Image for The Chronicle 56: Fleet Street at work and play

Don Bentley climbed the marble staircase of the Sun newspaper’s headquarters with slow, deliberate steps. He had seen this imposing stairwell before, in his days as a messenger boy, but had never moved beyond the commissionaire based at a giant marble desk at its base.

Now he was on his way, rising step by step, to an interview with the newspaper’s deputy editor, looking for a job as a sub-editor.

Bentley wanted to write, be a reporter, but he had been told the quickest way to the heart of the British newspaper industry, Fleet Street, was as an editor of copy and Bentley was in a hurry. Once he had become established and made contacts within the industry, he hoped a reporter’s job would follow.

The deputy editor, Ernie Burridge, invited Bentley into his spacious office, an office about the size of the newsroom of the Woking News and Mail where Bentley was currently employed. The deputy editor had a grin on his face, he was laughing about something that had happened just a few minutes previously and he felt compelled to share this with the young Bentley. It relieved the tension. Venturing to London for the interview had been a nerve-racking experience for Bentley. His mouth was dry, he had an ache in his stomach that had been with him for the entire journey into town from Woking, and been with him during the 15-minute walk from Waterloo Station, across Waterloo Bridge, to Covent Garden where the Sun was based. The deputy editor was laughing and couldn’t contain himself.

``Sorry, mate, but someone has been using the editor’s toilet. He’s annoyed. No one but the editor is allowed to use the editor’s toilet. I told him it wasn’t me, but I’m not sure he believes me. It’s those fucking reporters, the Australians, They don’t respect authority, don’t respect the right of the editor to make his own stink in his own toilet.’’

The deputy editor laughed again.

``Well, enough of that,’’ he said to Bentley finally, trying to switch now into serious mode, but he still had a huge grin on his face.

``Now, tell me, what makes you want to join the Sun? Why us?’’

Bentley had anticipated the question. He was trying to join the Sun simply because it had one of the lowest circulations in Fleet Street, if not the lowest, and was ailing. No one wanted to work on it, unless they were at the extreme ends of the journalistic employment spectrum - past their shelf life, their sell-by date, or were young and inexperienced and trying to get their first step on the Fleet Street ladder.

Bentley, of course, fell into the second category and he was looking for his first break.

``Well, I like the format, I like the clean inventive layout, and as a sub this is important,’’ he said, trying to sound authoritive.

``And the writing?’’ said Burridge.

``Oh, I think it’s great, it’s vital and relevant, it takes every issue seriously but at the same time it reaches out to all sorts of readers. It’s popular but serious.’’

Burridge gave Bentley a knowing look; he could see through the bullshit but hoped all the same Bentley carried an element of honesty and truth in his words.

``So what paper did you read growing up, I mean what paper did your parents take? What was your influence?’’

``Ah, they took the Daily Express. Still do. They love the Express. To be honest, they’re working class Conservatives. The Express fits in neatly with their view of the world.’‘

Bentley thought it important that he throw in the fact that he came from a working-class background. The Sun had been, and to a certain degree still was, the organ of the British Labour Party. It started life at the start of the 20th century as a union newspaper, the Daily Herald, before being taken over finally by the Trades Union Congress. It had then been bought by a national publisher better known for comic books and magazines, Odhams Press, which in turn was absorbed into the burgeoning International Publishing Corporation which also owned the western world’s biggest selling newspaper, the tabloid Daily Mirror.

The old Daily Herald had once been Britain’s most popular newspaper, appealing to the working man, but its very success had sparked competition from Fleet Street’s other newspapers and it had been unable to keep up. The International Publishing Corporation had hoped to check its slide into decline by relaunching it as the Sun, with a bright sun masthead, in the early 1960s. It was meant to be a serious newspaper, as an alternative to its sensational stablemate to give the owners a stake in two markets, but the Sun had been a failure.

Bentley remembered its launch and the derision that its first front-page lead had inspired in the Woking News and Mail newsroom that morning. The main story read: ``Good morning, it’s time for a new newspaper’‘. Somehow, the Sun had missed the point from day one and it never recovered.

Bentley, when granted the interview, had done his research on the Sun’s history and had been reading the newspaper avidly for two weeks or so. Bentley actually liked what he saw. He was not talking total bullshit during his interview. He liked the writing and especially the columnists. He also liked an innovation on the back page in which a striking picture was chosen and 200 or 300 finely-crafted words written to match the picture. The task was usually assigned to a sub-editor who was also a novelist.

The Sun had an eccentricity about it, something enhanced by the location of its offices away from Fleet Street. Covent Garden was not only the centre of a flower and vegetable market, but also at the heart of London’s theatre district. The Royal Opera House towered over the fruit market and one of the streets bordering the Sun printing plant was perhaps the most famous theatre row in the country, Drury Lane. This ensured the pubs and bars surrounding the Odhams Press building were not just frequented at night by journalists, but actors and actresses and others associated with the theatre and entertainment. The district also contained a fair sprinkling of sleazy night clubs and strip joints creating a heady and colourful mix of humanity.

Covent Garden had also been home in the 1700s to Henry Fielding, novelist and dramatist known for his rich earthy humour and satire. Not only was he author of the novel Tom Jones, he also for a time he ran a periodical, The Covent Garden Journal. The mid-1700s was a time of burgeoning pamphlets and publications, many of which not only poked fun at politicians and authority but rival journalists. It was a time of the ``paper wars’’ when established writers declared war on the ``hack” writers of a bohemian part of town called Grub Street. It was from these wars that the press as Bentley knew it emerged, a press with accountability and credibility.

The Sun had a satirical column called ``Henry Fielding” and when Bentley had mentioned this, Burridge appeared impressed enough to offer Bentley not a job, but a six-month holiday relief assignment during which he would be tried out.

During the summer months in Britain, Fleet Street newspapers often took on sub-editors and reporters on six-month contracts to cover staff vacations and there was usually a job at the end of if for journalists who made the grade. The holiday relief assignment was enough for Bentley to resign from his job on the Woking News and Mail and chance his luck in Fleet Street.

The wonderful mix of characters out on the streets of Covent Garden, and in its bars, was reflected by the mix of journalists at the Sun. The older ones were not all past their sell-by date as one would have expected. There were journalists who believed in the Sun and its left-wing views, and were prepared to stake their futures with its campaigning style of journalism, despite growing rumours of closure and redundancy.

Many of the younger staff, like Bentley, comprised people in their twenties looking to move on. These included journalists from the Commonwealth, with the right to work in Britain. The newspaper was sprinkled with Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans but the biggest contingent from overseas came from Australia.

Bentley, on his first day, sat next to a young sub-editor from Sydney who had previously worked on the Sydney Morning Herald. The young Australian journalist, who had started like Bentley as a holiday relief and been taken on the staff, showed Bentley the ropes in those first few weeks. It was good to have a friend because it was a tough place to work, with hard and unforgiving chief sub-editors who demanded incredibly high standards of editing and headline writing, far higher than Bentley had experience on the News and Mail and its bigger sister, the Surrey Advertiser. Bentley survived, however, and was eventually taken on to the staff.

Bentley was not doing what he really wanted to do - be a reporter - but he found life on the Sun as a sub-editor exciting all the same. Just a few years previously his only contact with the journalism profession was to make deliveries to newspapers, now he counted journalists as his friends and colleagues.

Bentley’s life in Fleet Street was centred on not just the Sun office. Just as important was the office pub, the Cross Keys, just across the street. It was dubbed the branch office but this was an understatement; it was in fact a sub-office of the Sun itself. When things had to be discussed, a promotion or even a firing, it tended to be done in the Cross Keys.

``Let’s talk over the road,’’ was a familiar cry, and Bentley looked forward to his briefings from the more senior sub-editors on his progress, downed with pints of bitter.

The Cross Keys was a place of passion, a passion that flowed as heavily as the beer. Reporters would boast of their scoops, of getting one over the opposition; sub-editors would boast of their headlines, and sports reporters of triumphs in predicting the result of a horse race or a football match. Amid the laughter were tears when life did not go precisely to plan, and fights when egos challenged for supremacy.

Blood some days spilled as heavily as the passion and beer, usually when a rival reporter from down the Street, to the east, came west to berate a rival on the Sun.

Bentley, during his first days, was witness to a fight between the fine arts reporter of the upmarket Daily Telegraph and a Sun arts writer over an issue that was never revealed. Was it a conflicting opinion on a work of modern art, or a dispute over a woman? Bentley would never know.

Bentley soon learned to determine from which department the pugilism emanated. He still could not put a face to the bylines but the skill at fighting separated theatre reviewers from reporters who had cut their teeth on the Sydney police rounds. To be avoided in fisticuffs were sports writers who knew more than most about uppercuts and left hooks. But in all fights, there was a strict protocol. No one was king hit, without warning; a pugilist would either invite a challenger to adjourn to the street outside, or signal his intention of swinging a punch by handing his pint, or gin-and-tonic, or glass of claret to the person standing nearest to him.

``Please hold this, old boy,’’ Bentley was summoned one night, before a reporter under verbal assault planted a punch on the nose of a man from The Times.

A narrow staircase at the rear of the pub led to the lavatories, and an alcove at the top of these provided the only space in the cramped pub for a public telephone. Patrons using the lavatories invariably had to step over reporters sitting on the stairs, dictating their stories to copytakers back at the office not more than 100 metres along the street outside. Not only were the reporters reluctant to leave the comfort of the pub to type their stories themselves, many pretended to out of town, safe in the knowledge that the day news editor would have left for home.

The young, star-stuck and impressionable Bentley not only marvelled at the audacity of the reporters, but at their skill in dictating their stories straight from the notebook without composing them first on the typewriter. The ultimate challenge was to write a complex feature piece without putting a word down first. Descending the stairs to the Cross Keys loo one evening, Bentley had stepped over one of Fleet Street’s top sports writers meeting a feature page deadline. As the journalist, the chief sports writer for a quality Sunday newspaper, dictated a 1000-word piece, he would say: ``Now just go back five pars, and insert this.’’ He had the whole piece written in his head and knew where to make changes without having to consult a typed version.

Bentley one day wanted to write with that skill.

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The sub-editors generally avoided the Sun staff canteen, except to go for a sandwich mid-evening, and spent their supper break in the Cross Keys. Being in an area known for its night-life, there were occasional forays to a strip club, the Pink Pussy, closer to the red-light district of Soho. And on these occasions the sub-editors on their break would join the regular, big-busted and now virtually naked stripper in her chorus at the end of her act has she tore off her final piece of clothing, her G-sting. ``Eyes down for the hairy.’’

This was Bentley at work and play in Fleet Street but the young journalist, still living at home in suburban Woking, could not tell his parents about it. They would not understand.

The Cross Keys closed at 11pm, too late for the sub-editors to get a drink there because most of the shifts did not finish until then, or midnight. If Bentley was lingering in town, catching the newspaper train at 2.40am or staying with his Australian colleague in North London, he would assemble with his workmates at an Italian restaurant-come-nightclub in Drury Lane. As regulars, on friendly terms with the barmaid and her boyfriend, a police detective at the Bow Street Police Station, they were not subjected to harassment by scantily-clad hostesses to buy drinks. Under the licensing act, the restaurant patrons were supposed to buy food before they could have a drink, but the rule was rarely observed, possibly because it was a police watering hole as much as that for journalists.

The hostesses always demanded champagne from unsuspecting punters who were hopeful they would be available for sex. Bentley was at first amazed at the capacity the young women had for alcohol, until he was taken aside by the barmaid and told the girls were merely drinking sugar water, with a shot of soda to give it the appearance of being fizzy. Through the sleaze, the low-life, the cons and shenanigans Bentley was being given lessons in life that had nothing to do with journalism.

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Bentley had arrived, and they were exciting times but the euphoria and exhilaration he felt about the world of Fleet Street had a sub-plot of anxiety and unease. It was a sub-text, with an historical context, to which Bentley was oblivious. He was having too much fun.

Bentley had known that the Sun was an ailing newspaper but he was not aware its disease was potentially terminal. Bentley was too young to know of the demise since World War II of great newspapers, the News Chronicle and its London evening stablemate, the Star, among them. He had vague recollections of there being a third London evening newspaper because it put out a soccer edition on Saturday nights, and was sometimes brought home by his father returning from football matches. Its demise and that of the Liberal mouthpiece, the News Chronicle had hit Fleet Street hard, with many job losses. It explained the nervousness doing the rounds at the Sun office.

The failure of the Sun to capture new readers, and even hold those that it had, gave rise to constant rumours that its owners would let it die and write off the losses they had sustained after its expensive relaunch. However, at about the time Bentley joined the newspaper, in late 1968, a buyer appeared on the horizon, Rupert Murdoch.

The Australian newspaper proprietor had already bought into Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, a Sunday publication, the News of the World, and was looking for an acquisition that would keep the newspaper’s presses occupied during the week. The Sun’s owners were pleased to get the ailing Sun off its hands. It was offered to Murdoch at a knockdown price, and, to his surprise, Murdoch was given a year to pay this off.

The young journalists on the Sun had been cavalier and blase about the old Sun’s demise, especially the ones from Australia or New Zealand who looked to redundancy to pay for grand trips around Europe, and still have a job on the new Sun to come back to.

The older journalists, however, particularly reporters, realised there was no future for them on a newspaper that would inevitably go tabloid and seek a younger readership. The feeling among the old guard was summed up a crime reporter of the old school, who had spent his career drinking with police and criminals instead of television celebrities.  He’d being doing a bit of drinking before a union meeting one day to discuss redundancies and when, close to tears, he said he had reached the end of the line, a glib young reporter called out: ``Well you’ve always written that crime doesn’t pay.’’

It was a remark met with silence.

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The Mirror’s owners had no idea what Murdoch had in store for them, and what was to come. When the first edition of the Sun was published it was virtually a carbon copy of the Daily Mirror, but more vibrant and immediate. The new Sun had switched to tabloid format from day one and instead of the yellow Sun on the old front page, the name was incorporated into a red masthead, just like the Mirror’s.

The two looked remarkably similar but there was a significant difference, and that was in the Sun’s approach to news. The Mirror, although a popular tabloid, still described itself as a ``newspaper’’ following in the traditions of the British press but Murdoch was to take the Sun in a different direction. Instead of the day’s news events setting the agenda, the Sun set its own. It geared its news primarily to television. The Sun’s reporters were generally at the heart of the story, instead of standing on the sidelines reporting what when on. Over the years it appeared news events - comedian Freddie Star eating a hamster on stage, for instance - were performed purely for the Sun’s benefit. In a new age where people were increasingly looking at, and influenced by television,  the Daily Mirror just couldn’t keep pace and within a few years the Sun had overtaking the Mirror’s circulation.

Murdoch had also taken the Sun away from his roots as a socialist organ. The newspaper now switched its alliance to the Conservative Party, and was to become factor in Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power.

Bentley became a witness to the Murdoch newspaper revolution sweeping Fleet Street, from the Daily Mirror’s perspective. Instead of joining the Sun with the other staff offered a job there, Bentley took up an option to join the Daily Mirror. Bentley might not have felt comfortable with tabloid journalism but the Mirror had a section that appealed to him, Mirrorscope, a pull-out that gave serious, in-depth coverage to domestic and foreign news. Bentley had hoped to join this section, and write for it but it was not to be. Any pretence, or genuine desire, to educate the tabloid masses were jettisoned by the Mirror when the Sun revealed itself and its style of TV-oriented coverage.

Bentley attended a cocktail party to welcome recruits to the Mirror who had not wanted to go to the new Sun. There was red wine and cigars and a fighting speech by Sir Hugh Cudlipp, a legendary Fleet Street figure who had built the Mirror into the newspaper it had become. Cudlipp was one of Bentley’s heroes, second only to the Daily Express’s most famous editor, Arthur Christiansen. Bentley might not have liked the newspaper Cudlipp had created but in his time Cudlipp had been a campaigning journalist, publishing a book about his editorship of the Mirror, ``Publish and be Damned’’ and going to prison in defence of press freedom.

Cudlipp, now a senior executive of the Mirror’s publishers, and his cohorts laughed off the first edition of the Sun published that morning, noting its similarity in style to the Mirror. They were soon to learn that the Sun planned something different and in coming months the Mirror would go into panic mode as it saw its circulation plummet.

Bentley came away from the cocktail party with a cigar lifted from Cudlipp’s personal supply. No one told him you were not supposed to inhale Cuba’s finest, and on the way home he was sick as a dog.

The Sun was changing Fleet Street and its view of news forever. And the approach to news coverage in which television set the agenda was not confined to the tabloid press, or the red tops as they came to be known because of their red mastheads. Even the more serious and mainstream newspapers like the Daily Express and the Daily Mail were focusing on news inspired by television.

Bentley was becoming disillusioned with Fleet Street and its reliance on television. Besides, he wanted to be writer, not a sub-editor and although the sub-editing honed his skills as a wordsmith, it was not the real thing, being out there reporting. And he struggled to come to grips with the tabloid style of journalism. He increasingly found himself showing little interest in it, and had no inclination to master it. He had joked when he first discovered newspapers as a teenager that the Mirror tended to shout at its readers with large, black headlines that proclaimed ``shame’’ and ``shock’’ and ``horror’’ and here he was writing those headlines and tailoring copy to match. On the Mirror virtually every word was rewritten in tabloidese. Children became ``kids’’ or ``tots’‘, schoolteachers ``mams’’ or ``sirs’‘. Grans were either kindly or cruel, sometimes blonde. The police were the ``cops’’ or ``the Bill’‘.

Besides, there was no fun at the Mirror. There were few characters there in the style he had experienced at the Sun, perhaps because, as the nation’s biggest newspaper, the Mirror was serious business. Save for one. The Mirror employed a wordsmith to write its captions who was reputed to be the best in the Street. It was said of him that if you threw an edition of the London telephone directory at him he could give you a 1000 words. One night, the wordsmith on his break met an attractive woman in his local waterhole, and forgot about returning to work.

The Mirror didn’t work out for Bentley. He didn’t cut the mustard, couldn’t cope with that style of journalism, and decided to take the option of redundancy offered to him when the Sun was sold. The option was open for a year and near the end of the 12 months he handed in his resignation.

The job at the Mirror may have been a dead end, but it opened another avenue for Bentley’s career, one that he hoped would take him towards the goal of being a Fleet Street reporter after all. The Mirror had been well paid and it had enabled Bentley to do something he had dreamed off doing since he was a child. Bentley loved animals, loved going to the zoo, and he had always wanted to go to Africa on a safari. Bentley in recent years had developed an interest in bird-watching and with three bird-watching friends, he organised a month’s safari to Kenya and Tanzania.

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Bentley returned to Britain from the safari restless, a restless fuelled by his unhappiness at working at the Mirror.

In the dying days of the old Sun, when a register of employment options was set up for those being made redundant, Bentley had noted that two South African groups of newspapers appeared to be constantly on the look-our for staff, particularly sub-editors, from London. Bentley had been tempted to apply for one of these posts, thinking at the time of taking a working holiday in Africa, but had been warned off by colleagues who were concerned about working in a country that practised racial discrimination.

Bentley, however, had taken a keen interest in South Africa and had noted that the newspapers advertising for staff were in fact liberal publications, opposed to the country’s policies of racial segregation.

Bentley had also thought at the time of becoming a freelance writer in South Africa for London publications, using a sub-editor’s job in Johannesburg as a base and source of income until he could set himself up full-time after the two-year contract that was on offer expired.

As his employment at the Mirror came to a close, Bentley saw another advertisement for a job in South Africa.

It was for a sports sub-editor on the Star, in Johannesburg. Adventure beckoned and Bentley applied.