What Do We Mean By Local? The Rise, Fall and Possible Rise Again of Local Journalism, due to be published in September, reflects on the golden age of the provincial press and examines the future prospects for local newspapers and other local news outlets.
My father Clem Jones was editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star throughout the 1960s and he helped a provincial pace setter gain national prominence. Strong local news coverage and innovative localism in sales and distribution drove circulation ever upwards.
In a chapter for What Do We Mean By Local? I explore – from the perspective of a schoolboy and then trainee reporter – the highs and lows, and also stresses and strains, of what it must have been like editing one of the most successful local evening newspapers in the country.
My father, who joined the Express and Star as district reporter at Bilston in 1943, had over the years become a close friend of Enoch Powell since his election as Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West in 1950.
The two men would talk animatedly for hours; my father admired Powell’s diligence as a constituency MP and Powell, who was fascinated by the processes involved in news management, was eager for tips on how to use the media to promote his political career.
But their friendship was shattered by the racist tone of Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968. My father, who had gained an unconditional exemption from war service as a conscientious objector – and who had been sacked in 1940 for refusing to report stories in support of the war effort – was about to find that once again his own editorial principles would be tested almost to destruction.
Most reporters who began their careers on local weekly or evening newspapers would probably agree that their training in the provinces was the foundation of their journalism. Skills which they acquired in gathering and summarising facts and information, and in then writing stories accurately and to a deadline, never left them. Many of us who started out in the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed the heyday of the provincial press, an era of expanding circulations and considerable influence, when the editor of the newspaper was not only a larger-than-life presence within the locality but also a respected name in Fleet Street. Young reporters hired by news agencies or the national press knew that it was the reputation of their local newspaper, and especially that of the editor, which had probably helped to clinch their new job. Familiarity with the highs and lows of local reporting was a shared experience and so was knowledge of the leading personalities in the provinces, the news editors, chief reporters, theatre critics, columnists and so on.
I had the rare privilege of being aware of the power of the local press from childhood. Just as I left home at seventeen and signed up as an indentured apprentice on Portsmouth’s evening newspaper, the News, my father Clem Jones achieved his life-long ambition of becoming editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star. My earliest memories were coloured by the dictates of life growing up in the home of an evening newspaper reporter, and as I followed my father’s footsteps, I witnessed at first hand the stresses and strains placed on an editor whose drive and commitment helped to pave the way for one of the great success stories of the provincial press.
The Lure of Fleet Street: A Dilemma for Local Reporters
A pull from what was then Fleet Street was a factor local journalists had to contend with; for me it was the attraction of a job with the BBC. In my father’s case a personal telephone call from Lord Beaverbrook in 1944 nearly succeeded in luring him to London. He had been hired the previous year as the Express and Star’s district reporter in Bilston, not far from Wolverhampton. His reporting of Bilston’s famous war-time parliamentary by-election caught the eye of the Daily Express. He was invited to London and offered a job. My father’s diary entry records his meeting: ‘The “Beaver” stalked across the room ... said that I had a brilliant future ahead of me ... “You will go to future by-elections,” he barked. “You can become famous, you have it in you.”’ My father wrote back turning down a job on the Daily Express out of ‘loyalty and gratitude’ to the Express and Star which had provided him with a house in Bilston for his family, and because he had ‘another baby on the way’.1
Rejecting an offer from Fleet Street was a turning point in his career. From then on his commitment to the Express and Star never wavered: he was promoted from district reporter to head office, wrote the daily gossip column and then became drama critic, features editor, news editor and finally editor in 1960, a position he held until his retirement in 1970. His knowledge of the Express and Star’s circulation area was unrivalled, prompting his long-serving news editor, Bill Jolly, to say that Clem knew ‘the Black Country and its environs as he did the veins on his hands’.
Fast, accurate local reporting was the Express and Star’s hallmark. Visiting journalists were impressed by the story count, the number of district editions and also by the newspaper’s ability to present such a comprehensive mix of breaking national and international news. Another of the Express and Star’s great strengths was that it was family owned. Malcolm Graham, chairman of the controlling company, the Midland News Association, was described on his death in 1993, at the age of 91, as the ‘doyen of press barons, a man so committed to the world of newspapers that, even in his 90s, he was still driving himself to his office each day’ (Rhodes 1993). During his time as managing director and then chairman the group’s circulation rose from 70,000 to 340,000 and the Expressand Star (together with the Shropshire Star, launched in October 1964) overtook many of the great city evening papers of England and Wales while operating from a string of provincial towns.
Graham, dubbed the ‘patriarch of the Express and Star’, prided himself on his ability to ‘appoint the right people and then let them get on with the job’; he ‘neither craved personal publicity nor imposed his political views on his newspaper’ (ibid)..He became a great admirer of my father’s flair and energy, just as his editor-to-be consistently championed the commitment of the Graham family in having continued to invest the bulk of the company’s profits in new production techniques, additional printing capacity and in extending the paper’s reach by opening new district offices. Graham took a risk in appointing my father in 1943. Journalists were in short supply and so many of the Express and Star’s reporters had been called up for military duties the newspaper had been left with what he admitted was ‘a small and somewhat ageing staff’.
A Question of Conscience
Clem Jones was available for work because he was a conscientious objector. On the strength of his beliefs he had obtained an unconditional exemption from war service. Having lost his own father in the First World War, he had previously been prepared to make a stand. In February 1940 he was sacked by the editor of the Stourbridge County Express for refusing to report stories in support of the war effort. Graham, captain of the Express and Star platoon of the Home Guard, clearly needed reassuring and in the letter offering him the post at Bilston, the acting editor Leslie Duckworth said that, while fully respecting his ‘liberty of conscience’, Jones would have to give an assurance that his views would not prevent him discharging his ‘full duties as a reporter’, which included ‘fire watching at the Bilston office’. These were conditions he readily accepted as he had small children to provide for and needed a house.
Although family hardship had forced him to put his pacifist beliefs to one side and return to war-time news reporting, he remained a staunch member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and was a regular attender at the Wolverhampton meeting. His one and only insight into the dilemma he faced was a comment to the effect that the struggle with his inner self was even worse after the war when journalists who had been on military service returned to Wolverhampton and accused him of furthering his career while they were away fighting for their country.
As I progressed in my own journalistic career I often wondered how my father had dealt with the difficulties he must have encountered as a conscientious objector but like other war-time children we sensed that our parents did not always relish talking about the hardships they had endured. Knowing so little about the inside story of his war years I was taken aback when, at the height of the industrial disputes of the mid 1980s, I casually mentioned to the late Terry Duffy, president of Amalgamated Engineering Union, that he must have known my father in his early years in the AEU when he was also chairman of Wolverhampton Trades Council. Duffy did a double-take at the very mention of the name Clem Jones. There was an embarrassing pause before he finally agreed to my request to do an interview for BBC Radio, but not before he had reminded me that he did have to think twice about it as my father was a ‘conchie’. I realised immediately the significance of my father’s throw-away remark about how unpleasant it had been for him when the Express and Star’s reporters returned to Wolverhampton from war service. If Duffy’s reaction forty years later was any guide, I could only imagine what it must have been like to have been ostracised by colleagues and given the cold shoulder when covering meetings of the trades council.
Marking up the Pages, Blue Pencil at the Ready
Little did my father know in those immediate post-war years that two decades later he would have to face a set of circumstances which would propel the Express and Star to national prominence and test his own editorial principles almost to destruction? A local evening newspaper would play a pivotal role in one of the great political dramas of recent years. But at the time, in the late 1940s, the newspaper was on a roll, restrictions on the supply of newsprint were being eased bit by bit, the metal-bashing industries of the Black Country were booming and he was on a fast-track to promotion and ultimately the editor’s chair. For the next two decades the Express and Star would be at the cutting edge of newspaper production, its local news coverage unrivalled and its journalists able to command top jobs in the national press thanks in large part to the unparalleled training and experience they had gained.
My father’s dedication to his work as news editor and then editor could not be faulted. As a schoolboy I remember so well seeing him each evening go through the various editions of the newspaper, marking up the pages with a blue pencil, perhaps with a comment or note to the effect that a story needed a follow-up, ready for the first newsroom meeting next morning. In later years I heard tales from so many of the paper’s former journalists of the way my father dominated proceedings, quick to make a decision, knowing just when to praise or criticise and able to offer a constant supply of ideas and fresh angles, backed up with an intimate knowledge of the local patch and a steer as to who was or wasn’t worth interviewing.
My father’s knowledge of what made the Black Country tick was reflected in the depth and thoroughness of local coverage but the Express and Star would not have doubled its circulation without the willingness of the Graham family to invest in an unprecedented degree of localism in both the distribution and marketing of the paper. District offices were opened in Cannock, Stafford, Rugeley, Stourbridge, Bridgnorth, Wellington and West Bromwich. A majority of the newspapers were delivered each evening’s direct to readers’ homes and in 1967 the Midland News Association started its own chain of newsagents, Star News Shops, which numbered more than a hundred within eight years.
Local Innovation a Driver of Upward Circulation
Head office at Queen Street, Wolverhampton, was constantly being expanded and updated but the frontage remained the same after an art deco facelift in 1934. The distinctiveness of the building was not lost on its readers or the journalists who worked there. Malcolm Graham told the Express and Star’s historian Peter Rhodes how impressed local people were at the time. ‘When the new building was finished, they came in, removed their hats and handed in their adverts. That was the effect it had on people’ (Rhodes 1992: 89) Graham was an enthusiastic innovator when it came to attracting classified advertisements. In 1952 it became the first local newspaper to introduce a tele-ads service so that classifieds could be taken by telephone; another first was a column of ‘want adettes’ encouraging children to advertise items wanted and for sale with the proceeds from the 6d cost for each advertisement going to the PDSA. By 1961, the newspaper was carrying more than a hundred columns of ‘want ads’ on some evenings.
My father’s two decades as features editor, news editor and then editor saw an equally rapid advance in news gathering and production techniques: the Express and Star was the first to invest in a new type of picture-wire machine; the first to purchase a portable teleprinter; a silent overhead conveyor belt was fitted to take copy from the newsroom to the composing room; and new rotary presses were installed. Once war-time restrictions on the supply of newsprint were finally lifted in 1956, pagination could be increased – from eight pages to 38 in 1958 and then to 48 in 1960. Extra editorial space allowed for more imaginative features: in 1961 the women’s editor and an editorial artist were sent to cover the Paris Fashion Week; the following year correspondents attended the Labour and Conservative Party Conferences for the first time.
Like so many of the influential local newspaper editors of his day my father had an impressive array of local interests and had no hesitation in harnessing the authority of the Express and Star to support worthwhile causes. He was a prime mover in starting the Wolverhampton Civic Society; he led a campaign by the local branch of the National Trust to acquire and preserve Moseley Old Hall; he was a life member of the Johnson Society of Lichfield; and a founder member and later commodore of the South Staffordshire Sailing Club which he had helped to establish in 1954. Across the country the owners and editors of local newspapers were important figures within their communities, none more so than my father; his reporters used to say they never knew where he would pop up next.
Local Journalism no Bar to National Prominence
Becoming the editor of such an admired provincial pace setter had also opened doors for my father in the wider world of newspaper editing and publishing. He gave his full support to the National Council for the Training of Journalists and the Express and Star was the first paper to offer trainees the chance to take up Teeline rather than much harder task of learning Pitman shorthand. In 1965 he was appointed to the Press Council and served on its complaints committee; he was a member of both the International Press Institute and the Commonwealth Press Union and later that year he led a delegation to give advice to South African newspapers on how to reflect the impartiality of the provincial press in Britain. In 1966 he was elected president of the Guild of British Newspaper Editors and among the issues to be discussed under his leadership was how editors should respond to criticism of press reporting of racial conflict.
Guest speaker at the guild’s spring conference the following year was Enoch Powell, who had become a close friend of my father since his election as Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West in 1950. We lived only a short walk from Powell’s constituency home, and he quite frequently dropped in to see my father. They would talk animatedly for hours; my father admired Powell’s diligence as a constituency MP and Powell, who was fascinated by the processes involved in news management, was eager for tips on how to use the media to promote his political career.
Ensuring Balanced Coverage after a Racially Charged Speech
Powell, then at odds with the Conservative leadership, was dissatisfied with the way his speeches were being handled by the party machine and my father instructed him on how best to short-circuit Central Office. His advice was that Saturday afternoon was perhaps the most opportune moment to deliver a hard-hitting political speech. The trick was to deliver an embargoed copy the previous Thursday or Friday to a hand-picked group of political editors and leader writers on Sunday newspapers, they would be only to keen to preserve the embargo, and if all went as planned Powell would end up getting sustained coverage throughout the weekend. The aim of my father’s strategy was to stretch coverage over three days: first it would be reported on Saturday evening news bulletins; then in the Sunday newspapers and their coverage would be picked up again in Monday’s papers.
In the late 1960s I had begun to detect signs of a slight uneasiness in the relationship between Powell and my father. Wolverhampton had absorbed a large influx of immigrants, mainly West Indians and Kenyan Asians, and there were increasing fears of racial tension in the town. Powell’s first public references to these local anxieties was in a speech in Walsall in March 1968 in which he described the concern of a constituent whose daughter was the only white child in her class at primary school. After journalists from the Express and Star failed to track down either the child or the class, my father challenged Powell and explained that as editor he had been receiving similar anonymous complaints but they had all proved to be false and could be tracked back to members of the National Front. Powell would not accept it and he told my father that as a result of the Walsall speech he had received bags of supporting mail.
Three weeks later he told my father he was planning another speech at three o’clock that Saturday afternoon. He would not say what it was about but made the tantalising comment: ‘Look, Clem, you know how a rocket goes up into the air, explodes into lots of stars and then falls down to the ground. Well, this speech is going to go up like a rocket, and when it gets up to the top, the stars are going to stay up’ (Jones 1999: 6)..
Powell had followed my father’s instructions on distributing advance copies and his prediction proved correct. The fall-out from his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech reverberated for months and it is argued about to this day. My mother told Powell later that afternoon it was the ‘end of a good friendship’ and the following weeks were a searing experience for my father who had been equally appalled by Powell’s racist tone. His task that weekend was to prepare an editorial for Monday’s newspaper but he feared the worst. ‘Ted Heath made a martyr out of Enoch, but as far as Express and Star’s circulation area was concerned, virtually the whole area was determined to make a saint out of him. From the Tuesday through to the end of the week, I had ten, fifteen to twenty bags full of readers’ letters; 95 per cent were pro-Enoch.’
Wolverhampton sorting office could not cope with the 40,000 postcards and 5,000 letters posted to the paper; extra staff were drafted in. At the end of the week there were two processions through the town, one of Powell’s supporters and the other of those opposed to him. Both brought petitions to the editor and they met outside the office front door where police kept them apart. Peter Rhodes, the Express and Star’s historian, said Powell’s speech had generated a level of correspondence to his local newspaper unseen either before or since (Rhodes op cit: 170).. Few provincial editors have had to face a stiffer test of their duty to provide balanced coverage. ‘In each edition we gave over a couple of pages to them but we had to scrape, every day, to try to find a few balancing letters. Some were pretty abusive about me, containing excrement and that sort of thing, half a dozen sheets of used toilet paper. I had people ringing me at home, all sorts of hours, saying: “Oh, is that the bloody nigger lover?” Just like that. I had a couple of windows broken at home. I suffered, I think, as much as anybody’ (Jones op cit: 7).
Such a divisive speech was bound to cause problems for the local press and my father’s principled stand came at a price. Powell began libel proceedings against the Sunday Times which had accused him of spouting ‘the fantasies of racial purity’ and a ‘gagging writ’ was extended to include the Express and Star after it published a Press Association story referring to a demonstrator carrying a placard which had accused him of adopting Nazi-like tactics. The case dragged on until April 1970 when Powell was forced to settle without damages or costs after the Sunday Times apologised in court and the Express and Star published a retraction (Jones op cit: 8). Three months later – to my surprise – my father, at the age of 55, announced early retirement. Again he revealed little about the nature of the post-Powell repercussions during his final months as editor but as one chapter closed another opened and he used his retirement to help to guide journalists from Britain and around the world. His many publications included a UNESCO world survey of media ethics and Race and the Media, published by the Commission for Racial Equality.
During my 50 years as a reporter I have, on occasion, felt the need to stand up and be counted in support of my beliefs but struggles with my conscience were as nothing alongside the challenges faced by my father. Nonetheless being the son of a journalist of principle did strengthen my resolve whenever my reporting for the BBC was the subject of political attack, as happened during the Thatcher decade and later in the Blair years. Although my subsequent attempts to monitor and expose the manipulation of the media by spin doctors and their ilk did not always endear me either to my fellow political correspondents at Westminster or to the BBC’s management these skirmishes paled into relative insignificance when I reflect on how my father was sacked for refusing to cover stories which conflicted with his pacifism and for then becoming the local newspaper editor who faced a storm of protest for challenging Enoch Powell on the MP’s home patch.
Jones, Nicholas (1999) Sultans of Spin, London, Victor Gollancz
Rhodes, Peter (1992) The Loaded Hour, A history of the Express and Star, Wolverhampton: S. P. A. Ltd
Rhodes, Peter (1993) Malcolm Graham obituary: Press pioneer who led a revolution, Express and Star, 15 April
What Do We Mean by Local? The Rise, Fall and Possible Rise Again of Local Journalism is published by Abramis, Bury St Edmunds, on September 1, 2013.