Media machinations in Fleet Street's heyday

COMPETITION
WAS CUT-THROAT and the fight for the phone box all-encompassing when we
hunted in packs. For the Press Association, before mobiles and laptops
were invented, speed was of the essence, and sharp elbows didn’t always
prevail.

The Daily Express and the Daily Mail were the worst
culprits. As you picked up the handset, amid a rankling odour of urine,
you realised one of their number had unscrewed the mouthpiece and
removed its magnetic diaphragm to disable calls. They might even be
grinning at the door.

Experience taught you to reach into your
pocket and replace the missing artefact with one you kept for the
purpose, wiping the smile off their faces. In fact the Express and Mail
men would be inclined to offer to restore the handset themselves when
they recognised an agency reporter. It puzzled me at first when I was
constantly quizzed by them about whether I had filed or not. Then, they
confessed, newsdesks wouldn’t accept their copy until it was confirmed
on PA. Trust was not indigenous.

The Press Association was an ideal place from which to witness the machinations of the media.

Founded
by the provincial press, for 100 years it had been a prime news
service, first to regional and national newspapers, and later radio and
television.

The agency shared its handsome headquarters at 85
Fleet Street with Reuters, opposite the glass and marble emporium of
the Daily Express and the classical frontage of The Daily Telegraph.

On
the top floor, Philip Harben, famed as one of the first television
chefs, established the 85 Club in the staff canteen. Word that flambéd
steaks, poached gravadlax and delicate desserts were to be had amidst
white napery, at subsidised prices, passed round Fleet Street like a
newsflash. Familiar faces from the broadsheets and tabloids were
spotted masquerading as agency employees until the queues became
intolerable.

Offices had their favourite watering holes, usually closest to their own back door.

The
tavern favoured by the Telegraph and Express was known as the
Stab-in-the-Back, or simply The Stab. Newsdesks could readily recall
their journalists if the balloon went up. Hoax messages could also be
made from the pub phone, to rivals they were drinking with, if a hot
tip needed protecting.

Scotland Yard’s press office was at the backside of its old building on the Thames Embankment.

A dingy room, with green lino and civil service furniture, where Fleet Street’s crime correspondents congregated.

It came to be known as journalism’s chimney corner, where grizzled veterans were put out to grass.

Papers
had their own direct lines where reporters would field tips from
supposedly inside sources, which needed to be put to the Yard’s surly
press officers.

Ringing a bell beside an opaque window summoned a
spokesman to open it. Muttered exchanges took place, out of rival
earshot and, if necessary, the reporter would be guardedly admitted
behind a door to detail his requests. PA reporters,
jacks-of-all-trades, were rotated on Yard shifts. It was not a popular
duty. One resident crime correspondent would arrive mid-morning, still
wreathed from the previous evening’s excesses, take a pint beer mug
from his locker, half fill it with cider and top it with boiling water.

Downing
it in one, with a thunderous belch, he declaimed: “That’s breakfast
done!” He kept a knobkerrie handy to crash down on the table in
arguments with a colleague. They were all evicted onto the pavement by
police, on one occasion, when a fight broke out.

PA employed 240
journalists and photographers, 40 messengers, and hundreds of
communications and office staff. All reporters, recruited from regional
papers, required a verbatim note. Life could be frenetic with
round-the-clock frontline news. There was rarely time to write
considered prose. Reporters dictated stories straight from notes to
banks of copytakers. Pressure was such that one reporter resigned
within six weeks, saying he couldn’t take the stress.

For major
press conferences PA installed its own landlines and ‘phonists’
dictated reporters’ copy as they transcribed it. With one of PA’s most
eminent journalists, Noel Richley, I covered what was to become the
longest criminal trial of the century, the Great Train Robbery. Richley
kept his 14 notebooks, weighing almost 4lbs, as a souvenir.

Stories
were timed as they arrived, especially against those of the rival
agency, Exchange Telegraph. Considerable camaraderie existed between
the two agencies, and reporters would go into adjacent phone boxes and
lift handsets on cue from one another. But because Extel was infinitely
smaller, and their calls went direct to copytakers, they were often
minutes ahead of PA waiting for a switchboard to answer, and a
copytaker to become available.

Modernisation had its moments. A
functionally reliable method of dispatching copy across the newsroom,
to subs and telegraphists, was an overhead pulley and cylinder system,
once familiar in department stores. Time and motion technicians
replaced it with a complicated continuous travelator, on which folded
pages of stories could be delivered.

Weeks later, urgent rushes
and snaps were discovered jammed in the ceiling, and odd corners of the
newsroom. One of the time and motion men had a breakdown.

Many of
the agency’s staff served their careers with PA, but the Press
Association was not the place if you wanted your name in print. Its
reporters remained anonymous. It could be engaging, and galling, to see
your words splashed across numerous papers with other people’s bylines
above them. But it could also be irritating to stand beside a
well-known journalist dictating a brief intro he had just written,
followed by the words “take in PA” before putting the phone down and
returning to the bar.

The Press Association was respected above
all for its reliability and accuracy. Sir Winston Churchill was one of
its greatest admirers. During the war he habitually phoned the newsdesk
with the gruff enquiry: “What’s happening in the news tonight?”

Among
its former reporters who emerged from anonymity were Michael Sullivan,
who became a special correspondent for BBC television news; Christopher
Warman of The Times; Chris Moncrief who became a Daily Mirror
columnist; and Colin Webb, who edited the Cambridge Evening News, was a
deputy editor of The Times and returned to PA as its chief executive.

Press
Gazette emerged in l965 to chronicle an era of presses still thundering
in Fleet Street, venal print unions, supine newspaper managements,
prodigious drinking, colourful characters and seedy glamour.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

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