BBC4’s “Lefties” series sparked some memories for Janine Booth
Back in the 1980s, I supplemented my student grant by writing for News On Sunday, the “left-wing” tabloid which is now usually referred to as “the ill-fated News On Sunday”.
And ill-fated it was, as documented by the BBC4 programme (shown on 26 February). It was born and died in the same year, 1987.
It would be great to have a national left-wing paper selling by the shed load from newsagents’ shelves, doing all the things that News On Sunday’s editorial charter promised — supporting workers, fighting racism, exposing the capitalist system. When the left gets round to setting one up, we should have a good look at the experience of News On Sunday to learn from its mistakes.
The programme asserted some reasons for the paper’s failure that were annoyingly off-beam. Yeah right, being left-wing was just so old-fashioned. And trying to run a newspaper democratically is just so utopian and ridiculous. And it’s easy to laugh at all that equal opportunities stuff. And they shouldn’t have based the paper in Manchester (a point bizarrely — and insultingly — illustrated by someone cooking bacon in an inch deep of oil and serving it up with really vile-looking peas).
Viewers were presented with a series of individuals who may or may not have been to blame. Keith Sutton was too downmarket; John Pilger walked out in a tantrum. Alan Hayling came out of the programme as a bit of a hero (despite the embarrassingly obvious hair dye), but he is now Head of Documentaries at the BBC, so maybe that’s no surprise.
The real issue was the politics of the paper — and it looks like on that score, Pilger and Hayling were right against editor Sutton — the man responsible for the utterly cringeworthy front page headlines of “This Man’s Kidney is for Sale” and “Spanker Proctor Resigns”. Not Tory Proctor, or racist Proctor, but spanker Proctor — that’s vile right-wing Tory MP Harvey Proctor, for those of you too young to remember.
The people who ended up running News On Sunday (Pilger walked out before publication started) seem to have swallowed the idea that if lefties play down your politics, don’t bore thick proles with too much of that serious stuff, and mimic the redtops whilst pretending to be different, then you will get that elusive mass audience. Despite the News On Sunday experience proving that idea wrong, it still persists today.
Aged 20, being left-wing, loving football, and wanting a job, I walked into NoS’s Manchester office and asked for a chance.
They booked me into the press box at Sincil Bank, home of Lincoln City FC, who were spending their first season in the Conference having been the first victims of automatic promotion and relegation to and from the League.
I rode over the Pennines on my Vespa, Lincoln beat Dagenham 3-0, I phoned in a decent report, and NoS gave me a nice little job. Come to their office each Saturday afternoon, trawl the local radio stations and news services, and write up a column rounding up the news and results from the third and fourth divisions. One for the Northern Edition, one for the Southern. Took me about three hours, and if I remember rightly, I got either thirty or fifty quid a time. Which was certainly loads more that the average student job-on-the-side. But hey — I was writing for a national newspaper. I was a journalist.
Ambitions (and boredom) growing, I set about preparing a feature article, looking at police harassment of football fans — an ideal combination of my football remit and those lefty politics. I showed it to my boss, the Sports Editor, who sniffed a bit and said that it probably wasn’t a runner. A couple of weeks later, a feature appeared on that very subject, using my research, under his name.
Not so sad when it died a death shortly afterwards, then. Nor when owner Owen Oyston — a capitalist scumbag who had bought it from the receiver after it had died as any kind of left-wing project — got banged up in prison.