The author of new book Mail Men describes how Daily Mail was hit by a scandal that today might be described as “fake news” under the reign of editor David English:
London-based Mailman James Gibbins arrived in America in the early summer of 1978 and soon found a brilliant tale that [Daily Mail founder] Sunny Harmsworth would have adored: a hat story.
There were beggars outside the White House and Gibbins wrote that “every one who approached me hand out-stretched, was wearing a bowler hat”.
The hats had been given by a city draper to a welfare organisation, he explained, who later gave them away “to bring dignity in head gear to the city”.
It must have been fascinating to see destitute men who slept in doorways begging for change in black bowlers beloved by English City gents – and these sartorially elegant vagrants would have made a fantastic photo but, unfortunately, there wasn’t a picture.
Another Gibbins scoop soon followed. The Secret Service was on the lookout for a potential “gatecrasher” at a NATO summit – disgraced former President Richard Nixon.
It was a great story, and the other British hacks in the US were immediately harangued by their foreign editors back in Fleet Street; how the hell could they miss such a story?
Gibbins even got a front-page splash out of the Nixon-free, he never did appear, NATO summit: “Jim Callaghan emerged last night in the unlikely role of the new Iron Man of the NATO alliance.” Gibbins was proving to be a better hack in the States even than his famous editor.
He came up with another cracker about President Jimmy Carter, stating that he was a wreck, had backache and migraines and couldn’t eat or sleep. The First Lady, Rosalynn, “she of the beguiling smile”, was according to Gibbins “increasingly regarded by Washington insiders, men and women who have studied the shifts and nuances of supreme power for decades, as the de facto President”.
Something had to be done. This was an emergency for the Democrats with an election just over the hill – “clinical injections had failed” and “three top psychologists, and any number of sociologists and demographers” advised Carter to take drastic action.
There could, of course, be but one solution, the President had no choice – he had to grow a beard.
“Image-makers hired to fathom how Jimmy Carter can grow ‘giant-sized’ with a public that views him as a presidential pygmy”, wrote Gibbins in June 1978, alongside a sketch of a bearded Carter, “have decided that one-inch can do the trick – a tuft of beard. Just enough to convince Americans and the world that there are shades of the wisdom of Abe Lincoln here.”
Gibbins wrote that Carter at first snarled “Are you crazy?” when told of the idea and “other equally bizarre face-savers”, but was “trying it on” with close friends and “may well” even have discussed it over breakfast with British Prime Minister Callaghan.
Maybe Jimmy and Jim did in fact discuss beards over bacon and eggs, but the other hacks in America had had quite enough of James Gibbins and his ‘scoops’. White House bums in bowlers? The President growing a beard?
An American reporter named Jim Srodes wrote it all up for the Washington Post.
Srodes unpicked a dozen Gibbins stories under the headline “The Faker of Fleet Street – the tale of a foreign correspondent who went too far in inventing stories”.
In a letter published in Press Gazette Gibbins responded: “I wish to announce formally that I am not the Faker of Fleet Street…
“I decided to roll up my sleeves rather than rest my elbows on the bar counter of the Press Club. Journalism by handout wasn’t for me. A bad mistake, I now see.
“I knew I was rocking the boat, of course – it never occurred to me that the other occupants would throw me overboard and leave me to drown.”
‘Extracted from Mail Men The Unauthorized Story of the Daily Mail – The Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison published by Atlantic Books at £20.00.’
Jimmy Carter pictured in 1989, credit: Reuters