NORMAN GILLER this week congratulates an old colleague who reached a landmark at Wimbledon, but also worries about the state of journalism
In the saddest week that I can remember for our under-fire profession, I needed something to lift the gloom. So thank you Nigel Clarke for giving me reason to laugh out loud at a suddenly uncorked memory from back in the summertime of our careers.
The recollection was triggered by the news that Nigel had been honoured by the All England Club for completing 50 years’ reporting duty at Wimbledon. When they presented Nigel with his half-century tribute present at Wimbledon last week (a decanter and glasses) they should have included a pair of boxing gloves for “Nosher” Clarke.
It seems just a blink of an eye since he and I used to hunt together for football stories, Nigel then on the Daily Mirror and me on the Express. This was in the 1960s, when “hacking” meant riding a horse, or possibly chiselling out an article.
Back then Nigel was the willing lackey at Wimbledon for Peter Wilson, one of the greatest tennis reporters of any time. Amazingly, Nigel has now covered 20 more Wimbledon finals than his hero. In 1981, I was a member of the This Is Your Life scriptwriting team and was doing the groundwork on a programme that was to feature legendary tennis commentator Dan “Oh I say” Maskell. I was sitting with the film researcher in the editing suite when a breathless editor brought in the latest rushes from the Wimbledon press conferences.
“There’s been a punch-up at Wimbledon,” he said. “We need this edited quickly for our news bulletin.”
It was semi-final day at Wimbledon and the volcanic John McEnroe – then at his “Superbrat” peak – had eliminated the unseeded Australian Rod Frawley, and would go on to beat Bjorn Borg in an epic final. “Is it McEnroe?” I asked, which was the immediate and obvious notion.
“No,” the editor said. “It’s two pressmen. Apparently all hell let loose at the McEnroe conference.”
First of all we saw McEnroe storming out of the conference behind a flurry of “F” words because the Mirror‘s royal reporter, James Whittaker, had asked a question about the rumours that McEnroe had split with his girlfriend. This started an argument between the British and American reporters, who complained that non-tennis questions had wrecked their chances of interviewing McEnroe about his match.
I watched open mouthed as on the screen came footage of my old mate Nigel Clarke wrestling with a journalist I did not recognise. It transpired that Nigel’s opponent was American radio reporter Charlie Steiner, later of ESPN.
“I was defending the rights of reporters asking whatever questions they wanted to,” Nigel told me later. “It was jam packed in the press room, and this American was shouting right in my face about what he thought of Limey reporters. I invited him outside but the room was so packed we could hardly move, so we started fighting right there. I was standing on a chair and was punching down and so I was getting the better of it.
“It all ended in a mass scrum, and then the two of us being called into the office of the All England Club chairman “Buzzer” Hadingham. He gave us a rollocking, but told me privately that in my shoes he would have done the same thing.”
Fifteen years later Clarke was in Las Vegas covering a world title fight when – at the weigh-in – he came face to face with his old antagonist for the first time since their Wimbledon showdown. “We fell into each other’s arms and had a good laugh about it,” Nigel said.
It was four years before we got the Dan Maskell show on to the screen. Eamonn Andrews kept refusing to sanction it because all Dan’s seven brothers and sisters declined to take part. We finally ran with it in 1985, without any of Dan’s siblings involved. They claimed their brother had shunned them once he found fame.
Oh I say.
MY EIGHT-YEAR-OLD grandson, James, was asked in school this week what his granddad does for a living. “He cleans toilets,” he replied, which caused a lot of sniggering from his classmates.
His teacher later quietly took him on one side and said: “I thought your Granddad was a journalist?”
James blushed. “He is,” he said, “but I wasn’t going to admit that in front of the class. I would have been a laughing stock.”
Yes, I’ve made that up. But it captures the current reputation of we journalists in what has been the worst and most humiliating week I can ever remember for our profession.
Like most journalists, and much of the public it would seem, I was fairly comfortable with the hacking stories when they centred around minor celebrities, many of whom ask for what they get with their behaviour and headline-seeking when it suits them. But the escalation taking in Millie Dowler, the Soham murder victims and relatives of those killed or injured six years ago today, in the 7/7 bombings, has turned this into a growing storm that could engulf us all.
My contacts behind the Wapping Walls tell me the atmosphere is like a morgue. “It’s reckoned at least a quarter of us are going to get the chop to pay for the hacking legal bills and pay-offs, and now the latest revelations have added shame to our worry and self-pity.”
Our industry will watch on Sunday to see if there will be a meltdown of the News of the World circulation to go with their disappearing advertising. And will their rivals pick up the disillusioned readers, or will they be lost to newspapers forever?
The fast-shifting story is going to run and run, and I wonder if one of our former sportswriting colleagues, Simon Greenberg, is going to still be there at the end of what will be a marathon of misery.
As an arch story-getter in his days as a young reporter with the Mail on Sunday, Simon was widely admired by his contemporaries. But it is fair to say that this week has not been his finest five minutes.
He gave a series of car-crash interviews on television and radio in his fairly new role of Director of Corporate Affairs for News International. If he is the best News International can come up with to try to save the skin of chief excutive Rebekah Brooks, then it’s bye bye Becky.
Greenberg, ex-NotW and Evening Standard sports editor and then extravagantly paid spokesman for Roman Abramovich’s Chelski, is not what Napoleon would have called “a lucky general”. He was a major force in the calamitous England campaign for the 2018 World Cup. Now he is the red face of the News International defence team. It’s like transferring from the Titanic to the Lusitania. More iceberg than Greenberg.
Sports desks on the nationals are keeping their heads down – the allegations have so far revolved around the conduct of colleagues on news desks.
It will need journalists everywhere to do their job diligently, honestly and with accuracy if we are to regain any respect. Don’t shoot all the messengers.
Now excuse me. I have a loo to clean.
Uncle Norman has written his weekly column for the SJA website, unpaid and uncomplaining (well, almost) for nearly three years. The views expressed in the columns are his own and those of his eight-year-old grandson, and do not reflect SJA policy. Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here
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