Image for The Chronicle 58: Fleet Street of the Sky

Bentley peered out of the windows of the bus taking him to work. The wire mesh covering the glass obscured his view but he knew he was in a danger zone.  Bentley had lived with danger for a decade in Africa. Now he was living with danger on the streets of East London. It wasn’t so different really. In Africa he had exposed himself to risk as part of his job, and now the same thing was happening in the name of earning a crust.

Bentley couldn’t see out of the windows of the bus snaking through the cobbled, dockland streets but he could hear the anger, shouts of ``scrum’’ and ``scab’’ as the bus neared the newspaper printing plant in Wapping. Bentley had signed up for sub-editing shifts on The Times but to get to his computer screen he had to run a gauntlet of printers protesting outside the printing plant.  It was serious business. Some nights the plant belonging to Rubert Murdoch’s News International was under siege, hundreds of police, many on horseback, holding back the printers. Bentley on occasion had given a bed to an old friend, John Gerard, a sub-editor on The Times who had missed his train home after being trapped in The Times office until freed by police in the small hours.

Bentley had been at first reluctant to cross the picket lines, not so much out of brotherly solidarity with the printers who had been displaced by new technology, but out of a genuine fear for his safety. The picket, confined to a park outside the printing plant, bubbled with bile and hatred. The printers were angry at the loss of their crafts, of compositor and typesetter, and the loss of their jobs, and, perhaps more poignantly, the tradition of sons following their fathers into an ancient trade.

The Fleet Street that Bentley knew and loved was dying, the newspapers moving to high-technology printing plants and offices outside the city centre, taking the journalists with them but not the printers and allied trades like proof-readers, copy runners and copy typists. This new dawn for newspapers, however, did not necessarily bring hope. Newspaper proprietors had invested so heavily in new printing plants and put aside colossal payments for redundancy that there appeared to be little left to invest in the newspapers themselves. There was talk of closures and amalgamations and there were fears among those who loved newspapers that many of the publications would not survive.

Bentley had returned from Africa to a Fleet Street in lockdown and it appeared the days of the ``casual’‘, the freelance reporter or editor who could get shifts any day or night they wanted them were over.

When Bentley had arrived at Heathrow Airport from Johannesburg in the summer of 1984, Wapping was not yet on the horizon but the dispute to which it gave its name would become, along with the miners’ strike of 1984-5, a significant turning point in the history of the trade union movement and of UK industrial relations.

Bentley managed to book shifts on a raft of newspapers ranging from the popular to the serious but was determined to pursue his dream of leaving sub-editing behind, to become a reporter on a British national newspaper.  He had by now given up interest in the Daily Express. The fabled newspaper had adopted a tabloid format in 1977 and its journalism was now not to Bentley’s liking. The quality newspapers had now moved to fill the gap left by a mainstream press going downmarket to win readers and this is where Bentley sought employment.

Bentley applied to The Times and was told that its owner had plans to open a daily newspaper, the London Post, one that would be edited electronically and would not require typesetters and compositors. Because it was a new publication its emergence would not cost printers jobs and so it was not opposed by the print unions. Bentley was given three reporting shifts on The Times and made a good impression with the news editor, who said he would recommend that Bentley be employed when the new newspaper started up.

Bentley was grateful because he did not think he had done so well. He had written ``today’’ in his first story, still locked in his evening newspaper days, instead of ``yesterday’’ and been given a public bollocking by the news editor. It was a baptism of fire, and an indication of how tough and unforgiving life as a Fleet Street reporter could be, but Bentley was up to the challenge.

The weeks, then months, passed and Bentley heard nothing from the ``Post’‘. At the same time regular sub-editing shifts at The Times dried up and Bentley found it increasingly difficult to find work. There was fear and paranoia stalking Fleet Street and its environs and no one wanted to hire, and no one wanted to move.

The tightness in the freelance market appeared especially apparent at the Murdoch newspapers, The Times and The Sun and their Sunday counterparts. Work there was being kept strictly in house, and there were rumours of secret training sessions for staff journalists at Murdoch’s recently completed Wapping plant. Officially, these journalists were off sick but it was an ailment that came to be dubbed ``Wapping cough’’ by journalists working inside and out of the Murdoch publications. 

The state-of-the-art plant in London’s vacant docklands had been billed as purely a printing centre but offices were incorporated, including an historic rum warehouse converted to provide a newsroom for The Times. Electronic editing enabled journalists to transmit edited stories straight to the page, without typesetting and compositors arranging the type on the page. Computers and allied equipment had been smuggled into Wapping and once the printers at traditional printing sites realised what was going on it was too late. Six thousand printers called a strike and found that they were powerless to stop the Murdoch papers from being printed and distributed.

Bentley, along with everyone else hoping for a job on the Post, realised the proposed newspaper was merely a ruse, a means to an end to get the plant up and running and there was never any intention of starting it, or at least giving it a future.

Some days Bentley cut a lonely figure pacing Hampstead Heath near his bedsit flat in north London, trying to figure out what he was going to do next. Bentley had never been unemployed before.

At these times Bentley was thankful he had bird-watching as an interest. It got him out of his bedsit, and kept him out of the pub. It helped keep his mind off his plight. For hours at a time, sometimes days if there were no shifts in sight, he could lose himself on Hampstead Heath, chasing different bird species. It was after one of these forays that Bentley returned to his home to discover that a friend had posted him a clipping from The Guardian newspaper, an advertisement for holiday relief sub-editors on the BBC World Service. Bentley had already seen the advertisement and had thought the job was not for him, but he now applied nonetheless. He sat a test as a news script-writer and, although he struggled with the format, he was surprised to receive a letter offering him a six-month contract.

Bentley enjoyed the challenge of radio journalism but was keen eventually to return to the printed word, and continued working on a causal basis for newspapers - often doing double shifts in tandem with his BBC job when he could get them. To keep his foot in the door, Bentley was drawn back to The Times, and this time to Wapping.

Bentley had to keep his options open because after six months, and the end of his BBC contract, he could find himself out of work again. They proved difficult times; learning the mysteries of radio script-writing by day and then crossing the picket lines at night to edit for The Times.

News Limited had planned the move to Wapping like a military operation.  Because there had been so many journalist ``refusniks’’ boycotting Wapping, the Murdoch newspapers started recruiting casuals again. Journalists going to Wapping were given the option of catching the armour-plated bus, its secret departure points only revealed by coded telephone calls to people working at the plant or signed up for shifts.

Managing day shifts and night shifts Bentley had no time for codes and subterfuge. He merely fronted up at Wapping in person, running the gauntlet of the printers behind police lines. Anyone approaching Wapping was singled out with chants of ``scab’’ and worse and Bentley laughed off the taunts. Leaving Wapping, however, was a different matter. The streets were dark and dreary in this run-down area of the former London docks and Bentley feared being singled out and followed after he left the plant. He chose to get the bus which left every half-hour, through the night, from behind the razor-wire fence surrounding the Wapping plant. At night, the bus usually went to the Whitechapel underground station which gave access to the rest of London’s tube network.

Bentley was eventually offered a job at The Times as a sub-editor, partly as a result of his fortitude in crossing the lines, an issue that troubled Bentley. He had gone to Wapping more out of desperation, having felt the chill of redundancy, than wanting to put the boot into the printers. He had little sympathy for them, however. He had been exposed to their restrictive work practices while working on the print floor of The Sun and Daily Mirror in the 1960s and, even in Africa, he had felt their malign influence. Bentley had been booked to do some freelance writing for The Times at a time when the newspaper had been shut down for nearly a year in the late 1970s because of an industrial dispute. Bentley’s friend, The Time’s Southern Africa correspondent, had a story to report of brewing revolution in South Africa and war in Rhodesia, but no newspaper to report it to.

After a shift at The Times one night, Bentley was called into the office of the night editor, who praised him for crossing the picket lines and then handed him a contract.

``So you don’t mind the printers and all the insults,’’ said the night editor, who then revealed he had sympathy for the printers.

``I know lots of those guys out there, ‘’ he said. ``And you know what’s so sad, tragic, is they think they are going to get their jobs back. They think there is a future for them. They just don’t get it.’’

Bentley thought long and hard about a job on The Times but decided eventually not to take it. It was not a reporter’s job after all and if he was going to be an editor he would learn a new craft in the short-term, that of radio script writer. Besides, a new challenge beckoned. A new newspaper was starting up, the idea for a trio of journalists working on the Daily Telegraph. It would be called The Independent and, as its masthead indicated, would be free of the existing media owners and be free of political affiliation. It would be a broadsheet, a quality newspaper that put unbiased opinion, and words, first. Bentley liked what he was hearing and it would be worth the wait in the eccentric comfort of the BBC World Service newsroom to see what transpired.

The Independent was up and running for a year before Bentley made his move. He applied for a job as a reporter but because of a CV listing his Africa experience, he was directed towards the foreign desk in an editing role. A sub’s job was on offer, with the possibility of becoming a foreign correspondent, possibly back in Africa, if a position became available. Long before the newspaper started, the foreign postings had been determined from people already employed on exisiting newspapers, many of them fall-out from the Murdoch empire, journalists unhappy about working at Wapping even though the trouble there was over.

The Daily Express that popped through the Bentley family letterbox each morning in the 1950s and 1960s had a potent symbol on its front page, that of a crusader with a sword. The crusader was on the top, right-hand corner of the masthead, in a place that Bentley would later learn is called a newspaper’s left and right ears. On many newspapers it was an expensive advertising space but the Express reserved this eye-catching spot for its crusader. Without words, a line drawing etched in red of chain-mailed warrior carrying a sword and St George shield said everything a young Bentley wanted to hear about newspapers.

The image may have shouted ``scoop’’ to Bentley but to his parents it said something else. The Daily Express carried a sword for those who championed the notion of a Britain that was great. Great Britain might no longer rule supreme across the planet, but The Daily Express still believed, echoing the view of its readers, that the nation still stood for what was civilised, good and righteous in the world.

The memory of seeing that red crusader set in a sea of black and white still filled Bentley with awe and excitement to this day. So this was journalism, he would say to himself when he first fell under the spell of the Express.  How things had changed in four decades, from the time Bentley was a boy. The Express, like the other big-selling mainstream newspaper, The Daily Mail, had shifted downmarket, if not totally relying on television for its content, allowing television to set the news agenda.

The Express, as with the Mail, had also shrunk to a tabloid format from the broadsheet of old, a compact design that lent itself to big and bold typefaces, big and bold layout that sometimes shaped the stories that fell on the page, both literally and figuratively. Bentley now rarely looked at the Express but each time he saw it he felt it was trying to out-sensationalise The Sun and The Mirror. What happened to that once-great newspaper and those once-great times? Of bylines that included those of Sefton Delmer, the first British journalist to interview Adolf Hitler, and fly in his private plane, and those of spy breaker Chapman Pincher, who exposed the Soviet Union’s infiltration of the British establishment.

The Independent
was an exciting concept that thrilled Bentley initially. It would be the Express of memory and imagination. It was worth taking a gamble even though he had become settled at the World Service and found himself on the ladder of promotion.

The advent of new technology made it possible to produce a newspaper without a printing workforce and a print works. The founders of The Independent, led by the business editor of the Daily Telegraph Adreas Whittam Smith, used existing print centres through Britain - those printing evening newspapers which had excess capacity at night - to print their newspaper.

The Independent, however, was not immune to the malaise that had struck newspapers in the modern age, of the ever increasing influence of television, its drain on advertising revenue. It was a cloud that could not be ignored but the Independent tried to ignore it. Following on its success, it launched a Sunday edition but this was to prove a serious drain on its resources. The formula for producing a daily newspaper did not transfer to its Sunday version, where competition was tougher from the well-entrenched Murdoch Sunday Times.

Within a few years the Independent company was struggling and sharks were circulating, too. The Daily Mirror group entered the waters, along with ambitious Irish newspaper proprietor Tony O’Reilly and The Independent was torn apart. Promotions, and foreign postings were suspended, as were pay increases and a mood of despair descended on the fragile operation. Finally, after a protracted tug-of-war, The Independent was sold to a joint venture established by The Mirror and O’Reilly’s Irish Independent newspapers and The Independent moved office from City Road, not so very far from Fleet Street, to the docklands.

Britain’s highest office tower had been built at Canary Wharf, down the Thames from Tower Bridge, but the office complex had been a financial failure. Rents were going cheap and several newspapers, looking to cut costs, took floors there. The Mirror was based there, The Daily Telegraph and then The Independent arrived on a floor of its own. It was a Fleet Street of the sky and although the pubs of Canary Wharf tried to mimic the great Fleet Street traditions of booze and craic it never really worked.

Bentley, sitting above the clouds some days in the Independent’s Canary Wharf eyrie, was desperately unhappy. It was not the first time he had felt a little bereft and lost in his career, but this time he was running out of options. The life of the journalist, especially one who switches newspapers a few times, had always had its highs and lows.

At these times Bentley would think of an old couple he had interviewed as a young reporter, who were celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. The old chap had said their marriage had had its ``ups and downs but they had been mostly ups’‘.

The thought of life’s ups and downs always brought a smile to Bentley’s face, as did memories of his early reporting life on the Woking News and Mail. A reminder of those days was with him at The Independent. At the News and Mail he had met a reporter in his late twenties, who had sought shelter and refuge in the newspaper industry after disgrace in the church. The reporter had been a Church of England curate but had run off with his vicar’s wife, leading to the curate being defrocked. In Woking he tried to hide his ecclesiastical past, drinking and womanising at various Woking waterholes, but was exposed when a letter arrived for him addressed to ``the Reverend Mike Smith’‘. The editor found it very amusing, but made sure the reporter was never put on the church rounds.

Now the former curate, the former reporter, worked with Bentley as a sub-editor on The Independent. Unlike Bentley, he had given up all interest in being a reporter, and enjoyed the sedentary life of the sub-editor. Bentley and the ex-curate would spend their dinner break at their favourite Canary Wharf pub recalling the times they would cram into Smith’s tiny Bubblecar, John Gerard sitting on Bentley’s lap in the two-seat vehicle, and head off into the country, looking for ale houses. Smith may have given up a desire to be a writer but he still loved newspapers, loved being a wordsmith, the reason he was drawn to The Independent from The Times.

Smith, however, was now troubled. What had become of the newspaper he would ask most nights, shouting the words with both anger and passion, an anger and passion that invariably brought forth a sermon that he might have delivered in his parish church.

``The wondrous newspaper, this gift to all mankind. Honesty, integrity, truth; the guardian of all that’s good, gracious and righteous. But the shepherds, the defenders of democracy, the governments, never watched over their flock, protected it from the wolves, with teeth of avarice and greed. The wolves circled, they came from far and wide ... ‘’

While working at the BBC World Service, Bentley had fallen in love with an Australian, who worked as a production assistant. They eventually moved in together, married and had a son. The Australian, Susan Betts, had lived in London for 15 years but, now rearing a son, hankered for her homeland, where the son would enjoy the benefits of an upbringing filled with open space and sunshine. Bentley saw these benefits, too, particularly when he thought of Australia’s wildlife, and its birds. His birdwatching in Britain, his escape from work, had become predictable and routine.

And there was something else that stirred excitement in Bentley when he thought of a new life in Australia. From afar it appeared to have a strong and vibrant press, with series broadsheets in major cities, as a counter to a racy metropolitan tabloid press. Bentley thought more often now of Australia’s fine tradition of newspaper journalism, of all the Australian journalists he had known, and the fun he had had in their company, and made a decision to go there. Although he was nearing 50, Bentley was not yet ready to sit back and ease down into retirement.

Australia represented another horizon, another challenge, another adventure, and it would be another decade before the rise of the internet would have people predicting the end of the newspaper itself.