Media: In the media, you have to make a good fist of it

The newsroom is the scene of many a good brawl, thanks to drink, deadlines and ambition.
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The Independent Culture
when diarist Nigel Dempster of The Daily Mail decided to take a swing at his departing deputy Adam Helliker last week he was carrying on a newspaper tradition that is probably as old as moveable type. William Caxton is bound to have laid out one of his juniors at some time, no doubt after a three-mead lunch.

There seems to be something about the combination of deadlines, drink and ambition which fuels newspapers that makes violence inevitable. As recently as last month Gerry Malone, The European's editor, had to make a grovelling apology to features editor Nicola Davidson after slapping her around the head.

The most spectacular attempt at newspaper violence was that perpetrated by two Mirror Group workers against Robert Maxwell in the early Eighties. Maxwell was in dispute with the print unions when two staff sneaked on to the helicopter pad at Mirror headquarters in High Holborn. They attached a line to the windsock and nailed the line down so that it was pointing in the opposite direction to the wind. Horrified pedestrians in Holborn watched as Maxwell's helicopter made dangerous and erratic attempts to land with a pilot unable to tell why he was being buffeted from the wrong direction.

Maxwell was also the cause of one of the most famous Fleet Street attacks. Days after the corrupt press baron fell overboard Alastair Campbell, now Downing Street spokesman but then The Mirror's political editor, was being baited by Michael White of The Guardian. White simply repeated the phrase "bob, bob, bob" until, to the delight of the assembled hacks, Campbell swung for him in the House of Commons press lobby.

Mirror headquarters had a habit of endangering not just journalists, but also the public. In the early Eighties two Sunday People journalists, David Alford and Frank Thorne, had been winding each other up all week as they worked on a story. By Saturday they had had enough of each other and Alford threw a typewriter at Thorne. It missed Thorne and sailed through a window. Horrified People staff rushed to see how many had been killed on Fetter Lane below. Luckily the area is deserted on Saturday mornings.

A less lucky innocent victim was Martin Dunn. Dunn is now head of Associated Newspaper's television interests, but at the beginning of the Nineties as editor of Today he was summoned to Los Angeles by Rupert Murdoch to be told from now on he was to be the acceptable face of News International whenever a TV spokesman was needed.

Dunn stopped off at Costello's, the British hack hang-out in New York, on his way back from his meeting. While there a fight broke out between The Sun's man in New York and The Mirror's man. One punched the other, whose head snapped back into the face of Dunn, which spurted blood across the bar. The acceptable face of News International returned to the UK with stitches and a black eye.

Such are the tensions of the newsroom that violence can even be self- inflicted. Paul Dacre, the perfectionist editor of The Daily Mail was once so distraught with a piece of copy that he threw himself onto a desk theatrically. Unfortunately an old-fashioned copy spike was sitting on the desk and he impaled himself through the chest.

But it is not just scent of ink and newsprint that sets off the journalistic tendency to violence. Scott Chisholm, a Sky News anchorman, hit the headlines when he hit his partner Chris Mann. The burly New Zealander was upset about something Mann had said in a magazine interview and the two had argued about it. Hours later a casual remark set Chisholm off and he flattened Mann. Both later left Sky's employ.

But in the annals of Fleet Street nothing quite compares to the last day of Today. When the mid-market tabloid was closed in November 1995 the staff put the paper to bed and retired to Henry's Cafe Bar in Wapping. Very quickly things got out of hand as champagne, beer and spirits were downed in an unseemly rush.

Given that it was the last time many of the paper's staff would see each other it was a last chance to settle some scores. Voices were raised, a punch was thrown and quickly the Wild West came to Wapping. Chairs were thrown, beer bottles crunched under foot and about 20 drunk journalists and photographers were trying to punch each other - most of them missing.

While editor Richard Stott tried to calm things down, the police arrived and started pinning reporters, photographers and executives to the floor. Nine were arrested, mostly on charges of being drunk and disorderly, one for hitting a policeman. One journalist ended up in the Royal Free Hospital under sedation.

Today was to be the first newspaper of the computer revolution. But in its closing it stayed true to one of journalism's oldest truths: sometimes the fist is mightier than the pen.

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