Robert Fisk: Top hack blasts local rags

Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk learnt his trade on a regional newspaper. Here, he returns to his old patch and uncovers some dark truths Рabout stories never reported, and a culture of clich̩ which journalists struggle to escape from

Friday 04 April 2014 05:07

I was 17 when I first arrived in Newcastle upon Tyne. It was a city of heavy, black, 19th-century buildings, a spider's web of iron bridges and smouldering steam locomotives, the air thick with coal smoke and red haze from the steel works at Consett. The news editor of the Evening Chronicle, John Brownlee, did his best to cheer me up. "You'll be in our Blyth office, Bob, a bustling little coal town on the coast with plenty of life and lots of news." Brownlee was in estate-agent mode. Blyth was a down-at-heel collier harbour, smothered in the dust of doomed mines and a thousand coal fires. The slagheaps glowed red at night, the dying shipyards were bankrupt, pools of vomit lay splashed over the pavements outside the "Blyth and Tyne" and two dozen other pubs and clubs every Sunday morning. Even in summer, a kind of North Sea mildew settled over the town, a damp, cold cloth mixed with coal smoke that smothered all who lived there.

I was home-sick and lonely and I was paid £17.50 a week, a third of which I handed over to Mrs Hamilton, my landlady at 82 Middleton Street, where I slept in a room 7ft in length and just 5ft wide with a single, tiny gas fire. When I came home one day, I found the Gas Board asking my landlady why there was no money in the meter; I had to explain that I didn't earn enough to pay for the heating. So I spent all evening in front of the fire in the rotting old back-to-back Chronicle office in Seaforth Street, then walked home through the smoke at midnight and cowered under my blankets for warmth. On Sunday afternoons, I used to read history books – wrapped in a heavy overcoat – on a seat in the overgrown Victorian beach garden near the port.

But there were stories. I shared my digs with the gloriously named Captain Fortune, deputy harbour-master of Blyth, whose moment of glory arrived when a Cold War Polish fishing-fleet put into port during a storm. And stayed. And stayed. When Fortune boarded the first trawler to demand its immediate departure, the Polish captain slapped him round the face with a massive, sharp-finned fish. I warned readers that the Victorian wooden staithes from which freight trains would unload coal into the colliers were in danger of collapse. I staggered through feet of water deep under the Tyne to watch two teams of miners hack their way through to each other in the first stage of what was to be Newcastle's first under-river motorway. I catalogued the massive overspending on Blyth's spanking new power station. I recorded the classical learning of the Blyth town clerk as he used quotations from mythology to defeat motorway extension objectors. The Golden Fleece was on his tongue. When the Council failed, its plans were – of course – "put on ice".

And I covered the courts. Some cases were truly pathetic. There was the mother whose son, a Morpeth male nurse, died hanging from the back of his hospital bedroom door; she wailed outside the court as officials gently explained to her that her son had stood on a pile of books with a noose round his neck to "stimulate sexual glands". The books had slid apart and the boy had been left choking to death on the door. Then there was the teenager arrested for stealing a toaster from his grandparents. They wanted him imprisoned. His real "crime", it quickly turned out, was that he was homosexual – "indecency with a male" was our journalistic cliché – and he was swiftly remanded. On his way out, he made a pass at the most senior policeman in all Blyth.

And we wrote in clichés. Always clichés. When the police were seeking a hit-and-run driver, they either "spread their net" or "narrowed their search" or "stepped up their hunt". Company directors were "bosses", scientists were invariably "boffins", officials were always "chiefs", storm-battered ships inevitably "limped" into port. Suicides were always tragic, brides always beautiful, angry councillors were "hopping mad" and protesting villagers would always "take to the streets". Those who discovered bodies were, of course, "horror-struck" or "mystified"; the latter applied to the construction gang building a new Blyth bypass who excavated dozens of corpses – all in their Victorian Sunday best – and thought they'd discovered a mass murder before realising they were digging up an old cemetery. Needless to say, Tory election candidates always "lashed out" at the sitting Labour MP, Eddie Blythe.

They actually taught us to write like this. There was a whole Thomson school of journalism in Newcastle which I and my fellow "cub" reporters from other Chronicle district offices were ordered to attend once a week – much to the disgust of my senior reporter in Blyth, Jim Harland, a Sean Connery lookalike with a reservoir of immense kindness and – for really stupid reporters – volcanic anger. "You learn journalism on the job, not listening to that bunch of wankers," Harland once told me. But sure enough, every Thursday morning, I'd arrive in Newcastle on a pre-war double-decker bus from Blyth – the interior filled with a suffocating fog of blue cigarette smoke – wolf down an egg sandwich at the aptly named "Rumbling Tum" café and endure hours of shorthand, legal advice and clichés.

The best stories could be told in 400 words, we were told. All the facts in the first para, plenty of punchy lines, equal time to all parties in a dispute and a good "kicker". No anger, no passion, no suggestion that there was right or wrong. I was reminded of Joe Friday in Dragnet. "Just the facts, Ma'am, just the facts," he'd yell at the broads. We were given "story-lines". Write the intro to the following: a retired soldier – who once took part in the Normandy landings – was blaming the local council because his wife had disappeared after seeing a ghost in her council-supplied house. Answer: "A mystified D-Day vet lashed out at council chiefs last night after his terrified wife fled 'phantoms' in their council home." Anything that moved away from this rubric, that suggested a more subtle, nuanced approach – perhaps the old soldier was suffering from shell-shock or his wife was mentally ill or perhaps the ghosts were real – was wiped out. Our Thomson "trainers" quickly decided that a reporter called Simon Winchester would never make the grade. He was too imaginative, too thoughtful, too critical in his approach. Simon, of course, went on to become the best Guardian correspondent in Belfast. We were supposed to write stories the readers would easily "understand". Readers were in a hurry, tired, often not well educated, we were taught. Having talked for hours to miners and part-time shipyard workers and firemen and cops and landladies, I didn't think our readers were that dumb. I thought they might like something more than our clichés. But not according to the journalism teachers. We had to have "key" words. Lash out. Bosses. Phantoms. Chiefs. Terrified.

Yes, we had to be "trained". I still remember the guffaws of our "Stop Press" printer in the Blyth office when he read my report of a launching in the local shipyard by the wife of the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board. "Mrs Smith smashed the Champagne against the hull of the vessel," I had written, "and the workers cheered as she slid down the slipway." Then there was the Tory election candidate who, in my interview, "smiled as he spoke of his many and varied pastimes". Harland collapsed. "You're a fucking innocent, Bob," he screamed. "What do you think our readers will make of 'many and varied pastimes'?"

But I also remember what the Chronicle didn't say. My reference to the weeping mother outside the Morpeth coroner's inquest was cut from the story. The tale of Captain Fortune's fish never made it – the paper needed a quote from the long-departed Polish trawler captain to "balance" the story. My report on the dangerous state of Blyth staithes was followed by a formal apology to the National Coal Board – inserted by Chronicle editors without any reference to me – to the effect that the wooden pier met all safety standards. A wolfish smile crossed my face weeks later when a roar of splintering wood and exploding steam shook the Blyth office. A tank engine – its driver mercifully unhurt – had crashed down through the flimsy old pit-props and settled precariously on the edge of the dock. We reported it straight – no reference to my previous story, nor to the grovelling apology we had carried only weeks earlier.

I had nothing against the Chron. When Liverpool University offered me a place to read English, the editors cheerfully accepted my resignation and wished me luck in my studies. When Liverpool then unforgivably decided that – without O-level maths – they couldn't after all give me the promised place, John Brownlee equally cheerfully offered me my job back. Then when Lancaster gave me a real undergraduate place, Brownlee sent me off again with his best wishes. He later wrote me a stunning reference for the Sunday Express which impressed its late, irascible editor, John Junor. Harland overrode my desire to stay on the paper. "Don't be a fucking eejit," the coal miner's son solemnly told me. "Go do your studies, Bob, and get a degree."

Which is what I did. Within months, I was studying linguistics and reading Chomsky and learning, thanks to David Craig's English lectures on Dickens, of the social devastation which the Industrial Revolution had spread across northern England, indeed across the very area where I had been a cub reporter. The decaying mines, the growing unemployment, the doomed shipyards – even the rotten wood of the Blyth staithes – suddenly made sense. But I had to go to university to understand this. Journalism was about history. But not in the Chron.

And in the end, it was this thought – the idea that language and history shape our lives – that lured me back this month to the north-east of England. I had a suspicion that the language we were forced to write as trainee reporters all those years ago had somehow imprisoned us, that we had been schooled to mould the world and ourselves in clichés, that for the most part this would define our lives, destroy our anger and imagination, make us loyal to our betters, to governments, to authority. For some reason, I had become possessed of the belief that the blame for our failure as journalists to report the Middle East with any sense of moral passion or indignation lay in the way that we as journalists were trained.

When I returned, a cold, heavy rain was falling across Blyth. The old harbour was a dark, mud-sided, empty lagoon. There were no more shipyards. The mines had closed – all but one pit up the coast – and the power station, glowering through the murk on the other side of the river, had been decommissioned. At the end of Middleton Street, the newsagent – grills on the windows, damp stains covering the ceiling – told me Blyth was still dying. "Fourteen per cent unemployment, 34 drug deaths in four years," he said. "No future." I bought the Chronicle. The wooden staithes had disappeared. So had the railway. The beach garden where I used to read was still there, its curved stone balustrade broken and collapsing into the sand.

I knocked on the door of number 82. My landlady, Mrs Hamilton, was long gone. The couple who lived there now allowed me to climb the stairs, turn right at the top and push open the little cubby-hole where I slept almost 40 years ago. Seven-by-five. I hadn't got the measurements wrong. There were bookshelves in the room now, newly painted, centrally heated, the old gas-pipe concealed within the wall. The room where I had eaten my bacon breakfasts – Mrs Hamilton provided full board – contained a magnificent marble fireplace which I could not remember. The new owners of number 82 were – they were the first to proclaim the fact and I saw the proof on the living room table – Independent readers. They never bought the Chronicle. Was there, I wondered, a message here?

In the car, the rain guttering down the windscreen, the same old grey streets shimmering through the glass, I opened the Chronicle. Nothing had changed. All that follows came from one single issue. "Bosses leading a management buyout of stricken shipyard Cammell Laird say a £2m damages claim from former workers could scupper the bid." Key words: Bosses. Stricken. Scupper. Bid. "A pair of high-flyers will be winging their way to France for the most gruelling cycle race in the world." Key words: High-flyers. Gruelling. "A mum of three who lured a teenage girl babysitter into a seedy sex session with a f stranger she met through an internet chatroom has failed in her bid to cut her jail term." Lured. Seedy. Bid. "Jet-away MPs have been condemned for heading off on foreign jaunts rather than holidaying in the North-east to help the region's ailing tourist industry." Sympathetic though I was to the MPs as I glanced at the weather grizzling down outside my car, I got the message: Jet-away. Jaunts. Ailing. "Police hunting the murderer of Sara Cameron have spread their net abroad." Yes, well over 30 years since I'd been writing this crap, the cops were still "spreading their net" and – I had little doubt – would soon be "narrowing their search" or "stepping up" their hunt for Sara's killer. It was left to the successor of the old weekly Blyth News – now a free-sheet with the immortal title of the News Post Leader – to tell me that "plans to build a housing estate on scrubland in Blyth Valley have been put on ice ..."

I drove to Morpeth to see the old magistrates court, and Gateshead, and back and forth over the Tyne bridges where I once had my picture taken in a waistcoat, and I found that the Rumbling Tum was now part of an underground bus station, that the slag-heaps had been largely "greened", that the smoke had gone. Yes, that great, greasy, wet smoke that I breathed day and night – even in my unheated bedroom – had vanished. Perhaps smokeless coal and gas has its advantages. Or, as I grimly thought, perhaps there's nothing left to burn.

Jim Harland was leaning over his front wall when I drove up. Plumper, a little jowelled, eyes sharp as coals, Sean Connery features still in evidence, along with his tongue. "You're the man who missed the story in Blyth port on your day off," he growled. The sun had come out. He had set up the annual town fair and today – deus ex machina – was town fair day. There was a fire engine and pin-bowling and pop-singing and dancing by a team of overweight cuties in old US army uniforms – I'm still puzzling the meaning of that one – and a ball-in-the-tub throwing session (which Fisk lost) and an awful lot of very tough-looking mums and dads with sallow faces and sad smiles and, I thought, a life of great hardship behind them. Blyth, Harland told me, was becoming a great dormitory town for Newcastle. Pity they'd torn up the railway. But the sleeping bit I could well understand.

Harland is a big man, "Big Jim Harland", we used to call him – he went on in later years to work for The Mirror, then the BBC – and he propelled me towards the Federation Club where pints moved like quicksilver around a room where huge ex-miners and ex-shipyard men kept winning all kinds of bingo games. I had never seen so many £5 notes. Life had been good to Harland and his wife Rosemary and we walked back to his home – just across from my old "digs" – for lunch. "Space was the problem for us in journalism, Bob," he said. "I was taught at 16 that you had to economise on space. We couldn't write 'Mrs S, who was 23 years old'; I had to write '23-year-old Mrs S'. But if we said what we thought, well, we'd have called that bias. We could say 'this is what I saw' but not 'this is what I feel I saw'. The journalists who trained us were regional journalists – and they taught us what they knew, the way they had been trained."

But slowly, as Rosemary made the lunch in the kitchen, Harland revealed more about Blyth. He thought Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill had done most harm to the town. But he knew much that I had not known when I worked there. The town clerk who had been such a classical scholar – he had lived near my digs but was now long dead – had been on the make. The police chief – the man who was the target of the gay man in the court but now also dead – had been in the habit of ringing up landlords in the early hours of the morning for a drink, forcing them to open their pubs at 6am for the local, newly off-duty, cops. "No, we didn't write this," Harland said. "These people fed us. They'd help us. The policeman who'd want an early morning drink would also tip us off on stories. We had to talk to everyone, the town clerk, the police, the fire brigade ... Then there was child abuse. There was a lot of it here. A terrible thing. But the social services wouldn't talk to us. They said all their enquiries were confidential, that we didn't have the right to know what they had learnt. And so child abuse went on. I only realised the state of things when a cricketer I knew made a comment about his daughters and I realised it was a common thing. But we accept the 'privacy' of the social services. And in court, we reported 'indecency with a minor'. Those were the words we used."

I asked about the Middle East. Did Harland think that perhaps our "training" had caused us to fail when we journalists were faced not with local government disputes or coroners' courts but with a great historical tragedy? "I've never covered a story that was a great tragedy like the Middle East," he said. "I can see the problem, yes. How do you make the journalism here stretch to the journalism there?" He had made the point precisely.

For out in the Middle East, more and more journalists, each with their local reporting experience, their "training", their journalism schools – the American version being even more banal than the English ones – are using clichés and tired adjectives to obscure reality. Turn on your television tonight or read tomorrow's agency reports and we are told of the "cycle of violence" – no side taken there – of "clashes" (in which the identities of victim and killer are obscured) or of "the fears of Israeli security chiefs". Note how the word "security" is always linked to the word "Israel". And how "chiefs" has made the grade from Blyth to Palestine. And just as the police chief in Blyth would tip us off on a story, so Israelis – to a much lesser extent Palestinians – tip us off on stories. No one wants to rock the boat, to be controversial. Why write about the Blyth staithes if we're going to carry a Coal Board denial? Why write about the outrageous nature of Israel's killing of stone-throwing children if we're going to get outraged letters to the editor?

Much better to stick to clichés. Arab "terrorists" threaten Israel. Israeli "security chiefs" warn Arafat. Can Arafat "control" his own people, we asked when the Israelis asked the same question. Yet when a Jewish settlers' group killed two Palestinian civilian men and a baby, we did not ask if Sharon could "control" his own people. Since the Palestinians had not asked that question, we did not ask it. We were silent that time round. Over five days in the North-east and on the long drive back to London, I listened to the radio news. Two Israelis had been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber at Binyamina. The Israelis "struck back" at the Palestinians, killing four guerrillas in a "targeted" killing. "Targeted" was Israel's word. In other words, death squads. But that wasn't what the BBC said. When the Israeli settlers murdered the three Palestinians – including the baby – the Israeli police were reported as "narrowing their search" for the killers.

Never the why. Only the what. We reported the closure of Blyth's mines. But we rarely asked why the mines had to die. We watched Blyth decay. We reported its death. In my cub reporter days, we watched its last moments as a coal-and-ship city. But we didn't scratch the black, caked soot off the walls of Newcastle and ask why Britain's prime ministers allowed the centre of the Industrial Revolution to go to the grave. Harland agreed that there was a culture of "accepting" authority. We didn't challenge the police or the council – or the social services. They may not have been our friends. But we needed them. We respected them, in an odd sort of way. They were the "chiefs", the "bosses". And now we rarely challenge friendly governments. We can (and should) attack Arafat's corrupt dictatorship in Palestine. But Israeli wrong-doing has to be "balanced" with quotations from Israel's "security chiefs". The off-the-record briefing from the council clerk or the police chief has become the off-the-record briefing from the Foreign Office. Look how we responded to Nato's wartime Kosovo briefings. How we accepted. How we parroted the words.

I'm glad the Chron exists. It was good to me. So was Big Jim Harland. He made me understand the need for accuracy. "Say what you like later," he once told me. "But for Christ's sake, get it right." But our conversation this month left me with much to think about. What was it he said to me before lunch? "If we'd said what we thought, well, we'd have called that bias." And no doubt one day, we'll find those reporters who so blithely accepted Nato's briefings and Israel's line on the Palestinians "revealing" the truth. Like the rotten borough and the crooked cop and the sinister abuse of children in Blyth, they'll all one day be ready to tell us what they really knew. Only it will be a bit late to make any difference.

Last month Robert Fisk won the prestigious David Watt prize for an essay on the Armenian Holocaust, which was published in The Independent Magazine and on this website

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