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Richard Littlejohn

Why I'll never give up the day job

British Journalism Review
Vol. 13, No. 3, 2002, pages 65-70

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Richard Littlejohn writes a regular column in The Sun.

Contents - Vol 13, No. 3, 2002

Editorial - Time to heal ourselves 3

Peter Wilby - Letter 6

Special edition: editors and editing

Geoffrey Goodman - Bridging the generation gap 7

Bill Hagerty - Paul Dacre: the zeal thing 11

Bill Hagerty - The forgotten Cudlipp 22

Patrick Ryan - The art of the editor 28

The greatest editor of all? 33

Martin Rowson - High importance of being Low 37

Sarah Shannon - When the fox preaches, look to your geese 44

Bruce Page - Pricking the bubble: financial scandal and the media 49

Andrew Wasley - Indy journalism: facts are free, opinion is sacred? 58

Richard Littlejohn - Why I'll never give up the day job 65

Rudi Vranckx - Now truth is the first target 71

Michael Billington - Who shot Adrian Noble? 75

Mike Molloy on Richard Stott 80

David Eliades on Penny Junior 84

Phillip Knightley on Robert Capa 86

  FOR the first time in more than 11 years, I've got only one job. The day job. My life over the past decade has been a three-ring circus, with me as ringmaster, clown and performing seal. In 1991, after 20 years in newspapers, I decided to strike out on my own. With a wife and two kids and a monster mortgage to support, I waved farewell to office, secretary, pension, BUPA, company car and generous expenses. Armed only with a 12-month security blanket to continue writing my column in The Sun, I took a punt.

When I was a kid I had three ambitions. Delivering papers, aged 11, I wanted to work in Fleet Street. Listening to the pirate stations and Radio Luxembourg, I wanted my own radio show. Watching David Frost and Michael Parkinson on TV, I imagined one day that would be me. Arriving in Fleet Street in the late 1970s, I felt like a young footballer walking through the gates of Old Trafford for the first time after being transferred from a Second Division side.

It's a sensation captured perfectly by Keith Waterhouse in his autobiography, City Lights, in a chapter about his own introduction to the Street of Shame a generation earlier.

A column on Britain's best-selling daily was the stuff of dreams back when I was paying my dues in the lower leagues on the provincial weekly, evening and agency circuit.

My big break in journalism was minding a phone box outside the Longbridge car plant, while working on the Birmingham Evening Mail in the mid-seventies. These were the days before mobiles, when getting the story back to the office was more important than getting the story in the first place. There was only one phone box within a mile of the shop stewards' office and it was my job to occupy it and repel all borders from 10.30am until the industrial editor, Tom Condon, came running out at lunchtime with the result of the latest strike ballot.

A column on The Sun is a million miles from playing Terry McCann. But in 1991, despite a life I would have killed for 10 years earlier, I couldn't help wondering: “Is this it?” I was haunted by something that happened on the day, a few years earlier, when I wrote my first column for the Evening Standard. At opening time, some of the lads took me over the road to The Old Bell for a celebratory glass of Guinness. Two men had beaten us to it. In the corner sat George Gale and John Akass, two masters of the columnist's craft, sucking treble gins, clearly in recovery mode. My Standard colleague, Tony Maguire, nudged me and indicated the grand old men. “Look carefully,” he said. “That's your future”.

Later in the day, I bumped in to Akass in the City Golf Club, off Fleet Street. He looked me up and down and huffed: “So you've got opinions now, have you? Welcome to the club, old son”. Whether Akass thought I could cut it, I never discovered. Most people have a column in them and some people have as many as four. But the casualty rate is heavy, even if you do make the grade.

Both Gale and Akass died young and I was determined that if the same fate was to befall me I'd first set out to discover if there was life beyond Fleet Street. I'd been writing the odd piece for Punch, turning up on the wireless as an occasional pundit, and presenting What The Papers Say on TV, which had led to other broadcasting offers. It was time to chance my arm away from the fur-lined coffin of Fleet Street.

LBC, the London talk-station, gave me a regular opinion spot, which spawned first my own afternoon show, Littlejohn's Long Lunch, and later the prized morning show, which I took over from Michael Parkinson. It wasn't long before I discovered one of the main differences between print and broadcasting – regulation and bureaucratic interference. Whenever there's a coup in a banana republic, they always seize control of the radio station. They must have got the idea from Britain.

There is no such thing as free speech in the wonderful world of radio and television in this country. The Broadcasting Standards Council, the ITC and the Radio Authority monitor closely all transmissions for “inappropriate” comment. Their idea of “balance” equates to one set of politicians telling one set of lies followed by another set of politicians telling a different set of lies. The truth doesn't enter the equation. Presenters are expected to be seen or heard, but never to express an opinion, regardless of how relevant or accurate. I soon fell foul of the regulators on account of my opening monologues, in which I was critical of leading politicians and the Government in particular. It was the kind of thing featured in my column, week in, week out, without a grumble from the paying public.

During one of the interminable age-of-consent debates, a gang of militant homosexuals kicked lumps out of a young police officer outside the Commons. I happened to remark on air that the police “should have turned the flame throwers on them”. Someone complained to the Radio Authority that I had displayed “a degree of bigotry beggaring belief,” and said my “general demeanour was reminiscent of Nazi Germany”. You might think that a mob beating a young man senseless was “reminiscent of Nazi Germany”. You might also think that being tried and found guilty in my absence without being allowed to even know the name of my accuser was “reminiscent of Nazi Germany”.

But that's what happened. The Radio Authority, meeting in private, decreed that I had broken half-a-dozen rules and had incited violence. Noone who had listened to the programme in its entirety could have reached that conclusion. Yet the Radio Authority, the usual collection of the great and good, chose to side with a bunch of thugs who had beaten up a police officer. Another censure arrived when I described the royals as “a bunch of tax-evading adulterers”. Who, with hindsight, would argue with that?

Attacks on Major

My gut instinct was that though the Authority had picked on these specific incidents, what really galled the Establishment were the daily attacks on John Major over Black Wednesday, Maastricht and Tory sleaze. They do not like it up 'em. Eventually, the Radio Authority refused to renew LBC's licence. How much I was responsible for that, I will never know.

What I'd tried to do, along with the Australian Mike Carlton, another rabidly anti-Establishment broadcaster who presented the breakfast show, was bring opinionated American-style talk radio to Britain. It will never happen, least of all under New Labour. They will never allow genuine free speech on the airwaves. Instead we get fed smug, self-satisfied, brown-nosing, party-line pap such as Radio 5 Live's Nikky Campbell Show.

After that I went to Sky News, where my old Sun boss Kelvin MacKenzie was in charge. But, once again, the regulators ensured that there was no chance of reproducing the kind of show the Americans expect from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. Although I enjoyed my year at Sky, it was ultimately a disappointment that we'd never been able to make the programme we intended. If Sky News could emulate its US sister Fox News, which has wiped the floor with CNN with opinion-driven “fair and balanced” coverage, ratings would soon shoot past the Astra satellite. But the regulators won't allow it.

It's one thing getting complaints after the event. I achieved a television first when I joined London Weekend by managing to get a complaint before I went on air. I'd been hired by Trevor Phillips to present a new Friday night talk/entertainment show in the summer of 1994. When news broke in the papers, the duty officer at LWT received a call from a viewer. These calls are all logged and passed to the ITC. It read: “Viewer has heard there is to be a programme with Richard Littlejohn and advises us to drop it before it goes any further”. You couldn't, as I have been known to observe, make it up.

Over the past 10 years I've presented hundreds of TV and radio shows and must be one of a select few who have worked for all the major broadcasters, BBC, ITV, Channel Four and Sky, while maintaining an umbilical link to Fleet Street. I've been able to make comparisons between the public and commercial sectors, between radio and TV, and between Fleet Street and the rest of the media. I've worked with a lot of talented people in broadcasting, but to be honest few of them would last more than a casual shift in Fleet Street. With some notable exceptions, the best all started their careers in newspapers.

In radio terms, the commercial sector is seriously undermanned, while the BBC is ludicrously overmanned. On LBC, five of us got out my threehourly morning show five days a week – that included me, the engineer and someone on work experience, who doubled up answering the phones. The equivalent show on Radio 5 has about 20 people working on it, including four people answering the phones and two more filtering the calls. I've never discovered what they all do.

If my first love is newspapers, my second is radio, with TV a distant third. It's a question of technology and production. The finest producers are like the finest subs. They bring out the best in the writer/presenter. In newspapers, you have succeeded if you are talking directly to your readers, if they forget they're reading a paper. The same applies in radio. I've always thought the best radio is a party – but one to which everyone is invited, not one where the listeners feel as if they are standing on the outside with their noses pressed up against the window. Too many radio shows, especially some phone-ins, are private parties for the benefit of the egos in the studio.

With TV it is ten times more difficult to act naturally, which is why I have so much admiration for those, from David Frost to Chris Evans, who are totally at ease in a studio. Too many programmes suffer from over-production, too many gimmicks, too many changes of gear. A great TV producer is like a great football referee. You shouldn't notice he's there. Even if all else is perfect, there are so many different people with so many different responsibilities that the smallest cog can force the wheels off. If the lighting man turns off the air conditioning because it's interfering with the band's smoke machine, you can end up going live sweating like Tony Blair at the Labour conference. And there's nothing you can do about it. Believe me, I was that soldier. Having recently switched from predominantly live broadcasting to documentaries, I've come to appreciate that the best film-makers are like Fleet Street's finest – ruthless in the edit.

The main difference between Fleet Street and broadcasting is the sense of fun. TV and radio offices tend to be rather quiet and intense. I've never worked in a newspaper office where the sound of raucous laughter hasn't provided the background Musak. (Actually, I lie. I was once sent out of the Sunday Express for laughing. Dear Bert Pack, then news editor under John Junor, invited me to repair to The Poppinjay, even though my shift had an hour to run. When I asked why, he explained: “The editor doesn't like jollity in the office.”)

Dogs and bones

The executives are different, too. While newspaper executives devour every newspaper and pore over their own like dogs digging for lost bones, television executives give the impression that they don't actually watch television. Don't misunderstand, television can be seductive. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. But to succeed at the highest level in TV you have to sell your body and soul to the medium. I'm not claiming I would have achieved more had I been prepared to do so. I don't think I'm good enough – quite apart from having a face for radio. I admire Annie Robinson's phenomenal success, but I never wanted to be in the position, as recently she said she found herself, of realising that the press was something that comes to interview her.

What kept me sane was continuing to write my column, even when my TV career was at its most intense. It kept me in touch with the real world, but could be a source of irritation to my television colleagues. I can remember when I was presenting Wanted for Channel Four, the forerunner of reality shows such as Big Brother. We were on air live at 8.30pm. While, at 8.25pm, Celia was adjusting my make-up and my producer was trying to give me last-minute instructions, I was on the mobile to the Daily Mail features back bench making changes to my next day's column.

Print journalism is what I've done since I was 16 and, with luck, is what I'll still be doing when last orders is called. I long ago gave up listening to tapes of my radio shows or watching myself on TV. But every Tuesday and Friday, I still turn first to page 11 of The Sun with the excitement of a teenager staring at his first byline. By the time you read this, I'll probably have succumbed to the temptation to do another radio show or TV series.

But I guarantee you this: I won't be giving up the day job.