Rise and fall of news in the North

Manchester's glory days and demise are recalled in a new book. Ian Herbert reports

Stanley Blenkinsop, the legendary former
Daily Express northern news editor, is fond of telling how a reader once rang in to say he was convinced his Bradford neighbour, Peter Sutcliffe, might be the Yorkshire Ripper, because "lots of policemen have been there all day, hammering and banging, [and] they seem to be taking up some of the floorboards." The caller even agreed to look up Sutcliffe's number in the Bradford phone book which, when dialled by Blenkinsop, elicited the crisp, male reply: "West Yorkshire Police."

Stanley Blenkinsop, the legendary former Daily Express northern news editor, is fond of telling how a reader once rang in to say he was convinced his Bradford neighbour, Peter Sutcliffe, might be the Yorkshire Ripper, because "lots of policemen have been there all day, hammering and banging, [and] they seem to be taking up some of the floorboards." The caller even agreed to look up Sutcliffe's number in the Bradford phone book which, when dialled by Blenkinsop, elicited the crisp, male reply: "West Yorkshire Police."

Blenkinsop, with assumed authoritative tone, asked: "What weapons have you found so far?"

The police officer replied: "Three hammers, four chisels, three knives: one a carver; very sharp."

Blenkinsop: "Fingerprints?"

Police officer: "Being fingerprinted now, sir. May I have your name, sir?"

Blenkinsop: "Blenkinsop."

Police officer: "Rank and division, please sir?"

Blenkinsop: "News editor, Daily Express, Manchester."

Police officer: "Fuck."

The receiver is slammed down. Blenkinsop redials.

Police officer: "No comment to make. No comment at all."

It was too late. As Blenkinsop tells it, a reporter was filing within half an hour from Garden Lane, Bradford, and soon afterwards a photographer was hoovering up images of the serial killer in every guise, including his previous occupation as a gravedigger. After exclusive use in the Express, they were syndicated around the world.

Breaks like that, with newsrooms on tap to react to them, were a fact of journalistic life in Manchester when it oozed national newspapers and had Sir Larry Lamb's Daily Mail newsdesk up against the Express, which strutted its stuff in the former corset warehouse transformed into the paper's iconic Black Lubjanka building on Great Ancoats Street.

But what made the output most extraordinary was that their gung ho story-getting was the last thing their London editors had ever wanted.

A retrospective on Manchester's journalistic glory years by former Manchester Guardian journalist Robert Waterhouse relates how, in the words of a promotional blurb of the time, the Daily Mail planned nothing more than a replica of "the complete London Daily Mail" when - in February 1900 - it decided that the only way to reach the huge Lancashire market was to open an office on the doorstep. (The north-bound Euston trains just couldn't deliver in time.)

Instead, the arrival of the nationals (the Express in 1928, the Telegraph 12 years later, the Mirror in 1955) spawned a fascinating 60 years of struggle and mutual suspicion between London and Manchester.

No event captured the great divide better than the annual golf competition between the Guardian's London and Manchester offices, staged somewhere in the Midlands. The fixture was abandoned after Manchester took the cup five years running and London couldn't raise a team.

London might have known Manchester would have had its own ideas about getting great newspapers out. The city already boasted the Manchester Guardian, the only provincial newspaper whose reputation for writing (Arthur Ransome, Neville Cardus, Alistair Cooke) made it legendary.

It was also the home of Hulme boy Ned Hulton, employed in the 1860s to make up news bills for the Guardian and sacked for starting a race-form sheet on the side (the paper eschewed racing coverage until the 1960s). Hulton left to create The Tissue, a one-page paper of handicaps and results from a small press in a local cellar. The tradition ran into the blood of his grandson, Edward Hulton, who redefined the boundaries of photojournalism in the late 1930s with Manchester's Daily Sketch - the first publication to exploit images.

After developing the largest newspaper production plant at Withy Grove, Hulton was tempted south by a wife and fell under the spell of his London neighbour Lord Rothermere, who bought the Sketch for a pittance and later dissolved it. By then, Manchester's nationals were thriving in the face of London's preconception that "we were incompetent", as former Telegraph northern news editor Trevor Bates tells it.

Certainly, the copytakers of Manchester's Cross Street added their own indelible touch to some of the incoming southerners' stories. For instance, a Neville Cardus description of singing diva Elizabeth Schwarzkopf was transformed from Elizabeth "the quite eloquent" singer, to Elizabeth the "white elephant". She was not best pleased.

But the Manchester night production considered themselves comfortably better operators when a late story broke and the northern editors drew on now legendary names, including Harold Evans and Arthur Christiansen. It helped that the Northern Ireland beat was Manchester's, by virtue of the city's proximity to Holyhead.

To London, Manchester stories were a luxury - until big events like the 1985 Manchester Airport runway fire. Telegraph northern legend Stanley Goldsmith recalls half a dozen reporters on the story until David Graves arrived from London, asking: "Can you give me the story so I can write it?" He got a two-syllable reply - and the byline.

Manchester sub-editors were frequently infuriated by a London editor's insistence that late page changes be made to incorporate London stories and by "London blindness", as Waterhouse defines it. A typical example was the Express's decision to pull a major piece on Donald Campbell days before his death in Cumbria because the editor "didn't want too many boats in the paper".

Inevitably, the city was eclipsed by technology. From the moment in 1969 when the Mirror faxed pages from Manchester for printing in Dublin, the end was nigh. Murdoch halted The Sun's Manchester production in 1969 and The Guardian (minus the "Manchester"), had no choice but to capitulate in 1976, 12 years after gradually moving its staff to London. Manchester production of the Telegraph, Mail, Mirror and Express had all stopped by 1989. Some stirrings followed for the city, including the 1978 launch of the Daily Star under Derek Jameson, which "invented" newspaper bingo and challenged the mighty northern Mirror and Eddy Shah's Post, which launched and crashed so fast out of Warrington in the late 1980s that few even knew of its existence.

Against The Sun's decision to close its Manchester operation in July this year, there has been the growing Star and Express subbing operation at Broughton near Preston and - with open screens at both ends of the country and labour cheaper in the north - the suggestion that Richard Desmond's London free paper might be produced in its entirety at Broughton.

But there is no doubt who won the arch north-south tussle: Manchester is no longer needed to deliver country-wide reach; Britain is more London-centric than ever before; Blenkinsop and his army have long gone and nationals will never be national in quite the same way again.

'The Other Fleet Street', by Robert Waterhouse, First Edition Limited, £16.99

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