End of a media era: Farewell to Fleet Street

Three hundred years of history end today with a service at St Bride's to mark the last newsroom's move to Docklands. By Jonathan Brown

Wednesday 05 October 2011 21:39

Rupert Murdoch, the man who many blame for Fleet Street's demise, will today return to the famous thoroughfare - not to dance on its grave but to bid it an ironic and apparently heartfelt adieu as the home of British newspapers. Reuters is the last of the major news organisations to make the great journey eastwards from the Street of Shame to the shiny new towers of Canary Wharf, and Mr Murdoch will mark the occasion by reading a lesson at the journalists' church, St Bride's.

Rupert Murdoch, the man who many blame for Fleet Street's demise, will today return to the famous thoroughfare - not to dance on its grave but to bid it an ironic and apparently heartfelt adieu as the home of British newspapers. Reuters is the last of the major news organisations to make the great journey eastwards from the Street of Shame to the shiny new towers of Canary Wharf, and Mr Murdoch will mark the occasion by reading a lesson at the journalists' church, St Bride's.

When he steps up to the lectern inside Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece, the media mogul may be forgiven for feeling something akin to vindication. The death of Fleet Street as a newspaper community can be dated to his audacious decision to move his titles - The Sun and the News of the World - from Fleet Street to a new, heavily fortified plant in Wapping in 1986. There they were joined by The Times and The Sunday Times , the other Murdoch titles, which had been based in Grays Inn Road, near Kings Cross.

Safe in the knowledge that he enjoyed the unequivocal backing of Margaret Thatcher's government, and armed with new technology that replaced thousands of unionised production jobs at a keystroke, Mr Murdoch transformed the newspaper industry. It was a makeover that was also to call time on the alcohol-fuelled culture of old Fleet Street. The party which some thought would never end finally broke up amid the rancour of east London picket lines.

Within a decade of Murdoch's relocation to the grim surroundings of industrial Wapping, the rest of the newspapers had gone. The Daily Telegraph departed elegant Peterborough Court, now the European headquarters of merchant bankers Goldman Sachs, for the austere heights of Canada Place, the original tower at Canary Wharf.

The Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard bucked the trend by heading west to Kensington High Street.

The Daily Express decamped from its art-deco masterpiece, known as the Black Lubyanka, to a pale imitation just over the river by Blackfriars Bridge.

And in today's final act in the great Fleet Street saga, Reuters will depart its monumental office building - designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens - at 85 Fleet Street. The agency moved in just two months before the outbreak of the Second World War and shared its premises with the Press Association until 1995 when the PA moved to Victoria.

From Monday, all 2,500 Reuters staff - the vast majority of whom now have nothing to do with mucky trade of journalism - will be housed at 30 South Colonnade, a pedestrian precinct that has already been renamed Reuters Plaza. Inside, Reuters journalists will inhabit a 340-seat newsroom and there will be a village square, a Starbucks and a quayside restaurant.

Of course, there are many that contend that Fleet Street's real assassin was provincial newspaper baron Eddie Shah. His Warrington-based publications had been deploying new technology without the assistance of the unions from 1983 and when he launched Today in 1986, it was produced from union-free premises at Vauxhall Bridge Road. But while Today was to founder within a year, snapped up by Murdoch in 1987, another newspaper, The Independent, was emerging successfully from the ruins of old Fleet Street.

Founded by the former Telegraph journalist Andreas Whittam Smith, The Independent was based physically just a few miles away from Fleet Street at City Road. Psychologically, however, it occupied a different universe. The compositors had been replaced by new technology. It was to be a newspaper made almost entirely by journalists.

Evolution or revolution, Murdoch's belief that he was paying three times the necessary number of staff five times the going rate to publish his newspapers, put paid to a publishing legacy spanning more than 300 years.

The tradition began with the first edition of the Daily Courant, which hit the streets in 1702. It was a meagre offering. There were five paragraphs translated from the Haarlem Courant, three from the Paris Gazette and one from the Amsterdam Courant. It bore none of the hallmarks of the brash and brilliant press that was to follow. But it did stake out the newspaper industry's natural home.

The main thoroughfare linking the City of London, the seat of financial power, to Westminster, the seat of political power, Fleet Street was the ideal location in which to gather news. A few minutes walk east and reporters could be taking notes on the latest blood curdling case at the Old Bailey. A short walk west and you were in the public gallery at the High Court, detailing the salacious revelations of a society divorce or libel case.

And of course there were the pubs. In the days when journalists would think nothing of downing a dozen or so gin and tonics before driving home, and when the defining characteristic of the job was waiting around for something to happen, the pub was the epicentre of a journalist's life.

Each newspaper had its own hostelry. Telegraph journalists nipped downstairs to the King and Keys. The News of the World drank at The Tipperary, known as the Tip. The Harrow was divided territory: upstairs was the province of Daily Mail writers, downstairs were the printers. Upstairs at the Cheshire Cheese could be found The Sun, quaffing alongside the industrial correspondents.

At Canary Wharf, no such culture has developed. Newspapers now make a profit and journalists are much more computer dependent - e-mailing, telephoning and surfing the web for information. Healthy lifestyles - sushi, salads and games of squash - have replaced the lunchtime drinking.

Back on Fleet Street, the outpost of one newspaper group remains, however. At Number 185, a dozen editorial staff from the Dundee Courier, the Sunday Post and the Weekly News - part of the DC Thomson publishing group - report from London on behalf of their readers in Scotland. Fleet Street can no longer claim to be the street of ink, but the memories and stories it has inspired will run and run.

The drinking, the socialising... and the stories

William F Deedes, Editor, Daily Telegraph, 1974-1986

When I arrived in Fleet Street in 1931, almost every upstairs window had a provincial newspaper office behind it. It was truly the street of ink. What was extraordinary is that in this, the main road through central London, there were these giant factories. There were always lorries arriving by day loaded with newsprint, vans flying out at night to take the editions to the railway stations. The newspapers had printing presses thundering below street level. Then there were the pubs which was where we used to drink more than we should. In a sense we were much more comrades and colleagues than today. We were competitive but not in the style that Rupert Murdoch has imported. But what killed hot metal were the printers. They extorted more and more money making it impossible to make newspapers viable.

Sue Douglas, Editor, Sunday Express, 1996

It was Planet Journalism - the rookie reporter standing in the bar next to the legendary names of Fleet Street. You would be in the pub with Julie Burchill on one side and Jeffrey Bernard on the other. On one occasion I remember being delivered home by a Sun newspaper lorry, to the amusement of my neighbours. It was an unbelievably male-dominated environment, particularly as you had scores of "inkies" (print workers) making builder jokes. But if you were a determined female you probably got noticed more; I think it worked in my favour.

Peter Mckay, Gossip Columnist

It was a seething mass of printers, advertisers and journalists, drinking and punching each other every night, all night. People literally never went home: there was a Turkish bath we went to for a shave in the morning. This close contact with your peers kept you honest; if you wrote rubbish you were shouted out of the pub the following day before you could buy a drink. Nowadays we sit in the far corners of London, like battery hens at computer terminals, pecking out our stuff and never meeting one another.

Peregrine Worsthorne, Editor, Sunday Telegraph, 1986-1989

Alcohol was a problem. The Telegraph pub was the King and Keys - the scene of drunken misbehaviour, rows and boxing matches. People with illegitimate children would get drunk, fight and be sent home in taxis on a regular basis - and the next day we'd recommend sobriety in the editorial column. The deputy editor, Colin Welch, had a mistress and two bastard children - babies - and she came into the office one day, dumped them on his desk and told him to get on with it. Pandemonium! Fleet Street was a gathering of eccentrics; buccaneering, clever Bohemians who didn't want to get tied down to desk jobs. It was Grub Street, Gin Alley; we roved around, talking over long lunches - but it was a useful arrangement. If you indulged in journalistic bad practice you felt embarrassed in front of your peers the next day. Journalism is far more powerful today - and better respected by politicians - but the glamour has largely gone.

Chris Moncrieff, Press Association

El Vino's was once a sacred male haunt in Fleet Street, to which women were admitted only with a male escort. Women were not allowed to stand at the bar or buy drinks. Some 20 years ago the daunting ladies of Fleet Street invaded the place and demanded equality. It was a daunting spectacle and terrified the management and most of the customers who were still not too far gone to appreciate what was going on.

Alan Watkins, Political Columnist

It was a very democratic place - probably the only place in this country actually run by the grammar schools and the Celtic minorities. Aside from the racing and City people (stuffed with old Etonians), the public schools held very little sway. Fleet Street was the provincial grammar school sixth form: people had few pretensions or false refinements.

Paul Routledge, The Times, Daily Mirror

We had a camaraderie and that was absolutely vital. In the old Fleet Street you did not sit at a computer terminal 10 hours a day with only a sandwich for lunch. We went out and met other journalists from other newspapers - or from other parts of our own newspaper. Feature writers would meet comment writers, the old crime reporter would talk to the young journalist just up from the provinces. It was here you learnt about the trade. Editors were not remote Olympian figures - it was perfectly normal to see Bill Deedes drinking with his staff in the King and Keys.

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