Nick Paton Walsh on John Mulholland

I had
a pretty unlikely and fortuitous start on Fleet Street, which I oweto
the generosity of John Mulholland, now deputy editor of The Observer.
When, as a student, I wangled work experience at G2, I sat opposite
Mulholland, then media editor, a dynamic, honest and popular part of
the department. When he became The Observer’s new deputy editor, he
rang to offer me some work.

The previous Observer editor, Will
Hutton, had hatched a massive project with Channel 4 called Power 300,
which, like some other things at the paper, had sat in limbo for
months. It took 20 17-hour days to research a series of tiny fact boxes
about 300 of Britain’s most powerful – and easily upset – people. Fifty
pints of coffee later, the fact it even made the printers on deadline
was a small triumph.

Most of my new colleagues were a little
outraged by my arrival – I was the first new face in a recently purged
office, and, at 21, was about 10 years their junior with no real
experience, or journalistic skills for that matter, to speak of. An
impervious power to irritate soon became one of my greatest assets.
Mulholland was to launch a new tabloid travel section, Escape, to be
headed by the travel editor, the revered Desmond Balmer. I was to be
Balmer’s researcher.

Mulholland and Balmer never quite gelled. I
also became a considerable annoyance to Balmer. For him it was like
having someone else’s hyperactive fox-terrier in your kitchen. At first
I feared this might get me sacked, yet, in retrospect, it appears the
opposite may have been true. Balmer eventually left to edit the Good
Hotel Guide.

I harboured ambitions to write something more
challenging than a 300-word box on avoiding pick-pockets in Rio de
Janeiro, but lacked experience.

A colleague, Euan Ferguson, once
astutely joked, during a fire drill, that the alarms had in fact been
triggered by my touching a keyboard.

The managing editor, John
Duncan, suggested I take a year out to learn basics like news writing.
Anxious to avoid this, I grabbed a CNN video of child deformities in an
obscure part of Kazakhstan. The 50th anniversary of the first Soviet
nuclear test there fell on a Sunday, a month away. I convinced a US
Christian charity involved there to pay the air fares for me and the
distinguished photographer John Reardon, and Mulholland agreed to give
me yet another break. I followed Reardon around Semipalatansk for 10
days, him letting me know, rightly, that I was an “elaborate fixer” for
his photo essay.

The 6,000-word piece and photos became the front
cover of Life magazine. Mulholland appeared a little amazed, perhaps a
little vindicated, that I had turned out to have real journalistic use,
yet with typical generosity, entered the piece for Press Gazette’s
Young Journalist of the Year award in 2000. I won, talk of further
training bizarrely evaporated, and I became the dogsbody reporter in
the school of hard knocks that was Andy Malone’s newsroom. Two years
later, a little concussed but wiser, I took voluntary redundancy to
freelance in Moscow.

Nick Paton Walsh, Moscow correspondent, The Guardian

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