Bernard Shrimsley has edited The Sun, News of the World, The Mail on Sunday, the Daily Mirror in Manchester and the Daily Post in Liverpool, and helped edit both Expresses. His third novel, The Silly Season, is due out in October.
A matter of conscience 3
Rod Liddle - Hands off the BBC 6
Description in the media
John Owen - Now you see it, now you don't 11
David Bradbury - Of course it happens here
The greatest columnist?
Geoffrey Goodman - The write brigade 22
Bernard Shrimsley - Columns! The good, the bad, the best 23
Stein Ringen - Why the British press is brilliant 31
Quentin Letts - Still thriving, the daily sketch 39
Freedom of the press
Nicholas Jones - Can Alastair open closed doors? 45
Sondra M Rubenstein and Tamar Lahav - Uncivil society 52
Jeff Wright - The myth in the Mirror 59
Joy Francis - Where are the ethnic minorities? 67
BOOK REVIEWSMichael White on Joe Haines 74
Keith Waterhouse on William Davies 78
Julian Petley on media regulation 80
Sandy Gall on Christina Lamb 84
Peter Stothard on war and the media 86
Great columnists make the difference great sauces make. Any time I light
upon Béarnaise on a menu, I order whatever it comes with. The same goes
for lighting upon Peter McKay (aka Ephraim Hardcastle). Would the Daily
Mail be quite as tasty without this most piquant of sauceboxes? Or sans
saucy Lynda Lee-Potter, saucy Keith Waterhouse or saucy Simon Heffer?
Would The Sun without Richard Littlejohn? Would The Times without its oped
sauciers, Libby Purves, Simon Jenkins, William Rees-Mogg and Anatole
Kaletsky? The Sunday Express was never the same once John Junor moved to
serve up his Auchtermuchty relish at The Mail on Sunday. And too many lipsmacking
flavours disappeared from the Daily Express with the loss, one after
another, of George Gale, Jon Akass, Jean Rook and Peter Hitchens.
Editors are, and proprietors should be, obliged to Samson for demonstrating the downside of the column caper. Mindful of the fate of the Philistine temple (full story: Judges, 13-16), David English feared the roof would fall in if the Nigel Dempster column were no longer propping up a corner. Chairman Vere Rothermere damned the column as “an old, cold fried potato”, but English defied him. Protecting his sources he wasn't going to pass the Heinz Tomato Ketchup of gossip to rivals eager for Dempster's daily dollop of satire-defying chit-chat.
English was surely right that Dempster would have been welcomed elsewhere. But would readers have trooped out with him? Or, for that matter, troop out with any columnist, living, dead, or as-seen-on-TV? Mail readers did not swarm to The Sun when king bee Littlejohn buzzed off. Nor had they crossed the Street when Rook crossed, from the Sketch to the Express. In its march to five million, the Daily Mirror boasted Cassandra, Marjorie Proops, Donald Zec and Peter Wilson. Their columns dominated the 32-page issues of the their day. Yet it was the Beaverbrook decline, the northern push and riding on the back of Beatlemania that did most to surge the Mirror to its peak. The unromantic reality is that columnists flourish on newspapers that flourish. And not the other way round.
On discovering that his dinner party guests weren't taking the Express, Paul Johnson migrated his column to the Mail. But it is neither dinner party adoration nor letters from fickle fans on which columnists get off. It is the respect of colleagues and the chagrin of out-phrased rivals. Rook was not appealing to readers who wouldn't know their Chaucer from their elbow when she obituarised a hero as “a verray, parfit, gentil knyght” (improved by a sub to “a very perfect, genteel knight”).
At the work of columnists who weave words so distinctively that they hardly need to sign their pieces, the jaws of lesser practitioners drop in awe. Inimitability, thy name is Brian Sewell. And Matthew Parris. And Frank Johnson. And Miles Kington. And Quentin Letts. And the author of the following cluster-bomb intro of eight screamers, four parentheses and two perfect em-dashes:
“When anti-war/pro-Saddam types had finished trotting out all the dumb clichés to no avail ‘It's About Oil!' (yes, among other things, and unless you live in a cave or a windmill and walk everywhere rather than take a car, bus or plane, then shut up, you hypocrite); ‘We Armed Him!' (not much, the USSR mostly, but even if we did it a bit then surely it was our responsibility to make up for that by taking him out); ‘It'll Make Muslims Angry!' (duh! They were angry before) they always came over all misty-eyed about the troops. ‘Our Boys! Bring Them Home! Now!' Yes, what were formerly units of the English Fascist Imperial Killing Machine all through the 30-plus years of keeping the Catholics and Protestants from massacring each other in Northern Ireland, who as an occupying army deserved all they got from those brave kiddy-killing Republicans (but anti-abortionists! the IRA, like Reagan, believed that the sanctity of life began at conception and ended at birth), are now suddenly precious flowers of humanity, not one of whom the most hardline of self-loathing Brit-haters can bear to see suffering so much as a flesh wound.”Does anyone need to phone a friend? Of course not. Who else could this columnist be but Julie Burchill? Not everyone's weapon of choice, true, but nobody takes fewer prisoners than Julie. Her ironic-clad contempt for received wisdom is pure literary napalm. What a privilege for her editor to be the first to go glug at her outrageous rage. But, God, what torment unless you are an editor in The Guardian group, rather than some outfit (you know who you are) whose readers don't get orf on iconoclastics. Virtuosity such as Burchill's explains why there is no category that a British Press Awards judge is more delighted to be allocated than Columnist of the Year, which attracts getting on for 100 entrants, twice the average for the other awards.
Broadsheets are as addicted to columnists as are tabloids, even without a Glenda Slagg among them. And even with text straight up and down, to assert quality in no need of artifice. Few could transplant, though The Observer's Mary Riddell has demonstrated that it is possible to do the business in the Mirror and The Mail on Sunday too. But the classic format lingers among the tabloids only for the classical Waterhouse and the classical John Edwards. None but the finest can flourish in such a straitjacket.
That 33-ring circus of newspaper publishing, The Sunday Times, is unexpectedly less than all-embracing when it comes to general columnists, displaying egocentric wordsmithery rather than (like political, arts, City or sports columnists) their expertise. For the ammo such columns provide, the chattering classes had to make do in a typical issue with John Humphrys, Godfrey Smith, Minette Marrin and Jeremy Clarkson. The Daily Telegraph – so comprehensive on news that if I'm on holiday up an Alp and am advised there's only one British paper left in the village shop, I pray it's the DT – is building columnist firepower too. In one issue, you may enjoy Anne Robinson, Frank Johnson, Germaine Greer, Oliver Pritchett and Zoe Heller. It is also home to Craig Brown, thus far the most entertaining of that columnist clan (although Tina Brown of The Times may yet begin to display the dazzle that made her name this side of the Atlantic before she went on to fame and misfortune on the other side). And “Denisella Brown” of The Independent, the newest Brown on the block, is challenging with what sounds like a beaut script for Dame Edna (or maybe Dame Nigella):
“I'd better reassure my own loyal readers that my best-selling books are indeed wholly my own, even though my invaluable researcher and assistant, Bettina, sometimes has a go and I may not actually get round to reading the manuscript prior to publication. (Hey, I'm a busy working Mum!) This invaluable time-saving technique is, I believe, much favoured by Naomi Campbell, the busy working supermodel, although I cannot speak for Sophie Dahl, also a busy working supermodel.”Columns are what the London Evening Standard has long been all about. Most editors must drool with envy at the brilliance of not only Brian Sewell and Simon Jenkins but Allison Pearson and Victor Lewis-Smith (if not always Amanda Platell) and A N Wilson and A A Gill (if not always A F Neil, whose media pages remind us how much S C Glover is missed).
Other than journalists, few people see many or most columns. So how come there continue to be managements who consider readers know better than “the journos” (face it, that's what they call us)? The original Mirror Group Sun was fatally founded on massive market research among target readers. And it was a focus group of human beings assembled to advise on Jimmy Goldsmith's Now! magazine that recommended hiring as a columnist Princess Diana, then Queen-in-waiting.
Columnists! Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't ignore 'em. Yeah, but can you invent 'em? Richard Desmond thinks so. His flagship daily has been required to suspend disbelief that readers can be magicked into the class acts of journalism. Charismatic, challenging. Witty, wise. Ingenious, informed. Poisonous, provocative. And above all, quotable: echoed by White Van Man, not echoing him. Trouble is, true stars make it all look so damned easy. None more so than Cassandra, still the most famous name in the game. Much to the dismay of not only Sir William Connor's family (as recorded by his son Bob in BJR vol.13, no.4), the Mirror commissioned a ghost to resurrect Cass. Perhaps Piers Morgan was hoping for an optimistic update of the old boy's cynical sigh: “Editors! I seen 'em come. And I seen 'em go.” Meanwhile, over at The Sun, David Yelland was creating Fleet Street's youngest columnist, Emma Jones, 27. The column could maybe have done with less help. It was dramatically discontinued in Act 1, Scene 1, Line 1 of Rebekah Wade's editorship. The youngest now is The Independent's Johann Hari, 24, a disciple of Polly Toynbee and already winner of a Press Oscar.
The Express group has for some time been trying to convince itself that an illuminated byline equals a star column. Kilroy was here and, having gone away, is here again, even more unsurprising and even less enchanting. The Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe MP demanded a rumoured £2,000 a time for her Sunday column. It was not that good. Indeed, it was that bad. Most editors would gladly have paid £2,000 a time not to run it. The only folks sorry to see it dumped were rivals of the Glenda Slagg persuasion. With the Widdecombe column no longer there to be the ghastliest in Fleet Street, whose is?
Good question. A good answer might have been the Rt. Hon. David Mellor, whose Man of The People column must have been his just dessert for once warning Fleet Street it was drinking in the Last Chance Saloon. The then Media Minister said that with a straight face while up to all sorts of headline antics. Such monumental deficiency of insight accompanied him to his column, enabling him to write: “I cannot believe Iraqi information minister Comical Ali has topped himself just for being a figure of ridicule whom no one believes.” But now Eamonn “the king of daytime telly” Holmes has taken over from Mellor, leaving us still to settle the question. To do so, we must establish a Worst Columnist of the Year award. Handled with due sensitivity, the process could hardly provoke more paranoid sulks and screaming habdabs than does our annual British Press Awards eisteddfod.
Let's go for it, eh, although it may not be easy finding a sponsor (Andrex perhaps?). And reluctance to nominate could be a bit of a problem too. All columnists will have to be regarded as candidates, entered or not. That would get round Desmond's ban on his papers competing in such gong shows. Still, he might be open to persuasion that here is his big chance not only to win a Press Oscar but to provide the runners-up from among his multitude of columnists untainted by journalistic experience. Mind you, it's the judges who would need the most encouragement, to choose between all those Glenda Slagg (and Polly Filler) clones, not only undistinguished but indistinguishable – and not only from each other but from one week to another. And with all those interchangeable seven-column bylines with portraits out of date (big hair, I ask you!) and airbrushed out of recognition to cancel any risk of their privacy being intruded upon at a hole-in-the-wall queue. And uncannily similar layouts, each with six items and the obligatory fulcrum pic of some female celeb, curling at the edges after long in the archives.
Their text too is uniformly Slagg (or Filler), subconsciously motivated to rendering redundant those painful Private Eye spoofs. Any issue now, there'll be nothing left for Glenda to Slagg off (or Polly to Fill in). Their reality rivals are world class at impersonating one another. Their parasitical pieces offer little more than knee-jerk response to already published items. The template intros begin: “So Prince William likes Pedigree Chum sarnies. Well, if you ask me...” “So David Beckham sleeps in a luminous hairnet. Take a tip from me, dear...” “So Ali G has been black-balled by the Athenaeum. I say, lucky old him...” So what? So bloody what?
And where are all the Glen Slaggs (or Olly Fillers)? In the bitchery business, nobody bitches bitchier than men. But not, it seems, in print. The Daily Star's Dominik Diamond is doing his best: “So you think Paula Radcliffe was impressive. Rubbish...” While downstairs, at the Sunday Express, the JY Col sets out to replicate the success of the JY Prog. Fat chance. Here's a Jimmy Young lead intro:
“When I began writing this column back in January I said I hoped it would become a two-way street. In other words, I would write and I hoped that you would let me know your reactions. To say that you had responded magnificently would be the understatement of this, or any other, year and I get lots of reaction every week. I read all your e-mails and letters and take on board your varied and interesting views. Thank you very much for sending them to me. The amount of reaction varies from week to week depending on how strongly you feel about the subject and it seems that my column on April 6 about foxes and squirrels really put the cat among the pigeons – if you'll pardon the mixed metaphors...”JY is Grandmaster of the Crap Intro. Just look at these opening pars to the three items in one of his columns.
“The row over the Euro shows no sign of going away and I've no doubt you're fed up with hearing the arguments. However...”However do such amateur ramblings end up in a Fleet Street column? But give the Sunday Express credit for letting JY's fellow ex-songthrush and fellow non-journalist, Boy George, make a contribution alien to the Crusader culture club's 24/7/52 monstering of asylum seekers. Boy pipes up: “The attitude of certain people is hideously racist and ridiculously neurotic.” Certain people, eh? Cheeky monkey.
Desmond signed up TV's Richard & Judy, TV's Alan Titchmarsh, TV's Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, TV's Anthony Worrall Thompson and TV's Vanessa Feltz, whose massive inexperience as a journalist did not disqualify her from being appointed a judge in the boss's search for a cut-price “Voice of Britain” from among readers. Press Gazette observed: “It is as though Sven-Goran were to invite some bloke in the crowd to come and take the penalties.” The lure for wannabe columnists from nowhere was a £50,000 contract, contemptuously less than the rate for star columnists. Second prize was £10,000 and six £2,500 runners-up would be awarded framed certificates. The exercise presented no threat to Feltz, nor inhibited her from publishing her advice: To be a columnist “you need broad shoulders”. This from a publicity junkie who nevertheless tried to do the Sunday Mirror for invasion of privacy. And lost.
Entries from a response stated to be “more than 5,000” (why not give the precise figure?) were predictably as unremarkable as readers' letters. How many were in capitals underscored in green ink? A selection was run every Thursday for seven months (or was it seven years?). Was any entry worth its space, let alone the glory of being named “Pen Idol” and donning the mantle of the Express greats? Adrian Dutch, 37, from London, included a 17-line Niagara of a sentence (not exactly in the Burchill class). Christine Thompson, 45, and Bernie Kanapka, 54, both from Essex, were in grave need of syntax therapy. Along with the likes of Dominic Grace, 36, from Leeds, their banal comments from the sidelines of life all begged the question: Who cares? We really ought not to be offering poor devils the dream of assumption into the aristocracy of our profession. What chance have they? Even the most gifted columnist survives only with a Star Wars defence system to see off ignorance, misdirection, jealousy and sabotage from above, below and especially behind. McKay used to guard his News of the World page until it was off stone and beyond buggeration. Cassandra would write not only his own headline but his own crosshead (just the one).
Eight weeks after the “Pen Idol” phone-in ballot closed, the Express announced the winner. Anyone with 10p could have joined the jury. The announcement of the result did not state how many cast votes and for whom. Top of the heap was our dear old Dutch, from the unspeakable, unwaged end of the paper's socio-economic profile. He had “always wanted to work for the Express”. When I last looked, Mr Dutch had not appeared for a month and the war had exiled him to the border of Page 17. Let us pray that it doesn't require a couple more wars to edge him out altogether. Failing to pull down bad columns must be as disastrous as pulling down good ones.
But still they come. Why? Is it that columns are cheap compared with the cost of filling most prime pages, even with the handsome salary, the nice motor and the odd Mayfair lunch? The bill for illustrations is nothing if Brownie-pointed art editors dig out staff pix wherever possible. Travel expenses are low when columnists tend not to stray far from their desks except for an upgraded family freebie, duly acknowledged with a glowing spread on the travel pages. Indeed, few give the impression they stray far from their ivy-clad manors. No complaints there from editorial managers, for if a column queen does travel, a staff snapper has to go along to shoot her on a Cannes balcony with Robert de Niro or up a Florida creek with Brad Pitt. The first First Lady of Fleet Street (peace be upon her) wouldn't board a Jumbo without a top cameraman alongside, and one she chose because he could be trusted to help her with the luggage and not help her with the interviews.
No wonder editors have columns on the brain. One such, taking a break among the ruins of Lindos sent his deputy a postcard showing a stillstanding Doric column alongside what was left of the one next to it. His message: “Short of a column and a half ?” If ever Metro gets such an offer, it should snap it up. The paper circulates almost a million a day without any columns at all. With one and a half, how many more urbanites (as its marketeers dub them) might Metro attract? Readers might even be happy to pay for it.