It was almost the scoop that never was.
After two months’ work on the heist of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs from Rio, The Sun faced the prospect that one of its best exclusives had leaked.
Features executive Chris Stevens was on the golf course a week last Monday when a fellow player, in the media but not from a rival paper, remarked casually: "Is it true The Sun is planning a mission to bring Ronnie Biggs back to Britain?" Stevens knew nothing of the operation and replied: "Absolute rubbish."
But when he related the tale at 5pm next day to assistant editor (news) Graham Dudman, whose baby the Biggs repatriation was, he blanched.
Dudman told Press Gazette: "The cat was out of the bag and I knew the planes to Rio left at 10pm."
He scrambled Midlands correspondent John Askill – unlikely to be missed from the office and the man who had brought Ronnie Knight back from Spain – and photographer Harry Page (who didn’t even know where he was going until he got to the airport) onto the late flight to join the Sun team with Biggs in Brazil.
With a private plane hired for the journey home on a predetermined landing-slot schedule, everything now depended on getting Biggs an emergency passport to return to the UK.
It was the second time the scoop looked likely to go pear-shaped.
"There were some very hairy moments," conceded editor David Yelland, whose direct telephone call to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on Thursday at last got the passport process moving.
"Every member of the team in Rio and London played their part brilliantly. Graham Dudman was an absolutely brilliant leader. To pull this off without any of the opposition in Brazil or London getting a sniff is quite an achievement.
"We will never know if we could have pulled it off without Robin Cook’s involvement. We had to know whether to take off before we got the passport and we didn’t get the passport approved for three hours – the plane was well on its way to Cape Verde by then. When you book a private plane, you book a timetable and you stick to that. If the passport had been refused we would have wasted the money. If we had delayed, we would have lost the momentum. If I had hair, it would have fallen out."
But it couldn’t have been a better-timed story for the paper. Owner Rupert Murdoch and son Lachlan were in London to take a 16-strong senior team from the paper out to dinner on Thursday night.
The Sun’s video footage of Biggs’ arrival at Northolt has been sold worldwide and there have been two approaches from Hollywood to make a film of his return.
"I don’t think any other news organisation could have done it; they wouldn’t have the quality of people we’ve got," said Yelland. "It wasn’t just a reporting team – those guys were not just reporters, they were operators, people who get things done. And it wasn’t just them, it was the newsdesk and the back bench. Some of our layouts were impressive."
The arrival was a moving moment for the journalists, who were met off the plane by Yelland and Dudman. Yelland said: "John Askill was saying it was the best day of his career. And when they walked back into the office it was a great moment. Graham was quite emotional. He will always be the man who brought back Ronnie Biggs."
by Jean Morgan