Fake news” was the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year for 2017, though as pedants point out, it’s actually two. Use of the phrase increased by 365% in the twelve-months, mostly, I suppose, by Donald Trump, he being the most compulsive twitterer.
Whatever the numbers, there is nothing new about fake news. It has been with us since communication began, and certainly before the advent of newspapers that politicians love to hate. And occasionally, the curtains part to reveal the inner workings of the trade.
Just such an opportunity arises in The Last Days Of Fleet Street, the bragadoccio autobiography of Maurice Chittenden (pictured), one-time star of the Sunday Times, a paper that was never genuinely progressive, even under the editorship of saintly Sir Harold Evans.
It became a great deal less so under right-wing Andrew Neil, according to Chittenden. On becoming editor, the Paisley radical-poseur was “alarmed at how many left-leaning journalists were working on the paper”. He can’t have been reading it very carefully.
Neil was evidently relieved when Murdoch took his newspapers to a fortified citadel in east London in 1986, because “many of of those whose politics he distrusted became ‘Wapping refuseniks’ and declared that they would not cross the print unions’ picket lines.”
Chittenden writes that the “once-fashionable, increasingly-dated left-wing views of the older journalists who had worked under Harold Evans were now old hat”. Off with the old hat, on with the new, in a revealing chapter titled “The Leftie-Bashing Unit.”
Neil set up a London Boroughs Unit (soon renamed as above), to “expose” the Left-wing posturing of Labour councils allegedly spending their ratepayers’ money on political propaganda rather than much-needed services. Chittenden was in charge, with a team from staffers in local government, finance, politics and stringers to bring these scoundrels to book.
He roamed the capital and the provinces, unearthing well-dressed examples of “loony Left” policies. All the news that’s fit to hint. Strangely, voters were unimpressed and continued to elect Labour councils, as they do to this day and look likely to do so in even greater numbers in May. Will they never take the Sunday Times seriously?
Greater things were to come. “Later,” he boasts, “I was given a wider brief to help attack the trade unions crippling Britain with strikes and so-called Spanish practices.” Not, presumably, the expenses fiddles of which Chittenden is so proud, like having the biggest book of blank bills in Fleet Street.
In this role, he clashed with Arthur Scargill and helped “discover” Len McLuskey, then an unknown TGWU officer in Liverpool trying to save the Dockworkers’ Labour Scheme, established in 1947 to end the scandal of daily hire-and-fire in the docks. Chit and the ST campaigned for more than a year, hand-in-glove with David Davis, then merely a Tory backbencher, to end it.
“While Britain was distracted by a visit by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union,” he writes, “[the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] chaired a specially-convened breakfast-time Cabinet meeting to abolish the scheme.” Trust Thatcher to exploit hitherto-unknown public fascination with the Soviet leader as cover to satisfy the political ambitions of the Sunday Times and its political cohorts! Such influence! Such stirring journalism! If you like that kind of thing, I suppose.
Alas, the hit-man chosen by Neil to head the Leftie-Bashing Unit seems to have had only a cursory grasp of industrial relations. In the chapter “Ambush on the Highway”, recording his heroic exploits on the Wapping picket lines, he recalls “the year-long strike” that took place before he joined the ST as a Saturday casual in 1983.
I take it he means the eleven-and-a-half month dispute of 1978/79 under the ownership of Lord Thomson. This was the disastrous dress rehearsal for Wapping that cost the company £39 million, but failed to smash the print unions.
It was a lock-out, not a strike. Thomson’s managers closed down the titles of Times Newspapers, and sacked all the staff except the journalists, before reopening on pretty much the status quo almost a year later.
Chittenden may be too dozy or ignorant to appreciate the difference, but as the official historian of the dispute for The Times, I can help him with his nomenclature, if not his grasp of events. His book is subtitled “My Part In Its Downfall.” Pinched from Spike Milligan, but truer than perhaps intended.
The Last Days of Fleet Street is published by Biteback (£12.99)