With ratlike cunning and a plausible manner, I intruded into private grief


by Kenneth Roy

Nicholas Tomalin (1931-73), a foreign correspondent who died in Israel covering the Yom Kippur war, is remembered not so much for his work as for a single saying. ‘The only qualities essential for real success in journalism,’ he wrote in the pre-Murdoch Sunday Times in 1969, ‘are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability’.

As the horrors of the month unfolded, it was amusing to recall Tomalin’s low view of his own vocation – ‘trade’ as it is more commonly described by journalists themselves – and to apply his cynical perception to each new revelation.

There is, however, a flaw in the saying: it is not quite right. I take issue with Tomalin’s opinion that one of the essential qualities for journalistic success is a little literary ability. Many successful journalists have no literary abililty whatsoever. Some I have known could barely write. But this is no impediment to progress through our ‘schools’ of journalism which themselves need to be investigated and whose main purpose is to inculcate the corrupt values of the tabloid press. Whatever else is taught in these seedy institutions, the love and practical use of language is not high on the curriculum.

There are pedants called ‘subs’ – sub-editors – whose grim daily task is to take the rawest of material and somehow knock it into serviceable shape. At the roughest end of journalism, the extremity finally laid bare in July 2011, the subs are the people with a little literary ability. Most of the reporters have a separate function. It is the collection of information, mainly through the massaging of contacts. By their tip-offs do they live or die – or, as we shall presently see, merely go to prison. The knack of stringing a few words together – an average of around 25 in a typical tabloid front page – is not essential for advancement.

It is almost embarrassing to have to admit that, when I entered newspaper journalism at the age of 16, I imagined it would be a way of satisfying my urge to write. I was in heaven at the thought of it. Fortunately, it took no time at all to be disabused of this quaint notion.

I was working for a local paper in Falkirk. The paper paid very little, but its reporters could make some useful extra cash by moonlighting as ‘stringers’ – casual correspondents – for the national tabloids, the Daily Record in our case. The Record tended to use stringers for such basic work as the collection of photographs from families of the victims of crime or accidents. ‘The collect pic’ this practice was called. There was no escape from it: an elementary skill in the dark art of the collect pic was considered part of any young journalist’s induction. My own took place within months.

But identifying the picture was the least of it. There was now the problem of how to wrest it from its place on the mantelpiece, how to persuade the tear-stained parents to remove it from its frame and hand it to a complete stranger.

One evening the Record dispatched me in a taxi to the tiny village of Allandale, between Falkirk and Kilsyth. I am not sure if Allandale exists any longer; it might well have been swallowed up by a motorway. It scarcely existed even then, except as an unprepossessing row of council houses. A young woman of Allandale – about 20 years old, perhaps, a little older than I was myself – had been killed in a road accident and the Record sent me off in search of the collect pic.

I approached this assignment with disguised dread; to have confided my fears to the chief reporter of our paper, who acted as treasurer of the local stringers’ fund, would have been so wimpish as to be potentially career-damaging. The taxi pulled up outside the house and I sat frozen to the seat for a few minutes. The couple inside had just lost their only daughter. How could I do such a thing as I was now expected to do? Many years later, I have still not answered this interesting question to my own satisfaction, but I finally got out of the taxi and knocked on the door of the grieving.

What happened next surprised me. Instead of being told to go, I was welcomed into the house and asked if I would like a cup of tea. I discovered at that moment a useful fact known to all journalists: that the grieving are often too traumatised to be capable of normal social discrimination. Stumbling out a few words of sympathy as sincerely as I could manage, I glanced furtively around the room looking for the collect pic. Sure enough, there it was occupying pride of place on the mantelpiece: the framed photograph of a smiling young woman who had left the house a few hours earlier to go to work. Yes, that would do.

But identifying the picture was the least of it. There was now the problem of how to wrest it from its place on the mantelpiece, how to persuade the tear-stained parents to remove it from its frame and hand it to a complete stranger. This too was surprisingly easily accomplished. I explained that the Daily Record wished to publish ‘a wee tribute’ – yes, that could have been the expression – and would they mind if I ‘borrowed’ the photograph for a few days. They agreed without hesitation, asking only that the precious photo should be returned as soon as possible.

When I left the house, the mantelpiece of the living room was bare. The photograph of the dead girl had gone. Mission had been accomplished: I had come of age. With a mixture of ratlike cunning and a plausible manner, I had intruded successfully into private grief – and the sly nature of the intrusion had not even occurred to the grieving. They were too immersed in grief to notice. When I handed in the collect pic to the Daily Record’s Falkirk office, I attached the address of the family for its return. Whether it ever was returned, I have no idea. I never saw the family again. I never heard from them again.

The following morning, the Daily Record published its ‘wee tribute’ – a routine account of the accident accompanied by a grainy picture of the girl from Allandale. For most readers, the titillation would have lasted no more than a second or two before a casual flick to the next page.

I ask myself how great a stride there is, ethically, between the collect pic and the interception of a dead girl’s mobile phone messages. With the collect pic there was consent of a kind; with phone-hacking there was none. One activity was legal; the other was not. But the essential game is much the same: the satisfaction of popular prurience, the pandering to base human desire.

So Nicholas Tomalin captured in a phrase the essential nature of journalism; I forgive him the sentimental illusion that it has much to do with literary ability.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.