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Take Five: John Marquis

Each week HTFP asks a leading regional press figure five set questions about their career – including how it started, their best story or headline, and which other journalists and publications they most admire.

This week: John Marquis, left, former editor of The Tribune, Bahamas, and the Falmouth Packet.

If you would like to take part in the series, email us on editor.htfp@and.co.uk.

What was your first job in journalism?

I began as a cub reporter on the Northampton Chronicle and Echo in 1961 when the editor was John Barrons. The paper gave me a superb training and I still regard it with great affection. I also contributed to its sister weekly, the Mercury and Herald, and a monthly glossy, the Northampton Town and County Independent, so my grounding was wide-ranging and very thorough.

After four years I moved to the Nottingham Evening Post, where I honed my reporting skills for two years before doing my first stint in the Bahamas as political reporter on the two principal dailies, The Nassau Guardian and The Tribune.

During my three years in Nassau, I also wrote for Reuters and two other international agencies. It was good to see my bylined features in major newspapers all over the world. When I returned to Britain, I worked on Reuters’ World Desk in Fleet Street after serving as the agency’s Bahamas correspondent for two years. But I credit the dear old ‘Chron’ for laying the foundation for everything I did in those early years.

Who or what inspired you to go into journalism?

A television series called ‘Deadline Midnight’, all about journalists, was launched in 1960 when I was 16 years old. After the first episode I told my parents: ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ From that day forth, I was determined to become a journalist. I always regarded it as a magical profession. I wrote to every newspaper in my home county, Leicestershire, and eventually got an interview with Ken Thompson, editor of the Coalville Times. He recommended me to Mr Barrons. It was the beginning of a very satisfying career lasting half a century.

When I set out, I had no inkling I’d end up as a newspaper editor in the Bahamas, an international sports writer and a prize-winning investigative reporter. In fact, the first six months at the Chronicle were murder. I was convinced that everyone at the paper thought I was rubbish.

The paper had an irascible but very likeable chief sub called Stanley Worker. I remember him rolling a piece of my copy into a ball, chucking it my chest and yelling: ‘Don’t ever turn in rubbish like that again!’You tend to learn very quickly when there are people like old Stan around.

There were several other fine journalists on the paper at that time, Derrick Holden, Gordon Harmer and Alan Ford among them. I watched them closely, learned from their example, and gradually shaped up as a journalist. But there were times during that first year when I wondered whether I’d make it. Fortunately for me, the Independent’s editor Lou Warwick, a well-known theatre historian, felt I had a future and told me so. I owed him a lot.

What would you rate as your best story, headline or picture?

During seven years as TRN’s London sports editor and chief boxing writer, I covered several Muhammad Ali fights, so they must come near the top of the list. I travelled the world in pursuit of the greatest sportsman of all time, tracking him from Las Vegas to Kuala Lumpur, New York to New Orleans, Munich to London. Like all other boxing writers of the day, I was spellbound by his ability and personality.

I also won a British Press Award for a hard-hitting hospital investigation, which gave me great satisfaction. It was great sitting alongside renowned award-winners like Bernard Levin and Ian Wooldridge, who were truly big names at the time, at the ceremony at the Café Royal. I also received a congratulatory hug from a cigar-chomping Hugh Cudlipp, the legendary boss of the Mirror group.

During my first stint in the Bahamas, I managed to get an interview with Haiti’s fearsome president, Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, the most brutal tyrant of his day, inside his study at the National Palace. I rated that quite a coup as well.

But the best story came while the Bahamas government was trying to deport me in 2006 when I was managing editor of the country’s leading daily, The Tribune. I published front-page pictures of the immigration minister on a bed embracing American starlet Anna Nicole Smith. He was forced to resign (though he denied wrongdoing) and the government fell at the polls a few months later. A local commentator said: ‘The government tried to get rid of Marquis. But Marquis got rid of the government instead.’ Stories don’t come much better than that.

Who would you rate as the best journalist you have worked either with or for?

Sir Etienne Dupuch, the fearless publisher of The Tribune for 53 years, was my mentor in the 1960s when I was a very young political reporter in the Bahamas. I rated him very highly. I also had great regard for his daughter, Eileen Dupuch Carron, who continues to work as publisher of The Tribune today at the age of 81, having succeeded her father in 1972.

In the UK, the boss I respected most was Alastair Stuart, TRN’s chief London editor and later launch editor of Scotland on Sunday. He taught me a lot about management and was a very able, astute and charming man. He promoted me to TRN group sports editor from the London news desk, a huge risk at the time.

I recall him telling me: ‘On the face of it, it’s a major gamble to give the biggest sports job in the company to someone who isn’t even a sports journalist. But I’m not a gambling man.’ Many times over my years in management, I’ve wondered whether I would have had the guts to make the same decision. I’m so glad it worked out, for his sake as well as mine.

Of all the excellent reporters I’ve worked with in the provinces, Fleet Street and overseas, the one that sticks in my memory is Alf Jackson of the Nottingham Evening Post. He was incredibly competent. I felt like a galumphing amateur when I was working alongside him.

Apart from your own title, which other newspapers do you most admire?

I have always rated the Western Morning News very highly. I regard its Saturday edition as the best read of the week. I also think the Press and Journal at Aberdeen is an excellent paper with a true feel for its market. Among weeklies, the West Briton in Cornwall takes some beating. For sheer curiosity value, it has to be the Cornish and Devon Post at Launceston, which still carries ads all over its front page and has a distinctly Victorian look about it. But the readers love it, which is all that counts.

  • John Marquis was managing editor of The Tribune, Bahamas, 1999-2009 and previously editor/publisher of the Falmouth Packet and associated titles from 1985-1999. He was also London sports editor and chief boxing correspondent of Thomson Regional Newspapers from 1975-81.

5 comments

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  • October 11, 2011 at 11:00 am
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    Great piece, really interesting – I’d much, much, much rather read more stuff from people like John than the ever-present self-publicist Peter Barron.

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  • October 11, 2011 at 11:07 am
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    Great to find someone else who remembers the brilliant Alf Jackson – by the time his path crossed with mine he was assistant editor on the Mansfield Chad and I was a trainee reporter. Alf passed away about 10 years ago I think but it’s nice to see this superb newsman remembered on this site.

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  • October 17, 2011 at 11:05 am
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    I worked on the Chronicle and Echo from 1966-73 and endorse everything John Marquis says about Messrs Holden, Ford and Harmer. I never came across three better journalists in 30-dd years on Fleet Street.

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  • October 19, 2011 at 3:07 pm
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    I worked with John 30 years ago. Whenever I read about ‘Halls of Fame’ and ‘Britain’s Top 50′ I always ask myself: ‘That’s all very well, but how would they compare with John M?’ Terrific operator.

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