That meant boys age sixteen would cover court, pick out the juicier or more interesting cases from the day’s court offerings, and phone them, writing fast and shallow new leads each time in their heads, to the likes of The News of the World, the People, the BBC, ExTel (a wire service) or whomever else was on Reg Thompson’s string. Then the young reporter would telephone his “oppo” (opposite number) in the Guardian newsroom, dictate a somewhat more considered story to another sixteen-year-old, for his own newspaper. My “oppo” for quite a while was Ray Moore, and we’d switch, alternately Ray was in court and I was in the newsroom.
Freelancing made it possible for underpaid teenagers to survive, perhaps buy a secondhand motorcycle, or some weeks just an extra round or two at the pub. It meant that Britain had a cadre of highly opportunistic journalists whose ethics were honed on the ethics of their daily bosses. In the case of Thompson and Senescal, high-minded men with a journalist’s instincts nonetheless, we were taught to walk the ethical fine line between what was acceptable and what wasn’t.
These were particularly acute journalists because of their exposure. I faced my first libel suit at sixteen. The lead began, “Four prostitutes .” But one was merely “the keeper of a disorderly house,” a madam, not a whore. One learned quickly. And with 17,000 cold-war era U.S. airmen stationed two miles outside of Warrington, there was no shortage of stories.
We all knew the police, and they knew us. Arrests were extremely important news. Just before the police arrived, I, at seventeen, interviewed my first murder suspect, quaking in my boots. He invited me in; we remained at the front door. My presumption is that around the country, as journalists and policemen moved up in the ranks, the relationship remained. Don’t forget that in many ways, England is a very small country and London a village in which everyone in a certain milieu, knows everyone, or of everyone. Freelancing provided young regional reporters entrée to interviews on the London nationals. Another attractive option: colonial dailies in Hong Kong, South Africa, Australia, Uganda, British Guiana (Guyana, today).
By the 1960s British journalism was shifting. So, for some, would its ethics. Many young journalists of the 1950s and 60s could see there was money to be made in freelancing more or less fulltime. That led to a proliferation of local and regional freelance agencies that competed with the established strings of the regional papers: first in with the best story wins.
The agencies were extremely energetic. I co-founded one, the Mid-Cheshire News Agency in 1960. The ethical problem was that freelance agencies usually didn’t have the steadying hand of people such as Thompson and Senescal to keep their younger journalists in line. The job market was shrinking: independence movements made colonial dailies less desirable, or impossible - as in Uganda. At home, freelancing was on a roll.
By the 1970s and 80s titillation (the curate in the choir loft with the choir boys; the young Liverpool miss setting up shop in the back seat of a Buick for a weekend with U.S. airmen) was no longer enough for the scandal sheets. There was more sex on the movie screen than there was on the printed page. “Celebrity” was taking the place of sex.
However, with sex waning and celebrity in, came the need to ramp up the stories ever higher. That was essential to capture and keep the readership. The ethical thin line was ignored; the legal line was now what mattered and, apparently, some operated on the wrong side even of that thin line.