Star Trek Part 5 
The final frontier


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Daily Star staff pose for a group picture on their last day in Fleet Street in 1989 before the paper’s move over the river to Blackfriars


By JEFF CONNOR

The story of the last years at Ancoats could have been used for an implausible crime novel. I say implausible because in this one all the baddies got away with it. It involved the old chestnuts of victim and villains, money, moral corruption and a few laughs. 

The principals were Editor Mike Gabbert (successor to the sacked Lloyd Turner), pornographer David Sullivan of Sunday Sport fame and the owner of Express Newspapers since 1983 David Stevens (later Baron Stevens of Ludlow). He was the man who coordinated this marriage from Hell.  

Gabbert, sacked by the News of the World for alleged sexual indiscretions (that must have taken some doing) also uncovered the 1964 football betting scandal so he’d been there and done it as they say. Sunday Sport was best known for its female nudity, adverts for sexual services and bogus page leads. Purely as background, a Sullivan colleague (then and now) was none other than Baroness (Karren Rita) Brady CBE. Her autobiography is called Strong Woman: The Truth About Getting To The Top.

Gabbert was the archetypal rain-coater, a man who effortlessly and unashamedly oozed sleaze. He always looked at death’s door (which he was as it turned out). He had little regard for taste, as became clear at his first conference at the Star. 

Paul Burnell, who was there, recalls: ‘He went through the early pages (the most important thing in life was page-planning by then so it didn’t take long) and then said: “Tabloids are all about cunts and pussy.”  It was like a neutron bomb. Alix Palmer (woman’s editor) was appalled and walked out.’ 

Gabbert and Sullivan made no secret of their plans to turn the Daily Star into a daily Sunday Sport. Naturally few felt they were in favour of this and some resigned, though not as many as had been threatened. I think most were well aware there was only one national left in Manchester and if you walked there were plenty to fill the gap. 

Gabbert’s ‘masterpiece’ was his plan to run a set of titillating pictures of a 15-year-old, whose mission in life (allegedly) was to pose topless in the Star the day she turned 16.  Natalie would take off a bit of clothing daily, a la Gypsy Rose Lee, until she would reveal all. When someone pointed out that colour was pre-printed and the topless photo must have to be taken when she was still 15, Gabbert went ahead anyway. There were no complaints; we had a different readership by then.

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After several years coping without editorial advice (Lloyd’s only interest was in horses and the America’s Cup the year Australia 11 won) the Sports Desk era wasn’t going to be immune to Gabbert and his notion of what would sell a newspaper. It is laughable now, but we mooned for ages over the headline - 144pt and right across the gutter – that read PETER THE PLONKER. Peter (Beardsley) had a bad day in some Liverpool match, but this was the first time I’d seen a losing sportsman about to be held to account by a bloody newspaper. Gabbert loved it: ‘Now that's what I call a real Daily Star headline,’ he said. ‘Just a pity Peter's a Proper Plonker won't fit.’  He knew his alliteration. I’m told Gabbert was also amenable and approachable (hard to rubbish a man who hadn’t long to live) and in many ways he was way ahead of his time. The habit of rubbishing people soon became de rigeur. Many of today’s public figures would be happy being called a PLONKER because there’s far worse now. 

Gabbert seems a paragon of virtue alongside the likes of Kelvin MacKenzie (Sun), Paul Dacre (Daily Mail) and our old friend Peter Hill (Star and Express), all of whom seemed bent on attracting the trolls and bots. In the case of Hill’s vicious and sustained assaults on the Madeline McCann family maybe someone should ask him how he would react were his child abducted and a newspaper accused him of complicity in the disappearance? Probably what he told the Guardian re the McCanns: it sells newspapers.

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The ultimate irony is that although Express Newspapers had to pay £550,000 for the McCann libel, Hill, as editor responsible for the fabrication, kept his job. Twenty years previously Express Newspapers had also had to pay £500,000 to the conman Jeffrey Archer and immediately sacked Hill’s Ancoats Street mentor, Lloyd Turner. 

With Gabbert in full flow the Star circulation soon collapsed (regular readers must have perceived it as a family newspaper) and after two months Stevens paid off Sullivan (not bad, £1million for doing eff all) and turned to Brian Hitchen as head cleaner. 

Hitch and his No2, Nigel Blundell, worked the old good cop-bad routine; Uncle Hitch all smiles and bonhomie, his deputy something else. Blundell set the tone (and he won’t mind me saying this) on a first day uncannily similar to the boot camp opening of Full Metal Jacket: scary gunner sergeant sets to work on a bunch of clueless recruits. Nigel was always entertaining!

Either way, and to be fair to both men, it would have taken a combination of Arthur Christiansen, Ben Bradlee and the financial clout of a Hearst to salvage what was left of the Star.  

The end came quite quickly and as no real surprise. By the autumn of ‘87 I’d done my 10 years and was due a sabbatical so I persuaded the editor of the Orlando Sentinel to take me on for a month. There was no salary, but one of the staff found me a room. Originally I’d seen it as exchange of newspaper knowledge and arrived in Florida convinced I could teach the locals everything I knew. Within a day I realized that all the knowledge was going to come from them. 

It was like being a kid being taken to a circus for the first time. The majority of staff was in their 20s, half were female (the Star was like a gathering of male voice choirs back then) and most had graduated with degrees; rather different from learning my trade running copy and making the tea. They were not ‘sub-editors’ as I thought of the term: reporters’ copy went untouched and some of the headlines (with every word capped) were laughable. As were the intros:

When the Mets returned from the All-Star break with a visit to Yankee  Stadium last month, Darryl Strawberry, their energetic outfielder, began the game by taking a five-pitch walk, dropping his bat and — as is his custom — racing to first base.’

There were more positives than negatives, however. The newsroom was all blazing white walls, eerily silent and as clean as a hospital. All staff was IBM computer trained which, it goes without saying, was alien to me (and still is). I can still hear the chortles and see the looks of disbelief when I had to admit I still relied on a typewriter, scissors and paste. The Sentinel employed a similar number of staff to the Star and Express in Manchester but with multi-sections and heavy pagination and covering a country of six time zones. I’d guessed then what would soon become of the Star and the Express.   

According to Nigel Blundell, Hitch fought to the end to keep the Ancoats operation alive, but Baron Steven (for some inexplicable reason knighted by Thatcher in ’87) had his mind made up. 

The choice was simple: stay with the company and relocate to London or take the redundo. Having seen the Sentinel operation at close hand and knowing a little about Stevens I knew job cuts would be inevitable. With some £40k on offer and a dislike of any place south of Chapel-en-le-Frith it was a no-brainer. I bought a house in the Lake District, found a job with a stress-free local paper and started to write. I’ve never been back to Ancoats.

Rare footage of the Gabbert debacle including a few words from the man himself plus David Buchan, Gordon Linacre and Jimmy Nicholson


© 2005-2018 Alastair McIntyre