It’s a strange thing, journalism. And the same goes for many of the people who do it.
For every journalist who gets to the very top – you know the type, Old Etonian Telegraph columnists – there are hundreds who scratch out a living on a local paper or radio station.
Some are sensible and in possession of good advice which steers them towards company pension schemes early in their careers. As for the others… well, there’s more than a grain of truth in the stereotypical view of hard-drinking hacks working all day and drinking all night. Or sometimes the other way round.
In every job and profession you have people who stick together, but I suspect the bond is particularly tight among colleagues who work shifts, and stronger still where the job involves call-outs late at night or in the early hours.
No one would ever brand the media as the “fourth emergency service” but in any scenario where the military, police, fire and NHS workers are getting their hands dirty and saving lives, journalists won’t be far from the action.
The unpredictable nature of the role, the chance to get a front row view – however unpleasant or perilous that may be at times – and to be the first to tell the story is why many go into the job in the first place. You never tire of seeing your name at the top of a good story, and you get a warm feeling in later years when you hear of the thrill experienced by a young journalist seeing their byline on the front page as they take the first steps in their career.
In the busier newsrooms the lifestyle does breed a certain insularity. At the Hull Daily Mail in the 1980s only the journalists worked nights, Sundays and Bank Holidays, with the workload sometimes giving rise to an arrogance and even a suspicion that the security guys were only there to make sure we didn’t have any parties!
It was said that the lack of overtime was down to a naïve negotiating strategy – the National Union of Journalists reckoned top-up payments for extra work would stifle job creation. The employers milked it, and anyway there wasn’t a journalist worth their salt who would willingly hand over a story to a colleague just because the clock struck five.
I did miss out on two big events. In 1978 I was putting my coat on ready to head to a mining disaster at Bentley when I was reminded that under the terms of a work-to-rule I had to finish the story I was currently working on, which was the appointment of Billy Bremner as the manager of Doncaster Rovers.
In 1982 I was sent with Brian Taylor to cover the return of the Norland from the Falklands War. My job was to write a news piece. Brian, former Hull Daily Mail Sports Editor, was there to write a piece for the John Humber column. But gales prevented the ship from coming into King George Dock so we had to wait, watching from a bar on one of her sister ships – Norwind or Norwave – for a sign of the Norland and her heroic crew sailing up the Humber. The bar was closed but we shared a hip flask at a time long before Covid became a thing.
We were fine, but as the day dragged on with no word of when the Norland would finally dock the office sent a couple of colleagues to take over.
Night shifts in the office meant working until 10pm, and there were other evening jobs such as public meetings and theatre reviews. My first in Hull was the Sooty Show at the New Theatre. My first big story came from late night calls one Friday, the murder of a woman whose body was found at Victoria Dock.
There was never a shortage of company on a late shift. Colleagues who finished at five-ish would go for a few pints in the White House, the Hull Cheese or both and call in afterwards with their evening meal from Yankeeburger.
Sometimes if there was an interesting assignment a few of us would go along and take one or more of the pool cars. I drove one car to Hull University to interview Leon Brittan. A photographer, Tom Kidd, took another car and half a dozen colleagues came along for the wide and the cheap beer in the students’ union bar. When I joined them after the interview a few of the students told us there would be a big protest to greet the Tory bigwig. Their plans to “form an activist caucus” lay in tatters after I told them he’d just left.
Christmas found the management at the Mail in generous mood. All staff received an extra week’s pay and the reward for a four-hour shift on Christmas Day and Boxing Day was double time and two days off. One year I did three shifts and saved the time and the money for a New Year trip to Glasgow. Details are sketchy now but I remember meeting Brian Lavery and his brother in a pub down Sauchiehall Street and being mortified to find that all the bars would close by about 9pm and not reopen until 2 January.
The following year a crowd of us descended on the same city and on New Year’s Day piled into a couple of cars to take our hangovers to the Loch Lomond Hotel where photographer Tom, by then a successful freelance, had been booked to take pictures of a water-skiing bear. When he joined us in the bar he was crestfallen. It wasn’t a proper bear, just a man in a bear costume. And he didn’t do any water skiing because he dropped the outfit in the loch and it sank.
Tom claimed to have skippered a herring boat before a change of career and he took the helm for one of our other escapades. As the Mail’s delegate to the NU J’s annual conference at University of East Anglia I managed to get the use of a cabin cruiser for a weekend on the Norfolk Broads.
About eight of us went and it’s anybody’s guess how we survived. We sailed from Wroxham to Great Yarmouth, drinking heavily most of the way and somehow found ourselves playing football on the floodlit quayside at 3am on the Saturday.
At first light we decided to sail to watch Norwich City play Manchester City but the tide was low and under the navigation of Captain Kidd managed to run aground just the other side of Great Yarmouth where the River Yare was as wide as the Humber. Thankfully the tide was coming in, we re-floated and headed back to Great Yarmouth having relieved Tom of his command.
Tom only stayed at the Mail for about six months. He returned for a party in November 1981, driving down from Glasgow and announcing his arrival by setting off a box of fireworks in a rubbish bin fastened to a lamp post on Newland Avenue. It was about 1am. Any of our neighbours from the time will doubtless remember it.
Gordon Paterson, another… erm… character from Glasgow only spent a year with the paper before moving to Dublin. Many young journalists did two or three years and then headed off.
But some of us stayed and became part of the community. My drinking mates in the Queens on Queens Road included a sign writer, chartered surveyor, County Court Judge, several teachers, a dentist, social workers and probation officers. The best stories came from the retired pox doctor and were from an age long before political correctness existed. They can’t possibly be repeated here.
Such contacts proved invaluable at a time when so many news stories were of child abuse by clergymen in churches and care homes.
There was also another one about a care home in Hull. It didn’t involve children and the “victims” would most definitely have denied that they felt abused. Routine medical checks found that three elderly male residents each had the same sexually-transmitted disease. Investigations revealed they had caught it from being regularly “serviced” by one of their carers. She was sacked and the three old boys went on hunger strike in protest.
My source was impeccable and their information had helped us with background on a number of notorious child abuse cases, one of which still makes the news bulletins today. I have no doubt they were again absolutely solid with this case but sadly we couldn’t get any comments from the home, the men, their families or the staff member and the story got away.
My all-time favourite story was about something completely different and I’ll tell it in the next essay.
It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.