AAA – the Anti Alcoholics Anonymous Society. My promise was that, if any journalist didn’t want a drink, then I’d persuade him to have one.”
He pauses. “Do you remember Vincent?” “Of course.” “Vincent Mulchrone – probably the best writer ever on Fleet Street – he’d go to the Harrow first thing and they’d have half a bottle of champagne waiting for him.
“He’d drink it, then go over the road and start writing.”
“Yes,” I say. “They named the bar after him. It says The Vincent Mulchrone Bar on the door.”
“Mmm, that’s impressive,” says the living legend. His wife Lesley gets the second bottle of truth drug, which is no problem, as she runs the French of which he has been part owner since 1989.
This corner of Soho is the ghost of old Fleet Street, marked out by the French, the Groucho, Soho House, the Coach and Horses and Private Eye’s offices.
This is where desperate factory farm hacks still flee, reviving themselves on seats once warmed by Keith Waterhouse, Jeffrey Bernard and Francis Bacon – the latter a painter who was badly behaved enough to be mistaken for a top-class journalist.
We wander a few doors down to the Groucho, accompanied by Lesley, and encounter many others experimenting with the truth drug, who greet them both warmly.
It’s like the old days in EC4. Botham worked on the Herald, Sketch, People, News of the World – where he was chief investigator – and was then European editor of the National Enquirer, when money was no object in its pursuit of scandal, some political and important.
He has written many books, including The Murder of Princess Diana. His output may not appeal to everyone but his kind of journalism – aggressive, unashamed, mass-market – is what every free society needs whether it likes it or not.
At Groucho’s, we order a bottle of the house truth drug.
He says: “I agree with phone-hacking, totally and utterly agree. We used it to betray corruption in politics, in high business, 100 per cent rotteness in society.
“Tragically you had the idiots who came in and started thinking celebrity stories were more important than real stories and started using phone-hacking to get miniscule celebrity gossip. That’s where it all went wrong.”
I reminded him of the briefcase he showed me 30 years ago, the first I saw with a hidden recorder. We were in Scribes and he pulled back the lining to reveal two big reels of tape.
“Yes, we had a button on the locks and a microphone and the workings were sewn into the lining. Every journalist had them. You could go in someone’s office and record them from 10ft. They’d no idea.”
'We had the greatest decades of Fleet Street'
What about bribing police? “They were happy to tell you everything because you’d given them an envelope. They asked for an envelope – so it wasn’t a bribe. They said, ‘I’ve got some information, is it worth anything to you?’’
Sarah says: “What about press officers?”
Me: “I never met any.”
Botham: “Their job then, as now, was to stop you getting the story.”
Sarah: “How much were you out of the office?”
Botham: “All the time. If you were in the office, it meant you were a nobody, doing obits or crap stuff.”
Sarah: “The guys I was working with went to the toilet once a day and didn’t have a lunch break...”
As if on cue, the waiter serves potted shrimps and tuna tartare and we ponder this.
I ask: “Noel, would you want to be a journalist stuck in an office today?”
“No,” he says. “We had the greatest decades of Fleet Street. It’s been called many names – the Street of Shame, the Boulevard of Broken Dreams but, to me, it’s always been the Street of Adventure. It gave me a life I could never have imagined.”
It was a life of mischief as well, powered by two mighty rivers, drink and ink.
Many of the stories in Keith Waterhouse’s hit play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell – based at the Coach round the corner – really come from Fleet Street.
“We were in El Vinos once,” Botham recalls. “Keith Waterhouse, Paul Callan,
Fergus Cashin and myself. Each one of us at that point was barred from at least one pub, a common occurance.
“Keith said, ‘Let’s start a Banned Club.’ I said, ‘Yes, let’s have bouncers throwing people in.’ Fergus said, ‘We’ll have a neon sign flashing Trouble Tonight...’ Well, all that was used in the play as if it was Jeff’s idea but it was a Fleet Street idea.”
We discuss the casualty list. Drink wrecked personal lives without regard to rank. Some big names became alcoholics.
Botham says: “The editors were getting as drunk as you.”
I ask: “Bearing these perils in mind, can young reporters be encouraged to get out more, to find stories instead of being fed chickenfeed by PRs and Google?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know quite honestly. The process has gone too far. You need people at the top spending money on stories again.”
We return down Dean Street to the French.
The wine glass is as deadly as the pen
By now, suffering a chemically-induced synaptic explosion, I am having a revelation. I can clearly see the linear connection between alcohol, power and freedom.
The press buy booze, get the power-mad drunk, expose them as emperors without clothes. We’re there to reveal the flaws in people who think they’re God.
Drink is the antidote to the acquired hubristic syndrome evident in recent polical leadership.
The wine glass is as deadly as the pen.
Think of those who’ve hated or feared drink. Hitler himself. Everybody in Al Qaeda.
Middle Eastern tyrants busy murdering their own people.
Then think of those who’ve liked a drink. Churchill. Christopher Hitchens. Yeltsin. Keith Waterhouse.
Add to the latter all those unsung martyrs, whose self-sacrifice at the bars of Fleet Street preserved our freedoms in their own way.
I say: “Noel, that Lord Leveson should join us in a toast.”
“To Lunchtime O’Booze. Gone but not forgotten. We should put up a statue to him. Now where’s the bog?”
“Downstairs. Don’t fall.”
This piece first appeared in the May 2012 edition of Press Gazette magazine.
How we lunch now
Does Lunchtime O’Booze survive? John Dale asked journalists how they lunched for his book, 24 Hours in Journalism.
Restaurant: Women’s Health’s Farrah Storr (Soho Hotel, no dessert, back at desk 1.45pm); Sheffield University’s Professor Peter Cole, three colleagues and the Daily Mail’s Jayme Bryla (at Iguana, Sheffield, one glass of wine each).
Salad: Good Housekeeping’s Lindsay Nicholson; Psychologies’ Louise Chunn;
Reader’s Digest’s Gill Hudson (home-made, gym, then Waitrose chocolate); Congleton Chronicle’s Jeremy Condliffe (lentils, raw veg and fruit).
Soup: Marie Claire’s Helen Russell (from café); TV Choice’s Jon Peake (Pret tomato); Sharon Marris, Kent and Sussex Courier.
Sandwich: World Tonight’s Robin Lustig; Kent and Sussex Courier’s Ian Read (BLT from M&S, two Scotch eggs, Kit Kat, Vitamin C tablet); Take a Break’s Julia Sidwell (chicken wrap); Brand Republic’s Arif Durrani (Starbucks, with fruit juice, cappuccino and gym); health editor Lee Rodwell (at home, doing washing); Central European News Vienna’s Mike Leidig (with bowl of cereal); Freelance Colin Dunne (sausage, at golf club).
Walk and sandwich: Hull Daily Mail’s Jamie Macaskill (also cigarette), Euromoney‘s Alan Burkitt-Gray; Society of Editors’ Bob Satchwell; Soul & Spirit’s Katy Evans; Agency boss Mark Solomons (counting pit bulls in Bermondsey).
Curry: BBC’s Frank Gardner (canteen chicken korma, plastic fork snaps); Delhi freelance Helen Roberts (chicken tandoori).
Dubious: Cambridge News’ Ray Brown (crafty cigarette); Mint’s Marcus Harris (biscuits from Paris); Stratford-upon-Avon Herald’s Matt Wilson (stinky battered sausage and chips); Women’s Health team (Bakewell Tart to celebrate their launch). Chris White (small, Place Luxembourg, although several more later ‘out of politeness’).
Coffee/tea: Freelance Natalie Dye (meets fellow hack for gossip); Yellow Advertiser’s Greg Fidgeon.
Snatched: Estates Gazette’s Damian Wild (pasta); freelance Adam Oxford; Wells Journal’s Oliver Hulme (chicken pasty); BBC Radio Kent’s Jenny Barsby (last night’s fajitas, left unfinished);
Nothing: Bath Chronicle’s Paul Wiltshire (had bacon sandwich earlier); Bella’s Amy Lysette who tweets: ‘I need to buy lunch but it’s TOO BLOODY COLD to leave the building’; freelance Louise Bolotin (lunch break without lunch).
Other: Newsnight’s Susan Watts (packed lunch, unspecified); freelance Nick Mcgrath (cheese on toast); Daily Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore (in China, three dishes, soup and rice).