34 years ago today our Editor, Phil Parry, walked into the newsroom of The South Wales Echo to start life as a trainee reporter.
Here he looks back on his career and surveys the journalistic scene in Wales.
It’s a terrible cliche, but I do remember it as if it was yesterday.
I walked up the newsroom, which was shared with The Western Mail, squeakily in my new shoes. The News Editor (the now sadly-departed Stuart ‘Minto’ Minton) said: “You’re early. Well done”. I felt 10 feet tall, even though I hadn’t done anything.
He had a way of making you feel like that when you had done something well, although he came down on you like a ton of bricks when you had done something badly. There was a time when I fell out of favour with him so I wasn’t ‘given’ the best stories. I felt utterly miserable.
The pay was rubbish, under £5,000 a year, but none of that mattered when you were a young man in a hurry.
After I arrived on the Echo I was sent for basic journalist training in Newcastle, in things like law, shorthand, and the workings of local Government. It’s a bit of a bugbear of mine that this is actually very important. I think all journalists should know how crucial facts are, and the accuracy of quotations. It’s like building a house on firm foundations, and the same in news. From these foundations all other forms of journalism are created.
In this era of ‘fake’ news it matters even more.
A knowledge of the law is crucial. I have been threatened with libel countless times. Including a threat from a fellow journalist for an accurate satirical piece, with the extraordinary words “satire is no defence against libel” (it can be). He is meant to be one of the most senior journalists in Wales, yet plainly knows nothing about libel!
I applaud my then-employers (Thomson Regional Newspapers, TRN) for seeing the importance of basic journalist training.
Back in Cardiff you signed your ‘indentures’. The signing of indentures was a very formal affair in the Managing Director’s office involving such luxuries as biscuits. The MD of The Western Mail and Echo (within TRN) was Howard Green, the father of the present deputy Prime Minister (although not called that) Damian Green. We thought it was extremely funny to turn his name around so he became ‘Green Howard’.
For those (you know who you are!) who came after me, I’m ashamed to say I was involved in a magnificent wind up, where we persuaded the new trainee reporters of both The Western Mail and South Wales Echo that they would have to sing a company song at the signing of the indentures. We even wrote it out for them, the only line of which I can remember is “from shore to shore, the pen is mightier than the sword”!
There followed an endless round of stories about damp council houses and down-page news about poor individuals in Cardiff Magistrates Court, many of whom were up for nicking cars, or Taking Without the Owner’s Consent (TWOC) as it was known. I have often thought inside a ‘mags court’ would make a brilliant documentary series, because all human life is there.
The most serious crimes were kicked upstairs to be tried in Crown Court and both had dedicated reporters.
The whole building would shake when the printing presses were running.
I remember covering picketline violence during the ’84 to ’85 miners strike. The hostility towards the media was very real, even though that should never have been directed towards reporters from local newspapers. On the Echo, for example, we knew a large chunk of our readership was based in mining communities.
This was all eye-opening to a sensitive, middle-class lad fresh from university.
It was also startling to be confronted with what seemed like the incredible array of characters on the paper then.
One shambling slovenly reporter didn’t have time to eat, so he kept a meat pie in his pocket. Another was excellent in the morning, but couldn’t be relied upon to provide accurate copy in the afternoon because that was after he had been to the pub and had had a few drinks. An extremely glamorous older woman (although far younger than I am now) wrote an esoteric almost incomprehensible column, but was favoured by the then Editor, Geoff Rich.
Every day started with a news ‘conference’ with Mr Rich (even now I find it hard to shake that ‘Mr’ off!), when all the key departments like news, sport and features attended. For this conference the heads of those departments would put on their jackets – they had ties in their pockets.
One reporter who was always late, knew he could slip into the back of the newsroom when Minto had gone into conference.
The stories I found most difficult included the ‘death knock’ when you would have to visit the family of a child who had been murdered, or killed in an accident. In those days it was vital to get a picture (the ‘pick-up pic’) because there was no social media to take it from. You would always lie to Minto and say there was nobody in, and he would always know you were lying as he asked you to try the neighbours.
I remember on one occasion, when I had plucked up courage to knock on the right door, I had effectively to ‘perform’ in front of all the relatives, as they sat around pissed. When I finished my spiel, including the bollocks about it being a ‘tribute’ to the dead child, one of them silently got up and gave me a picture.
On another, after a child had died following a fall from a tree – his parents WOULD give me a tearful interview, but WOULDN’T give me a picture.
One reporter I knew smoked specially long cigarettes so he would have an excuse for spending longer on the doorstep before he was kicked off!
You were ‘allowed’ a certain level of expenses, or ‘exes’ to bump up your pay – all completely illegal of course! I was allowed £8 a week. On one occasion I had the audacity to increase the ‘claim’ to £10, but Minto took it down again, saying sternly “we can’t have this”.
I wrote a weekly pop column (which was NOT in fact called ‘Phil Parry’s Pop Patrol!), among previous incumbents of which are the columnist Rod Liddle. All the stories were about local bands on the brink of moving to London to ‘make’ it. Although one band member, also in his 50s, told me the other day they never got further than Newport!
The whole thing was a complete nightmare, because you used to have to compile a ‘gig guide’ for events at long-closed clubs like the ‘Casablanca’. The managers would always ring up to give the week’s events which I would write down on the backs of envelopes and then promptly lose. They would then complain that they hadn’t been included!
I witnessed a fight in the newsroom, when Minto attacked a reporter who was abusing him because he hadn’t signed his exes. The victim sprawled at my feet and there were screams in the room. ‘Hacks’ in Wales still talk about the episode now, even though it was more than 30 years ago.
Again it was jaw-dropping to a youngster in his first job!
In order to progress in journalism then, the perception was that you should do ‘shifts’ on the ‘nationals’ (we weren’t afraid to call them that then, rather than London-based or UK papers). You weren’t strictly allowed to do them because you were employed by a different company, but every young reporter wanting to get on did shifts for the nationals on Sundays and Bank Holidays, hoping to get a job with them in future.
I remember that on one occasion I ‘shifted’ on the Daily Mail and I was asked to go out with a photographer and see how easy it was to buy a hashish pipe. Stupidly I let him take a picture of me buying one of these pipes, which of course then duly appeared in the paper. When I was back on the Echo in Cardiff on the Monday I had to go round the newsroom scooping up copies of the Daily Mail which had a picture of me inside working for them!
I messed up my journalist exams at the end of my indentures so in fairness to the Echo, the bosses extended my ‘training’, although on the same shitty pay.
But I was keen to move on and left.
Technically I had broken my indentures and I went from the building with Mr Rich’s words ringing in my ears – “you’ll never work here again”. A mate of mine on the Echo said wittily I should have asked for that in writing!
I joined a freelance agency called Cambrian News Agency on Charles Street in Cardiff, which was a long way from being salubrious. We were proud to give our address as ‘above Luigi’s wine bar’!
We supplied stories about local events we deemed to have a UK-wide significance to Fleet Street (another old term) papers. We provided them on a huge machine we sat down at, although one reporter preferred to type his copy out first on a typewriter. Nowadays of course it’s all sent up the line on a lap-top.
Typewriters were a big thing then – computers were just coming in – and if yours had a fault you were knackered. There was an area at the centre of the newsroom in Cardiff when I was on the Echo, with several desks pushed together where broken typewriters were piled up. It was known as the typewriter ‘graveyard’.
Everybody smoked, of course, and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. It was revolting.
Another difference was the importance of phones out in the field to get your copy back. There was no such thing as mobiles then naturally, and you used to have to bang on people’s doors and ask to use their phone – transfer charging the call of course. You became accomplished at spotting the house which had a phone line running to it. Back in the newsroom banks of copy-takers would be waiting to take down details of the story.
Certain techniques had to be learnt, such as the ‘Jones technique’. If you had access to a phone and knew a murder had taken place in a traceable street, and you needed to get hold of a witness fast, you could use this one. You would ring up a random number in the street (which you could always get from a friendly operator) and ask to speak to ‘Mr or Mrs Jones’. The answer would always come back: “Oh, you must have a wrong number. It’s such-and-such down the road at such-and-such number.” There would always be a Mr or Mrs Jones in the street. You would then repeat the trick until you got hold of someone who could tell you about the incredible police activity at the house where you knew the murder had taken place.
There was also ‘reverse ferret’ when you would stitch up somebody you had praised as a hero the day before.
Ask any journalist of a certain age, and he or she will know about these techniques!
From Cambrian I moved on to the BBC where I spent 23 largely happy years in television and radio, before I left in 2010. The great thing about the BBC is that it is so large you can move around and stay within the same organisation.
I took full advantage.
I worked on a BBC 2 programme which is now defunct called Public Eye, and on Newsnight as well as Panorama.
It seems a shame to me that television current affairs is under such pressure. Apart from Public Eye – Assignment, and Rough Justice have both also gone. Panorama is now a shadow of its former self. On ITV – World in Action, TV Eye and First Tuesday have all disappeared. We have just heard of the demise of another TV current affairs series, BBC Wales’ Week In, Week Out which I presented for 10 years.
I deplore these events.
On papers the situation is no better as they chase ‘stories’ about celebrities, the opening of bars, lists about food and ‘clickbait’ journalism, in a vain attempt to boost circulation figures.
I wouldn’t mind, but the strategy doesn’t work. Circulation numbers have bombed. The South Wales Echo now sells a fraction of what it did when I joined, and the figures are still heading south. It used to be the biggest-selling paper produced in Wales, but now no longer. The number of viewers for terrestrial television shows has dropped massively.
Still, I don’t want to end on a sour note. New journalism schools are opening every week and technology offers enormous opportunities for young journalists to write blogs.
I’ve gone from being a cub reporter to an ageing dinosaur!
A fuller account of part of Phil Parry’s career at BBC Wales, where he was for 10 years the face of current affairs TV, can also be found on The Eye website.
This article also appears on our new website.
The Eye magazine has far more sections on arts, food and culture.
We have linked up with another site, Dai Sport for sports news, and provide general news, investigations and politics.
It’s an exciting future.
We can still be contacted through the site.