(Please note: I have included glossary at foot of page for 'civilians'.)
As chairman of the phone hacking Inquiry, Lord Leveson is devoting many hours to exploring the arcane culture of tabloid journalism and for that he is being widely commended. Yet, provocatively, he has not turned up drunk even once - deliberately, in my view - thereby enraging the most reasonable of his Fleet Street critics
Ranters ask Hacking Judge...
HAVE YOU NO SHAME, SIR?Lord Justice Leveson looks like a man who would prefer a quiet night in with the wife to an all-nighter at The Stab followed by a greasy breakfast at Mick’s to soak it all up, which is a terrible disappointment to us all.
To rectify this, he was advised last week to start reading Ranters.
When I saw him striding up the steps of the QE2 Conference Centre, I said to myself that in my professional opinion he definitely didn’t have a hangover. In fact I said he was a man who had not had a lot of hangovers in his life.
The judge put one foot in front of the other with complete confidence and he didn’t stop once to lean on a lamppost and catch his breath or vomit on the pavement in Victoria Street. At all times he appeared fully aware of his surroundings, where he was going and what he was doing.
He didn’t even try it on with the young policewoman.
Yes, there will be some non-journalists - what we call ‘civilians’ - who say this is the least they expect of the chairman of the public inquiry into phone hacking. They say it’s appropriate, even required, that the appointed judge does not keep falling over in the traffic. They can have their views. But we, as Gentlemen Ranters, are entitled to feel completely let down.
I blame the Prime Minister.
After the farce of his previous media arrangements, we expected him to keep faith with the humorous element he had introduced into his appointments. To be honest, I’d hoped that Mr Cameron would have dragged some random lawyer out of El Vino’s, a Horace Rumpole sort of figure whose experience of the press was to share a bottle of ‘Chateau Fleet Street’ every day with Peter McKay while brushing cigar ash off his lapels. There are hundreds around.
Instead he chose Lord Leveson who, in this aspect, falls lamentably short and is therefore, obviously, wholly the wrong person for the job.
Of course I could be completely wrong. I mean, he might have been putting on an brilliant act. When I saw him he could easily have breakfasted on a pint of claret and a giant spliff and was just concentrating hard on walking in a straight line. For all I know, he might have had carpet burns on his knees and elbows but - and here we reach the very crux of the Public Inquiry - the PCC Code of Practice strictly forbade me from forcing him to remove all his clothes so I could inspect him bodily. I was even willing to do it in the lobby. Yet still it wasn't permitted. And they call this a free country! So I haven’t a clue really.
I just watched him arrive, that’s all. He seemed modest and normal and decent and respectable, and completely devoid of any scandal I could pin on him to divert the masses for a few seconds, destroy him and his family, totally wreck the proceedings and earn myself a few bob, which would have been handy for a lunchtime beer.
What was the point of coming? At this rate I’d have to report the speeches. I nearly went straight home.
I raise the matter because His Lordship has said that he will be examining Fleet Street culture. For me, that set alarm bells ringing. Okay, what exactly are his qualifications? What entitles him to embark on an anthropological journey into our collective consciousness, to step into our world and probe the secrets of our parallel universe, to explore the madness and mayhem that made Fleet Street great?
Is he even an alcoholic? I DON’T THINK SO.
Like all good judges, he starts from zero, which is why we can expect him to ask some silly questions such as what is meant by ‘early doors’, ‘first knockings’, ‘conference quickie’, ‘late night lock-in’, ‘no, it’s not my baby’ and ‘anyone bribed the local coppers and got a favour to call in?’. He might know the angles as well as we do but for the record he has to pretend he doesn’t, that he’s as dim as the work experience girl in grave moral danger on the newsdesk.
And another thing. He didn’t smile nicely for the snappers, leaving them terribly depressed and two of them discussing a suicide pact outside Scotland Yard. His expression adjusted not one jot in front of the bank of cameras waiting for him. He wore a grey suit instead of trailing about in red robes and a blonde wig, which we always prefer, and he didn’t even say ‘cheese’ before marching through the sliding doors. For the rest of the proceedings he kept his face locked in neutral, with the exception of one brief interlude.
This moment of light relief came in the middle of the morning, as the discussion was gathering momentum, when one of the speakers from the floor - Professor Steven Barnett, of the University of Westminster - suggested an easy way for the judge to improve his understanding of newsroom cultures.
‘I recommend,’ he said, ‘ that you read a website called Gentlemen Ranters.’
Ranters! Thrust centre-stage at the seat of power. Fame at last!
A knowing titter ran round the room. The titter was chased by a murmur. The murmur came from those wishing others to be made aware that they too were card-carrying Ranters.
Suddenly the hall seemed suffused with them, a nodding fellowship of regulars of The Last Pub In Fleet Street. In modern argot, and against all expectations, being a Ranter felt really, really cool.
At this, the neutrality of Lord Leveson’s visage was compromised briefly by the raising of an eyebrow and the flicker of a smile. Professor Barnett’s suggestion was noted.
The proceedings continued.
By now I was keeping a beady eye on the judge, still hoping for a good sex scandal to blow up. But I was struggling. Nearby stood a clear liquid for him to sip, to moisten his delicate lips. I investigated. I know this is dismaying for Ranters regulars, but it turned out to be 100 per cent water. At no point did he even creep out for a crafty fag, which is also an absolute disgrace.
I was in despair.
Lord Leveson has a steep learning curve ahead of him and I hope he gets stuck into Ranters as soon possible, as Professor Barnett advised. He should be granted the Freedom of the Ranters Archives. To start with, and to build up tolerance to the X-rated stuff, I recommend any article which mentions Harry Procter, Brian Hitchen and Noel Botham. Then he should move on to the really hard material like The Prince of Darkness himself. He must become fully conversant with the vices that fuelled our work and lives.
Ranters and Leveson can yet become one.
The Inquiry is going to last a year or so and, on behalf of Ranters, I will be keeping a check on him and looking for clear evidence of an improvement in his behaviour. I want to see solid progress: three hour lunches with Dominic Mohan, evenings on the Bulmers with Tina Weaver, head-banging with Paul Dacre, hitting the Fosters Super-cold with Richard Wallace, talking Taffy with Hugh Whittow, discussing the editorial values of breasts and bottoms with Dawn Neesom.
I want him turning up late and unsteady every morning, munching on a bacon bap and quietly putting Smirnoff in his water jug. I want him on contract to Richard Desmond and locked in the Big Brother House. I want him behaving like a proper judge, not messing about at the Appeal Court but like Louis on X Factor or Len on Strictly Come Dancing. I won’t rest until he’s had his chest waxed.
Only then will I, and my fellow Ranters, start to have confidence in him.
On what I’ve seen, he is going to have his work cut out. But he should think of us as his best friends. If he wishes, we’ll hide him away in a Holiday Inn and get him drunk for a week.
We are here to help him understand us.
Oh, I believe there was a second reference to Ranters during the day’s proceedings. Unfortunately it was after lunch and I was in the pub and missed it.
GLOSSARY (in order of appearance):
Ranters. Legendary website Gentlemen Ranters, which calls itself The Last Pub In Fleet Street. www.gentlemenranters.com
The Stab. Abbreviation of legendary Stab in the Back pub, nickname of the White Horse in Fetter Lane, off Fleet Street, used by Mirror staff when at Holborn Circus.
Mick's. Legendary Fleet Street greasy spoon cafe which served sausages containing (in my opinion) no actual meat.
Peter McKay. Legendary Daily Mail editor of the Ephraim Hardcastle column, named after the Sunday Express column edited in the 1950s by Peter Dacre, father of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.
Harry Proctor. Legendary reporter and buy-up expert on the Sunday Pictorial. In the later 50s people would say, 'Tell Harry Procter about it'.
Brian Hitchen. Legendary Daily Express news editor who masterminded their 1974 scoop of finding Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in Rio. Later editor of the Sunday Express and the Daily Star.
Noel Botham. Legendary News of the World and National Enquirer reporter who later ran the French House pub, Soho.
Prince of Darkness. Legendary Daily Express crime reporter Jimmy Nicholson, who wore his black raincoat like a cloak in an impersonation of Count Dracula.
Dominic Mohan. Legendary Editor of The Sun.
Tina Weaver. Legendary Editor of the Sunday Mirror.
Paul Dacre. Legendary Editor of the Daily Mail.
Hugh Whittow. Legendary Editor of the Daily Express.
Dawn Neesom. Legendary Editor of the Daily Star.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED ON GENTLEMEN RANTERS 14 October 2011.