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Roy Greenslade

People Power

British Journalism Review
Vol. 19, No. 1, 2008, pages 15-21

Roy Greenslade is Professor of Journalism, City University, London, and the author of Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits from Propaganda (Pan, 2004)

Contents - Vol 19, No 1, 2008

Editorial - Trivia pursuit 3

Investigative journalism

David Leigh - Time to climb out of the sewer 5

Ivor Gaber - The myth about Panorama 10

Roy Greenslade - People power 15

Joseph Harker - Ethnic balance: race against the tide 23

Chris Moss - Travel journalism: the road to nowhere 33

Bill Hagerty - Tony Hall: fighter pilot, enter stage left 41

Kevin Sutcliffe - Not guilty - but who's to know? 48

Tom Whitwell - Rogue elephant: editing in cyberspace 57

Lauren Bravo - The devil wears Primark 63

John Knight - Last of the long goodbyes 69

The Cudlipp Award - 74

Gus Macdonald on World in Action 81

Joy Johnson on Reporting Iraq 77

Don Berry on Guardian Style 79

Julia Langdon on Katharine Whitehorn 81

Jon Snow on Channel 4 83

Michael Leapman on Christina Lamb 85

Anthony Delano on media moguls 87

Quotes of the Quarter 22

Ten years ago - The way we were 32

  There is no history of The People. Given the current state of that newspaper, it is very doubtful that any publisher would rush to commission such a book. The paper’s pathetically short and uninformative Wikipedia web entry is testament to its now-marginal status. With its dubious editorial agenda, lacklustre content and rapidly declining circulation (below 700,000 at the last count), the absence of a history may not seem like much of a loss. However, The People of the past, especially from the late 1940s until well into the 1980s, was a very different paper from the one that currently exists. It was during those decades that the paper pioneered forms of groundbreaking investigative journalism that continue to influence the methods and approach employed by journalists on many other newspapers today. For that work alone, the paper deserves recognition. I don’t have the space here to attempt a proper history of The People (aka The Sunday People). Instead, on the basis of research I carried out for a chapter in a forthcoming book*, I want to highlight the extraordinary contribution to journalism – and to British society – made by the paper’s campaigning editors and investigative reporters. My researches reveal a prolonged period of journalistic endeavour and enterprise on a scale that appears unimaginable in the present offices of any popular paper, let alone The People.

Founded in 1881 by William Madge and George Armstrong as a Conservative-supporting paper, it struggled for survival until Madge led the way in vigorously covering the Jack the Ripper murders. He also pioneered national distribution through the new train network. By 1922, when it was acquired by a Conservative MP, Colonel Grant Morden, the paper was enjoying high sales, about 300,000. But he soon ran into debt and was unable to pay his printers, Odhams, whose managing director, Julias Elias – later Lord Southwood – bought the paper in 1925 and appointed Harry Ainsworth as editor. He succeeded the now legendary Hannen Swaffer, who had edited for just a few months and whose portrait photograph several decades later adorned a wall in the editor’s office. Within four years, by virtue of promotional stunts such as free life insurance and a revamped editorial approach, including a change of political allegiance, the paper was selling 3,000,000.

Ainsworth’s great innovation was the introduction of confessional firstperson series, featuring the famous or the notorious, that each ran for weeks on end. They were a huge success but in 1948, Ainsworth – described by one of the paper’s later editors, Bob Edwards, as having become “a spiritualist eccentric” – ceded editorial power to his managing editor, Sam Campbell. Here was a man with the energy, drive, ruthlessness and single-minded dedication that marks out truly great populist editors. Campbell redesigned the paper’s layout and typography, but his greatest influence was over content. He extended Ainsworth’s confessional genre to ordinary people telling extraordinary stories, giving rise to headlines such as “I TOOK A LORRY RIDE TO SHAME”. He also oversaw a swaggering, hyped-up form of campaigning journalism. He trained his reporters in the art of detecting, trapping and exposing ration dodgers, bad landlords, petrol thieves and black marketeers.

Stories nobody else would touch

Campbell often sailed close to the wind. According to Edwards, truth was “dispensable if he could improve a quote or a story”, while another People executive, Cyril Kersh, thought him amoral. Campbell also dared to run sensational stories nobody else would touch. For example, in June 1953 The People became the first British newspaper to mention the romance between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend by using what would become a well-worn tactic. It revealed that “scandalous rumours” about the Princess being in love with a divorced man were “racing around the world” and called on the Palace to deny such “untrue” tales.

One of Campbell’s core concepts was building journalists into largerthan- life personalities. His most notable example was the flamboyant and eccentric Duncan (real name, Tommy) Webb, who was to become the most famous popular journalist of the 1950s. Encouraged by Campbell, Webb lived a kind of fantasy life, talking in code out the corner of his mouth, concealing his identity with a variety of disguises, and making as much capital as possible from threats – imagined or real – from gangsters. A Time magazine profile of Webb in 1955 dubbed him “the greatest crime reporter of our time”. To an extent, the hyperbole was justified. Webb combined two important investigatory skills: he formed good relationships with both police and villains, and he also mastered documentary research techniques. His most famous exposé – “a Homeric undertaking”, according to Kersh – concerned prostitution in London’s Soho run by a Maltese family, the Messinas. In 1950, Campbell risked the libel laws to publish pictures of the Messina brothers under the headline “ARREST THESE FOUR MEN! They are the emperors of a vice empire in the heart of London.” He was a master of sensationalist spin, turning a single story into a long-running saga. The following week, after Webb claimed to have been attacked by two men supposedly linked to the Messinas, he was the subject of a front-page story. A further episode was the splash a month later. The legend of Webb as an intrepid crime fighter was further enhanced by stories about his office being protected by bullet-proof glass and that he had eight locks fitted to his front door at home.

What made many of the investigative articles published by Campbell so readable was the detailed narrative explaining how his reporters had carried them out, making them read, according to The Times, “almost like police court depositions or detectives’ reports”. In the Messina case, he showed how Webb had established links to the brothers by tracing the women to their various addresses. Campbell used a similar approach in investigations by other reporters into slum landlords, fake religions, and various examples of prostitution, usually carried out by Harry Warschaeur (aka “Dirty Harry”). Campbell is also credited with having invented the phrase that was to become synonymous with Sunday newspaper journalists when they found themselves in delicate situations: “I made my excuses and left.” The public response to the Campbell style of journalism – published under his own brash slogan, “Frank, fearless and free” – was hugely positive. By the time Campbell was formally appointed as editor in 1958 the circulation had reached 5,000,000. It was not as high as that of the News of the World, but its sale was falling while The People’swas rising.

Campbell mixed the sacred with the profane, balancing public service investigations with titillation. A sensationalist series, “I WAS A GI’s SLAVE BRIDE”, ran for 10 weeks in 1958. At the same time, Webb’s investigation into a miscarriage of justice led the paper to campaign against the conviction of Iain Hay Gordon for the murder of a Northern Ireland judge’s daughter. Campbell and Webb were to be posthumously vindicated in 2000 when Hay Gordon was finally cleared. With the Sunday Pictorial breathing down its neck at the end of 1959, The People obtained the rights to Errol Flynn’s spicy autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which he had completed just a few days before he died. His salacious book aroused enormous public interest and turned out to be a huge sales winner, adding 200,000 to The People’s sale.

Campbell’s success was not wholly appreciated by the most famous popular journalist of the period, Hugh Cudlipp, the editorial director of the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Pictorial. His praise for his rival’s “magical formula” was tinged with envy, though he did call the Messina series “the most courageous exposure of its kind”. In 1961, the rivals found themselves in the same trench when the Mirror Group, under Cudlipp and Cecil King, engineered the takeover of The People’s owners, Odhams Press. The major prize was the company’s magazine empire rather than its papers, the lossmaking Daily Herald and the Sunday Pictorial’s irritatingly successful competitor, The People. Despite its journalistic triumphs, the paper was given short shrift by Cudlipp and, thereafter, by his successors. It has since been the group’s uncherished stepson, lacking the affection granted to the Sunday Mirror (as the Pictorialwas renamed in 1963). Campbell, having guessed that this might happen, wrote a defiant editorial before the takeover decrying Cudlipp’s “act of piracy”. It said: “We hate the idea of this great newspaper being sold over our heads like an old car in a junk yard.” Campbell feared that Cudlipp would cramp his cavalier editorial style, but immediately after the deal had gone through Cudlipp mollified him with an assurance that he would not interfere, and he largely stuck to his word.

Most influential figure

By common consent, the man who best grasped Campbell’s theory and practice was Laurie Manifold. He started work as a reporter at the paper in 1950, partly out of admiration for Duncan Webb’s work. Though he left for a while to be the Daily Sketch’s crime reporter, he returned to The People in 1958 as news editor, later becoming investigations editor and eventually associate editor and the paper’s most influential figure for the next 25 years. It is no exaggeration to describe him as the father of modern popular paper investigative journalism. He trained a legion of journalists in a range of investigatory techniques, which they went on to practise in other newspapers, such as the News of the World (Trevor Kempson, Mike Gabbert and Mazher Mahmood), and on television, notably The Cook Report (Clive Entwistle). He directed teams of reporters to carry out a series of investigations that were to have far-reaching consequences.

In order to obtain exclusive stories, Manifold pioneered the use of subterfuge, covert tape recording and the setting up of fake companies. He left nothing to chance. He devised special techniques to persuade reluctant sources to spill the beans. He drew up sets of rules for reporters on how they should behave. He was not above breaking the law on occasion but he refused to take short-cuts and demanded complete honesty from his reporters. I spoke to and corresponded with eight former members of Manifold’s staff, all of whom revere him as the wiliest and wisest of mentors. One spoke of him having “a mind like steel trap”. Another thought him “the finest news editor in 50 years, unquestionably the best”. His bosses were also full of admiration too. Bob Edwards called him “a remarkable figure...who would have made an inspired and incorruptible police chief ”.

Edwards became editor in 1966 when Campbell died from a heart attack, aged just 58. Sales were still rising and a year later reached their highest point, 5,600,000. By this time Manifold had fully absorbed the Campbell formula. In 1964 he landed a major scoop, one of the biggest stories of the decade, when his reporters exposed a football betting scandal. It led to several high-profile Sheffield Wednesday players being jailed and banned from the game. To break the story, Manifold even invented a subtle procedure, known as “the playback technique”, to ensure that the paper’s evidence was so conclusive it was impossible for anyone to deny its authenticity. This involved persuading a reluctant source, who had previously been trapped into making a confession, to lure another person involved in the conspiracy into talking frankly about the details of bribery while being covertly taperecorded. In return, the informant was promised “lighter treatment” when the final article came to be written. The additional evidence was immensely beneficial, both editorially and legally.

In the following years, Manifold oversaw hundreds of investigations, many of which were complex and took months of painstaking work. Now 80, he is still pin-sharp and able to recall the details of stories he masterminded. Here are a few samples, beginning with the longest, most devastating and, arguably, the most far-reaching ever to be published by a popular newspaper: the exposure of high-level Scotland Yard corruption. With the revelation in 1972 that the head of the Flying Squad, Commander Kenneth Drury, had been on holiday with a pornographer who had paid for the trip, the investigation ballooned as informants came forward to reveal widespread corruption within the force. It proved to be a drawn-out affair but it eventually resulted in the suspension and early retirements of 90 officers, and the convictions of 13 policemen, who were sentenced to a total of 96 years. In 1978, Manifold and his team were recognised for their work with a special What The Papers Sayaward. The team aspect is important. Manifold is the first to point out that the paper benefited from the expertise of several key journalists, such as David Farr, Alan Ridout, Graham Gadd and, notably, Nat Rothman. Deputy editor of the paper for a time, Rothman was also a lawyer, giving legal advice that proved invaluable. His editing skills were called on regularly too and he is remembered as one of the most effective executives in the paper’s history.

The range of The People’s investigations is astonishing. Its “soccer babes” exposure showed how football clubs were exploiting schoolchildren. Four men were arrested after it revealed a greyhound betting fraud. A widespread council housing scandal was brought to light. In 1967, one of its best reporters, Ken Gardner, was named news reporter of the year. The following year another People reporter, David Farr, picked up the same award for uncovering a slot machines racket which led to the jailing of a gang. In 1970, Gardner and Bill Dorran revealed that in 1949 British soldiers had massacred 25 innocent Malayan villagers. It was a fine piece of public service journalism that Edwards decided to publish despite fearing that it would upset readers. It did, costing the paper as many as 200,000 sales.

The smoking beagles

In 1975, under Geoff Pinnington’s editorship, one of The People’s most famous investigations – into cruelty at a vivisection laboratory – was published to widespread acclaim. Reporter Mary Beith, working under cover at the lab, smuggled in a camera to snap an iconic photograph of a row of dogs hooked up to machines that forced them to inhale supposedly “safe” nonnicotine cigarettes. The “smoking beagles” image is one of the most memorable ever published by a newspaper.

The year before, Pinnington, on orders from the management, had switched the paper from broadsheet to tabloid. This was unpopular with the journalists and, in retrospect, does seem to have been an unfortunate decision. Though The Peoplewas not a “serious” paper, the broadsheet format gave it a credibility its tabloid issues have never quite managed to capture. It also marked a gradual difference of emphasis in editorial content as public interest investigations gave way to series about sex and a proliferation of titillating celebrity stories. As the paper’s deputy editor for many years, Alan Hobday, pointed out, it wasn’t a clever option because The People’s main audience was “the equivalent of America’s bible belt, easily offended by sexual matters”.

Manifold retired in 1986. People investigations did not end with his departure, but the reporters he had trained eventually left. They had lost their master. Editors also came and went (there have been 10 editors in the past 20 years). Though some did show a measure of enthusiasm for investigatory journalism, they found themselves hamstrung by a lack of resources. The culture of the paper changed and, as former People investigator Fred Harrison told me, the tradition of investigatory journalism gradually vanished. Seen from a broader perspective, Manifold believes that newspapers cannot compete any longer with the huge resources deployed by television companies for investigations that often take months, even years, before being broadcast. “No paper can do that nowadays,” said Manifold. “It’s all TV now.”

I have only scratched the surface of The People’s work. For example, the paper ran hundreds of small-scale investigations into relatively minor rackets or scams. These were regarded as one of the paper’s strong selling points because its own readers were targets for the assorted con artists it exposed. During my interview with Manifold he told me much more than I have been able to deal with here, especially about investigations that were never published because of interference from owners and managers. He clearly has a lot more to tell as well. I have also heard from other former People journalists, recalling half-remembered anecdotes that I have been unable to verify. Even if only half of them turn out to be true, they would add to the richness of The People’s story. Will no one rescue this bit of newspaper history before it is too late?

* Investigative Journalism, edited by Hugo de Burgh, is due to be published by Routledge in May.