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SUNDAY 21 JULY  2024

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Perils of a 3.30 shift Early subbing task that left a sub feeling under the weather

The trick to enjoying a stress-free afternoon on the Daily Express subs’ table in Fleet Street was to arrive just late enough.


Not so late that the Chief Sub glanced at his watch, lips pursed, in that what-effing-time-do-you-call-this sort of way.


But crucially, too tardy to be lumbered with subbing the weather.


That job was the bane of my life. I didn’t mind a late-breaking splash, or a long, complex, running court case, or a Kelvin ferret. But please, not the weather.


Can these tides at London Bridge really be right – aren’t they a bit close together? Bertie, what’s the name of that ski resort we have to get in because Max goes there? But the weather’s completely ordinary, so what’s Iris supposed to say?


I wasn’t one of those who took the cynical view that if you really cocked something up they would never give it to you to do again (I’m thinking now of the infamous Compton rota fandango when Bill Monty was put on 5.30 shifts, with inevitable consequences for all concerned).


No, I was meticulous by nature and so doing the weather wasn’t just warming up the subbing muscles but an ordeal by charts and tables. Was there maths involved? If so, that would have clinched it.


Therefore, if I found myself early, or even on time, for a 3.30 shift, it was off to the canteen for a tea and one of Alice’s Bath buns before strolling past the green metal lockers and into the domain of the gimlet-eyed Messrs. McNeill, Orr and Watkins at around 3.37. By which time, Nick Pigott might have the weather book in front of him.


I mention this because these days, while it might be a national obsession, I don’t usually give the weather a first thought, never mind a second. After all, what are you going to do about it? A rain dance?


This weekend, though, there was no getting away from it. Southern Europe sweltered. In Sardinia, the temperature reached 47.2C. Wildfires, sparked by the heatwave and fanned by fierce winds, drove British tourists from their hotels on the Greek island of Rhodes.


Incredibly, even as they were fleeing in their hundreds along roads leading to the beaches, package holiday firm Tui was flying in yet more of them to join the chaos. It later saw sense and its planes joined the evacuation mission.


The weather was even an oblique factor in the by-election for the Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat vacated by Boris Johnson. Mayor Sadiq Khan wants to extend his Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) to the outer reaches of London, including Uxbridge, to ease air pollution and tackle climate change.


The locals had their chance to give their verdict on Khan’s tin-eared policy – and took it. Labour narrowly failed to win the seat and their leader Sir Keir Starmer turned on Khan, blaming him for the defeat.


Khan promises he is now in “constructive listening mode”, though the signs are that he will continue to step up the Ulez misery. He could yet prove to be a one-man wrecking ball for Labour’s – and his own – electoral prospects.


Away from the hard news, The Sunday Times had two pretty good weather pieces that caught my eye. One in the News Review was headed: “By 2050, Bognor may be Britain’s Barcelona”. It suggested that we might see a
£6 billion boost to the UK’s income from tourism. But would we have the infrastructure to cope with the influx?


The other was in the magazine and offered insights from The Secret World of Weather, a book by Tristan Gooley, “the Sherlock Holmes of nature”. We all know about red sky at night (shepherd’s delight). But were you aware that hail means there is a risk of lightning at any moment?


As Peter Hill’s Daily Express warned more than once on weather stories: Stay indoors!


The worst possible meteorological event, though, happened in Manchester, where rain is not unknown. Sky cricket pundit Mike Atherton called the Saturday night downpour biblical and it continued on Sunday. The fourth Test was washed out and with it went our hopes of regaining the Ashes.


God must be an Aussie, though I fancy we shall draw the series at the Oval.

*****

In his TV appearances, Derek Malcolm, film critic of The Guardian for almost 30 years, seemed a rather dull, buttoned-up character. Not a bit of it.


Malcolm, who has died aged 91, had an extraordinary life as recounted in the obituary pages of The Times.


His father (or not, which is another story) Lieutenant Douglas Malcolm, stood trial at the Old Bailey for allegedly murdering a phoney count with whom his wife Dorothy was having a dalliance while he was fighting on the Western front.


In a delicious phrase, The Times says of Dorothy: “A need for adoration was the touchstone of her character.”


Malcolm’s brief presented it as a crime of passion: An officer and a gentleman preserving his honour against a “dastardly foreign blackguard”. He was acquitted and thousands cheered as he left court a free man.


The younger Malcolm was described as “one of the last links to a more rackety age of Fleet Street”. He once had an affair with a strip club hostess and woke up one night in his flat to find her husband standing over him.


The husband beat him up but relented a little when Malcolm failed to fight back, then left “to go about some business for the Kray twins”.


Every morning over breakfast I scan Page One of my paper, then devour the sports pages, then move on to the obits. Lives like Malcolm’s are endlessly fascinating.

*****

Insiders tell me the brutally sudden departure of Reach editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley wasn’t merely the result of the lacklustre launch of digital versions of the Express and the Mirror in the US.


Another factor was his reluctance to embrace his boss’s desire – reported elsewhere in the Drone – to blur the line between advertising and editorial.


Reach CEO Jim Mullen, who is said to be “obsessed” with the notion, wants advertisers to have a say in which stories should run. News executives on one Reach title recently turned up for editorial conference to find someone from an advertising agency sitting in, taking notes.


I found this a bit far-fetched until I saw, reproduced in the Drone, last Thursday’s Daily Express, part of the Reach stable of newspapers. The splash headline said: “Prices must drop now inflation has fallen”.


Below it, in a seven-column strip ad, Tesco boasted of “The power to lower prices”. Coincidence? Not likely.


We should not sneer high-mindedly at the intrusion of commerce into editorial decision-making. Newspapers were founded as vehicles for advertising. They are there to make money and these days are finding it harder and harder.


The fact that they are a pillar of democracy, uphold truth and justice and act as watchdogs against the rich and powerful is admirable… but entirely incidental.


Still, there are limits. Newspapers need to demonstrate integrity and independence or the trust readers place in them will vanish.


Mullen, a Scot, canny or not, is taking a gamble if he messes with his papers’ credibility.


But as the former CEO of Ladbrokes, he probably knows that.


25th July, 2023