The reason for the Leveson Inquiry into the media is not actually to set up the Lord Leveson Phonetappers and Pen-Shunters Social Club or, indeed, to indulge any form of Fleet Street nostalgia whatsoever. I know that, of course. But it's a pleasure to stare into some claret-red face from the past, feign horror and exclaim in the disappointed tones of Bernard Manning: ‘%@!* me, but I thought you were dead!’
The face stares back with rheumy, hooded eyes which confirm you have hit a chord before replying with equal disappointment: ‘I thought you were *%@!*&$ dead too!’
‘Well, I’m not.’
‘Neither am I.’
‘Fancy one in The George.’
‘Don’t ask silly questions.’
And as you trot over the road, it seems like only yesterday that you were treading these same cobbles made holy by the spilling of blood, sweat and fizzy keg beer.
I used to spend a lot of my time hanging around the lowest dives in EC4 - Scribes, the Harrow, the Cheshire Cheese, El Vino’s, and even worse, those most notorious haunts of habitual criminals, the Old Bailey and the High Court.
We were reporters. We were a happy bunch of boys and girls. We worked together, drank together, argued together and had fun together.
But then the Murdoch meteor plunged to earth and we were blasted to the four corners. I landed in Camden. Others touched down at Canary Wharf or Kensington High Street. We lost touch. We made new friends.
And then, a few months ago, the finger of serendipity prodded me in the chest.
In a tiresome, argumentative and troubling way, I have always been interested in the theory of popular journalism as well as the practice. It sounds a bit pompous, I know, but for me, as a kid living in a northern town, the Daily Mirror of the 1950s was a window on the world, all the way from The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club to New York and Moscow and the then Peking. Through its inky smudges, it imprinted not just its newsprint on me but its principles. I’ve never been able to wash them away, even if I’d wanted to, and they were the reason I have been a hack for the last 47 years: tabloid journalism with sense as well as sensationalism.
In May I stopped being editor of a woman’s real-life magazine and, a few days later, I saw an old man blinking into a TV camera and murmuring ‘This is the most humble day of my life.’
What the Murdoch taketh away, the Murdoch could now giveth back.
I would reclaim the title I love the most.
It was Jack Crossley - of the Daily Mail, The Observer, The Express and The Times - who used to tell me ‘reporter’ was the proudest title in newspapers. I reckoned he thought I was simple. Now I know otherwise.
And so I unilaterally appointed myself ‘Your one-stop phone hacking correspondent’ and announced I would be returning to my old game, my old patch, like a gypsy’s dog rediscovering his favourite lamppost.
Ranters readers may be slightly interested in some of the practical points, bearing in mind it is a different world out there from the one I knew in the 60s, 70s and 80s. I had to learn fast. This is what I did.
Website. I googled around and asked for tenders from various web-builders. One priced it at £15,000, another £5,000. Other people showed me what they’d had built for them, often for more than £1000. You gotta be kidding!
Then I discovered Yola - http://www.yola.com/how-to-make-a-website.html. It’s free and DIY. Within an hour or so, I had a prototype up and running without my once threatening to smash up my machine. So it really is idiot proof. Have a look at what I’ve done - http://johndalejournalist.co.uk/ You can do it as well. You can change your content at will. You don’t have to beg someone to do it for you.
Facebook: I set up a separate John Dale Journalist page. It could develop, with attention.
Linkedin: I set up a profile. For building up professional contacts, this has been extremely useful.
Twitter. Mmm, I hesitated. If anything had convinced me that Stephen Fry was bonkers, then it was his twittering obsession. What was the point? Why would I want to tweet? It was moronic. But younger journalists told me otherwise.
Last weekend I registered and tried my first timid tweet. I gazed at the screen and then a miracle happened. I got it! I understood. It all fell into place and now I am a twitterer, with a moderate habit. And I follow Stephen Fry although he doesn’t follow me.
Business cards: I downloaded an App, designed and printed them myself using shiny photographic paper from W H Smiths. I can change them at will, rather deviously, like James Garner in the Rockford Files.
Office: I hired a desk in a media centre in Chiswick High Road, at £5000 a year. Big mistake. I cancelled it and joined Soho House, at £1200 a year, getting four very sociable bases in Chiswick, Soho, Shoreditch and Notting Hill, as well as access to others in Berlin, New York, Miami and Los Angeles.
Thus I am up and running.
On Monday, 14 November, I will be disembarking at Temple tube and be down at the tailend of dear old Fleet Street to attend court 73 at the Royal Courts of Justice where Lord Leveson will be opening his inquiry properly.
It will begin, I understand, by hearing first from the lawyers, then from the victims of phone hacking, people such as Hugh Grant, then from the editors and journalists.
So, to that extent only, it resembles a trial - prosecution witnesses followed by the defence. The structure sounds ominous.
I will attend the hearings, although not religiously, and I will also attend The George and The Cheshire Cheese and El Vino’s and maybe the Harrow, in the company of some old friends. Sadly, Scribes has gone.
I know, I know. Lord Leveson has other, more important things on his mind than my nostalgia, and I have the insatiable maw of a website to fill, a regular column in Press Gazette to write, and the demands of the Chief Ranter to satisfy. But I still wish to thank his Lordship for accommodating some old memories and nurturing the Lord Leveson Phonetappers and Pen-Shunters Social Club* (See Terms & Conditions Below).
* Lord Leveson Phonetappers and Pen-Shunters Social Club is a jocular reference to a British television variety show called The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, produced by Granada Television from 1974 to 1977, and set in a fictional working men’s club. It starred Bernard Manning and Colin Crompton. Any apparent admission by this writer of phone tapping, involvement in or knowledge of, is entirely unfounded and due to a desperate insecurity and need to be entertaining at all cost.
- Lord Leveson is still appealing for more witnesses to come forward to contribute to his inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press. Accordingly the inquiry is seeking more information on how newsrooms operate; the effects of commercial pressures, competition and the internet; checks and balances; and the understanding of ethics.
Although the inquiry is intended to be public, he is offering confidentiality to journalists who wish to whistle-blow but fear for their careers.
Some of the evidence will be broadcast on normal news channels, as it merits. The full evidence, including video, will be streamed on the inquiry’s website.
Frank, Fearless, Frequently Flummoxed