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.
What was your first job in journalism?
Aged 14, I submitted overly long articles for The Cut, an A4 photocopied, stapled together community newsletter on the local council estate in south Birmingham. ‘How high-rise blocks are depressing for teenage mums’ was my portentous first attempt, which the editor (who lived on a 12th floor) kindly published. What she really wanted was short poems, but I was hooked. I worked placements on the Evening Mail, Lancaster Guardian and Express & Star during University holidays, and from the second visit Mail news editor Tony Dickens paid me lineage for my own stories. But my first real job was after NCTJ-training at Caters News Agency in Birmingham in 1991, then co-owned by the late, legendary Roger Blyth. In the first month he told me off for not claiming expenses. “But I’ve not spent any,” I foolishly protested, before being scolded: “What about the custody sergeant at Magistrates? The last time we bought him a beer, he tipped us on the double-decker bus flasher appearing in court.” I got the idea. Roger didn’t believe in quiet days, and if they were dawning he’d send reporters to Magistrates or Coroner’s court for the day, growling “if you can’t find a story there then you’re not worth employing”. He was right. Countless page leads sold to the nationals came from sitting alone on cold reporters’ benches waiting for a gem to turn up. One of my tales was headlined ‘Oh, what a lovely pair of coconuts’ by The Sun, telling how a bus driver was sacked for singing that ditty when a busty student climbed aboard. Agency work was deep-end stuff, and I learned fast on stories like the Stephanie Slater kidnap case alongside national staffers like Rod Chaytor, Bill Daniels, Martin Stote and Rob Perkins.
Who or what inspired you to go into journalism?
I was impressed at the evening paper as a child and how you could read in black and white what had happened earlier that day. I was fascinated by coverage of The Falklands War, and by the late Brian Hanrahan’s classic BBC lines: “‘I am not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back.” My school pal – and Best Man – Mike Hobson was the son of a soap pundit, Dorothy Hobson, and as TV writing became popular tabloids would commission her to quickly knock out 500 words on the likes of ‘Why women love watching snooker’ and I loved the buzz that created. I decided that I wanted to write about people and Dorothy and my A-level English teacher Alison McKenzie were both massively encouraging.
What would you rate as your best story, headline or picture?
As the Evening Mail’s industrial correspondent in December 1994, I was handed a pay slip in a brown paper envelope. It showed how Bryan Townsend, then chairman of Midlands Electricity, had retired for a day to trigger a £125,000 pension on top of his £165,000 pay. It took a lot of standing up over Christmas, but we splashed on it on 5 January 1995. The Evening Mail headline was a straight ‘Power chief in pay row’, with the underline ‘MEB boss is also drawing his pension’. With ‘fat cat’ pay being the big controversy at the time it made every national newspaper the next day. I cherished the splash headline in Today: ‘THE FATTEST CAT OF ALL’. The most memorable headline came from an inquiry into an unseemly row between Middlesbrough Mayor Ray Mallon and a tough councillor when I edited the Evening Gazette. Using qualified privilege from the official report on the names they allegedly called each other, we ran the strap ‘The amazing tale of…’ above the huge headline ‘THE ‘BENT COPPER’ AND THE ‘DODGY DOCKER”. Was I right to go with this? I’m not sure in retrospect, as despite his hard-nosed, at times unorthodox policing, ex-cop Mallon was never corrupt. But it was an unforgettable headline. And bizarrely, once the shouting was over, the result was a solid, two-sided relationship with Mallon that has lasted ever since.
Who would you rate as the best journalist you have worked either with or for?
Too many to mention, but I’ll try. The late Tony Dumphy, an inspirational chief sub on the Evening Gazette: “C’mon, c’mon, press the button,” he’d gently but insistently chide the desk on deadline. Then: “Pressure, what do you mean pressure? Pressure makes diamonds.” Dumph had a skilled charm that enthralled everyone from trainees to his editor. Ian Dowell, my mentor when he edited the Evening Mail, loved fighting for his papers, memorably rowing on air with Aston Villa’s Doug Ellis when the latter launched a short-lived Sunday newspaper: “Play newspapers on my pitch, and I’ll run off with your balls.” But the best all-round journalist I ever had the privilege to work with was Fred Norris – theatre critic, colour writer and real story-getter on the Evening Mail from the 1940s until the early 2000s. He once ‘owned’ the corner of a Brummie pub and its coinbox phone where everyone from top cops, Home Office pathologists and actors would visit to give him headlines over G&Ts (mornings) and real ale (afternoons). He’d start before 7am in the office every day to clatter out the resulting tales, but would be in his ‘office’ for the then opening time of 10.30am. He founded the 10.31 club – with ties – well before my time.
Apart from your own title, which regional or national newspaper do you most admire and why?
It might not surprise you that I like various local and regional newspapers for many different reasons. And I love discovering new ones that so often show me something novel. My current favourites include the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald for its prose by Preston Witts, the West Briton for its sheer story count and the Bath Chronicle for its vision and success at becoming better by changing from a small daily to a much bigger weekly. The Northern Echo, Yorkshire Post and Aberdeen Press & Journal are still all great, well-led daily papers. There’s a lot I don’t like about the nationals, but I love The Sun’s tight writing and headline skills, and The Guardian for sticking with the brilliant Nick Davies. On holidays, I’ve always admired French regional Sud-Oeust for its relentless local detail and its ownership structure: 80% family-owned, 10% owned by journalists and 10% by other staff. What a model!