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A life in crime (reporting)

DUNCAN CAMPBELL is a comradely journalist - not a universal attribute of our craft - and a strong supporter of the union. He came to the February London Freelance Branch meeting to talk about his life in crime reporting - and many old comrades and competitors turned up to a packed event.


Duncan Campbell

He told us it was a pleasure to be back in the Branch he first joined in the 1970s. In those days some meetings were dominated by Bernard Levin who was an outspoken commentator for the Times and later an admirer of Margaret Thatcher.

The NUJ has been a great help to him, he said, both when he faced libel actions and when Time Out was on strike - see below.

Remembering the Prince of Darkness

Duncan had recently been at a memorial service - not as usual at St Bride's church off Fleet Street, but at the Magpie and Stump pub opposite the Old Bailey. Denizens of the Central Criminal Court there knew it as "Court 10" because while the jury was out one reporter would stay behind to phone over and warn the rest to pile back in for the verdict, usually to a dirty look from the judge.

The service was for Jimmy Nicholson - known as the "Prince of Darkness" - who'd been a crime reporter from the 1940s. "He would happily tell you he'd covered every siege since Troy," Duncan said, "and been on more doorsteps than a milk bottle and every execution since the Crucifixion - and I'll tell you something Duncan, that guy was innocent".

In the 19th century there were public hangings outside Newgate prison, where the Bailey now stands. They could be viewed from the upstairs room at the Magpie and Stump. Charles Dickens was a court reporter when he started his career as a novelist, and covered some of these public executions. He was shocked by how much people enjoyed them - and used that and his experience of travelling round London with one Inspector Field as material for his fiction: Field became Inspector Bucket in Bleak House.

So crime reporting has an extremely distinguished lineage.


Duncan Campbell

A ‘golden age’ of epic hangovers

Duncan described Jimmy's farewell as the end of an era, one seen by some as the golden era of crime reporting. Until the death penalty was abolished in the UK in 1965 a hanging "gave you a decent hook at the end of a murder trial". Crime reporters had "a symbiotic relationship" with police. Their association had a tie - no worries then about women members - and it featured handcuffs and a quill pen.

That generation was fuelled by alcohol. John Weeks, a crime reporter for the Daily Telegraph, worked out that the average crime reporter drank 8 pints per day. When they met the Flying Squad on a Monday night to get stories, one of the less-bibulous reporters would sometimes have to drive the detectives to crime scenes, being the only one capable.

Duncan "got a bit of the tail end" of this era. When there were big trials or murders outside London the reporters would stay in the same hotel as police. On one occasion a reporter called Bill Marshall - who is now dead, so he can't sue - was so drunk that he went to bed. As often happened under these circumstances, a decent colleague - in this case the Daily Mail crime correspondent - filed on his behalf. The following morning Bill appeared at breakfast, read his paper and told his saviour: "see, arsehole, don't you ever fucking tell me I can't write when I'm pissed."

John Stevens of the Standard would meet detectives in a hotel off Grosvenor Square on Thursday nights with a pack of tenners. The good side of this practice was that newspapers got information. The bad side was that when corruption at Scotland Yard was at its worst in the 1960s and 70s none of it was reported by crime reporters - it exposed by other journalists on the Times.

And crime reporters were fantastically sexist. When Sylvia Jones became the first woman crime reporter, others tried to block her membership of the Crime Reporters' Association. Her employer, the Daily Mirror, threatened to go to court. She was admitted - but "people would phone her husband after she'd filed a story and claim she'd 'only got that scoop because she slept with a detective'." Duncan interviewed Sylvia for his book We'll All Be Murdered in Our Beds: The Shocking History of Crime Reporting and she told him she'd had a much more friendly relationship with criminals - including the notoriously violent Charlie Richardson - and with detectives.

Getting started with long-gone crimes

So how did Duncan get started? In student journalism at Edinburgh - where fellow-students Malcolm Rifkind (later Defence Secretary under Margaret Thatcher and Foreign Secretary under John Major), the journalist John Lloyd and the late Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook all worked on the student paper, Student.

He did three features for the student paper. One was about abortion, which was illegal then, and which a struck-off doctor would conduct for £50.

Another was on homosexuality - also illegal at the time - in which Willie Merrilees of the Lothian Constabulary declared that "we solved the problem in the 1930s we went to the homo bars, arrested them and put them on the non-stop overnight train to London." When much later Duncan read Merrilees's memoirs, there was a photo of Merrilees in full drag, which the detective claimed was "my disguise for catching people". The third was on capital punishment.

Duncan pointed out that these show how crime reporting is "a wonderful prism for seeing how society can change - I did stories on two things I hope no-one would ever try to make illegal again and one that I hope never comes back".

The Edward Snowden of the Seventies

From there Duncan went to Time Out and got embroiled with the 1970s equivalent of whistleblower Edward Snowden. This was a character called Phil Agee, who had worked for the CIA and decided to spill the beans because he was horrified by the Agency's involvement in genocide in Latin America. "One time we printed the names of all CIA people at the US Embassy. They denounced us - and they were all shipped back to Langley, Virginia."

A colleague on the paper was Mark Hosenball, a young US reporter. Both he and Agee were threatened with deportation: "so we set up the Agee-Hosenball Defence Committee, with support from NUJ - but failed to stop the deportations. As a result of that, though, an ex-soldier called John Berry contacted Time Out. At that time Time Out's phones were tapped by the Special Branch..." John Berry and two journalists - Crispin Aubrey and a different Duncan Campbell (see the June Freelance) were arrested and faced multiple charges under the Official Secrets Act. They were convicted of one of the lesser charges - but not before the current London Freelance Branch Secretary and Editor had joined their Defence Committee and thus faced proceedings for Contempt of Court for reporting that a secret witness at their trial, referred to as "Colonel B", was one Hugh Anthony Johnstone.

"And today," Duncan observed, I see in this morning's Guardian plans to raise the maximum sentences for such whistleblowers from 2 years to 14 years to damp down all that stuff."

It was an exciting time at Time Out in other ways: "we never knew when there'd be a raid. One colleague interviewed an IRA member and was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act." Some stories were less serious. "We had a great idea - to show how easy is to get hold of replica weapons. We rented some, and with photographer Steve Macmillan set up a striking shot with us wielding sub-machine guns on our roof. Our office was next to Amnesty. The Amnesty staff ducked - we frantically pointed at the camera.

"Seven or eight minutes later we heard the helicopter, then its loudspeaker: 'Drop Your Weapons Now'. We were taken to Bow Street police station. We had to write a craven letter to the Met. Our stunt cost £25,000 (£50,000 today). The Met closed the whole of the Strand. Anyone with long hair was being arrested. Of course we reported it, under the headline 'Police hit the roof'."

A strike against pay differentials

The paper has changed a bit. A recent cover on the current free-sheet version advertised an estate agent - "but the only way one of those would have featured in those days would be to be exposed." The Agitprop page listing political events was central to a paper that was selling 110,000 a week.

And "we were all paid the same." As Time Out took off from a 24-page news-sheet to 120 pages - and as circulation grew from 10,000 to pass 100,000 - Elliot wanted to change that system and impose a standard pay structure. So 62 people went on strike to maintain equal pay.

They spent 20 weeks on strike, with £20 a week strike pay from the NUJ. They started a strike-sheet called Not... Time Out which eventually evolved into City Limits, retaining 42 of the TO staff. "We called the remainers 'the contras'," Duncan recalled - the tag referred to irregular forces in those conflicts in Central America. City Limits lasted 11 years.


Duncan Campbell

Back to reporting crime

There were crimes to report on, too, of course. Someone's head was cut off and left in a gents' in Islington, and the torso dumped in the Thames. Duncan was sure that the resulting "Torso murder trial" was a miscarriage of justice. Again, we see how the climate has changed. Then, the Birmingham Six were still inside and the Guildford Four were still inside, all for bombings they hadn't committed. MP Chris Mullin had researched the case when he worked for Granada TV and took it on in Parliament. The Sun headlined its story "Loony MP backs bomb gang".

So how easy is it for crime reporters - and others - to decide whether people are telling the truth? Older readers may remember hoaxer Rocky Ryan. He would give each paper the story it would want to believe. Duncan wrote his obit and it was published in 2004 but "for weeks later I was expecting that call: '...'ello Duncan'..."

Ryan told the Sun that mass murderer Peter Sutcliffe was getting out of Broadmoor to go to discos. He told the Telegraph that one Rocco Salvatore had organised a coup in the Seychelles. He told ITN that a man of the cloth had given refuge to a dreadful adulterous priest on the run from Ireland and gave them a phone number. They called, and heard a man demanding in an Irish accent to know "who told you that?!" That was of course Rocky Ryan.

But is crime reporting dangerous?

People ask whether it's dangerous having so much contact with criminals. Then, Duncan said, "it was the other way round". He reported on corruption at Stoke Newington police station in the 1990s. Police were allegedly "recycling" the drugs when they busted someone. Duncan was by now at the Guardian. It reported that eight officers had been moved from Stoke Newington to eight different stations. It didn't name them, and said it was not suggesting that any were involved in the corruption in any way.

Two years and 362 days later, a series of writs started arriving from Russell Jones & Walker, solicitors to the Police Federation. At the time, the time-limit for defamation lawsuits was three years after publication (it's now one year).

We shall fight them for the garages

Alan Rusbridger had just taken over as editor. The Guardian was getting 70 or 80 writs a year. Standard procedure was to settle them, because when a case goes to court the meter starts ticking, very fast. Allegedly, it's far cheaper to pay £2000 plus the complainant's legal costs and issue an apology saying "substantial damages" have been agreed...

Rusbridger decided to fight certain cases. One was that of Jonathan Aitken, the MP who had declared a "fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth" when he launched a libel action against the Guardian and World in Action, over reporting of a corrupt arms deal. "Thanks to my colleague Owen Bowcott," Duncan said, Aitken was exposed as a liar and he was eventually jailed for perjury. Then the Guardian fought Neil Hamilton, at the time another Conservative MP.

The Police Federation had won all of a run of 95 separate actions to defend members' reputations. Some of them were what were known as "garage actions" because the proceeds would buy a nice new garage. But Alan Rusbridger decided the Stole Newington story was true and must be defended. He hired George Carman QC - "a very tough, strange guy, costing £5000 a day back in 1997." Carman gave "wonderful advice on libel actions: always insist on a jury; and find someone in the jury you like the look of and deliver all your evidence to them."

"We crime reporters used to ask, 'why are people so nervous giving evidence?' and as the case went on," Duncan told us, "I found out... though all the bank robbers I met were asking 'what the hell are you worried about - you're not going to prison and it's not costing you anything?'"

The judge was the late Mr Justice French and this was his last case. He gave a dreadful summing-up to the jury: "You can award each of the officers £125,000..." All he said about Duncan was that the jury would remember him telling them the Guardian's circulation. And "we won 10-2, with costs awarded against the Police Federation." The Police Federation appealed but lost the appeal.

Crime reporting now

When Duncan started, every paper had dedicated people covering the courts. The Press Association had 7 at the Old Bailey. Now, many cases go unreported.

One case that got coverage recently was the Hatton Garden "safe deposit" robbery. When the Met announced that they'd arrested men in their seventies, "I said, I bet I know some of them."

But one of the things Duncan has learned from crime reporting is never to make assumptions: "I've met detectives who are experts on the playwright Harold Pinter or the painter Hieronymus Bosch. I've met criminals who did Open University degrees on the writer Virginia Woolf."

Assumptions make for false reports and miscarriages of justice. When the IRA were active a bomb went off on a bus at Aldwch, killing two. One was probably the IRA bomber, on his way to the City of London. When the police arrived they found a young Irish guy, badly injured but trying to get away, who gave a false name and address.

The Met announced they had someone held under armed guard in hospital. They told us the IRA work in pairs. He's Irish, 25, gave false ID - "draw your own conclusions". Most did. The Sun ran a story that one bomber was dead and one "sadly clings to life" and Duncan confessed that the Guardian said an "IRA pair" was suspected.

The injured Irishman was called Brendan Woolhead. He recovered, sued, and won hundreds of thousands. He used some of the money to do a radical detox program get off heroin and died during it - before his case against the Guardian got to court. The conclusion seemed obvious, and was false.

Duncan concluded by noting that "what the NUJ has done in respect of supporting journalists is essential" and further that "I have just a few copies of this book..."


A member who is editing a small news website in North-East London is sometimes contacted by police with (fairly innocuous) tips and asked for advice on dealing with them.

Duncan responded that it's difficult now. As a result of the phone-hacking scandal it's much harder to get information from police. News International, as then was, "dobbed in all the confidential email and phone contacts" to avoid corporate prosecution. They acted as "classic grasses" and "poisoned the well" of confidential information. As a result of that police careers are in danger if they're seen just having a drink with a journalist.

"All I can say is: always protect your sources." You will get fantastic support from the NUJ."

Co-chair Pennie Quinton asked whether Duncan is still evolving ways to protect himself and his sources, especially given recent Investigatory Powers legislation.

"One great thing about being my age," Duncan said, "is that lots of of my sources don't know how use email." That's one way to go.

Some transcription errors were corrected 21/03/2017 - thanks to Duncan for proofing!