Death of our moral guardian: where has journalistic integrity gone?


The demolition men have torn her guts out and ripped away her facade, but her ramparts, pubs on all sides, still stand. For those of us who worked at this madeleine of an empty building set atop St Andrew's Hill, all that remains is the memory of a national press before the Murdoch quake hit.

The Observer had long ago moved on, with Tiny Rowland, who bought it in 1981, to a garish, pseudo-classical monstrosity south of the river. Now it resides with the Guardian, its new owner, in Farringdon Road.

I spent most of 1977 at St Andrew's Hill, thanks to the Observer's intrepid roving correspondent, Colin Smith, with whom I had crossed Eritrea on foot and camel. He persuaded his employers to take me on as a home-news reporter when I moved to London from Beirut. In those days the National Union of Journalists demanded that national newspapers hire only reporters who had worked on provincial papers for three years. Now papers hire hairdressers and cooks, whose writing pleases advertisers more than it informs readers. The NUJ accepted my years as a stringer for, among others, the American Broadcasting Company, Time, Christian Science Monitor and the Guardian.

My first day at St Andrew's Hill was 17 January 1977, a Monday. Only an inexperienced American would turn up at a Sunday newspaper on a Monday. A commissionaire asked me what I wanted. To work. Not today, mate, nobody here. Come back tomorrow. I did. At 8am. Same door, same guard. You back again? Yes. Not yet, mate. Nobody here. Where was everyone? In America even journalists were at work by that time. He showed me to the empty news room and told me to wait. How long? It's only Tuesday, he explained. Maybe 11.30. Then they go to lunch.

I loved the news room, although its unfinished ceilings left pipes and wires exposed. The desks were covered in the era's necessities: manual typewriters, ashtrays, carbon paper, correcting fluid. A cast assembled by the editor-proprietor, David Astor, who had just sold the paper to Atlantic-Richfield (Arco), the oil company, gradually marched into my life. Its members were, and a few still are, some of the best and most idiosyncratic journalists in the world: Robert Stephens and Patrick Seale of Arabia, Colin Legum of Africa (the paper's African coverage was so good that Astor's mother, Nancy, referred to his staff as "Jews writing about blacks"), Gavin Young of the universe, Michael Davie, the diary editor Anne Chisholm (who married Michael), the Hungarian exile Lajos Lederer (said to have been an intimate of Zsa Zsa Gabor), the Orangeman managing editor John Cole, Eric Newby in travel, the political writers Adam Raphael and Alan Watkins and the most erudite chief sub-editor in England, John Silverlight. Laurence Marks, one of the best and most unassuming reporters I ever met, explained the principle of Sunday newspaper writing to me as David Astor had told it to him: "It is everything a reasonably intelligent man can find out about a subject in a week." No young journalist ever had better mentors than these characters whom Michael Frayn satirised affectionately in Towards the End of the Morning.

Robert Chesshyre, the home news editor, presided over my first story conference. The other reporters, among them George Brock and Andrew Stephen, proposed stories. I had no suggestions. In the Middle East, there was always a war, an assassination, a government collapse. Journalists in Beirut did not find stories, stories found them.

Chesshyre handed me a tiny item from a Sussex paper. It said that the daughter of Sir Solomon Bandaranaika, the first prime minister of independent Ceylon, had died broke in a caravan in East Sussex and left a son in his early twenties. "There may be something in this," he said.

I spent the next three days driving all over Sussex. By chance I found the abandoned caravan. Then I found the boy, who had never been to school or had a friend, in an asylum. Social workers told me that they had been unaware of his existence. I wrote all Friday night and sent it in early on Saturday. I hoped they would use it.

To my surprise, it made the front page. It was 23 January 1977, my 26th birthday. Lunch followed lunch that year, the more lavish in El Vino, on someone's expenses. Usually we ate in pubs, the Blackfriars, Cockpit or Mermaid, whose barmaid, Connie, once told Chesshyre what the police had unjustly done to her boyfriend, the Major: "Oh, Bob, they've really done it this time. They've planted a safe on him."

Somehow we survived on the £85 a week the Observer paid. Barely. Finally I moved on to London Weekend Television. More money, less fun. The paper moved on as well. Arco sold it to Tiny Rowland. Ted Heath's "unacceptable face of capitalism" transformed England's oldest Sunday newspaper (est 1791) into a Lonrho propaganda sheet.

In 1956 the Observer and Guardian suffered loss of circulation and advertising to stand, as other papers did not, against Britain's invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis. It was sad, therefore, to read the new Observer's leader about the Nato bombardment of Yugoslavia, which violates international law and enabled the Serbs to expel most of Kosovo's Albanians. Under the jingoist headline: "There is no alternative to this war", the leader writer concluded: "The Observer backs Nato and the government." Shame.

The journalists who laboured at St Andrew's Hill would have argued, fought and resigned over the paper's policy on war. Now, they've moved on, as the paper has, as Fleet Street has, as journalism has.

Copyright Charles Glass 1999

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