Can gossip really take you to the top?

Once the launch pad for numerous high-flyers, the newspaper diary faces an identity crisis and a lack of new talent.
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The Independent Online
Towards the end of a book launch in the West End last week, Fleet Street's diary reporters huddled, as they always do, in the corner of the room. It was 9pm. They had worked the room, collected quotes, and in the case of the London Evening Standard reporters, filed their stories for the morning's first edition. Now they could sink a few drinks.

But for once the conversation did not focus on office gossip. Instead, they contemplated the sudden changes occurring in the arcane world of the diary and pondered what they might mean.

Susannah Herbert, the former arts correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, and current editor of Londoner's Diary, has resigned after only eight months, having been wooed back to the Telegraph as Paris correspondent. Meanwhile, Jasper Gerard, stalwart of the Telegraph's Peterborough column for three years and now author of the Mandrake column in the Sunday Telegraph, is considering a lucrative job offer as political correspondent for the Daily Express.

Herbert is the third to leave the Londoner's Diary team in as many months. A week ago, Mark Inglefield, one of its fixtures, went to the Express to become deputy editor of the reinstated William Hickey column. A month ago Londoner's Diary also said farewell to David Rennie, who took over the Telegraph's Peterborough column. Rennie, in turn, has lost one of that column's strongest reporters, Philip Delves-Broughton, who is leaving to become number two on the Times diary.

The moves have meant that at the junior end of the scale there are diary vacancies galore. For the first time, however, sources claim, there is a dearth of decent graduate talent applying - vitally important as diaries are notorious for their work loads and high burn-out rate.

This may be a symptom of changes in journalism itself. The old system of apprenticeship on local papers is dying as more and more nationals recruit direct from journalism colleges. Meanwhile, some rising young writershave perhaps created the perception that braving the freelance circuit - the glossy magazinemarket particularly - may be a quicker track to fame (and profitability).

To readers, these changes mean little. Other than the Peterborough column and the Guardian diary, which carry bylines, diaries are anonymous flagships. Their voice is meant to reflect the paper's identity rather than the individual author's. And because diaries are believed to be popular with readers, senior diary staff are chosen with care.

It is no coincidence that several national newspaper editors, including Max Hastings (formerly of the Telegraph, now editor of the Evening Standard), Richard Addis (Daily Express), Alan Rusbridger (Guardian) and Piers Morgan (formerly News of the World, now the Daily Mirror), served their apprenticeship as diary editors. If you can get a diary column right, the chances are you can get a paper right. That's why newspaper executives should be worried at this apparent lack of talent at the bottom.

There's more. Since the Evening Standard launched the first diary 80 years ago, no editor has doubted the need for one. But now a big question mark hangs over the tone and subject matter. Fifty years ago this was easier to define.

"When Harold Nicholson was editing Londoner's Diary, he would have had endless high-class documents leaked to him from the Commons because home news was so straight and not remotely gossipy," says Herbert. "Now news incorporates so much gossip, particularly about the royals, that the diarist's role is much much harder."

"Diaries reflected the mechanisms of society," says Lord Deedes, who worked on the Peterborough column for 30 years between 1945 and 1975. "We wrote up snippets from the dinners we went to in our white tie. We wrote quite serious stories about top figures in government, in the Admiralty and in the aristocracy, because those were the kinds of people who played an important role. Nowadays people are far more interested in reading about Emma Thompson, which reflects social change. It is increasingly hard to separate diaries from show business columns."

But celebrity has always had news value. It is toffs - "our betters" - who no longer hold public interest (unless they are bankrupt or on drugs). They seem fossils of a bygone era, particularly after the cut and thrust of the Thatcherite Eighties, when money and power were things to be made or seized, not inherited.

It's a split reflected in the diarist's job itself. Class friction has always existed between news reporters and diarists. "Traditionally, diarists come from the upper classes and public schools," concedes Auberon Waugh, who worked on the Peterborough column in 1960. "They were despised by the the news reporters, who tended not to."

"When I arrived on Londoner's Diary in 1966," says the Daily Express columnist Mary Kenny, "not only was I the only girl on the column, I was the only person who hadn't been to Eton - except for the editor, Max Hastings. He'd been privately educated."

These divisions still exist: today's diarists face accusations from conventional news reporters that their job is easy because the columns read that way.

"As an alternative to the excellent training one gets on a regional paper, working on a diary is still the best way of learning," says Quentin Letts, who edited the Peterborough column for four years. "No matter how silly a story might be, the reporter has to make it credible. If young people are no longer so willing to apply to diaries, then perhaps it is because upper-middle class parents now shudder at the idea of their offspring joining the ratpack - which is how diarists can be perceived."

The snootiness may have some justification. In the Sixties, it was relatively easy to be a diary reporter. Kenny remembers that on her first day she was sent to interview Lord Attlee in the morning and Marcus Worsley, the brother of the Duchess of Kent, in the afternoon. That she hadn't heard of either of them made her task daunting.

Now, however, assignments such as that would be seen as a luxury. Today's diary reporters are expected to rely on their own initiative. The only events they are sent to are book launches, which they take it in turns to attend.

This is why Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror and former editor of the Sun's Bizarre column, believes a stint on a diary remains excellent training for the top positions in Fleet Street. "You don't just have to find one story each day, you have to find seven or eight. And you have to do it every day five days a week. It is by far the best discipline for any prospective head of department to learn. If you get it right, readers love it. When I did Bizarre a survey showed it was the fourth thing they turned to."

The Guardian diary has avoided internal friction by keeping its content political and by always appointing an experienced journalist as editor, without a back-up team, to the post. Andrew Moncur, who held the post for five years, considered the job a serious one.

"The diary is important in that it captures important truths in apparently insignificant little details," he says, citing a story about Michael Heseltine. "The story, which pointed out that Hezza wanted to be called 'president' when he arrive at the Board of Trade, said a lot about the man."

The success of a diary lies in the ability of an editor to mirror the culture of his or her paper. Herbert believes a good diary should tell the reader a secret that is slightly embarrassing, but not cruel, to its subject. "Stories should be short and memorable," she says. Kenny, on the other hand, believes they should be less about pop groups and showbusiness, "less about white trash". Rusbridger argues that a broadsheet diary should avoid gossip but be urbane and amusing - "an antidote to the serious stuff in the centre pages".

On one thing, however, they all agree: that if a diary hits the right note, it strikes a relationship with the reader that is unrivalled by any other section of the paper. "At bottom a diary," says Rusbridger, begging forgiveness for the cliche, "is a little ray of sunshine."

Richard Addis, editor of the Daily Express, edited the diary of the London Evening Standard, 1987-88. Arrived as a diary reporter and achieved renown for a quirky story about Lord Avebury, who had left his body to Battersea Dog's Home as dog's meat, only to be turned down. Held a series of features posts before landing the Express job.

Max Hastings,editor of the Evening Standard, edited that paper's diary, 1976-77: Hastings' first job was as a reporter on Londoner's Diary in the Sixties. He returned to be its editor in the Seventies, before going on to win the accolade of Reporter of the Year for his Falklands reporting. Four years later he became editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, edited the Guardian diary 1982-85. "Doing the diary gave me the luxury of a named column, which increased my profile. With the right profile, you establish a following; thousands of potential sources." He became features editor of the paper, then deputy editor, before taking the editor's chair.

Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, edited the showbusiness column of the Sun (1989-94). He made history by leaping straight out of the diary into the chair of a national - the News of the World: "If you want to groom people for department heads, then you should give them a diary."