What I’ve learnt from editing a newspaper letters page

Letters to a daily newspaper have a curious power to gain an impetus of their own. ‘I owned a Triumph Herald many decades ago,’ wrote Robert Brown of Crosby to the Telegraph in January. ‘She was my first love. On cold winter nights I would keep her warm with an old mackintosh thrown over her engine under the bonnet. Perhaps it was this that protected her from a thief one night. She was driven off our drive on to the road but steadfastly refused to go any further.’ It soon became clear that we’d hit a seam of experience in recent history, when lives and loves were expressed through small

Lord Northcliffe’s war of words

‘What a man,’ enthused Wilhelm II from exile in 1921. ‘If we had had Northcliffe we would have won the war.’ The Kaiser wasn’t describing a general or politician but a not- so-humble newspaperman, Lord Northcliffe, the pugnacious proprietor of the Times, Daily Mail and a host of other print publications, who had ended the Great War pumping news into Germany as the British government’s director of propaganda in enemy countries. Northcliffe brought to that post the drive he had shown building up his media empire over three decades. The Germans so reviled – or perhaps admired – him that they struck a medallion depicting him, quill in hand, with

Fascinating exhibitions – clunky editorialising: Breaking the News at the British Library reviewed

In The Spectator office’s toilets there are framed front covers of the events that didn’t happen: Corbyn beats Boris; ‘Here’s Hillary’; Jeremy Hunt wins the Tory leadership contest. The British Library has something similar at its Breaking the News exhibition. The difference is that these ones actually made it to the newsstand. It’s enough to make any passing journalist break into a sweat. ‘Titanic sinks, no lives lost’, reported the Westminster Gazette in April 1912; ‘King Louis XVI dodges the guillotine’, we are told in the 1793 issue of the London Packet. The Sunday Times’s 1983 Hitler diaries hoax appears in this hall of infamy. So does ‘The Truth’, the

My voyage back through the landmarks of my life

I was looking forward to my dinner at Daquise in South Kensington, a Polish restaurant that’s been there for ever yet feels curiously up-to-date; but that wasn’t until 7.30. I’d finished my afternoon’s work, I’d brought in the washing and written two thank-you cards, and it was still only five o’clock. I hate hanging around. By Tube to South Ken is only half an hour — so what to do? ‘Why not go the long way, on foot and by river?’ I thought. My flat is by the Thames in east London, so I could walk along the river to the Canary Wharf jetty and hope for a river bus

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

Corbyn’s plan to revolutionise the mainstream media

Jeremy Corbyn is hitting the comeback trail. The former Labour leader made the keynote speech at this week’s Media Democracy Festival organised by the Media Reform Coalition. He began by citing his own journalistic credentials. ‘I produced 500 columns for the Morning Star.’ Then he turned to India where 250 million strikers are protesting against the removal of state support for farmers. The strike involves ‘one in thirty of the entire population of the world,’ enthused Corbyn, which makes it the largest industrial dispute in history. But coverage in the UK has been minimal, ‘which says a lot about the priorities and the news values of much of our media outlets

The real Rupert Murdoch, by Kelvin MacKenzie

For more than four decades I have been around Rupert Murdoch. In that time he employed me in both London and New York, invested in my business ideas and ultimately fired me. It was always rock ’n’ roll around Rupert and that’s the way I liked it. So you would have thought that when the BBC made its current three-part documentary on him, it might have come to me for my views. Oh no. I presume it didn’t want to take the risk I might say something warm and supportive. It did, however, film Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun’s political columnist, for hours on end. He was warm and supportive. But

A fine, even rather noble drama: BBC1’s The Salisbury Poisonings reviewed

This week, BBC1 brought us a three-part dramatisation of an ‘unprecedented crisis’ in recent British life. Among other things, it featured a lockdown, an extensive tracking and tracing programme, much heroism from people on the front line, and much confusion among scientists as to how to provide the facts when they didn’t really know them. The Salisbury Poisonings (Sunday–Tuesday) was presumably made well before you-know-what. Yet watching the programme in the current circumstances, it wasn’t easy to decide whether the timing was good or bad luck for the makers. The obvious parallels did lend a haunting, drone-note resonance to proceedings. On the other hand, they sometimes threatened to overshadow what

Writing obituaries can be strangely life-affirming

In my line of work I sometimes owe a cock to Asclepius. The ancient Greeks believed that a sacrificial offering to Asclepius, the god of good health, could buy you time. Perhaps it worked in the case of Boris Johnson. On the night he was taken into intensive care, I had the digital team of the Times breathing down my neck. They wanted to know if I, the paper’s obituaries editor, had an obit ready to go straight up online, ahead of the print version. I was up until midnight making sure we had, updating and recasting our existing one, trying to get the tone right. The cock may have

The benefits of the coronavirus era

On the ‘count your blessings’ principle, it is worth making a list of benefits of the coronavirus era. These include: no aeroplane noise, no smell of hamburgers, much shorter weekend newspapers, more work for good butchers, and a temporary end to the persecutions of TV Licensing. I am wondering whether to refuse to pay my licence all over again. I am reluctant, since last time it cost me £800, but one reads that non-payment will not be pursued while the plague lasts. Even if it were, could the magistrates’ courts sit to hear the cases? This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Spectator Notes, available in this week’s magazine.

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

Serial genius

‘It’s no use at all,’ says Posy Simmonds in mock despair, holding up her hands. ‘I can’t tell my left from my right.’ She is ambidextrous. ‘This hand [her right] writes and draws; and this hand [her left] cuts out, sharpens pencils, throws balls, plays tennis… I can’t drive. I’ve never taken a test. I’m always on the wrong side of the road.’ Looking at these wonderful hands, elegant and almost limp, one would never suppose they had created, over the past 50 years, such a large volume of intensely enjoyable and astute drawings. Reliably funny and wise, her work ranges from Fred (1988), about the secret rock-star life of

Diary – 13 September 2018

People are still asking ‘So, how was your summer’ and mine was nice as far as it went: I didn’t ‘go away’ but spent long weeks rambling on Exmoor in the drizzle, baking scones and making and remaking beds for the various guests who came and went, supplying them with endless free hot meals. Then I was sacked on the spot by the new incoming editor of my paper. I always regard it as a badge of honour to be sacked. It’s business. In fact, most national newspaper editors have sacked me and then forgotten and tried to rehire me at least once, so I try never to take it

The great escape

Even though I don’t watch much football I love the World Cup because it’s my passport to total freedom. I can nip off to the pub, slob indoors on a sunny Sunday afternoon, leave supper before we’ve finished eating, let alone before the dishes are done. And where normally that kind of behaviour would at the very least get me a dirty look, during World Cup season it actually gets me brownie points. Why? Because it’s a sign that I’m being a Good Dad. It worked in the old days with the Rat. And now it works with Boy. Mothers are absolutely potty for their sons and will look fondly

Classified information

Now here’s a series that would make a brilliant podcast but is also classic Radio 4 — they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, why can’t podcasts be more like Radio 4? Programmes where the presenter’s role is to draw out the knowledge of experts, and the pace is measured, allowing the fascination of what’s being revealed to make an impact before leaping on, and where there’s no background music except when it adds to the timbre, the meaning, the purpose. Each episode of Classified Britain (produced by John Forsyth) is only 15 minutes long, so not too demanding of one’s time, and yet a lot of information

Labour’s slow running-down of the media

Yesterday, after Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on Brexit, he moved on from press questions about the substance of his policy change to seeking non-media questions. It was presumably to show that Labour is more interested in the real questions of real people rather than the biased agenda of the press. That real question ended up being ‘please will you hurry up and be our Prime Minister?’ Corbynites would argue that even a question as pointless as this is better than the mocking tone that journalists take as they try to claim, on the basis of whispered gossip, that this is a result of some kind of Shadow Cabinet falling out. Why

Diary – 21 September 2017

Next month, the Today programme marks its 60th anniversary, so I have been mugging up on the archives. If there is a lasting characteristic, I reckon it is curiosity about how the world works. After four months in this job, my sense of wonder is undimmed that global experts on everything from nuclear warheads to rare plants can be conjured on to the show. Political debate is at the heart of Today, but it is knowledge rather than opinion that I prize most, and even the most avid political interviewers have a hinterland. They also understand the cumulative effect of unsocial working hours. The great Sue MacGregor, who is chairing

The right kind of dumbing down

Thanks to meteoric advances in computational power, it is now possible to take abundant data from a wide range of sources, and use statistical modelling to prove… um, whatever bullshit conclusion you hoped to prove in the first place. For all the excitement of the information age, we must remember that self-serving delusions like nothing better than large quantities of information. The internet was a gift to conspiracy theorists, for instance. But confirmation bias is also more pronounced among the educated. (No one measures the negative consequences of higher education, but a naïve faith in universals has to be one of them.) Back in the analogue age, people couldn’t avoid

Liverpool’s press mess

The comedian Jimmy Carr is not necessarily a guy you would trust on much, but he was spot on the other day when he said that the Hillsborough disaster was something you would never joke about. Of course not, but it seems you can’t have even a sliver of a divergent view. Now, thanks to the timorousness of one of the world’s major football clubs, and the pusillanimity of the Premier League, a bitter little drama is being played out that could have savage implications for freedom of the press. Early in February this year Liverpool FC announced that the Sun would be banned from all home facilities, Anfield and

Diary – 23 March 2017

So I am feeling a bit better about my lack of radio experience. These are exciting times for free movement of labour and with Westminster under the control of Tory and Labour cabals, lovely jobs outside Parliament are tempting. George Osborne is no more qualified to edit the London Evening Standard than Tristram Hunt to run the V&A, but now art and antiquities scholars have dried their tears, that is turning out splendidly. The late Nick Tomalin pointed out that success in journalism requires only ‘ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability’. The trade is temperament as much as technical skill and Osborne has a journalistic love