Sympathy for the devil

Home Truths: life around my father

Penny Junor <em>HarperCollins, 367pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 000710

It is difficult to say whether John Junor, editor of the Sunday Express in its glory years - the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s - was lucky or unlucky to have such an accomplished journalist as his daughter, Penny Junor, to write his biography. In one sense he was definitely lucky, because her book, given the quality of the writing, will ensure that his name is remembered longer than is the case with most editors, however famous in their day; but remembered - and here is the unlucky part - not so much for his virtues as editor and columnist (to which the daughter pays sufficient tribute) as for his vices as father, husband and lover, on which she dwells with what may seem to some, but definitely not to me, excessive concentration. On balance, I think John Junor would have judged himself to be lucky, because, thanks to this gripping biography, he has been transformed from a mere tuppenny "Fleet Street legend in his lifetime" to a world-class legendary monster for all time.

Born into a tough, working-class district of inter-war Glasgow - than which there was no tougher - he won a scholarship to Glasgow University and then a wartime commission in the Fleet Air Arm. In the 1945 general election, fired with idealism about building a new world, he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate, and also fell in love with and married a saintly, middle-class southern beauty, who bore him in swift succession two model children. Then, desperate for a job to keep them all, he was lucky enough, through a Fleet Air Arm contact, to get a job on the Sunday Express, where he was allowed to try his hand on a new political column, Crossbencher. This was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Again, as luck would have it, on that day, a booklet had been issued by the Transport and General Workers' Union listing the amount of money the union paid in grants to MPs. Sensing that this was perfect grist to the Sunday Express mill, Junor began his first column on 18 August 1948 as follows:

Where do the pennies raised by political levy on five-pounds-a-week trade unionists go? Into the job of safeguarding the incomes of socialist MPs.
For the cheapest way of becoming an MP is to be born with a socialist spoon in the mouth.
And the cheapest way of remaining an MP is to stick the spoon into the trade union jam . . .

Needless to say, Lord Beaverbrook being the man he was, such cheap jibes caught his eye and John Junor was summoned to see this diabolical proprietor at his country estate, Cherkley, in Surrey, where a Faustian pact was struck. No sooner had Junor arrived at Cherkley than Beaverbrook, without speaking a word, bundled him into a car to tour the estate, stopping to show Junor three houses. Only when back at the big house did Beaverbrook speak. "Would you like one of these houses?" he asked. "Which one would you like? You can have it rent-free and you can have it whenever you like." The offer was accepted at once and for the next ten years Junor lived at Garden Cottage, at Beaverbrook's service - not to say subservience - every hour of the day and night.

John Junor was never the same man again. Ambition took him over entirely and his marriage was allowed first to go to seed, and then to rack and ruin. His sadistic persecution of his wife, to the point of her destruction - described in the book in terrible detail - is agonising to read. Equally so is the description of John Junor's step-by-step moral disintegration, which kept pace with his ascent, rung by rung, up the journalistic ladder. The more successful he was at building up the circulation of the Sunday Express as the newspaper that believed most passionately in family values, the more ruthless and relentless grew his philandering, with multiple mistresses suffering the same order of humiliation as did the wife.

But this book is not only the story of a deeply unpleasant, philistine and hypocritical man but also of a deeply unpleasant, philistine and hypocritical newspaper, and it is depressing to read how he and it were in a prime position to exert great political and cultural influence on postwar Middle England for nearly 40 years. Nor is this baleful influence confined only to the past, since, according to the daughter, her father is the model for Paul Dacre, today's editor of the Daily Mail, whose father, Peter Dacre, was one of JJ's employee-cronies.

Anyone of integrity and intelligence thinking of going into popular journalism should read this book. It is a low and corrupting trade. The high salaries are addictive and once hooked, there is no easy escape except through the bottle. I used to eavesdrop on John Junor holding court at the next-door table in El Vino, the "wine shop" in Fleet Street, every Saturday lunchtime for about 20 years, without once ever hearing the conversation reach a higher level than that to be expected at a gathering of commercial salesmen. And off duty, as this book shows, the level was even lower, as JJ's favourite pastime was to encourage his cronies to imbibe so heavily that they were rendered literally speechless. No, Private Eye did not exaggerate. "Fleet Street" was indeed a street of shame, and although now dispersed, and no longer with even the excuse of heavy drinking, it quite definitely still is.

A journalist of genuine distinction herself, Penny Junor does not seek to sensationalise. Quite the opposite: she clearly loves both her father and journalism. But unlike her father and his kind of journalism, she also tries to tell the truth and nothing but the truth; in short, to do justice to her subject, which she triumphantly succeeds in doing. Therein lies her book's power to move and chasten.