Podium: Once upon a time in the press

From the Iain Walker Memorial Lecture, given by the writer and journalist to the Reuters Foundation at Oxford University
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The Independent Culture
LET ME begin by trying to paint a picture of what newspapers were like in 1958, when I started out in journalism. Your chances of seeing them for yourselves are pretty small; everything today has been put on microfiche and even if you go to the newspaper library at Colindale - where those very surly porters used to come to you grumpily humping great bound volumes - nowadays you'll be presented with little packets of celluloid which you're left to fix for yourself on to the spools of those rather archaic projection machines. If only because on the spool each day's issue runs on automatically into the next, you don't get the feel of the real thing.

But if you were lucky enough to handle real copies (and nowadays only actors in, say, Noel Coward plays seem to be able to do so), I'm sure the first thing that would strike you is of what modest proportions the newspapers of my youth were made. The most striking contrast between the newspapers being published 40 years ago and those that clump on our doormats today lies in the sheer bulk of the latter products.

At the beginning of 1958 only two papers had more than one section - and they were those twin Sunday dowagers, The Observer and The Sunday Times (the latter already filling its second, or review, section with interminable military memoirs by such people as Field Marshal Montgomery and Lord Alanbrooke). Every other paper in Fleet Street was quite content to come out in the compact, economy size - 16-20 broadsheet pages on a good day, a mere 12 at those times of year when advertising was leaner. Newsprint rationing had been finally abolished only a year earlier, in 1957.

The matter of size, of course, imposed its own discipline - and it's amazing how we seem to have forgotten the constraints that it brought in its wake. When Jim Rose, the first post-war literary editor of The Observer, died the other day, I was amazed at how many of the obits referred to the quality of the books pages he produced each week. Nuts to that: there weren't any books pages in The Observer of circa 1948-51 - at best there were a couple of columns occupying a precarious perch on the editorial page. The same, of course, went for sport - it may have been allowed a page of its own (at the very back of the paper) but it certainly wasn't allowed more than that; sports feature writers such as Hugh McIlvaney and Michael Parkinson could never have flourished in those days.

News values were different then, too. When I went to work for it at the beginning of 1959, the most regular "splash" story in the Manchester Guardian would be a report on the previous day's Commons debate. But it wasn't just in the "Voice of Liberal England" that domestic politics got more than a fair shake. Middle-brow, middle-market papers, such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail (both then broadsheets) thought nothing of carrying reports from Parliament - and in those days they were reports and not sketches - on their front pages, often turning over to fill a large part of page 2 as well. As for The Times (still, believe it or not, with classified advertising on its front page until 1966) and The Daily Telegraph (which was quaintly old-fashioned in different ways), they both regularly devoted a whole page - and on high days two - to the previous day's proceedings in Parliament.

In what already at that time was arrogantly referred to as "the quality press", anonymity was the almost universal practice. Photographers might justly get credits; writing journalism seldom if ever did. Even Hugh Massingham, the founding father of the craft of modern parliamentary journalism, never got anything but the byline "By our political correspondent" above his regular weekly pieces in The Observer. The only variation arose in the case of James Margach in The Sunday Times, who was allowed above his column, though not on news stories, to describe himself as "A student of politics" - prompting Bernard Levin's unkind gibe, "About time that lad passed his finals" (Margach being by then well over 60).