Photo by Thomas Charters

Inside the small town newspaper

How my first editor taught me to report “without fear or favour”

Artillery Row

Full disclosure after half a century in journalism: I didn’t lie to get my first job in the business but I didn’t tell the whole truth either. I was blessed to have an editor who intuitively understood what I was doing, because he’d done similar himself when starting out as a cub reporter. His name was Roger. Roger Norman. So laid back, it seemed, but very determined and so wise.

My late father was a printer at the Daily Mirror, so I had ink in the blood

I’ve carried Roger’s lessons to Africa, to the Middle East, to the old Soviet Union, to Washington D.C., and these days to Latin America. From famines and wars, to revolutions and economic meltdowns, from Tiananmen Square to the White House to the Kremlin, I could always hear Roger asking, chewing on a small cigar or sipping a good wine, with the scepticism that the great editors need: “Yeah?….really?….tell me more.”

That first job was with the Borehamwood and Elstree Post, no less, a weekly broadsheet that chronicled life in a surprisingly mixed slice of London suburbia, blending working-class, council-estate Borehamwood with quaint, semi-posh villages around Elstree and its film studios, pueblos with old churches and tasteful pubs, datelines like Arkley, Shenley, Radlett.

In the autumn of 1970, having been accepted for the following year at a small liberal arts college called Oxford, I applied for a young reporter’s job at the Post. Roger, feet up on desk, in the back room of a High Street shop where you could place an advert in the paper, buy a birthday card, or a Dickens novel, listened to my spiel about wanting to get into journalism. Yes, I was unsure whether university was the best route, no mention of Oxford. And then, my late father was a printer at the Daily Mirror, so I had ink in the blood… you get the picture. Well, Roger called news editor Roy to join, went upstairs to tell his dear wife Emily (they lived above the shop, literally), then came down and declared: “Let’s go have a drink with our new reporter!”

What followed was a baptism that brought challenges aplenty, many more mistakes than I cared to admit, but a stream of adolescent joys too. My main brief at the Post was the town’s supposedly amateur soccer team, Boreham Wood FC, playing at Meadow Park before decent crowds. The lads loved mischief, called themselves “villains”, and were paid “boot money”, under the counter.

The centre-forward took bets before the game on how many goals he’d score, and almost always cleaned up, making you wonder how and why (really) he missed that golden opportunity late on. The strapping centre-half liked a pint or three even before leading the team out. Then there was the goalie who invited young groupies to the back of the team bus. Enough said.

Given the Post’s limited budget, I travelled with the team when we went to exotic locations such as Leatherhead and Lewes, Enfield and Hitchin, not to mention our do-or-die rivals such as St Albans. It all raised the question of how much you reported of what you knew, the backstory, when you sat on the bus like a member of the team, seeing and hearing it all.

Decades later, after my years as a White House correspondent, a student audience quizzed me about the tradeoff, the potential compromise, between access and truth-telling when you reported a Bill Clinton or Dubya Bush, their misdeeds, failings, and the spin they wove around every move. I chuckled, thinking of the team bus at Boreham Wood FC and the lesson Roger gave me. “They play badly, screw up, you tell us,” he insisted. “And when they do well, you can tell us that, too. But you get their respect, and your independence, by telling it like it is, ok?”

The same dictum applied to Mondays and Wednesdays at Magistrates Court, listening to a litany of locals up for everything from driving under the influence, to grievous bodily harm, to deadbeat Dads not paying child support. “Please keep our name out of the paper,” I’d be asked with sad regularity. I learnt to shake my head, a visible No, wanting no conversation.

“Think about it. No exceptions, the prince or the pauper, your name goes in the paper,” said Roger the first time I mentioned the desperate plea of a mother wanting to stop her son’s name appearing in print, as he went to prison for robbery (in those days we even mentioned home address). “You report without fear or favour,” he added.

The cashier gave me a vivid eyewitness account, just before the police arrived to seal the place off from the media

How many times has that simple mission statement echoed down the years for me: When dealing with dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, or Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. When witnessing the half-truths and lies of the Bush/Blair union that took us to war in Iraq. When challenging both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to own up to their responsibility for the endless stalemate. As a Jerusalem correspondent, I was bad-mouthed on occasion by both sides there, and would always celebrate quietly with the thought : “That’s exactly where I want to be, in the bad books of both. Without fear or favour. Right, Roger?”

The highlight, sorry to admit, of my year at the Borehamwood and Elstree Post was the Thursday morning when armed robbers smashed and shot their way into Barclays Bank a few doors down from us, and snatched nearly 30,000 pounds in cash. The cashier gave me a vivid eyewitness account, just before the police arrived to seal the place off from the media. “Ring the Evening Standard, and the Evening News,” said Roger. I did, and I earned more that day than I did in a month at the Post (a modest salary of nine pounds a week).

That helped pay for my leaving-do at the Alfred Arms down the road from the office. Or was it The Wishing Well? Yes, I finally told Roger the whole truth, how Oxford beckoned. “I always knew something like this was coming,” he said, smiling broadly, then revealing that he had turned down a place at Cambridge to stay on his first paper, in Folkestone. “Just don’t forget us, ok?”

I didn’t. Half a century has seen me work for some formidable editors, at Reuters, certainly ITN, latterly The Economist. Roger Norman, RN as we called him, sits up there with the very best.

Sadly, the Borehamwood and Elstree Post is no longer. Likewise, Roger died way too young, after an outstanding career in local newspapers, finishing up as a pioneering editor in South London, leading the charge against racism in communities like Lewisham, Deptford, New Cross, long before anti-racism was a movement. As always, RN asked the right questions of us all.

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