Journalist & Writer Brian MacArthur shares some insight into his life-long career in journalism and gives us his thoughts on the future of news in the first of NLA’s guest posts.
Brian MacArthur’s journalistic career includes being the founding editor of Today, deputy editor of The Sunday Times, executive editor of The Times, and editor of the Western Morning News.
Brian now works as a freelance writer – he makes regular contributions to The Times, Daily Mail and The Oldie, and his books include ‘The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches’ (editor) and ‘Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45’ (author).
Journalism was a different occupation 53 years ago when I started on the Yorkshire Post in Leeds and the Daily Mail in Manchester. Newsrooms were noisy – we all used old-fashioned typewriters usually with three sheets of paper – one for the subs, one for the news editor and one to keep – interleaved with carbons. Most of us smoked. Later in Fleet Street the drinking was prodigious.
We left the office every day to follow news stories – when the Mail and Express were competing, the tyres of rivals’ cars would be slashed and phones ripped out of phone boxes so that they couldn’t phone in their copy. Stories were phoned in to copytakers, usually men with headphones hunched over typewriters and given to asking, depressingly, ‘Is there much more of this?’ or ‘Do you think this’ll get in?’
We were encouraged to lunch with our contacts. By meeting them face-to-face over a meal they relaxed and we got front page scoops as we drank a gin and tonic, a bottle of wine, often a brandy, and then returned to the office to write two or three stories.
I spent most of my working life on The Times and Sunday Times but I also launched The Times Higher Education Supplement and Eddy Shah’s Today and edited the Western Morning News. I enjoyed working for the Mail in Manchester but hated its London office where reporters were merely taxis on a rank and so I fled back to Manchester and The Guardian. At The Guardian we had a sort of tutorial with the news editor in which we might discuss if we had quite the right verb or adjective. After his approval our copy was sacred.
The same atmosphere prevailed at The Times except that we were treated like gentlemen and addressed as Mr. We got occasional handwritten herograms i had written a report that the editor admired. Afternoon tea was served in teapots at our desks and there were two editorial bedrooms, served by butlers, for reporters who had to stay in London overnight.
The most exciting editor I worked for was the (genuinely) legendary Harold Evans. Writers were encouraged to be daring and often given months for investigations. He is probably best remembered for his long campaign at the Sunday Times to get justice for the victims of thalidomide.
Highly successful though it was, week after week the Sunday Times was sabotaged by the print unions – mostly casual workers with no loyalty to the paper. Eventually both The Times and Sunday Times were sold to Rupert Murdoch and in 1986 he staged the Wapping Revolution. All four of his newspapers including and he Sun and News of the World moved overnight from Fleet Street to Wapping, 5000 printers lost their jobs, and militant pickets surrounded the plant for more than a year. But we journalists now had the new technology and were able to use computers to write and edit our copy without any intervention from the printers. Freedom!
We entered a golden age. Profits soared, newspapers swelled – it was now that the Sunday Times added so many sections – and new newspapers were launched, most notably The Independent, because it had become so much cheaper to enter the market. But this revolution lasted only about 30 years before the internet and the digital revolution began to seep into newspaper life and it is beginning to look as if the centuries of print newspapers may now slowly be coming to an end.
To return to where I started: newsrooms where reporters use computers are now silent, only a very few smoke, all newspapers are printed in colour, the unions have disappeared, papers are printed across the country. Reporters seem to be chained to their desks, lunching on a tuna sandwich a bottle of water instead of going to the pub and I suspect they rarely leave the office. How do they expect to get scoops? There is ‘churnalism’, copy recycled from press releases, instead of journalism.
The grumblings of a sad old man? Perhaps. But when I get together with journalists of my generation we tend to agree that we had the best of times. Mind you, if I was 25 and offered the chance to go to LA or Sydney to recruit staff and launch a website, as has happened at The Guardian and Mail Online for instance, that could be as exciting as what was on offer to me.