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Diary of a book tour: 1

6 Apr

The Last Great Beast of a Mighty Line

6 Apr

Published March 2018 in the British Journalism Review @TheBJReview

 by Les Hinton

The days of the autocratic editor are numbered: newspapers need to look elsewhere for the manic energy that fuels great journalism

It was a brisk autumn evening when we arrived at the point where Ave Maria Lane meets Amen Corner, and walked into the cobblestoned courtyard of Stationers’ Hall, home of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, whose origins trace back more than 600 years. We were a couple of minutes from St Paul’s Cathedral where tradesmen, in the days even before print, offered their manuscripts and were named stationers because of the “stations” at which they worked.

It is always an out-of-time experience visiting Stationers’ Hall – I’m sure I saw a cat, a Dick Whittington cat, glide through the courtyard shadows – and that sense of the bygone gave special meaning to the reason we were there. The symbolism was almost too good to be true.

Our host was Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, the fourth Viscount Rothermere, of Hemsted in the County of Kent, and only remaining real-life hereditary lord of the press on earth. Jonathan Rothermere might not be what you would imagine of a press lord, with the gangly, tentative way he moves and the face that seems too gentle for the role; but, in the two decades since inheriting his position, no national newspapers have done better than those he controls.

Those last few lines are a compliment but, as every reader of this journal knows, it is a relative kind of praise. Rothermere’s newspapers, and those of his un-aristocratic rivals, are in existential trouble. Great newspapers are dying or fading away, and the long genetic link going back to those primitive manuscripts sold on the steps of St Paul’s, and Wynkyn de Worde, Fleet Street’s first printer, is going through an historic upheaval.

The viscount’s grand party that night, beneath the gaudy livery flags and ancient stained-glass images of Shakespeare and Caxton, was a homage to one man, but it also felt like a requiem.

Paul Dacre is one of the last mighty Fleet Street editors and we were there to honour a miraculous accomplishment: Dacre had held down his job as editor of the Daily Mail for 25 years. As Rupert Murdoch, an untitled titan, said that night in a flickering video tribute from California, even the fabled Arthur Christiansen of the Daily Express only managed 24 years.

There won’t be many more evenings such as this. Paul Dacre – just like his ennobled boss – is among the last of his breed. The big editors of Fleet Street will soon be gone forever, extinct as the linotype and the clattering typewriter and the newsboy’s cry.

There will be other editors, but as the shapeshifting world of media diminishes the importance of Fleet Street’s great newspapers, none will assume the same power, admiration, and notoriety.

There is no editor left in Fleet Street who could command the attendance of that night. Theresa May was there, at the top table alongside Lord Rothermere. At the next table was her husband Philip, with the familiar radiating beam he somehow manages, no matter how dire his wife’s most recent predicament. He was on the right of Claudia, the viscountess.

On the other side of the viscountess was the guest of honour himself, approaching his 70th year, with an elegant stoop to show for those years bent over hard copy and page proofs, a mixture of delight and discomfort as he acknowledged the procession of important people arriving to pay tribute.

There were a dozen or so present or past Cabinet ministers, both Labour and Conservative, although Tories easily won the count. There were peers and MPs, and even once-bitter rivals; Richard Desmond, a shrewd money man who was beating his own retreat from Fleet Street, seemed surprised and pleased to be a guest at his table. Gordon Brown and Michael Howard sent congratulations by video. Incongruously, so did Simon Cowell.

Most of the current standard-bearers of Fleet Street were there, as well as many of its old relics – among the old hands these days, the default topic of conversation being how lucky they were to have departed before the storm struck.

Of the existing editors present, only John Witherow of The Times has the reputation and tenure to compete with Dacre’s. He has been editor either of The Times or The Sunday Times since 1994. In the calmer world of the heavies, editors traditionally hang on longer.

The power of today’s editors has dwindled with the size of their products, and the days may be numbered when politicians will continue to believe that newspapers can determine elections – if they ever could.

When I first became interested in newspapers, there were two television channels, and just about every household in Britain read more than one newspaper every day; in my house, before we had TV, we read newspapers and listened to the radio.

Back then, and in years to come, Fleet Street editors were big beasts, although not all achieved the influence and profile of Dacre.

The aura of strong editors spreads throughout a newspaper, reaching people who are far too junior ever to actually speak to them. I discovered this when I was 15 at a little evening newspaper in Adelaide, where the editor was a well-born man named Rohan Deakin Rivett, the grandson of Australia’s second prime minister. His underlings seemed to channel their boss before every move – “You sure he’s happy with this leader? … That headline will send him crazy … Not another pet story! He’s getting sick of them ….” Later, in Fleet Street, I discovered this kind of anxious compliance is routine.

For King and Cudlipp

I also discovered the power and reputation of some Fleet Street editors. Hugh Cudlipp was the mastermind of the Daily Mirror’s success and influence and, in his day, the country’s most famous editor; David English, Dacre’s forerunner, transformed the fortunes of the Daily Mail when it became a tabloid (coyly, he chose to call it a “compact” and it was launched with the slogan “The Compact with Impact”). English, then Dacre, swept away the Daily Express to become the country’s dominant mid-market newspaper. His Mail might have been a personality cult; some who worked for English adopted his mannerisms. Rod Gilchrist, his features editor, and even Paul Dacre, would emulate his gestures and the strange high pitch of his voice when he was excited.

Larry Lamb of The Sun was brooding and fearsome. When he attempted a smile, and his big lips parted, it was more like a snarl. His slow, lop-sided lope into the big room sent a shiver through us all. His post-dinner beratings of the back bench would be audible to all. The smallest lapse was enough to raise his anger – “Lengthy! Lengthy? What kind of a bloody word is that? What’s wrong with long? … “Initiate? Please! You mean begin.” A first edition with too many failings was known to fly across the subs’ table, dismembering in flight. In the end, he might have developed an overblown sense of his own genius, but The Sun he created – love or hate it – changed the rules of Fleet Street as it became the biggest-selling newspaper in the English language.

Lamb and his leading contemporaries were garlanded with knighthoods and peerages. Knighthoods were lavished among editors, awarded for “services to journalism” or by grateful prime ministers – Lamb, Nick Lloyd, Harry Evans, David English, Peter Stothard. There were also peerages for some – Cudlipp, William Rees-Mogg, Francis Williams. English, already a knight, was due for a peerage in 1998 but died before it could be announced.

While editors received mere life peerages, newspaper proprietors earlier in the last century were routinely enlisted into the aristocracy with the hereditary variety – Jonathan Rothermere’s great-grandfather Harold Harmsworth, his great-uncle Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) and Beaverbrook, Thomson, and Camrose.

It wasn’t as if the press was held in high regard by the establishment in those days. The most famous of all attacks on the press came from Stanley Baldwin in 1931, when he was prime minister and newspapers were giving him a particularly hard time. The press, he said, was guilty of “direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning … What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, but power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”. These sentiments are echoed to this day, although never so vividly. And now, as then, politicians who vilify the press still alter their tune when seeking its endorsement.

There were editors of later generations, those I worked for, or with, and over whom I enjoyed, at least technically, some authority.

I never worked on newspapers alongside Kelvin MacKenzie or Andrew Neil, a lucky break for me, given their hatred of interference; they accepted Rupert’s, of course, but never joyfully. Andrew and I did work together briefly in New York, developing (without success) a network news show. Like his days as editor of The Sunday Times, he approached everything with fierce gusto and lack of self-doubt. He sought to remind me each time I walked into his office that the programme’s content was his responsibility alone, even though I was always happy to leave him to it.

In the 1970s, Kelvin MacKenzie arrived at the New York Post as night editor when I was based in Manhattan as a correspondent. The natives found him difficult. He enjoyed abusing a sweet-natured Texan sub-editor by calling him a “Texas toe rag”; it was a while before his victim realised he was being insulted. A Post editor who was senior to Kelvin often could not join the conferences in Kelvin’s office – he would lock it and turn his back to the glass door. Kelvin was a terrorist editor, but not always. In those days, he still knew his place in the pecking order. When Larry Lamb was The Sun’s editor and visited Manhattan, he took a group of us to dinner at a French bistro off Third Avenue, where Kelvin sat all night in awed silence, to everyone’s amazement.

Nostalgia for the Cheese and Mucky Duck

That was before he had the power to make an entire city his enemy, threaten a prime minister with a bucket of excrement, and tell complaining readers that their subscriptions to The Sun would be cancelled.

Even as the sun was lowering on the golden days of Fleet Street, bright stars followed these editors. Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror restored much of its old brilliance; Stuart Higgins, Kelvin’s successor, who would almost levitate with excitement on big news days, made The Sun as good as his predecessor, at least (David Yelland was out of water at The Sun, a freshwater trout suffocating in the bitter salt tides of a hectic redtop; he might have flourished at broadsheet); John Witherow is the strongest serious daily newspaper editor left standing, and his Times is peerless – I’m sure of that, even through my own bias.

As we left Stationers’ Hall that evening, it was as if we had spent four hours suspended in another age, insulated briefly against the harsh reality waiting outside in the cold autumn night.

Inside, among the newspaper people, there had been a community of spirits I had known since coming to Fleet Street half a century before as an eager apprentice; a crush of hustling, joking, exuberant competitors, the cream of a historic industry with mingling feelings of animosity and admiration towards one another.

How will journalism happen after this, without big newspapers and those at the helm to gravitate around, when more journalists become castaways, working remotely, hermits at their keyboards? Where will the energy come from without the human combustion of a crowded newsroom, with great editors in command?

No one knows, but I’m not giving up hope.

There was dread about the loss of community when newspapers evacuated Fleet Street but, most of all, newspaper people were merely homesick for the pubs and boozy camaraderie.

Newspapers had huddled there for centuries, as the stationers had around St Paul’s even more centuries ago. The technology of printing scattered the stationers; more technology scattered newspapers in the 1980s; and now the technology of algorithms and electromagnetic interaction is scattering journalists from shrinking newspapers to ambitious new ideas.

When technology offers an infinity of entertainment and information in the palm of your hand, the competition for people’s attention is a battle print newspapers cannot win.

There might be much to mourn, but, while the newspaper industry is declining, its purpose never will.

The business models that built the old empires of print are being demolished, and for most newspapers nothing can stop that. Even if the smartest can navigate through the morass to a sustainable digital platform, they are unlikely to return to the profits of the old days.

But the biggest, most universal delivery system ever known is now in place, and there will always be an appetite for good writing and powerful opinions and important information. The new economics of journalism has still to be sorted, but there will always be stories to tell.

Les Hinton worked in newspapers, magazines and television as a reporter, editor and executive in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. His memoir – The Bootle Boy: an untidy life in news – will be published by Scribe in May.

@leshinton

SCRIBE T0 PUBLISH LES HINTON’S MEMOIRS

5 Sep

Scribe UK and Scribe Australia are delighted to announce that next summer they will publish The Bootle Boy: An Untidy Life in News by Les Hinton, who was Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man over five decades.

Born during the war in the Liverpool dockside district of Bootle, Les came from a teeming and lively family of bakers, cooks, dockers and theatre managers. He had a peripatetic childhood thanks to his father’s exotic Army postings in the twilight of the British Empire, culminating in the family emigrating to Australia. At 15, Les landed a job as a copy boy at an Adelaide newspaper owned by the rising star of the Australian press, Rupert Murdoch. The rest is media and business history, as Les rose to become integral to Rupert’s business.

Publisher Philip Gwyn Jones says; ‘Les was a keystone in the construction of an ever mightier media empire that came to encircle the globe, midwife a media revolution or two, and play a very significant role in governmental policy and public opinion on four continents. Les was at the mogul’s side for five fascinating decades — an experience he recalls and illuminates with great flair and gusto in this riveting memoir. It is so winningly honest and undeluded, and there is plenty of meat in it about politicians and journalists and pop stars and the Davos world alike, and of course about Murdoch, all delivered most tastily cooked. Amongst its other virtues, this might just be the most thoroughly revealing portrait of The Digger we are ever likely to get. It is not a mud-slinging or revenge-taking book. It is far more interesting than that, as a portrait of how great businesses are built, run and grow, and how one man can come to control the flow of news down so many channels. Not least because of its evocative depiction of the challenges faced by the ordinary working families of Britain during the war and during the austerity and end of empire that followed it, it is if anything most reminiscent of This Boy by former Labour Minister Alan Johnson, and will, we think, appeal to that book’s thousands of fans.’

Les says; ‘I wanted to tell a story of change and vanishing worlds: struggling, proud Bootle, and the bulldozed neighbourhood where I was born; a childhood of travels through the dying British Empire, where everywhere I went the sun was setting on it; the wild, often nutty, world of shapeshifting global media; the mighty empires of print that were swept away, to become creaking supertankers lost in the spray of a sleek fleet of algorithm-fuelled speedboats. Over fifty years, I met a lot of people and saw a lot of things.’

‘Rupert Murdoch was a big part of my working life and this book contains my version of the truth about him. Rupert could be hell to work for and he earned many of his enemies. He’s a driven businessman with heavy boots who bruised a lot of people. But, love or hate him, he’s an authentic colossus. I saw him at all angles: brilliant, brutal, and often – to the surprise of many – extraordinarily kind.’

Philip Gwyn Jones at Scribe acquired UK, EU & Commonwealth rights in the book from Emma Parry at Janklow & Nesbit US, which retains North American, audio, broadcasting and translation rights.

 

The back-to-front justice of Parliament

14 Sep

STATEMENT FROM LES HINTON

14th September 2016

THE COMMITTEE OF PRIVILEGES REPORT ON ALLEGATIONS OF CONTEMPT OF PARLIAMENT

 

Parliament’s Committee of Privileges has this morning published the results of its investigation into the 2012 findings of John Whittingdale’s Culture Media and Sport Select Committee.

At that time, the CMS Select Committee accused me of being in contempt of Parliament by lying to it about my knowledge of phone hacking at the News of the World and of being “complicit” in a “cover up”.

The report from the Committee of Privileges has today found that John Whittingdale’s select committee got it wrong – the evidence does not support the CMS Committee’s claims that I lied to it. The Committee of Privileges has found that I am not guilty of contempt of Parliament.

“After more than four years, the Committee of Privileges has thrown out the charges that I was guilty of contempt of parliament and a cover-up of phone hacking. Its findings are too little and too late, coming so long after I was vilified by MPs in a 125-page report, a televised press conference and a 90-minute House of Commons debate.  

“The Culture Media and Sport Select Committee reached its false findings in 2012. It posed as a quasi-judicial body with the right to impose criminal punishments, yet followed none of the usual rules of law and fair process. It carried out an amateur investigation, missed vital evidence, and some members displayed no pretence at impartiality. Even before its report was released, the committee’s most vocal member, Tom Watson MP, published a book accusing me of misleading the committee.

“Today’s report by the Committee of Privileges speaks proudly of its concern to “meet modern standards of fairness” in deciding whether the Culture Committee had been “correct” in its findings.

“Parliament has a back-to-front idea of justice and fairness when it claims these standards after allowing the sham trial and free-for-all character assassination I experienced in 2012. “

-ends-

Life with Murdoch

2 Jun

by Les Hinton

Rupert Murdoch’s longest-serving lieutenant staggers under the weight of books written about his old boss

(Published September 2015 in the British Journalism Review @BJR.org.uk )

More than half a century ago, as an eager and ignorant 15-year-old copy boy struggling to get along at a small Adelaide newspaper, I began collecting books about the news business. The first of them still sits old and frail on my shelves; the newest are hidden in a Kindle and allegedly indestructible. I love the old volumes – they lit my way out of the bucolic comfort zone of South Australia with rousing yarns of faraway places and the glamour and dark side of newspapers: the genius and madness of Northcliffe and Beaverbrook; the yellow press wars between Pulitzer and Hearst; and how the press was born when printing technology was as miraculous as the internet would seem centuries later.

Once they were published in a steady and varied flow. Now these books seem to be about one man only – the kid proprietor of my old Adelaide newspaper. This is no fun for me, being familiar with the story. In 1959, when he was a 28-year-old with hair, chunky cheeks and a cigarette, no one cared enough about Rupert Murdoch to write a book. Now he is a publishing obsession. Before long, there will be more books about him than any media mogul, dead or alive. It might have happened already.

These books are never flattering. They tell far-fetched tales of scabrous, plundering, capitalist, debasing cultures across the globe. Their titles say it all: Dial M For Murdoch; Murdoch’s Politics: How One Man’s Thirst For Wealth and Power Shapes Our World; Sex, Lies and the Murdoch Succession; Murdoch’s Pirates. Books by wishful thinkers are a staple – Murdoch: the Decline of an Empire; The Fall of the House of Murdoch; Rise and Fall of the Murdoch Empire.

Welcome to the angry world of AntiMurdochMania.

A beginner today must think he is the first awkward media tycoon; others know it isn’t so. William Connor – Cassandra of the Mirror – writes in his volume of collected columns about the mortality of editors and almighty power of owners. “Editors! I seen ’em come. And I seen ’em go. But way up on the mountain overshadowing Fleet Street the Abominable Snowman goes on for ever.”

No Murdoch editor suffered more than Arthur Christiansen in his 24 years at the Daily Express. In Headlines All My Life, he writes: “The telephone constantly rang. Wherever Beaverbrook went, the telephone followed.” When he cracked under the pressure, a dodgy Harley Street doctor injected Christiansen for 12 days with a preparation of strychnine, iron and arsenic. This treatment restored his broken confidence but seemed a little extreme to me. Reading this story as a teenager, I resolved never to work at close quarters with an overbearing proprietor. Not everything works out in life.

The modern works of Satan

Nor did Murdoch invent the troublesome redtop. In Publish and Be Damned, Hugh Cudlipp writes of the Daily Mirror: “Millions swear by (it), regard it as their daily Bible; others loathe it, curse it, reject its news and views as the modern works of Satan … some politicians who have flayed it in public have enjoyed, or sought in private, its approbation.”

I heard the echo of these words years later when I became executive chairman of News International and The Sun had deposed the Mirror as the newspaper to love or hate.

I know about Murdoch books. They often mention me, but low in the cast of characters, like a spearcarrier.

I was on the spot at the distant dawn of the AntiMurdochMania industry but have kept it quiet until now. Michael Leapman was an old friend; we worked on The Sun in its broadsheet days. When he arrived in Boston in the early 1980s with a biography to write and nowhere to stay, Leapman camped at my home. Murdoch was the new owner of the Boston Herald and I was its deputy editor.

I told Leapman he was 10 years too soon, but he couldn’t wait. When his book appeared in 1984, I was glad not to have confessed my hospitality to anyone. Leapman called his UK edition Barefaced Cheek, but the American publishers didn’t think that packed enough punch and renamed it Arrogant Aussie.

Writers who followed him divide into three groups: jobbing authors, unhappy former employees and zealots. Almost all jobbing authors work without Murdoch’s help, although some employees can’t resist the lure of seeing their words in print, if not their names. I know only three authors who were “officially” helped.

In the early 1990s, Murdoch hired Peter Brimelow, a business writer from Cheshire, when he felt a rare urge to tell his side of the story. Unfortunately for Brimelow, this urge passed, leaving him with months of research and nothing he could write.

William Shawcross was helped, and critics derided his 1992 book as a paean. Murdoch didn’t like it either, although I don’t think he read it all, or any book about him. It is harsh and unsparing in parts, but its sin among loathers is balance, including as it does such outlandish claims as “Murdoch succeeded because he dared” and asserting his move to Wapping liberated British newspapers, “yet their praise for him was grudging”.

Michael Wolff’s 2008 The Man Who Owns the News was written around the acquisition of the Wall Street Journal. I had moved back to New York from London to become Dow Jones’ chief executive. It was a turbulent time. When Murdoch, Robert Thomson and I headed up to address the newsroom, we felt like the barbarians in the elevator.

Wolff is a wonderful writer but a flamethrower journalist. It’s his brand, but no one figured that out until it was too late, after letting Wolff into the hen house. Company advocates of this project urged us to speak to him. After 45 minutes with Wolff, I knew it would not end well. His book is a 400-page roast.

Wolff does manage backhanded compliments: “Murdoch is a troublemaker – one of the last great troublemakers in the holier-than-thou, ethically straitjacketed news business.” He also acknowledges the Wall Street Journal might be better under its new ownership but only “arguably”.

The Murdoch book industry has its own classics, two of them by aggrieved ex-editors. Andrew Neil writes about his 11 years with Murdoch, mostly as editor of The Sunday Times. Neil went through years of withdrawal after leaving Murdoch, diving into every Murdoch row as if he couldn’t let go. For years he was the ready-quote on television and radio. Whatever the Murdoch topic, Neil was reliably disapproving. Perhaps he felt scorned after 11 years producing a top-rate newspaper.

His book, Full Disclosure, is both admiring and despairing. When he’s depressed and angry with his boss, reading it is like looking at an open wound – “I grew to resent that one man could have so much effect on me”. He decries Murdoch’s rough treatment of those who reach their “sell-by date”, then reaches it himself. Murdoch buys a fancy new yacht but “I was no longer flavour of the month and never sailed in it”. Neil’s story can ring true: when he writes about Murdoch’s telephone terrorism, I understand. His consolation and revenge has been to develop the most successful afterlife of any Murdoch editor. Neil believed Murdoch resented the celebrity status he achieved on TV and radio; now he is the BBC’s best political interviewer by far.

Evans still hasn’t let go

Harry Evans hasn’t worked for Murdoch for more than three decades, but still hasn’t let go. Evans must have a condition like malaria; his anti- Murdoch fever ebbs and flows. When fired as editor of The Times after less than a year, he wrote an excoriating book, Good Times, Bad Times, fuming about dirty tricks, lies, betrayals and editorial interference. I don’t know first-hand how accurate these complaints are but people at The Times were not universally happy with his tenure. His 14 years at the Sunday Times were undeniably brilliant, but a daily newspaper is not the same as a Sunday one.

After this book, Evans went quiet. He was happy to see his byline in The Times in 2009 and write for the Wall Street Journal about his favourite books on news reporting. The (Murdoch-owned) Sunday Times praised his “evocative and enjoyable” autobiography, My Paper Chase. One of his successors at The Times, Sir Peter Stothard, described him in the (Murdoch-owned) Times Literary Supplement as “Britain’s greatest post-war editor”. He must be proud of this acclaim; it still appears on his personal website. He presented me with a copy over dinner of My Paper Chase and wrote in it “To Les – the master from Merseyside”. I thought the hyperbole was kind.

When the hacking scandal erupted, Evans went on the rampage again but showed signs of inner conflict. In an updated foreword of Good Times, Bad Times, he writes: “When I came across Murdoch socially in New York I found I was without any residual emotional hostility. I share his romantic affection for newspapers. He is for his part agreeable and sometimes vividly amusing…” But then: “I have to remind myself, as he wheels about the universe of “The Big Deal”, that Lucifer is the most arresting character in Milton’s Paradise Lost.”

The zealots – the true AntiMurdochManiacs – are fascinating. They fill blogs, infest Twitter and pour out hyperventilating books. Their opinions run deep through certain newspapers and websites, and consume particular columnists. I decided Nick Davies might be their patron saint after reading the epilogue of his book Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch.

Davies tells how his doggedness helped uncover hacking. No argument there and he tells his story well. I’d question some of his account and it can be self-aggrandising, but it’s a good cat-and-mouse tale.

What stood out was his curious epilogue. I have read it again and again. It is preposterous. Davies starts: “This was never simply a story about a journalist who broke the law … (a) rogue corporation had been allowed to flourish – and to break the rules and to make comrades of the police and the government – because it had grown up in a wider system which positively encouraged it and other corporations to do all of these things.”

He denounces neoliberalism and “laissez-fair capitalism” for reversing centuries of struggle by labour movements and political campaigners. This movement, he says, had been put into effect in the early 1970s by the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and promoted more than 30 years ago by Reagan and Thatcher – “penetrating by the 1990s even the dark empires of China and the former Soviet Union…” He compares his evildoers to Victorian mining bosses who fought to keep children down the pits.

And here’s the sting: “Like some ideological vanguard, Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants have used their news outlets to shift the centre of power – the centre of thinking – far over to the right.”

Which all goes to show that Murdoch is at the heart of a neoliberal, capitalist plot to destroy the world. Of course he is.

None of Davies’s diatribe is original. It is the bog-standard rant of an anarchist after he’s chucked bricks through a McDonald’s window.

But it did open my eyes to the truth about the militant wing of AntiMurdochMania. The Murdoch they hate doesn’t exist. This view of him is so risible, so nuts, it must be a hallucination. It’s a crowd-sourced apparition, a vessel where these people pour their rage and grief about big business, great power, global inequity and everything else they see wrong with the world. This virtual Murdoch is their devil.

This doesn’t mean the real Murdoch is unblemished. He is a driven businessman with heavy boots who has bruised a lot of people in the last half century. At times he has deserved a kicking. If someone founded a hall of fame for perfect people, I would not raise a petition to induct him. As a boss, he can be hands-off or autocratic, charming or irascible, forgiving or fierce, and sometimes just a comprehensive pain.

And yet – although his record on this is not perfect – the majority of people he employs love working for him. He imbues his companies with a fantastic sense of possibility and gets big results. He has overthrown giants on three continents to become the biggest giant of all. Warts and all, Murdoch is an authentic colossus and his own kind of revolutionary. One day, when his enemies have gone and taken away their wounds and blind fury, a new generation of chroniclers will come along to rethink his history. Perhaps they’ll give him a break.

Les Hinton held a variety of senior posts under Rupert Murdoch, including chief executive officer of Dow Jones, executive chairman of News International and chairman and chief executive of Fox Television Stations He is currently writing his memoir. .@leshinton

 

When print ruled and booze and dodgy expenses flowed freely – Fleet St tragics will love this book. Newcomers will glimpse a lost time.

2 Jun

by Les Hinton

(published June 2016 in British Journalism Review @ BJR.org.uk)

The Happy Hack – a Memoir of Fleet Street in its Heyday by Mike Molloy (John Blake Publishing, pp336, £8.99)

From the age of 12, I wanted to be a journalist and it’s the Daily Mirror’s fault. I did not come up on the posh side of newspapers; ours was a Mirror house and the literature in my life was in the columns of Cassandra, Donald Zec’s zippy showbiz stories, and irresistibly florid sports pieces by Peter Wilson, who was called “The Man They Can’t Gag”, which made him seem intrepid, even though he looked like a suburban banker in his byline photo.

Cassandra wasn’t a fancy writer using big words and complicated sentences, but he was funny and angry, and weaved wonderful images with simple language. He watched an early hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific and wrote: “It was a dress rehearsal for the death of the world.”

Peter Wilson helped make a national hero out of the boxer Don Cockell, who was slaughtered in a famous title fight by a roughhouse American world champion called Rocky Marciano. Wilson wrote that Marciano’s savagery had given rise to a “kind of primeval mass sympathy and acclamation” towards Cockell, making it sound as if he were writing about the crucifixion. Cockell came home bruised and battered but a lionhearted loser.

There is no one now to compare with the fame and power of writers like Cassandra, Wilson and Zec. When I was a boy, they were eyewitnesses for millions when only one in three households had television and newspapers really did shape attitudes – 21million national newspapers were sold each day in a country with 14million homes.

When I arrived in London in 1965, I could not imagine a better place to work than the Daily Mirror. But the closest I ever came was with an invitation to its offices inside the towering slab of red and grey glass that once overshadowed Holborn Circus. It was one of London’s ugliest buildings, but it felt like walking into a temple. I was 21 and Roly Watkins, the news editor, told me to “go learn your trade in the provinces”. Lucky for me, the Mirror’s anaemic little sister, the broadsheet Sun, was less discriminating, although my chances might have improved when I lied about my age.

Mike Molloy was luckier and more talented. He began on the Mirror’s stable mate, the Sunday Pictorial, as a 15-year-old messenger boy, and was editor of the Daily Mirror by 34. He lived through the days when the Mirror was a soaring success, its devoted readers buying more than 5million copies a day. He was still there when a great newspaper’s luck began to run out.

Molloy has written a racy memorial to what people my age, possibly deludedly, think of as the golden age of journalism. He does so while managing to remain both wistful and cheerful, and nostalgic without being mawkish.

He does not linger on the dry details and travails of the newspaper business, except occasionally to decry “blundering … ramshackle … inept” managers. This attitude is congenital among all journalists, although there is plenty of evidence that Molloy’s complaints have special merit.

He concentrates instead on the assets that matter most in a newspaper – its journalists – and brings alive the glorious menagerie of people he worked with. A significant chunk of this book amounts to an impressive anthology of his tales about newspaper people. His name- dropping anecdotes about movie stars and royalty are not so much fun.

It would be churlish to wonder at Molloy’s miraculous ability to recollect long-ago conversations because the details of his stories are too good to be untrue. Most importantly, some of them are hilarious. Here are a few: the case of the love-stained desk blotter; the pint-drinking chimp that allegedly impersonated Frank Sinatra; the executive who believed he could make himself invisible; the New York bureau chief who avoided Americans; the editor who used his feature man’s forehead as a golf tee; Marjorie Proops’s cursing mynah bird; the made- up news story of the Liverpool surgeons who used nylon strands from a nurse’s knickers when they ran out of surgical thread; and the time Alastair Campbell caught Robert Maxwell putting on mascara – in the nude.

And that list leaves out any stories about drinking escapades – there are an alarming number of those. A man with one leg who was briefly company chairman declared: “In the land of the legless, the one-legged man is king.”

A reader might think the Mirror was drinking itself to death. If so, there is no denying it was a brilliant, high-functioning alcoholic. When he is serious, Molloy is unblinking about where the Mirror went wrong. He was there when Hugh Cudlipp celebrated with champagne after making the mistake of his career in selling The Sun for a song to Rupert Murdoch.

He is restrained in his respect for the Sun, but acknowledges Kelvin MacKenzie as a “formidable editor” who was the right choice at the right time. He is angry at his management’s flat-footed response to The Sun’s advance, but also confesses: “The fatal flaw… was that we (the Mirror) thought we had a mission to improve the country.”

His powerful account of the malign regime of Robert Maxwell reveals a black comedy of havoc and crazy schemes. A psychiatrist friend tells Molloy: “He’s mad… off his head… I’ve got people inside who are less crazy than him.”

Molloy was glad to escape and looks back forlornly on what has become of the romantic world he remembers. He thinks modern technology has drained the drama and energy out of newsrooms and turned them into “halls of boredom”. He is wrong about that.

The modern newsroom is a foreign country to people like Molloy: they do things differently there.

There is good and bad, but it is not boring. The muted nudging of computer keyboards has replaced clattering typewriters; email has reduced human contact and loud commands; falling revenue has reduced the population; the air is cleaner. But in the best newspapers there is as much energy and purpose and creativity as ever. Of course, there is also more anxiety.

Molloy has written an entertaining book. Old timers can relive the days when newsprint ruled and booze and dodgy expenses flowed freely. Newcomers can get an authentic glimpse of a lost time.

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Les Hinton worked for 50 years as a journalist and executive in Australia, Britain and the US. He is currently writing his memoir. @leshinton