Michael Crick and Martin Rosenbaum reveal the lengths to which some people will go to record their names in Britain’s foremost work of biographical reference
One of Britain’s most secretive and mysterious intelligence-gathering operations is based inside a small, nondescript office block in St Anne’s Court, a short passageway in Soho. The predominantly female staff who work at the heart of the establishment try to remain entirely anonymous. There is no nameplate to indicate what is done on the second floor of this building, and those inside are deeply reluctant to talk about what they do. They collect personal data on tens of thousands of prominent individuals, but the questionnaires they distribute give only a return address, with no mention of any individual behind the operation.
These are the editorial staff of Who’s Who, the famous red book which supposedly lists the country’s movers and shakers, the great and the good. Yet Who’s Who is more than a mere reference work; it’s an institution. These shadowy figures taking decisions about who’s made it in life and who hasn’t are the secret gatekeepers to the roll-call of the British Establishment.
Like most journalists, we use Who’s Who frequently — to track people down, check on what they’ve done, or even to confirm if someone’s still alive. But there are nagging questions about its choice of biographees, the process by which it is compiled and its accuracy.
When we were making a programme about Who’s Who for BBC Radio Four, we naturally wanted to interview the editor, or at least a member of the editorial staff. None of them was allowed to talk. Instead the publishers A&C Black (now part of Bloomsbury) put up Jonathan Glasspool, their publishing director for reference books. He’s been at A&C Black for only 18 months, and works in another building round the corner from the editors. He sees Who’s Who as ‘the definitive sourcebook of information about people of influence and interest in all fields of UK society’.
But how true is that really? Look up the Johnsons and you will find plenty of journalists familiar to readers of The Spectator — Boris, Frank, Paul — and the Telegraph sportswriter called Martin, but not Martin Johnson, the former England rugby captain.
Look up the 66 Campbells, and you’ll find Sir Niall Campbell, eighth baronet and Hereditary Keeper of Barcaldine Castle. But immediately before him there’s no sign of arguably the most famous model in the world, Naomi Campbell. Similarly there are 19 Olivers, but no Jamie; and five Keanes, but not the Manchester United captain Roy.
‘Who’s Who has the reputation of being a manual of the old Establishment,’ says Richard Weight, author of books on modern British history. ‘Although it has become a more meritocratic volume, there are still predominantly people from the armed services, the Civil Service, and so on.’ People from more modern areas of activity, such as Sir Paul McCartney, are often those who’ve been adopted and honoured by the Establishment. ‘What’s missing,’ says Weight, ‘are people who have mass appeal, particularly in popular culture, sport and television.’
And despite Jonathan Glasspool’s talk of ‘people of influence’, many who get into Who’s Who have achieved nothing — beyond inheriting an ancient title. It’s one thing to include all peers, since until recently they all held real power in the House of Lords, and some still do. But why include baronets?
Glasspool argues that it’s simply a matter of what their customers want — they expect all the aristocracy to be included. One of those customers is Sir Toby Clarke, a leading figure in the Standing Council of the Baronetage and a stout defender of baronets’ rights. He happily agrees that he wouldn’t be in Who’s Who if he wasn’t a baronet, but the reason for having him in rather than, say, Jamie Oliver and Roy Keane is that they have a definite shelf life. ‘If you say that none of us should be there because of our inheritance, then you would exclude an awful lot of people and the book would become utterly ephemeral,’ he says.
Who’s Who finds it easier to deal with areas of endeavour in which there is a formal hierarchy, such as the Civil Service, where people join the book automatically once they hit a certain rank. The compilers find it harder to pick out the right people from areas where achievement is more subjectively assessed. Frances Gibb, legal editor of the Times, points out that most new entrants in the legal profession are barristers who, for example, become QCs, while solicitors are comparatively under-represented.
Philip Beresford, who edits the famous Sunday Times ‘Rich List’ of Britain’s 1,000 wealthiest people, reckons only about 10 per cent of them are listed in Who’s Who. ‘The editors of Who’s Who haven’t grasped the importance of money,’ he says. ‘People worth over £100 million should be in Who’s Who, all of them, because the richer you get, the more power and influence you have.’
A handful — like Philip Green, the billionaire thought to be bidding for Marks & Spencer — aren’t in Who’s Who because they don’t want to be. But Mr Beresford thinks they should be put in anyway.
Other refuseniks include Rodney Bickerstaffe, the former boss of Unison, Britain’s biggest union. For him, the problem is his dislike of elites. ‘It’s a class issue,’ he says. ‘What about the nurses, roadsweepers, school caretakers, cleaners and school-meals staff who aren’t in?’
Why doesn’t Who’s Who insist on including the Greens and the Bickerstaffes anyway? The publishers say that their normal policy is not to include people if they don’t want to be. Yet there is at least one exception. Not for the first time Arthur Scargill finds himself detained inside against his will. The miners’ leader is adamant that this is one big red book he wants nothing to do with, but his futile efforts to come out of it have left him feeling frustrated. ‘Despite my objection, Who’s Who published my name and details,’ he says. ‘They still maintain it in Who’s Who. If people want to go in this silly book, it’s a matter for them, but people like me who don’t should have the right to say no.’
Scargill also complains that his entry is not entirely accurate. But then there are sometimes serious errors and omissions in other entries, even though they are nearly all written by the subjects themselves.
The late businessman James Gulliver lied about having a degree from Harvard Business School. Iain Duncan Smith’s entry used to state, wrongly, that he’d been to the University of Perugia — though that’s been changed in this year’s edition. Jeffrey Archer falsely claimed — among other errors — to have raised £57 million for the Kurds, when the true figure was nothing like that. Dates of birth cause the most problems. The entries for Nicholas Parsons, Susan Hampshire and Ken Dodd all knock four or five years off their age.
But Jonathan Glasspool insists they can only go by what people tell them. ‘We’ve got 32,000 people in the book, and at least half the records every year are amended or corrected in some way, and a thousand new records a year. It would be impossible for us to check every fact.’
If an error is pointed out to Who’s Who they will raise it with the biographee, and Glasspool maintains that the vast majority of errors are sorted out by agreement in this way. But, to take one example, what if Jeffrey Archer insisted that his entry was correct when it wrongly states that he became a member of the Greater L
ondon Council in 1966? ‘We would have to take him at his word,’ says Mr Glasspool.
Newspapers have in the past pointed out that Susan Hampshire’s entry gives the wrong date of birth. Who’qs Who have written to her about this, but had no reply, so they let the current date stand. Wrong information remains in what is supposed to be a definitive reference book.
Then there is the question of omissions. As Compton Miller, the author of Who’s Really Who, points out, Lester Piggott, Gerald Ronson and Ernest Saunders don’t mention their time in prison. Peter Walker’s career listing has no space for his time at Slater Walker. And there are the many entrants, including Alan Milburn and Will Carling, who omit former spouses. Glasspool says they would like to include this information too, but again they are entirely dependent on the information that subjects provide.
Still, while people write their own entries, who gets in remains entirely up to Who’s Who. And some people are pretty desperate. ‘The most common stratagem is to get a number of people to write on your behalf,’ says Glasspool. ‘One composer has been trying to get into Who’s Who for several years. He’s tried getting friends and musicologists to write.’ And sometimes people take it further: ‘People have tried to bribe us,’ he says.
That, it’s claimed, is why the editorial staff and the Who’s Who selection panel need to be anonymous — to protect them from pressure. But who exactly are the staff who need to evade these bribes? Prominent among them is a woman called Christine Ruge-Cope — although Glasspool refused to acknowledge that he had ever met her or that he even knew of her existence. When we contacted her, Ruge-Cope did confirm that she was on the editorial staff. Modestly, she denied being ‘the editor’ as such. There isn’t an editor, she says, just a ‘team’, but it’s hard to believe an institution as traditional as Who’s Who is run by a democratic collective.
The only occasion Christine Ruge-Cope is known to have spoken publicly about her work was last year, to a meeting of the Hertford branch of the University of the Third Age. The proviso of anonymity hadn’t been passed on to the branch officer who prepared the press releases and the organisers let the cat out of the bag by inadvertently telling the local paper that she was a senior editor of Who’s Who.
Who’s Who is an important book, and its editor is surely significant enough to deserve a listing among the influential people of Britain. It’s a shame that the policy of anonymity denies its editorial staff the recognition they deserve. But if Mrs Ruge-Cope was in her own directory, she’d be sandwiched between a couple who appear to sum up the book’s strengths and failings. On the one side would be Michael Rugg, an eminent-sounding professor of neurobiology with an impressive career as an academic and government adviser. On the other side would be the third Baron Rugby, whose justification for being in the book seems otherwise to be none whatsoever.
Michael Crick is the presenter and Martin Rosenbaum is the producer of The Secret Gatekeepers, a programme about Who’s Who, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio Four on Friday 16 July at 11 a.m.