The news editor and I had just ordered a bottle of Frascati in the sunshine at a bar in Birmingham’s Brindley Place five minutes from the newsroom.
Then the message came through to Bernard Cole that Tony Harlow – a convicted gunman known as the “Laughing Cavalier” and serving four life sentences for firearms offences – wanted to talk to Central News. He was on the run.
Earlier in the day, police had appealed for the public to help find Harlow. We understand he walked out of Sudbury Open Prison in Staffordshire two months ago, but the police had waited until now to make an appeal.
Harlow was convicted in 1986 after a two-day shooting spree near his home on a Black Country housing estate. No one had been hurt.
Reporter Jonathan Ray was sent down to the notorious Wrens Nest Estate in Dudley to talk to locals.
I believe it was through one of those contacts that Harlow himself was made aware of our interest.
The caller to the newsdesk said: “He wants to tell his story to Central News.”
The call was welcome, of course, but this man had committed such a serious offence that he had been given four life sentences. So what to do? I had never come across this in my career. Neither had Bernard. I spoke to my boss, Laurie Upshon, Central’s controller of news and also to our lawyer Vanessa Bateup. All were fascinated but could not offer any concrete advice on what to do.
I checked the Independent Television Commission rules but they offered no help.
It became one of those thrilling moments being the editor. Yes or No? Of course, it was yes.
We decided that it was a genuine scoop. I also believe that, although journalists should not obstruct the police in their investigations, we cannot and should not be seen as agents of the police.
Jonathan was asked to drive to a local pub car park where he and cameraman Mark Scriven were met by a man in a parker coat with a scarf round his face. He got into the back of Jonathan’s car and said: “Drive.”
“We were taken round the estate at least twice and suitably disorientated,” says Jonathan. “Then we were asked to rush into a house where the front door was open, masking the house number. And behold, a life prisoner on the run, waiting for us, with a cuppa.”
The road signs on the estate have all been blacked out – to confuse the police and unintentionally the press.
No effort was made to disguise the surroundings – a tidy room with pretty pink border, dado rail and leather sofa.
“The Cavalier told us he’d be long gone before anyone identified the property and wouldn’t be back,” adds Jonathan.
As it happens, while Jonathan was talking to Harlow, another crew were interviewing the officer in charge of the hunt. The cameraman was not aware of the Harlow scoop and when Jonathan came back to package his story we decided not to include the officer’s comments about the manhunt because he would look stupid and we would look smug.
We revealed on our 5.30pm promo on ITV1 that we had the interview and then ran it on Central News at Six.
It was powerful television. With Harlow at its heart it also included other members of his family and we didn’t pull our punches.
Would he give himself up? No. He said: “I’m not armed. I ain’t here for revenge. I ain’t going to harm anybody.”
Moments after coming off air I took a call from a bemused West Midlands Police PR person who had been called by an officer watching the programme at home. Within an hour two officers turned up to our Gas Street studios to interview Jonathan.
We decided that he should be completely open.
“They reminded me of the seriousness of harbouring a known fugitive and that it carried a substantial sentence,” adds Jonathan.
We had considered this earlier in the day and were convinced it was not an issue. Nor were the ITC rules that ban payment of any kind to criminals.
The next day the Birmingham Evening Mail ran a story ridiculing the cops for missing Harlow while Central News took tea with him. The Daily Telegraph did the same a day later. Even BBC Radio WM pursued the story.
The morning after the story I was called by the likeable Steve Glover, the chief inspector in charge of the press office. He was, well, sanguine, and quite generous in praising our scoop. He made the official point that the police would have liked to have been told about Harlow. He accepted gracefully that I would not do so.
A few days later I had a debrief with Laurie. We decided it was welldone and legitimate journalism.
Especially as the BBC had done so badly with the story.
The Laughing Cavalier didn’t hurt anyone. The question I can’t answer is, would I have done the same if the criminal had been a rapist or killer?