Readers of mine and admirers of Lleweton will enjoy this guest post from him about Fleet Street, which, until the 1990s, had been Britain’s journalistic home for nearly 300 years.
Llew has written guest posts before about Fleet Street and newspaper work:
Llew’s post today concerns in part the controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by the well-known Conservative MP Enoch Powell. Powell was an erudite man and devoted MP. He was steeped in the Classics, having learned Greek and Latin in his childhood. He became a full professor of Greek at the age of 25. He also served his country during the Second World War, attaining the rank of brigadier. As he achieved so much during his lifetime, suffice it to say that Powell was a polymath.
Powell (pictured at left) hoped that, when he gave his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, it would open up an honest nationwide discussion about immigration and integration, both of which concerned his Wolverhampton South West constituents in the Midlands. Like them, he believed that rapid immigration was harming integration into English society.
The title alludes to a line from Virgil’s Aeneid. Powell wrote:
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’
It has been said that Powell used that line only as an expression of foreboding, not as a prediction of conflict.
He sent out advance copies of the speech so that it would not be ignored. Certain Conservative MPs, including future Prime Ministers Ted Heath (party chairman at the time) and Margaret Thatcher, criticised Powell’s speech. Whilst the British public thought Powell had said nothing untoward, the elites were damning.
Powell gave the speech just three days before the second reading of the Race Relations Bill in the House of Commons. Heath had sacked Powell from his shadow Cabinet position two days before the reading.
The speech is still controversial today as is Powell himself. Both are taboo subjects.
Powell left the Conservative Party for the Ulster Unionist Party and served as an MP for South Down from 1974 to 1987. He died in London in February 1998.
Someone who knew Powell wrote a long article about him for The Telegraph in November 1998. The author seems to have been a politician, but the archive post has no byline. In any event, this person wrote:
As I have noted, Enoch was no racist, but he was a nationalist in the best sense of the term – that is, a British patriot who also acknowledged and respected other nationhoods. This was surely why he understood so clearly and so early the European Common Market’s true nature and purpose. Like me, he had originally favoured EEC membership because of the benefits of opening up European markets to British trade. But in the late 1960s he changed his mind and started to emphasise the incompatibility between the root assumptions of the Treaty of Rome and British legal and national sovereignty.
Now onto Llew’s guest post, which touches on Powell’s speech and, briefly, the EU Referendum. It also includes an overview of classic journalism. Enjoy!
The perils of copytasting
So much of the current political/moral climate brings back memories.
I don’t think I need to stress that I deplore racial hatred and discrimination. But one thing that I think links 1968 and now is that the working class world, under a Labour Government then, felt that its worries were not recognised or taken seriously and were even despised. We have seen that same sentiment recently in reaction to Brexit.
Because many Britons did not think the Labour Government was interested in their concerns, the Tories won the 1970 General Election. I remember winning a pint from a very left-wing Revise Sub-Editor for predicting that result. (Ironically, we got Ted Heath who took us into the EU!)
In April 1968 I was working as a Night Sub Editor at the Press Association (PA), similar to America’s Associated Press (AP), when Enoch Powell sent in an embargoed copy of his controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. That was during the Easter Recess that year. Easter fell on April 14. Powell gave the speech on April 20.
The question that evening involved how much of the speech to print in the morning edition. Was it a minor story or a major one?
Determining what news runs in newspapers involves a process called copytasting. Editors and sub-editors – subs — decide what stories get covered and at what length.
I’ve done plenty of copytasting in my time. It’s always a gamble. I remember once we spiked a Ministry of Defence story about a new warship. It was a rehash of an old announcement. The MoD press officer, a former colleague, confirmed that. Then the Daily Telegraph led with the story the next day and we caught a rocket for not using it.
In my day the pecking order in a subs’ room at a daily newspaper or agency such as the PA, Daily Telegraph and the Leicester Mercury was:
Day or Night Editor
Deputy “ “ “ (sometimes)
Chief Sub Editor
Those were Top Table positions. Also involved often would be a senior sub-editor known as the Splash Sub. Then there were the Down Table subs.
This is how the process worked.
The original copy first went from the reporter to the copytaster, who decided whether to use it, how much and marked it up.
He handed the copy to the Chief Sub who sometimes made more assessments.
Then the copy went to a Down Table Sub who followed the instructions, looked out for pitfalls, cuts, checks, etc. In my day this often involved complete rewrites.
The Down Table then passed his work to the Revise Sub–Editor, a Top Table sub, who checked through and could make more amendments before handing the copy to the printers.
When computers came in this was still the process, but it was done on the machine.
It may all be very different now.
With regard to the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, I did not witness the exchange but was told that evening that the then Night Editor had looked at it and told the Night Chief sub to cut it to 300 words. I presume because of the nature of the Powell piece the Chief Sub involved the Night Editor from the start. The Chief Sub, a tough Glaswegian veteran of the Scottish Daily Express, insisted: ‘We’re using it in full.’ He won that argument.
It was the Night Editor who wanted to use 300 words and the Night Chief Sub who said every word should be used. The default position of all subs in those days was to try to keep things as short as possible, within the confines of fairness.
I think, essentially the Night Editor, for whatever reason, didn’t pick up the seriousness of the Powell speech. It didn’t miss the awareness of the old sweat from the Scottish Daily Express. Real judgement. There were reports among my colleagues that evening that they had quite a row about it.
The subs had an ironic joke about their seniors on the Top Table or the ‘back bench’ paraphrasing their instructions as ‘Cut it to the bone and let the good stuff run’. The virtue of the system was – and I hope still is – that we reported events without slant, political or any other. In those days we also did frequent updates and summaries of running stories – and no computer copy and paste function. We were also, broadly speaking, an agency of record: Law Courts, criminal cases, both Chambers of Parliament, all sports, including horse racing, etc. etc. Output was enormous.
The PA, like the AP, Reuters and the AFP, served outlets all over the country and, via the foreign agencies, the world – from regional newspapers like the Falmouth Packet and the Southport Visiter (sic) to the national UK and Irish newspapers as well as the broadcasters – all via teleprinter and, in some cases, ‘train parcels’. Yes, really.
I often attended the early morning Holy Communion at St Bride’s when not working at Westminster. The vicar was the much admired Canon John Oates, who arrived in 1984. He helped to smooth the waters at a time when Fleet Street was undergoing dramatic change.
No. 85 Fleet Street was the HQ of PA and Reuters then. Metro International, publishers of the free newspaper Metro, are there now. Reuters moved to Canary Wharf along with some of the national newspapers, the Murdoch titles and the Telegraph. The PA stayed in central London, relocating to Vauxhall Bridge Road, not far from Victoria Station.
I started in local newspapers before that time. I think that is where my heart is still. To sell papers we needed to report what went on in the town or county. People loved reading about their community. I’ve many good memories of calling on vicars and pub landlords and eating cheese ‘cobs’ with parish councillors in their local pubs and Women’s Institute (WI) ladies, gathering their news and editing the reports they sent in on my own WI page.
The job involved day and evening coverage. If there was something to report, we went to it. And reported it. Yes, there was a romance about the job. Reporters are not funded, or allowed, to do that now. I know that from my battles with the local press as a former volunteer press officer for a charity here. Not that I recall being paid overtime for my trips out of office hours. Four shillings for a lunch – around £5 today — with a contact was the max. It was not a lot.
Free newspapers, based on ad income, have been the ruin of truly local newspapers. It’s a great loss to community cohesion that this sort of coverage doesn’t happen anymore. Online local news does help keep the parish pump flowing but, to me, it’s not the same because it is only seen by initiates.
Times change. Newspapers change. Fleet Street, in journalistic terms, is a shadow of its former self. Only D.C. Thomson & Co., Metro International and the AP are there now. Modern computerised printing plants were built to the east of London in Wapping, hence the transfer of newspapers to Canary Wharf. The widespread use of the Internet has seen newspaper circulation decline. Most people receive their news online for free.
Looking back, I am pleased to have been part of local journalism and Fleet Street in their heyday. Despite the hectic pace – often there were days when stories and names blurred past because of the breakneck speed — those are memories to be treasured.