Fleet Street's biggest foul-ups (apart from phone-hacking)

As Press Gazette gets set to relaunch as a quarterly magazine – we continue to showcase some of the best articles from the print title with this feature on Fleet Street's greatest ever foul-ups by Colin Dunne from 2010. Click here for details about how to subscribe to Press Gazette – Journalism Quarterly, for £19.90 a year.

The girl on reception was giggling when she rang me. “There’s a nutter down here asking for you,” she said, trying to keep her voice down. “He says he’s got the cure for the common cold.”

The correct response to that, you’d think, would be to ask if they’re one short at the local loony bin.

However, this was a Tuesday afternoon. For my column on the Evening Chronicle on Tyneside, I needed a piece for Wednesday, a piece for Thursday, a piece for…

“Don’t let him go,” I said. I’ll be right down.”

Hope. That’s what gets journos every time. Far from the hard-eyed cynics of popular legend, most hacks are panting innocents, desperate to believe …well, anything if it makes a good story.

And it’s hope that lies behind every cockup in the history of the press. We so want to believe that we can successfully suspend all critical faculties.

How else do you think the Express ‘discovered’ Martin Bormann in South America? Why did Piers Morgan fall for those crudely faked torture photos?

Why did Garth Gibbs circumnavigate the globe several times in his search for Lord Lucan?

Wild, desperate hope, that’s what did it.

And it did cross my mind that if I was the one who brought the cure for the common cold to the world, it would make a page lead and a place in history.

A statue beside the Thames – I’d settle for that.

You may have noticed that I have no statue beside the Thames. More on that later.

But it’s hope that’s to blame every time for all the cock-ups, cons, hoaxes, howlers or whatever you want to call them.

MARTIN BORMANN DISCOVERED IN SOUTH AMERICA

I mean, can you imagine how Stewart Steven, the foreign editor of the Daily Express, felt in 1972 when he got a tip-off that Martin Bormann was alive and well and living in South America?

Did he worry that it was going to spoil his lunch? No, he did not. He got on that plane and prayed it was true.

Bormann was a favourite for sightings. Obligingly, in 1945 he vanished from Hitler’s bunker and had since been seen just about everywhere.

He’d been spotted masquerading as a monk, working as a butler, on a train in Denmark, wearing lederhosen in Merano, Italy, and enjoying a transgender sex party.

Hungarian-born author Ladislas Farago had written a book claiming that Bormann was living as a prosperous businessman in South America.

On behalf of the Express, Steven bought the book which it hailed as “incontrovertible evidence” that Bormann was alive.

The subsequent six-part series, it insisted, swept aside all speculation over his fate – “following a dramatic and sometimes dangerous nine-month search through six South American countries for the world’s most wanted and most elusive man”.

Stewart Steven

 

And there were the photographs of the man himself.

Or, as it turned out, photographs of an Argentinian teacher who had never set foot in the Fuhrerbunker in his life. Briefly, he was appointed one of the most villainous monsters in history.

Then the whole story fell apart and he went back to marking homework. Shortly afterwards, Bormann’s skull was found and identifi ed in Berlin.

Why was Steven duped? He was born in Germany and was a Jew, so it’s not surprising that he would like to see any stray Nazis rounded up.

He was also a cracking journalist, and, like all of us, suffered from chronic hope.

BRITISH LEYLAND SLUSH FUND EXPOSED

I once heard a Manchester news editor – imagine a less-feminine Bernard Manning – say there were two types of reporters: stander-uppers, who were strongly disposed to make every story work; and knockerdowners, who could demolish a story without picking up a telephone.

Quite unfairly, it’s the stander-uppers who get into trouble.

And Stewart Steven was a stander-upper. A great friend of David English, he moved over to the Mail where in 1977, as associate editor, he had a hand in breaking the story of the British Leyland “slush fund”.

This was a splendid scandal claiming that BL used the fund to pay backhanders to Arab and African customers – “a world-wide bribery web”.

Where it went wrong was that it was based on a letter from Don Ryder, chairman of the National Enterprise Board, apparently condoning this practice.

The snag? The snag was that the letter was forged. The Mail spent a fortune in buying the story and a further fortune in damages to Ryder.

It was that rare event – a lose-lose situation.

Honourably, Steven offered his resignation which David English refused to accept.

Probably just as well, because the story acquired a certain irony when a government investigation later showed that, despite the forged letter, it was perfectly true: bribes were paid.

About the same time, BP was also accused of a “slush fund” to bribe Italian politicians (as if such a thing were possible).

At that time, the BP press office regarded keeping their Fleet Street chums amused as a vital part of their function.

One of them, Matt Huber, issued a “bombshell statement” from their chairman admitting making payments to their staff. “We call them salaries”, it explained.

“But any suggestion that they were made to encourage employees to do a day’s work is just not borne out by the facts.”

GARTH GIBBS ON THE TRAIL OF LORD LUCAN

Ever since the New Testament, the story which all writers yearn for is the man who comes back from the dead.

Hacks just can’t resist a secular second coming. Bormann was a classic, of course, and anyone who can uncover Elvis and Hitler running a tea-shop in Harrogate , preferably without the qualifying “subs pls chk” would get a good show even now.

We like a good runaway too. And a runaway earl, with a murder conviction around his neck, is like a scared cat to a pack of hounds.

Lord Lucan, who took off in 1974, leaving his children’s nanny firmly dead, has since been responsible for most of Fleet Street’s sun-tans.

They chased him all over the world. Everywhere where you could find warm sun and a well-stocked wine-list, they went.

Yet wherever they went, they found only a curtain fl uttering in the breeze, a whiff of expensive cigar smoke, a cut-glass tumbler with a trace of Glenfiddich.

Garth Gibbs, (pictured above) the Mirror’s hot-shot columnist and reporter, was the Master of Foxhounds in this global hunt.

He failed. He failed in Cape Town, for three whole weeks. He failed in Macau. He failed in Hong Kong. He failed in Green Turtle Bay in the Bahamas.

If I remember correctly, he and snapper Kent Gavin came back from Cape Town with a photograph of a restaurant table at which Lord Lucan may well have been sitting shortly before the photograph was taken.

“Most of the tip-offs were loony,” Gibbs said before his death last year . “But I really believed in that one.”

“It was,” he said, “my most spectacular success in journalism.” How can a failure be such a stunning success?

He quoted the late John Junor: “Laddie, don’t ever shoot the fox. Once the fox is dead, there’s nothing left to chase.”

Gibbs always left the earl unfound. Future generations of hacks will praise his selflessness.

HITLER’S SECRET DIARIES ARE FOUND

Hitler, of course, has been seen several times.

I believe I’ve had him as my news editor at least twice. But the closest the hacks ever really got to him was – trumpets please – the Hitler Diaries.

A German journalist traced the diaries to a hayloft. Stern magazine paid nine million marks ($5m) for them. The Sunday Times paid $400,000 for the English serialisation rights.

They were on safe ground. One of the directors of The Times was Lord Dacre, an eminent British historian, who examined the diaries and said he was convinced they were genuine.

Days later he changed his mind. Tests proved that the paper, the glue and the ink were all too modern, and the text was full of historical inaccuracies and anachronisms.

Two men went to prison for fraud and forgery.

VILE! IRAQI TORTURE PICTURES REVEALED

Making a mistake on this sort of epic scale can be the ruin of a man. Who was that Mirror editor who used faked photos of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi? In the pictures, the soldiers were using rifles, trucks and equipment which weren’t available to soldiers in Iraq – a clue there, perhaps?

The editor was sacked. These days he’s a forgotten man. Can’t even remember his name. Spears Organ? Leers Horgan? Something like that. I wonder what happened to him.

NIGEL DEMPSTER’S £1,000 SAYS YOU’RE WRONG

Newspapers which are caught out cannot always rely on the loyal support of their rivals.

In 1993, Bridget Rowe, editor of The People, had a tip that Princess Anne, recently married to Tim Lawrence, was pregnant.

It ran the story. Nigel Dempster, (pictured above) the prince among gossip columnists, said it was rubbish and offered a £1,000 challenge that Rowe would be proved wrong.

If she is right – and who’s to say she’s not? – it will be the longest pregnancy on record.

EVERYONE’S A WINNER WITH THE SUN BINGO

In a retirement home in Oxfordshire, there is a man who donned a dunce’s cap to save his paper. How many of us can say that?

Mike Terry was a back-bench man on The Sun when bingo was introduced with a weekly prize of £50,000. One of his jobs was to check the numbers to ensure there was only one winner.

Somehow a small oversight meant they ended up with more than 1,000 winners, which is approximately 999 too many.

The hotline went into meltdown, readers besieged the Bouverie Street offices, and Mr Murdoch’s customary all-forgiving smile was said to be strained.

Terry, who was widely regarded as a wizard journalist and all-round gent, sprang to the rescue. He volunteered to be the Bingo Dunce. Posed in a dunce’s cap for a page one pic. Admitted it was his mistake.

The winning readers each got a paltry share of the jackpot, but Terry's cheery confession turned the disaster into an amusing episode.

Might I make a suggestion? If there’s bingo in his retirement home, it might be a kindness to leave Terry out.

And the cold cure? It consisted of a pile of pills – vitamin, aspirin, homeopathic, and (as I discovered later) laxatives – which I had to guzzle at the rate of a handful every few minutes.

That night, one way or another (there are only two, I think) I lost everything I’d

eaten for the past six months.

The next morning I was bouncing off the walls and seeing double. And I was still sneezing. No cure for the cold, and no statue for me on the Embankment.

Dangerous stuff, hope.

Colin Dunne’s account of his life in newspapers, Man Bites Talking Dog, (Revel Barker Publishing, £9.99) is available at booksellers and online from Amazon.

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