The Sun goes down

A couple of weeks ago Ally Ross, the longtime TV critic at the Sun, was summoned to the managing editor’s office. Such confrontations normally involve expenses. At the Daily Express in the 1950s one Middle East correspondent submitted his — one camel: £125. The narrow-eyed managing editor pointed out that if the camel was bought, it must have been sold, and they would be grateful if the claim was adjusted. Another form turned up 30 minutes later — burying a dead camel: £200. This conversation with Ally was not about money. It was much more serious. It was solemnly explained to him that he had used the word ‘woke’ in

Out-scooping the men: six women reporters of the second world war

Two war correspondents were hitching a lift towards Paris in August 1944 when a sudden wave of German bombers forced them to dive for cover. What the hell were they doing trying to cadge a ride when ‘war correspondents have their own jeeps and drivers?’ an American officer barked at them as his car screeched to a halt beside the shallow crater they had commandeered. ‘We happen to be women,’ Ruth Cowan replied steadily, as she straightened up and shook off the dust along with his words. Cowan was the first female journalist attached to the US army but, as a woman, she was denied the official facilities provided for

The problem with Equity’s anti-racism guidelines

‘Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds.’ Those were the words that Kenneth Tynan, the most celebrated drama critic of the 20th century, had pinned above his desk. During my five-year stint as The Spectator’s theatre critic I did my best to follow that philosophy. But according to a new set of guidelines devised by Equity and embraced by the National Union of Journalists, reviews should be ‘balanced, fair and designed to be productive’. Any critic living by that credo would be more likely to raise a yawn than a whirlwind. The guidelines, part of Equity’s anti-racism campaign, have been developed to help critics ‘challenge their own biases and to

One of the lucky ones: Hella Pick escapes Nazi Germany

Hella Pick is one of that vanishing generation of Jewish refugees who arrived in Britain on the eve of the second world war, courtesy of the Kindertransport. An only child of separated parents, born and brought up in Vienna, she was luckier than most: her mother got out soon afterwards. Her grandmother, who remained, died in Theresienstadt. Early life in the UK was not easy for refugees from Nazism. Visas were only granted to those who had an offer of work, and just about the only work permitted to them was domestic service, which must have been particularly galling for people like Hella’s mother who had once been prosperous. Young

Confessions of an accidental foreign correspondent

Perhaps you remember footage of the wave. It was mostly from traffic cameras, mute but darkly mesmerising. Millions of gallons of Pacific seawater upended by a 9.0 earthquake and hurled irresistibly inland. A few days later I saw what that meant, turning a corner in my hire-car to find the road blocked by a trawler that had been washed ashore. This week, Japan has commemorated the tenth anniversary of the tsunami which killed 15,000 of its people. A seismic tragedy which begat a man-made disaster. Inundated by water, part of the Fukushima nuclear reactor blew up, producing the worst radioactive leak since Chernobyl. It wasn’t long before scores of foreign journalists

The dangers of televising lobby briefings

Like a tongue searching for an absent tooth, I keep wondering if I’m missing anything from my two decades as a lobby hack. Friends, of course, and perhaps the vast, grey field of sloping slate as seen from the Times’s parliamentary office. That empty and silent space, the roof of Westminster Hall, seemed austere and indifferent, a mental refuge from the babble beneath and within. The opposite aspect, towards the crumbling guts of the Palace of Westminster, elicits more complicated memories. I arrived in the press gallery aged 30 to take a job as Westminster correspondent for a clutch of provincial papers. On my first day my new colleagues took

Joan Didion’s needle-sharp eye never fails

Most collections of journalism are bad. There are two reasons for this: one is that they are usually incoherent and the other is that they are, perversely, far too coherent. The pieces are pulled from their original contexts — newspapers, magazines — and thrown together with others they have no relation to beyond a common author. But (the too-coherent problem) most authors only have one or maybe two ideas to work through, so you end up doing the intellectual equivalent of walking a dozen rounds of the garden when you had hoped to be hiking off into a grand new landscape. I don’t know what Joan Didion’s one or maybe

Watch: Boris on the problem with journalists

What’s the phrase? Poacher turned gamekeeper? Boris Johnson was once the arch poacher — a journalist at the Telegraph before taking on the editorship of Mr S’s own illustrious publication. Now it seems Mr Johnson has discovered what it feels like to be at the other end of public scrutiny.  On a press trip to a south London school, the PM mourned the fact journalists are ‘always abusing or attacking people’. Instead, he explained to a slightly bemused school child, that ‘a lightbulb went off in [his] mind’ and that instead, he decided to give politics a go. Nothing to do with childhood dreams of being ‘world king’ eh?  Still, Mr S picked up

The decline of American journalism

The latest absurdity in American journalism is the forced resignation of the veteran New York Times reporter Donald McNeil Jr for uttering the word ‘nigger’ in front of a group of teenage tourists on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru. It has been justly ridiculed by many sane conservatives and even some courageous liberals. Although the infraction happened more than a year ago, calls for reason have had no practical effect against the demands online and inside the Times that McNeil be fired after the Daily Beast revealed the teenagers’ complaints. McNeil’s own defence is that he used the racial epithet as information with the high school students, not as an

A conciliatory P.J. O’Rourke is not the satirist we know and love

There was an acidic bravura and beauty in P.J. O’Rourke’s early journalism and a gleefulness in the ease with which it raised ire. Hitherto, satirists — and especially American ones — had tended to come from the left, none more so than O’Rourke’s mentor Hunter S. Thompson, who campaigned long and hard for George McGovern in 1972. Not Patrick Jake. He sprung like a jubilant, potty-mouthed leprechaun from a country which had fallen back in love with itself after the self-flagellating miseries of Vietnam, Watergate and Tehran. Under Ronald Reagan, the economy flourished, the Cold War was won and while the left still carped and cavilled, aghast at the demise

Lockdown might bring the Dickensian Christmas back into fashion

I feel like a prisoner, making daily marks on the cell wall to chart the approach of freedom. But will it be freedom, or will we be on parole, obliged to wear a tag and subject to re-incarceration at authority’s whim? Such thoughts do not encourage equanimity. On that subject, I remember a delightfully splenetic political column by the late — alas — Alan Watkins, published a generation ago. As Christmas approaches, even the most acerbic hack feels obliged to relent and sound a little more like Fezziwig, a little less like Scrooge. Perhaps because he was never given to excessive astringency, Alan did not relent. He was complaining about

The journalists who scripted the golden age of Hollywood

When talkies appeared in 1927, Hollywood went searching for talkers to write them. It turned to men like Herman J. Mankiewicz: to journalists. The greatest screenwriters of the golden age were journalists first; unlike novelists, they thrived in Hollywood — at least professionally. Good films and good journalism need brevity; novels don’t. Reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald struggling at MGM, 12 years after The Great Gatsby, is brutal, like trying to watch a man learn to walk. The film Mank, by David Fincher, tells the story of how Mankiewicz and Orson Welles created Citizen Kane — for which they shared an Oscar for the screenplay in 1942 — and how

Never a dull sentence: the journalism of Harry Perry Robinson

Is Boris Johnson a fan of Harry Perry Robinson? If he isn’t, he really ought to be. Reading this absorbing biography, I was struck by how much they have in common — especially in their early lives. Both men went to public school, then on to Oxford, then into journalism, where they proved incapable of writing a dull sentence. They both divorced and remarried — and were also American citizens, for a while. Both dipped a toe into politics, but while Boris took the plunge, Harry stepped back and remained a jobbing hack until his dying day, the finest journalist of his generation. The biggest difference, however, is that Harry

The BBC’s failure to report gender identity accurately

‘Blackpool woman accessed child abuse images in hospital bed’. It’s a good headline, in that it catches your attention. But there are two things making it an effective headline, at least in the sense that it gets attention. One is the notion of someone looking at child porn in a hospital – that’s a shocking thing, and as they sometimes say in American journalism schools, ‘news is a surprise.’ The other important part of the headline is the word ‘woman’. We don’t often associate women with crimes like viewing images of child abuse; the idea of a woman doing so has a bit of ‘man bites dog’ news surprise to

Writing my High Life column made a man of me

As Cole Porter might have said, only second-rate people go on and on about their inner lives. Self-analysis, according to Cole, is the twin of self-promotion. Yet in this 10,000th issue of the world’s oldest and best weekly, and in my 43rd year of writing High Life, I have to admit to a bit of both of the above. So before any of you retreat into laptops and mobiles, some nostalgia is called for, starting in the spring of 1977. Many of the writers back then sent in their longhand-written copy via messenger, paid for by The Spectator. I used to type mine and slip it under the door at

Douglas Murray

I love my fellow hacks – even when I disagree with them

It’s one way to keep in touch with people. Each morning, somewhere between the first coffee of the day and the first drink, I open my computer, log on to social media and see which of my friends or colleagues is ‘trending’ today. ‘Ooh,’ I think as I see their names flash up, ‘I wonder what Julie/Charles/Allison/James/Rod (usually Rod) has done now’. Then I click and read all about their crimes, usually through a filter of people labouring under the impression that a writer’s job is to say what everyone else has already agreed on. The howls, incidentally, mostly emanating from people who in no sense subscribe to the organ

A note to fellow lockdown lethargics

Strange times, these. Dull and unsettling in equal measure. Much of life feels as though it is stuck in some interminable holding pattern, waiting for permission to land and move on. The days drag, even for those of us accustomed to working from home. But the city is a dreary place, for now, stripped of most of its conveniences and opportunities.  Worse still, there are professional problems. This is a game in which you’re always supposed to have a view and the hotter it is the better. Incentives favour certainty; if in doubt double down on your lack of doubt. Bets should not be hedged; everything is a triumph or

How Nova revolutionised women’s magazines

Batsford has just brought out a huge tome on Nova — ‘one of the most influential magazines in history’ — compiled by two of the magazine’s star art directors, David Hillman and Harri Peccinotti. It covers the ten years that the magazine existed, 1965 to 1975, and focuses on the brilliant and groundbreaking layouts it introduced. But somehow it is not quite the Nova that I loved when I went to work there as assistant editor in 1967. For me, Nova was its editor, Dennis Hackett, who had been brought in to save the failing magazine soon after its launch. I don’t know what genius first thought of putting a

Penned in

Cynical old hacks like me have been amused by the chorus of establishment applause for the Mail on Sunday’s great Kim Darroch scoop. Our elected masters were outraged, rightly, by threats from the Met’s Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu to criminalise editors who publish leaked memos. Politicians left, right and centre condemned an assault on press freedom. Alan Rusbridger, saintly ex-editor of the Guardian, demanded to know what they taught budding bobbies in police college these days. ‘I would like to suggest a new and compulsory course,’ he said. ‘Let’s call it “The Basics Of Free Speech”. Lesson number one. The police do not tell newspaper editors what to write.’ Others

A very aggressive tackle

Forty years ago the football transfer market went crazy: the British record was broken four times in 1979, more than in any other year before or since. A lot of this was down to Malcolm Allison at Manchester City, who shelled out a record amount for a teenager (£250,000 for Steve MacKenzie, an apprentice at Palace) and £1.45 million to bring Steve Daley from Wolves. That was later, unkindly but not inaccurately, described as ‘the biggest waste of money in football history’. Allison continued to spend money like a drunk in a bar; something the club never recovered from until it became part of the sovereign wealth portfolio of one