SubScribe: July 2013 Google+

Monday 8 July 2013

Memo to newsdesks: there is life north of Watford Gap

New website steps in as Press abandons Manchester

There's a Nando's, a Cafe Rouge, plenty of other restaurants, bars and clubs, an Imax cinema and a gym. What more could a journalist want?

 A computer, a telephone, an office would be nice. Some congenial people to work and play with would be better. The clatter of the presses down below and an inky first-of-the-run paper to take home would be perfect.

 The Printworks in Manchester describes itself as a buzzing, state-of-the-art entertainment complex in the heart of the city centre with something to offer day and night. Others might prefer to remember it as the biggest newspaper production plant in Europe. But that was back in the day.

 Back in the day when most nationals had complete teams to produce a paper in Manchester simultaneously with that being prepared in London. The fashion started at the turn of the last century when the Mail was concerned that the trains couldn't get the paper to its northern readers in time.

The idea was for the Manchester lot to replicate the work being done in the capital - but the journalists didn't quite see it like that. They wanted to find, write and print their own stories. And they did. They were also perfectly capable of making clear their irritation when the London night editor started changing pages to accommodate some late event in the other Piccadilly.

One by one, other papers followed the example so that by the mid-50s, the Express, the Telegraph and the Mirror all had full-scale operations in Manchester, creating a community of some 1,500 journalists in its heyday. The Mirror even introduced a cartoon character specially for its northern edition in 1959; his name was Andy Capp.

 Then there were the local lads. The Guardian, as we all know, was born in Manchester - stirred into life in 1821 by the Peterloo massacre - and proudly bore the city's name on the masthead for 138 years. The Daily Sketch, too, started in Manchester. It was founded in 1909 by Edward G.Hulton, building on the sporting newspaper empire created by his father (also Edward) after he was sacked from the Guardian for hawking his own racing sheet alongside the paper that paid his wages. Hulton sold the Sketch in 1920, setting the paper on a 50-year grand tour of baronetcies until it finally died of exhaustion in 1971.

As the former Guardian journalist Robert Waterhouse relates in his book The Other Fleet Street, many titles (of both newspapers and their owners) came and went over the years. The thriving Withy Grove printing house established by Hulton also had its share of names - Kemsley House, Thomson House and Maxwell House.

 Robert Maxwell bought it for £1 in 1985, raising immediate concerns for the jobs of the 1,700 people working there. The company responded with a 'no comment', then suggested that half of them might be safe. Maxwell closed the plant the following year and the building lay idle for a decade. The derelict plant was eventually sold for development for £10m, and re-emerged as The Printworks in November 2000 after a £110m refurbishment.

Ken Lavery started as a 15-year-old copy boy at Kemsley House in 1951. The job set him on a path that led to a 50-year career as a press photographer. Talking to the NUJ in 2010, Lavery recalled the atmosphere there:

In those days Kemsley House was home to the Daily Despatch, the Daily Sketch, the Sporting Chronicle, the Evening Chronicle, and the Saturday Pink, which was the Chronicle’s football paper, and numerous journals and periodicals, some of which were printed at Kemsley but written and edited elsewhere. 

 I first worked in the phone room, sitting round a massive table with a lot of other young lads starting out in the newspaper industry. We were responsible for producing ‘blacks’ for the typewriters, which involved inserting carbon sheets between two sheets of white paper, securing them with a pin and adding them to a stack of blacks that was built up as high as possible before being whipped away.

 These sheets were used by the copy typists, who sat in booths with their headphones on taking copy down the line from the reporters. You can imagine how fast we had to work on a Saturday when the Pink was being produced. We also used to run around the building delivering copy and messages. 

Naturally I got to know Kemsley House inside out. It was a hive of characters in those days - reporters, printers, linotype machinists, chefs, editors, secretaries, accountants, subs, copy takers - all busily occupied across eight floors connected by numerous staircases, back-stairs, corridors and lifts. 

The Manchester press corps included top-notch writers including Arthur Ransome, John Masefield, Alastair Cooke and Neville Cardus, as well as men who went on to become legendary editors: Larry Lamb, Arthur Christiansen, Harry Evans and Derek Jameson.

 But it was not to last. The Guardian dropped the 'Manchester' from its name in 1959 and within five years was on its way down south to London, finally ending production in its home city in 1976. By the end of the Eighties, the Telegraph, Mirror, Express and Mail had all moved out, leaving only small teams of journalists to cover the area.

As editor of the Sun, Rebekah Wade got rid of the journalists too, closing the Manchester operation altogether in 2004. It was revived in the spring of last year when seven reporters and two feature writers Media City at Salford Quays, below. There was even talk of expansion, but then the paper announced last week that the three photographers working on contracts would now have to take their chances as freelances.

The rivalry evident between London and Manchester never abated. The head office crew looked down on 'the regions' and 'the provinces', even though the people working in Withy Grove and Ancoats Street were every bit as much national newspaper journalists as those in London. The Manchester set meanwhile complained constantly of 'London blindness', an inability to see that anything beyond the capital might matter. It's a complaint that remains justified to this day.

The BBC may have decamped to Salford Quays, but its approach has been rather like a Groundhog Day wayzgoose, since it has taken busloads of London staff along for the ride, many of whom go home to London when their work is done. It makes sure it tells the audience when a programme has come from Manchester, but not if it was made in London - as though the default position must be London and that any deviation needs explanation.

Newspapers are finding savings by tightening the M25 belt and dispensing with virtually everyone who works beyond it. Subscription deliveries are never offered to people living outside the magic circle. In this Londoncentric environment, where north Essex or south Kent are regarded as strange and different countries, it's easy to see how Birmingham, Manchester and all stations north, west and east feel unloved.

The former Times reporter Helen Nugent is now trying to redress the balance with a new website called Northern Soul, which covers all aspects of 'living north of Watford Gap'. She has started by focusing mainly on Manchester, but aims to spread its coverage as the site becomes established. In the guest blog below, she explains how she feels the London Press has abandoned the North and why that is a mistake.

A place for people who love the North

Guest blog by Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

Is it just me, or is there a shortage of first-rate writing about the North of England? And, if there is a dearth of quality articles about this part of the world, whose fault is it?

In an effort to address at least part of this puzzle, I have come together with a number of other professional journalists, bloggers and writers to create a website that celebrates all things northern. I call it a webzine but it could just as easily be called the post-blog blog: a sophisticated group-written and edited website that publishes a variety of stories.

Northern Soul was born out of a desire to read well-written reviews, previews and features about where we live, as well as a thirst to see images that do the North's urban and rural landscapes justice. After less than two months online, it seems that there are plenty of people out there with the same ambitions. 

Helen  Nugent: ink in her veins
Northern Soul is not a listings site or money-making machine. Nor is it a citizen journalist enterprise or an excuse to upload any old rubbish that has failed to find a home elsewhere. Northern Soul is simply a place for people who love the North.

What all the writers have in common is a passion for the north of England and a fantastic way with words. Whereas in the past they might have written solely for local and national papers and regional magazines, today they have turned to the web. And as the writers move to a new medium, so do the readers.

 A few short years ago the Guardian had four writers based in the North. Today there is just one, on her own, attempting to cover everything north of the Watford Gap. By mid-July the Times will no longer have a northern correspondent: its long-serving reporter is a victim of the recent night of the long knives at the paper of record. For the past few months, the Daily Telegraph has been short of a northern reporter, with little sign of a replacement.

And I'm just talking about Manchester-based journalists here. Pity Newcastle, Carlisle and York.

I love newspapers. I worked for the Times for ten years and I've freelanced for pretty much all of the nationals. I still get a paper delivered at the weekend; the thrill of picking it up off of the doormat and dirtying my hands on the typeface will never leave me. But I'm in a minority. And even I, with print running through my veins, find increasingly little of interest for a Northern-based subscriber. 

Is it because southern newspaper bosses think that we northerners are provincial oiks with scant regard for culture, news and comment? Why do we have to wait for a terrible tragedy (the murder of Middleton solider Lee Rigby, the trial of Dale Cregan) to read about what's happening in our back yard? Is it simply that in a time of cost-cutting and belt-tightening that northern coverage is the most disposable of roles? 

I don't know what the real reason is (although I could hazard a guess). But I'm angry about it nonetheless. And I'm not the only one. Perhaps those frustrated with their traditional sources of information will turn to local papers and their websites for news? While some are shadows of their former selves (yet more victims of cutbacks and staff atrophy), there are some cracking regionals out there. The Rossendale Free Press, for example, combines a hard-hitting news agenda with a slew of events in the area. It puts some of its larger rivals to shame.

Northern Soul has no plans to turn itself into a news website: there are plenty already which serve local communities perfectly well. To be frank, it's about time there was somewhere to read positive prose showcasing all that is great about the places and people up here. 

As a start-up with many giving their time for free, Northern Soul will be hard pushed to recapture the glory days of broad cultural analysis, incisive discussion and damn fine writing about the north of England. But we're going to give it a bloody good go. 

Helen can be contacted at

 If you have memories of life in the 'other Fleet Street' or views about whether the media are too London oriented, please use the comment box for your anecdotes or opinions. We'd also love to see pictures. If you have a story to tell but would prefer not to comment here,  please email me at

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Bad Sir Brian Leveson

A spot of whimsy with apologies to A.A. Milne

Sir Brian had a mission in his great big courtroom
To call up all the journalists and bip them on the head.
On Wednesday and Saturday
But mostly on the latter day,
He summoned both the Murdochs - and this is what he said:
'I am Sir Brian' (ting-ling)
'I am Sir Brian' (rat-tat)
'I am Sir Brian, as bold as a lion, take that! And that! And that!'

Sir Brian had a sidekick with a great big ego
Who questioned every witness with incredulous disdain.
On Tuesday and on Friday,
Just to make Fleet Street look tidy
He'd gather up the gutter press and flush it down the drain.
'I am Sir Brian' (sper-lash)
'I am Sir Brian' (sper-losh)
'I am Sir Brian, as bold as a lion, anyone else for a wash?'

Sir Brian had an antidote to phone-hacking journalists

He'd get MPs to change the law and put them all in chains.
On Thursday and on Monday
(and sometimes on a Sunday)
They'd face a brand new ombudsman who'd seize ill-gotten gains.
'I am Sir Brian' (ker-ching)
'I am Sir Brian' (ker-pow)
'I am Sir Brian, as bold as a lion, let's see you misbehave now.'

Sir Brian's wheeze found favour with a group called Hacked Off

Who gathered in a Commons room to lobby top MPs.
They ate KitKats and talked til three
Then, come the dawn, announced with glee
'We've got the buggers cornered; there shall be no more Press sleaze.'
'Hurrah for Sir Brian' (whoo-pee!)
'Hurrah for Sir Brian' (woo-hoo!)
'Hurrah for Sir Brian, as bold as a lion, that'll teach them to upset Hugh.'

Sir Brian's scheme was challenged by editors and pundits.
They cried 'We must have freedom to keep society strong.'

Then the local papers
Had attacks of the vapours
And squealed 'We'll all be ruined, yet we've done nothing wrong.'

'Down with Sir Brian (yah-hiss!)
'Down with Sir Brian (yah-boo!)
'Down with Sir Brian, as bold as a lion, we'll put our own house in order, thank you.'

Sir Brian's friend in Downing Street was not sure how to take this

He wanted to be reasonable, but ended looking weak.
And so he came to barter
On terms of Royal Charter
To put to privy counsellors (and Liz and Phil the Greek).

'How's that Sir Brian?' (What ho!)
'How's that Sir Brian?' (What fun!)
'We'll get a law through somehow - I'm just not sure which one.'

Sir Brian's clever sidekick was made a judge at High Court

While his lordship nursed a dream that he'd soon be the LCJ.
But then we learnt that SOCA
Had told Sir Brian earlier
That lawyers and big businesses had been a-hacking too.

'What's that, Sir Brian? (Shame them!)
What's that, Sir Brian?' (Shame you!)
'What's that, Sir Brian as bold as a lion. T
hey were worse than the press AND YOU KNEW?'

Sir Brian has a date now to stand in front of MPs
And tell them why this little fact was not in his report.

He'll talk about his remit
And why should others see fit
To question his authority as master of his court?

'I am Sir Brian (good egg)
'I am Sir Brian (good sport)
'I am Sir Brian as bold as a lion - but not quite as bold as I thought.'

A corruption of Bad Sir Brian Botany from When We Were Very Young,
by A.A. Milne with illustrations by E.H. Shepard
Published by Methuen in 1924