The phantom byline
Friday 29 January 2021
Pirating Reuters stories with a newspaper reporter’s byline, as described by Peter Gregson (Copycat stories) and Bob Evans (The art of freeloading), was a practice that sadly did not die out in the 1970s.
One of the London dailies, short of overseas reporters, took it to a particularly brazen level in the late 1990s. We became aware they had a correspondent who seemed remarkably mobile. He popped up all over the place, filing both on politics and sport but in most cases with his name on top of barely disguised Reuters copy. Eventually he was carelessly bylined on the same day from Europe in the front of the paper and Australia on the sports pages. Most complaints to newspapers about fraudulent bylines had little result, but on this occasion we wrote a sharp letter to the paper’s editor exposing their fraud. The byline magically disappeared, never to reappear.
On another strand occupying the pages of The Baron, i.e. John le Carré, there was a definite line of communication between a senior executive at 85 Fleet St and the British security services, as I related in a previous letter to The Baron describing my lunch with an alleged KGB recruiter in London who was being tailed by MI5.
As to whether Reuters resembled Le Carré’s Circus, I have always thought 85 Fleet St in the 1970s was a lot closer to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a wonderful satire about British hackery. As Peter Gregson has related (Reuters 'Circus' - more Big Top than Le Carré), the chaotic and smoke-filled Reuters newsroom was inhabited by many eccentrics, as well as some of the best editors I ever worked with. It was the scene of much bizarre behaviour.
The centre of the newsroom was occupied by a large square of teleprinters making a cacophonous noise that caused frayed nerves and occasionally drove people slightly out of their mind. I recall a loud dispute over whether or not the windows should be opened that climaxed in one worthy standing on the windowsill and threatening to jump four floors into St Bride’s Churchyard.
On another occasion, a beat policeman was called in from Fleet St to drag out a messenger who became violent after being fired. A particularly dictatorial head clerk was immortalised by an obscene insult carved into the floor of a trap in the men’s toilet which had one of the best views in London of St Paul’s. It seemed management was not prepared to re-floor the whole toilet area, so it remained there for years.
Social intercourse revolved around the tea trolley, where the dinner ladies treated us at weekends with a heavy pudding made from stale bread and lots of sugar which defied digestion for several days. One copy taster organised an early warning system from offices near the newsroom to give him an unfair advantage in reaching the front of the trolley queue. After filing from Mozambique on a particularly gruelling reporting assignment, I asked to talk live by telex to the desk editor. I had just begun to discuss the story when he tapped out: “Sorry. Trolley. Must go.”
The plot of Scoop involves the paper’s nature correspondent mistakenly being posted to cover a war in an African country closely resembling Ethiopia because of a mix-up over names. At Reuters we had a less than optimal desker, who I shall call Joe for the sake of discretion. Reuters had intended to recruit his brother, an ace provincial reporter who was described by the interviewing panel as “a real diamond”. But something went wrong, and we got the less talented brother, who was instantly christened “Diamond Joe”. Irascible as well as incompetent, he once threw a punch at the Canadian horseman Jack Hartzman in the lift after Jack, who suffered fools very badly, tore a strip off him in public.
It was certainly a place you never forgot, like the notorious brown envelopes, containing brutal criticism when you messed up a story, or very occasionally praise. ■