Monday, May 27, 2013

The Golden Rules

As the Prime Minister prepares to backtrack on his commitment to the Leveson report into the Press, the time has finally come to lay before the public the two golden rules of journalism at the core of the debate.

To illustrate them, the reader must be transported back to the dark days of the winter of discontent, at the fag end of the 1970's when the dead lay unburied, fear stalked the streets and the country had yet to be saved by Mrs T.

Strikes were commonplace as was inflation, unemployment and the daily denunciation of anyone who knew anyone who had ever put their hand up at the wrong time in a mass meeting.

The job of bringing whatever facts could loosely be gathered on these great events to the attention of pubic lay in the hands - not to mention the imaginations - of an exotic group of journalists called the industrial correspondents.

Each newspaper numbered them on their staff but this story involves just one: Robert "Bob" Bedlow of the house journal for the aged and incontinent, the Daily Telegraph... and a strike involving British Rail.

Although the Telegraph at the time had several distinguished editors the real power below deck was exercised by the managing editor one Peter Eastwood, the mention of whose name could curdle a pint in any Fleet Street pub. And it was a alleged chance encounter between the afore-mentioned Eastwood an a British Rail porter which sparked off the story that we have embarked upon.

The word "alleged" is used since no-one at the time could envisage a conversation of any politeness between Mr Eastwood and anyone who confessed to working for a nationalised operation. But, putting that doubt to one side had to be the immediate reaction of Bob Bedlow who was summoned one morning to Eastwood's lair and informed such an encounter had indeed taken place near the station he used for his daily commute to work.

Further, as Easwood informed the hapless Bob, the porter had reported he - and many like him - were ready to return to work, prevented only by their militant/communist/outrageous/money-grabbing Union leaders.

"Get the story," Bob was told and thereupon fled the building to the security and comfort of several colleagues and more than several pints.

To take the story further requires some extra information on Mr Bedlow who joined the Telegraph after an earlier career as a soldier of fortune which had equipped him with a grip of steel and the thirst of a regiment.

Bob was not much of a seeker after facts, since they had never been allowed by his newspaper to get in the way of a story in the past. 

But this challenge by Eastwood however had unnerved him as he was already on report for several occasions following lunch, when he had over-enthusiastically gripped several of his subordinates. This time, declared Bob, there had to be a more scientific approach and after several further pints of inspiration declared the cunning plan.

He would interview railway staff at each of the stations on Eastwood's journey to London - none of whom could obviously be identified because of the fear of Union thuggery - and, having obtained a BR route map, by 7 pm the story was done.

The next day dawned with a splash in the Telegraph bearing Bedlow's name declaring that rail staff were ready to work and quoting several, sadly unnamed (out-of-fear), workers.

As Bedlow celebrated his escape and colleagues marvelled yet again at the Telegraph, a call came suddenly from British Rail for a press conference later that day.

For some bizarre reason press conferences were called for 3pm directly opposite a pub on the Euston concourse serving strong northern beers.  Thus it was, that at three o'clock the press conference began with the chairman of British Rail, Sir Peter Parker, announcing following an obvious desire by the workers to abandon the strike the gates would be opened the following Monday.

On what evidence did BR make this outrageous claim? asked one apoplectic and sober correspondent.
"The story in the Daily Telegraph," said Sir Peter.

As uproar ensued, at  the back of the room a dozing Bedlow emerged from under the Russian hat to announce:
"It was only a joke boss."

The gates opened on Monday and the strike ended on Tuesday - leading finally to the two golden rules.

Rule Number One: Always believe everything you read in the newspapers.
Rule Number Two: Always believe nothing you read in the newspapers.