Hugh Muir on Tom Duncan

I knew Tom Duncan as a man of few words and those he shared with us were invariably chilling.

iciest moment would be saved for Tuesday night as the final deadlines
for the Newham Recorder approached, with everyone believing the
elements were in place. “Well,” he would say, tossing aside the copy
earmarked for the front page and sucking on a cigar, “it looks as if we don’t have a splash.”

He would then raise his feet on to his desk and fix the reporters with a glare like a searchlight.

A silence would fall, broken only as reporters began rifling through their contacts books, hoping for inspiration.

stalemate could last for hours. In a desperate attempt to end it, we
would fire off anguished calls to contacts, friends, mere
acquaintances. We would make promises, issue threats, call in favours,
until someone produced a tip or revelation worthy of a front-page lead.
When it came, the editor would ponder, puff slowly on his cigar and nod
assent. The crisis would be over. For a week at least.

He is now
a columnist on the paper and the cigars are gone, but during the 30
years he edited it, Tom produced one of the best local newspapers in
the country. The East End of London was then, as now, fertile ground
for crime, politics and social issues and the paper was revered by the
borough’s traditional communities. Tom knew just how they thought. An
east Londoner, an ardent West Ham United fan, those were his origins

When left-leaning councillors declared they would not attend
the royal opening of West Ham Town Hall, Tom interpreted their views in
a splash with the headline “Get lost Your Majesty”. The furore
continued for weeks, culminating in a mass demonstration against those
who had the temerity to threaten a boycott.

He was rarely bested
in argument but on those occasions he would always have the final word.
“What you forget is I am the editor,” he would say. “Even when I’m
wrong, I’m right.”

Tom was an autocrat who took with him to East
Ham the experience of having worked on the Daily Sketch. He demanded
commitment and loyalty.

Anyone caught selling a story or
providing contacts to other outlets faced the sack. There must have
been something in that approach because those who chose to moved
relatively easily to successful careers in national papers, in
magazines, TV and radio.

As I considered leaving the Recorder in
1987, I voiced doubts to a former colleague who was by then on the
Daily Mail about my chances of surviving on the nationals. “You must be
joking,” he said. “After Tom and the Recorder, this is a piece of cake.”

And in many ways he was right.

Hugh Muir is a senior reporter on The Guardian

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