Ian Burrell: What can today’s journalists learn from the titans of 20th-century Fleet Street?

The media column: Bill Deedes was told to ‘go and watch the crowds’ in Downing Street

Despite his reputation for colourful language in the heat of the Daily Mail newsroom, it’s not every day you hear Paul Dacre making a sexual reference in public, let alone in church.

But in a reading last week at St Bride’s, the journalists’ church in Fleet Street, the Mail’s editor did just that, and even drew laughter from the congregation.

Mr Dacre made the reference in the context of a wonderful thanksgiving service that attempted to get to the essence of what really matters in the trade of journalism. It is a topic that has been examined endlessly in the past two-and-a-half years but rarely with such passion as was exhibited beneath Christopher Wren’s magnificent wedding-cake spire last Thursday.

Celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Journalists’ Charity, we heard the words of some of the greatest newspaper writers of the last century, read aloud by some of the most powerful press figures of the current day. Mr Dacre was preceded at the church’s medieval brass eagle lectern by Simon Fox, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror Group.

While his shareholders may have been worried about Scotland Yard’s ongoing Operation Golding into alleged phone interceptions at Mirror Group, the CEO’s thoughts were with one of its legendary former journalists, Keith Waterhouse.

Reading from Waterhouse’s memoir of his arrival at the Daily Mirror from the provincial press, Mr Fox painted a vivid image of old Fleet Street, when the air carried “the hum of machinery and the clatter of Linotype”, and when there were 15 pubs between Temple Bar and Ludgate Circus. “This was The Street,” wrote Waterhouse, “the Street of Ink, the Street of Adventure – and I was over the frontier.”

Having spent time with the late author and playwright in the study of his west London home, I can imagine him punching out those words on his trusted Adler typewriter. But the place he describes seems other-worldly now, and not just because Fleet Street has long been colonised by lawyers and financial workers. It is the expression “frontier” which jars, now that everyone with an internet connection has a place in the Fourth Estate and the means to create and comment on the news.

Mr Dacre gave the second reading, extolling the talents of Vincent Mulchrone, whom he lauded as “the greatest writer on the Daily Mail” during a 30-year career, until his untimely death in 1977.

The congregation heard from Mulchrone’s famous colour piece on the lying-in-state of Winston Churchill, in which he told Mail readers that “two rivers run silently through London tonight and one of them is made of people”.

The sexual reference came from another article, in which Mulchrone observed that “the news story must be the only human activity which demands that the orgasm comes at the beginning”.

Well, that message retains relevance in the immediate and concise world of Twitter. But Mr Dacre was reciting with a sense of nostalgia. “For me, and I suspect many people here, this is a poignant reminder of those heady, far off pre-digital days when Fleet Street really was the capital of journalism,” he commented on one piece of vintage Mulchrone.

The third reading, by The Sun’s editor, David Dinsmore, felt especially outdated. His chosen writer, William (Bill) Connor (author of the Mirror’s legendary Cassandra column), was a Fleet Street great in anyone’s estimation. And Connor’s description of life in national newspapers in “The Greatest Company in the World” is undoubtedly inspiring. “It is the best, the finest, the most furious, the most exciting bath of life that anybody could ever take,” he says.

Some computer gamers might enjoy the language he uses in picturing a working environment of “foothills” of ambition, where “idle” reporters hide in thick “vegetation” and try to “make love to the secretary birds under the kindly foliage”. But it bears no relevance to the modern newsroom where the undergrowth was long ago cut away and female reporters file the splash. Connor compares Fleet Street to “snakes and ladders” – but, in a post-Leveson world where reporters are held to account like never before, it no longer feels like a game.

Having recently fired Tony Gallagher as editor of the Daily Telegraph, Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of Telegraph Media Group, was next to head to the nave, where he paid tribute to W F Deedes, one of the paper’s most famous bylines. From Deedes’ memoir, we learned that, on joining the Morning Post at a time of political upheaval in 1931, he was told to “go and watch the crowds” in Downing Street. “Don’t write anything, old boy, they told me, just useful experience.”

It was three days before the young reporter “got anything in the paper”. Even when he met Gandhi his copy “didn’t get in” – frustrating for a reporter who was being paid “on space” for printed articles.

What a far cry from the internet world, where almost every piece of minutiae is deemed worthy of broadcast on social media and where online newspapers are so hungry for content that the barriers to publication are almost non-existent and there is little use for the “spike”. The “frontier” described by Waterhouse long ago became an open border.

These eulogies to a bygone age were heartfelt but of limited use in defining the place of the modern reporter. So thank goodness for Alex Crawford from Sky News who, having established her inky credentials with reference to her apprenticeship at the Wokingham Times, burst through the 20th-century golden era talk with a rousing tribute to the heroic “tribe” of contemporary journalists.

Universally admired for her courageous reporting, she was gracious enough to acknowledge that brave journalism can occur in “the boardroom, the newsroom, a parliamentary sub-committee”, as well as on the battlefield. “Bravery in our profession is the editor who trusts his or her journalists in the field when everyone else is screaming otherwise. It’s standing up to the accountants who say we can’t afford to cover that genocide or that natural disaster,” she noted.

Rejecting the notion that citizen-reporters will tweet the professionals out of existence, she argued: “They can never replace an experienced and questioning journalist in the field and, more to the point, the public know the difference.”

It was stirring stuff. Charles Dickens, a former parliamentary reporter and editor, was chair of the second annual dinner of the charity, when it was called the Newspaper Press Fund, in 1865. The actor Simon Callow read an extract from his address. If Dickens could have heard Ms Crawford’s words, he’d have been relieved to know that “my old calling”, as he described professional journalism, was still essential.

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