Kenneth RoyIt has been a sad year for journalism: we have lost two of our greatest practitioners, Alan Watkins on the Saturday of the inconclusive election in May, Tony Howard a few days ago.
Howard was the better-known because he appeared on television fairly regularly as a political pundit. I don’t remember Watkins on the box; he was a less visible figure. But it would be hard to separate them otherwise. They were elegant stylists, witty in conversation, shared a tremendous depth of political knowledge, particularly about the Labour Party, and were first-class gossips.
I am not disinterested about either of them; they were helpful to me in various ways. They were mentors, too, although neither knew it. I never told them how much their work had taught and influenced me when I was young; I could never quite bring myself to say it. They were the main, sometimes the only, reasons for buying the New Statesman and the Spectator every week as a boy. Their politics – both Labour, although Watkins less ideologically so – were immaterial. It was always the quality of their writing, the craft, the perception, the air of excitement that drew me to them.
Since I wrote about Alan Watkins when he died, I will say no more about him.
Tony Howard I will allow to speak for himself, through an interview I did with him 10 years ago.
He was the son of a Church of England canon. His father took the Times, but never read a newspaper until after lunch, believing that you must never surrender to what he called triviality. His father was a liberal Tory, opposed to capital punishment, in favour of women priests long before their hour arrived, indignant about Suez – possibly because Tony was taking part in the misadventure. The young man offered his first unsolicited piece to the Spectator, delivering it personally in battledress. When they said they would let him know, he went straight to the New Statesman’s John Freeman who accepted it on the spot.
He got his first proper job on the Co-op’s Sunday paper, Reynolds News – no apostrophe – although he never discovered who Reynolds was. It was a poor little thing, selling only 400,000 copies a week, a circulation that some Sundays would now die for. He went from there to the Guardian. He was under way.
I’ll let a tiny bit of our interview unfold from there…
This sounds arrogant, but in a sense the Left had won the argument for a more humane society. That was one thing. But also there were no new ideas on the Left. We were just scraping around.
There was a time when journalistic excellence in England wasn’t confined to London. There were several cultured provincial papers, not just the Manchester Guardian but the Yorkshire Post and the Birmingham Post. Whatever happened to the provincial press?
We have to give high credit to Alastair Hetherington who saw what was going to happen and therefore at enormous risk and expense first of all took Manchester off the masthead, which greatly offended readers in Lancashire. The start of London printing was an enormous gamble. If it hadn’t happened, if Alastair hadn’t taken that gamble, I suspect the Manchester Guardian as it was would have gone the way of the Yorkshire Post and the other provincial dailies which once had a national impact but no longer did and would have become just another title in the provincial elephants’ graveyard. The one exception to this is the Scottish press, which has kept its virility. But in England the press has become completely centralist.
You went to the New Statesman as its political writer. What was the set-up?
It was an extraordinary institution which, while propounding radical policies, was in itself the most disciplined, capitalist, penny-pinching enterprise you could possibly work for. We were paid minute salaries, but every Christmas a bonus was declared. Yet we put up with this old-fashioned mill-owner’s way of running things. Can’t think why. Of course it was a very talented staff.
Why is the left-wing press so reduced in influence and circulation?
Like Jimmy Porter in ‘Look Back in Anger’, I have a theory that there are no good causes left to fight for. I fear that for papers like the New Statesman and to some extent the Observer, once apartheid had been got rid of, the decolonisation process was complete, we had stopped executing people, stopped sending homosexuals to prison for seven years, it was much more uphill work. This sounds arrogant, but in a sense the Left had won the argument for a more humane society. That was one thing. But also there were no new ideas on the Left. We were just scraping around.
If you were a bright young thing just down from Oxford, as you once were, would you go into journalism now?
At the awful risk of sounding like Ted Heath, who said he wouldn’t now wish to join the Conservative Party, I have to say that I wouldn’t dream of becoming a journalist. Tell you what made the difference. All those years at Wapping [where he ended his career as obituaries editor of the Times]. Watching the boys come in, sandwiches to eat at their desks, crouched over their terminals from 10.30 to 6.30, never seeing anyone, working the phone quite hard, but never actually going out into the real world. This is the big change in journalism. Unless you are a political journalist and working in the House of Commons, in that rarefied atmosphere, reporters never go out of the office. Except on facility trips, of which far too many. It’s a life largely dependent on the information revolution. You scan the internet, you look at what all the news agencies have to say – all there supplied and ready-processed on the desk. It’s not a life at all any more. It’s like being a galley-slave. It’s not a life of enterprise. When I was in the newsroom in Cross Street, Manchester, in 1959, if Harry Whewell found you with your feet on your desk, he’d say: ‘Come on, good story here. Look at the Oldham Chronicle. Oldest cart-horse in Manchester. Off you go!’ Now, if you’re not at your desk it’s almost as if you’re absent without leave.
And now, suddenly, it’s Tony who is absent without leave. I shall miss him.
This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
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