Tracing the Hacking Scandal’s Medieval Roots

The (mis-) education of the British Empire’s Boy Reporters

Mr. Hinton joined Mr. Murdoch’s first paper, The News, in Adelaide, at age 15….
The New York Times, July 16, 2011

Too young to drink. Too young to drive. Too young to vote. But not too young to write sexy (or otherwise exciting) stories for The News of the World, or anyone else, if the editors would take them. This was the world of the British Empire’s boy reporters in the 1950s and early 60s — at fifteen and sixteen years old — under a system of journalism that had it roots, at home and abroad, in the medieval guild system.

It was a system that attracted the entrepreneurial young man who could think fast and write quickly. It favored the quick-witted, cheerful, cheeky, imaginative, opportunistic and sometimes lightly pig-headed young men who did not intend to remain where they were. Scotsmen and Liverpudlians were particularly suited to the calling. Scotsmen because, in Sir Compton Mackenzie’s words, “the Scots make romance out of commerce, and commerce out of romance.” The pre-eminent American example of such a man was Aberdeen-born Bertie Charles Forbes, who, after serving his time on Scottish newspapers (first apprenticed as a printer’s devil) did a stint in southern Africa on the Natal Mercury, and as managing editor of the Rand Daily Mail. In 1904, Forbes arrived in the United States where, in 1917, he founded Forbes Magazine.

Liverpool-born were suitable because — well, just imagine the Beatles as boy journalists. They were all of the above. These, and their counterparts in London, were the energetic reporters who gave British journalism its brio.

Had Les Hinton, the recently resigned sixty-seven-year-old News Corp. executive, been born four miles further south, he’d have been a Liverpudlian. As it is, Bootle, his birthplace, has the same accent and mores as the city it abuts. Hinton’s parents emigrated to Australia post-World War II when Hinton was fifteen, and he quickly landed a job on The News, in Adelaide, being run by twenty-eight-year-old Rupert Murdoch. Had Hinton remained in Britain, he might, similarly, have ended up on any of the city or regional newspapers looking for a “likely lad.”

As it was, he had a similar exposure — with this difference: had he found a boy reporter’s job at fifteen in Britain, Hinton’s parents would have had to sign his apprenticeship papers, for he was too young to sign them for himself. The three-year term as an indentured servant to the newspaper was the only way for a young Brit to get started (in those days women need not apply). He would have had to learn shorthand (120 words-per-minute) and typing (75 words-per-minute) on his own time; his regular attendance at his “institute” (run by the Newspaper Guild), usually on a Wednesday, would give him what he needed most: law, law, and more law. (The only place then, as now, the British journalist is free of the threat of libel, is reporting from court. If it is in the court record, it may be printed.)

An apprentice’s pay was a ludicrously small amount. Reporter B.C. Forbes started in 1900 at $2.50 a week. Mine, a half-century later, was not, in terms of buying power, much better. There was a system in place in British journalism, however, that enabled one to survive: freelancing. It could be done informally and formally.

Formally was the usual style. This was the case at the Warrington Guardian Series (founded 1854, thirteen years after The News of the World) to which I, a Liverpool-born sixteen-year-old, was apprenticed. (Warrington is the major town on the River Mersey east of Liverpool, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester.) My managing editor in Warrington, Reg Thompson, typical of many regional managing editors, controlled the “string” to the nationals, hence “stringers.” He took 15 percent of whatever we made and split of portion of that with Les Senescal, the chief reporter, who ran the newsroom.

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 entrĂ©e 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.

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Arthur Jones is a former editor of the National Catholic Reporter and its current books editor. He has been an associate editor of Forbes and the magazine's European bureau chief. He was once described at a lunch (by The London Times's Peter Jay) as being like "a Venetian whore working both sides of the canal between God and Mammon." Tags: , , , , ,