How a cultural revolution came to Camden Town

 

 
Following
a bitter two-year strike at the Camden Journal, Eric Gordon launched
the Camden New Journal in 1982. The former prisoner of Mao's China
tells Sarah Lagan why his free paper is now an award-winner
 
SERVING TIME
to defend their newspaper is something few editors might be prepared to
risk, but the Camden New Journal's Eric Gordon freely admits that he
would do it.

"I'd stick my neck out and go to jail, especially if it was over
contempt of court. Newspapers should be willing to do this if there's a
justification," he says.

"Contempt often turns on an issue of
politics or law which is open to interpretation. You don't want to
identify kids but there are times when the law is far too protective of
institutions and that gets my goat."

This attitude was reflected
in the judges' comments when the CNJ recently picked up Press Gazette's
free newspaper of the year award for the second time. They praised how
the paper kept its "huge local council on its toes with exclusive after
exclusive".

"Being so close to Westminster and Whitehall, Camden
is often the first port of call for the Government to fly its ideas. We
get Government ministers having a pop at us, which is unusual for a
local paper," says Gordon.

The CNJ was recently blasted by former
housing minister Keith Hill, who believed it had turned the opinion of
local tenants against the Government's flagship policy of transferring
control of some council homes to a housing corporations. The move was
widely regarded as part of a wider plan to privatise social housing,
and in a ballot of tenants and leaseholders, 77 per cent voted against
it.

The paper's "dramatically and simplistically unconstrained
voice" relentlessly turns on Camden Council, so much so that its former
chief executive, Steve Bundred, banned the paper from its offices.

Gordon
is not overly enamoured of councillors or MPs. "They have a low
intellectual level and I don't mean that snobbishly. MPs are all chosen
by parties, not really by the people. I suppose I have rather an
anarchistic view."

From its launch as the Camden & Kentish
Town Gazette in the 1880s, the paper has always had a bolshie attitude.
The Gazette's first editor was thrown in prison for a story he ran
associating the Royal Family with the Jack the Ripper killings. Until
fairly recently the Camden New Journal carried the same slogan it had
back then: "Open to all, coerced by none."

These aren't empty
words - although Gordon hasn't yet served a sentence for the CNJ, he
spent two years protesting his innocence in China in 1967. While
living there with his wife and son, he was put under house arrest for
two years over what he describes as an act of "gross stupidity and
total irresponsibility".

He'd been making notes about Chairman
Mao with the intention of writing a book and was caught trying to
smuggle them out of the country.

As a result, the Chinese authorities accused him of being a spy.

"Politically
speaking they found my notes offensive," he says. "Although I was,
in fact, fundamentally sympathetic and supportive of Mao I thought he
was being treated as an emperor, which offended them. I had a lot of
pictures as I'd taken part in the whole Cultural Revolution and had
been working in a commune. I was endlessly interrogated by the Peking
Security Bureau, which is the equivalent of the MI5 and Special Branch
all piled together. I was in a state of shock, guilt and also fear
about what my parents would think.

"I didn't see my wife or my
boy for months. We had been thinking of getting my son to escape. He
was a lovely, handsome boy so we dressed him up as a woman and were
training him to escape to the British Embassy."

Championing the underdog

In October 1969 his interrogators convinced him to sign a statement admitting he had behaved like a spy.

"It's an age-old totalitarian way of making someone feel guilty.
After I signed it they read out this document saying I'd slandered Mao.
I thought I was going to be sentenced but they said I could be
deported. I came back a bag of nerves."

He was given the money he
would have earned had he been working and some years later was later
was even invited back for a tour of China.

"I went out there as I
was romantically a Maoist who believed China was forming a government
that was better than the Soviet Union's," says Gordon, who eventually
did write his book, Freedom is a Word, chronicling his experiences.

On
his return to Britain, he continued to champion the underdog and became
a union activist when the paper he worked on, the Camden Journal,
threatened to sack a tea lady. As a member of the NUJ's National
Executive Council, he served on its race committee and the committee
governing all of London's chapels.

Then in 1980 he found himself
defending the Camden Journal when its owner, Stanley Clarke, closed it
- prompting a two-year strike.

The strikers managed to get the
renamed Save the Camden Journal out from an office donated to them by
Camden Council. Campaigning journalist Paul Foot joined their protest
marches, as did Holborn's Labour MP, Frank Dobson, and Lord Jock
Stallard, a former leader of Camden Council and Labour MP for St
Pancras North.

But just before Christmas 1982, the fight to save
the Camden Journal was lost. One of the nine strikers wrote in the
Socialist Review that they were "militants victimised for trade union
activity", and that "lack of solidarity from print union leaders... led
the dispute to an unsatisfactory conclusion of binding arbitration".

Instinct for commerce

Gordon and a number of his colleagues bought the paper for an
incredible £1 and renamed it the Camden New Journal under New Journal
Enterprises.

The struggling paper, which had a circulation of 7,000, was
relaunched on two loans, amounting to £100,000. These were paid off
within two years.

When their business partner Frank Branston -
who founded the free Bedfordshire on Sunday and is now mayor of Bedford
- backed out after a few months, Gordon was left to edit and run the
commercial side of the paper with a "half-bevvied instinct for
commerce". He brought the distribution in-house to "be close to the
problem" and would circulate copies himself around Camden's market and
pubs. Today the paper survives on a 50/50 editorial to advertising
ratio which he says is unique for a free paper. It doesn't make the
paper the most lucrative venture and Gordon concedes: "You won't get
rich and retire on the proceeds."

Now boasting a distribution of
50,496 - around 45 per cent of Camden's newspaper readers - the CNJ was
one of the first free newspapers in this country to use American-style
dispensers rather than be delivered to people's homes.

One of Gordon's editorial priorities was to open up the letters pages and encourage free and fierce debate.

"My attitude to letters is catholic and libertarian, I am a socialist and a Marxist," he explains.

"Everyone
should have a say and slag off anyone, aslong as it is not libellous or
defamatory. People in the Tory party know that our news is unbiased,
Camden Council is Labour and we constantly criticise them. The only
subjective bias would be in features or comment."

The letters
page is as lively now as it ever was, with at least three pages
dedicated to its readers - from council tenants in the south of the
borough to the highbrow homeowners of Hampstead.

Camden has a
large number of famous residents: former Labour leader Michael Foot and
writer Alan Bennett live in the borough, as well as stars like Ewan
McGregor, and Jude Law and Sadie Frost when they were together. But
Gordon doesn't go in much for celebrity stories. "I'm a funny animal,
really. I'mnot enamoured of tabloid and celebrity journalism.

We have it to some extent but the gut feeling is you sell the paper on parochial news and anything to do with young people."

It's
a fun paper, though quite highbrow, with reputable journalists and
contributors. Books editor Iltyd Harrington was deputy leader of the
Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone, and the Observer and Mail
cartoonist Trog has contributed. Other contributors have included
Michael Foot and John Pilger, and some journalists have found it
difficult to leave - indeed, news editor Dan Carrier returned to the
Journal after working for the Evening Standard and the Daily Mirror.

Gordon
says that, leaving aside the 'quality'nationals, the CNJ is most like
the Daily Mail - a paper whose politics he violently dislikes.

"It
dares to speak out," he says. "We often copy it and say 'to hell with
it, lets just write it,' and there is a strong female focus."

Benevolent dictatorship

The CNJ is a hands-on campaigning paper, and Gordon talks with glee
about when it helped to save the University College London Hospital
when it was threatened with closure when John Major was in power.

"I had the idea, being a bit daft, to hire an open top bus. We got
Richard Wilson (Victor Meldrew in One Foot In The Grave), Frank Dobson
and other MPs with loudspeakers and parked it in Camden High Street. We
had thousands of signatures on the petition. It must have helped
because they did back down. That's the campaign where we really
achieved something."

The CNJ's business model was launched under
the doctrine of the 1901 co-operative movement of collective decision
making, both financially and editorially.

But Gordon admits the
paper has subsequently developed into a "benevolent dictatorship". Had
this not happened, Gordon says, "I realised we would become extinct."

He
sees a bright future ahead. "We've really reached a peak in Camden and
in true capitalist fashion we have to expand and diversify."

With
the New Journal Enterprises paper, the Islington Tribune, playing its
part in forcing Archant's High&I out of production, and the West
End Extra moving onwards and upwards, these are not bad days for a
business that was nearly brought to its knees more than 20 years ago.

Camden New Journal alumni

'THERE'S NO PAPER LIKE IT'

Howard Hannah, production
editor of The Times Educational Supplement, was deputy editor on the
Camden Journal before its closure in 1980 and became a "general
dogsbody" on the CNJ. He recalls: "In the early days, as a bunch of
journalists, we were complete amateurs as far as the business side was
concerned. So we had to fly by the seat of our pants. Most Thursdays we
didn't know whether there would be enough money in the bank to cover
the staff's wages. We would be dispatched to put the squeeze on
advertisers who hadn't paid up. It was a bit like chasing a story."

Jean Grey was a young health
reporter who joined the strike to save the Camden Journal. She now
edits the Nursing Standard. She says: "We believed closing the Journal
was a political act - we were very true to the community and the owners
saw us as lefties. Eric had supported Camden's Labour candidate, which
he did because he was a local tenant and Eric's a champion of local,
working class tenants. Camden Council is Labour and he's still the
thorn in its side. He was a hard taskmaster but from him I learnt
doggedness."

Bibi van der Zee
joined the paper for a year in 1995 and now writes for The Guardian.
She says: "I got an interview because Eric liked my surname. I really
liked the place. It was small and buzzy, everyone was smoking and the
drinking was hardcore. Eric would curse us all for being useless and
change the front page two hours before going to press. He made me cry
every week. He had an unerring ability: if you left out a tiny detail
you weren't sure about he'd notice and shout: "Where is it?"

Martin Newman,
now deputy night news editor at the Mirror, worked on sister paper the
West End Extra and the CNJ from 1997. He recalls: "It was a good little
place but people worked very hard. You didn't care about the hours or
pay. It wasn't fair in terms of what Eric paid but he had a lot of
enthusiasm."

Theo Blackwell is deputy leader at Camden Council. "We
are one of the most socially polarised areas and the CNJ reflects
that," he says. "There is no paper like it in London in that it's a
freesheet that presents such a challenge to the council. The criticism
one could have about it is, it often creates smoke when there is no
fire.

It is often quick to damn and slow to praise."

Gerald Isaaman
edited the Ham&High until his retirement in 1994. He said:
"Continuity stays with the editor and Eric is obsessive like I am. It's
his life. The paper has a passion. It may go over the top sometimes and
not give a balanced view but often there are five sides to a story and
sometimes you have to decide what the story is."

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