Matt Driscoll and the colour purple

In a long career in old Fleet Street, NORMAN GILLER has encountered many sports desk bullies

I am told that Andy Coulson, the News of the World Editor-turned-Tory-spin surgeon, went purple faced when he heard of the whopping Wapping £800,000 pay-out to Matt Driscoll, the football reporter bullied out of his job.

It was claimed in the employment tribunal case that Coulson was gunning for Driscoll from the moment he failed to stand up his tip-off in 2004 that Arsenal were going to play in purple shirts, a story later splashed as a scoop by their stablemate, The Sun.

Round about the time all this was happening, I was working with my TV producer pal Brian Klein to help Coulson (pictured) and the then Sun Editor Rebekah Wade prepare a video and graphics-supported presentation for the News International annual conference, staged that year in Mexico.

I found Rebekah charming and Coulson chilling. But I would not describe it as bullying from Andy, more a desire and a demand for perfection. As I prepared another rewrite, I accepted it as professionalism when he said: “I just want it right.”

It is going to take Coulson spin of — dare I say — Alistair Campbell cunning and quality to repair an image battered by the Royal phone tapping scandal, the £1 million pay-out to PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor and now the Spurs-Wigan proportion defeat to Driscoll.

How many other reporters will now be tempted to come forward with bullying stories as they try to hit a Driscoll-size jackpot?

I first met Matt when he was a kid in short trousers and dreaming of following in the Fleet Street footsteps of his Dad, Bob Driscoll, who was a leading football reporter in the 1960s and 1970s before becoming “legit” as sports news editor with the Daily Mail.

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Bob knew all about a bullying sports editor when he worked for the fearsome Frank Nicklin on The Sun. But underneath Frank’s gruff exterior was a man with a soft centre, who knew how to reward his reporters when they came up with the goods.

There was the famous story when Bob’s notorious drinking buddy Peter “The Poet” Batt got one of Nicklin’s dreaded rollockings. Peter snapped under the verbal assault and started throwing the four volumes of the London telephone directories at his snarling boss.

It is part of Fleet Street folklore how Nicklin – an exceptional all-round sportsman in his youth — trapped A to F, chested away G to K, headed L to R and volleyed S to Z back at Batty.

The scene was so Pythonesque that they collapsed laughing and took their argument to the more suitable surroundings of the pub, where it ended with mutual back slapping. Nicklin the Terrible was a pussycat at heart.

The nearest thing to bullying that I saw in my Fleet Street days was when the usually placid Daily Express sports editor John Morgan picked on one of my colleagues to such an extent that one day in the office he dropped into a dead faint alongside me. No names, but suffice to say he had the character to recover and develop into one of Fleet Street’s finest football reporters.

In a previous decade on the Express, Peter Wilson was the victim of a hate war by the suitably named Harold Hardman. Rather than put up with Sports Editor Hardman’s demands, Wilson switched to the Mirror and lasting fame as The Man They Can’t Gag.

Wilson got his own back on Hardman in his autobiography: “He was a miserable, mean-spirited, narrow-gutted dwarf of a man with little talent and less milk of human kindness.”

Their conflict had come to a head when Wilson took a day off from watching Randolph Turpin training for his world middleweight title defence against Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951 to report on a then little-known 16-year-old tennis player called Maureen Connolly.

Hardman spiked the “Little Mo” tennis story, and sent a cablegram that read: “All I want from you is boxing, boxing, boxing.”

The immediate cabled response from Peter in New York: “Regret neither Turpin nor Robinson training training training today today today. Regards regards regards Wilson Wilson Wilson.”

His resignation followed soon after. “I am not going to allow Hardman to do to me what he did to poor John Macadam.”

Wilson felt that Hardman’s bullying demands had driven Macadam, his predecessor as Express columnist, to drink. John lost his way in the bottle after being demoted to a general dog’s body reporter.

If you want to know what a genius of a writer the wee, handlebar moustached Scot was, try to get your hands on his autobiography, The Macadam Road.

As an impressionable young Saturday football reporter on the Daily Herald, I regularly found myself on the same B-class match list as John, and used to help pour him on and off trains.

In his sober moments, the classically educated Macadam, who lived on a Chelsea-moored houseboat with his Bohemian friends, was well worth listening to and gave me advice I have never forgotten: “Report not only what you think you see and hear, sonny, but also what your heart tells you — because sometimes the evidence of your eyes and ears can prove deceiving.”

I make no excuse for retelling the true story that had the wonderful Mr Macadam crying in his beer. He was reporting a lifeless and goalless drawn match involving Millwall at The Den. A lover of all things Shakespeare, this was the intro he dictated to the copytaker: “This match down at The Den last night was much ado about nothing nothing.”

A Philistine of a sub changed it to: “This match down at The Den last night was much ado about nil nil.”

Now that sub-editor, methinks, deserved some serious bullying.

â–¡ Matt Driscoll is expected to appear on BBC Radio 5Live this morning from around 10am. The programme should be available via iPlayer for the next week here

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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