Tuesday 5 December 2023

Media Quotes of the Year 2023: InPublishing

It was a year marked by reporters covering conflict in the Middle East and Ukraine, Rupert Murdoch stepping down, AI threatening journalists’ jobs and press freedom under pressure. My Media Quotes of the Year are up on InPublishing. You can read them here.

Sunday 13 August 2023

Press Freedom in the UK: The costs of libel actions


I've written a new article for InPublishing magazine on press freedom, which you can read here.  As press freedom in the UK has no constitutional protection, there is a constant battle to fight off restrictions. There are some victories tempered by defeats but over it all looms the massive costs and financial risks of libel actions.

The article covers an unlikely press freedom hero who brought down a former Government minister over his tax affairs despite legal threats; how the notorious leader of the Wagner Group was able to sue a journalist in the UK; a privacy victory for the BBC; journalists wrongly arrested and detained by the police while covering demonstrations; and how the defamation laws could be reformed.

Thursday 22 December 2022

Press Gazette's Jean Morgan: A personal tribute

This is the tribute I gave to my former Press Gazette colleague and friend Jean Morgan at her funeral in Cornwall on December 20.

How do you begin a tribute to Jean Morgan? You could start by saying she was a brilliant journalist. But I thought I’d take a leaf out of her book and just get straight to the point: And say… I really loved Jean.

I loved the sheer force of her personality. She was outspoken, funny, sharp, salty, direct, intelligent, and sometimes quite outrageous. She could be blunt and never ever backed down when she thought she was in the right.

She was also a tremendously loyal and generous friend.

I’ve had many, many ex-colleagues contacting me to say how much they learned from Jean and how much she meant to them.

Adam Smallman said: "A remarkable journalist, pin-sharp, a dear friend, hugely missed” and Steve Busfield: "I learned so much from her. She worked contacts relentlessly and had a great nose for a story - and did it with such charm.”

The reason Jean made such an indelible impression on people is down to what made her a terrific reporter. Her curiosity and her ability to ask probing questions. This meant many of her colleagues came in for a Morgan grilling.

One remembers telling Jean she had broken up with her partner, only for Jean to ask “Now then, is there a third party involved?” She was always after the real story.

To celebrate Jean’s 80th birthday we went out for a meal with the family and I put a picture on Facebook of Jean holding up my baby granddaughter Rose, looking her straight in the eyes (see pic above). Martin McNamara, an ex-colleague, captioned it: "Well if you don't want to be quoted can we at least talk off the record?"

Former Press Gazette editor Ian Reeves says: “Jean’s great strength as a reporter – and she fiercely resisted any attempts to ‘promote’ her to any other role – was that she treated all of her sources with exactly the same genuine enthusiasm, whether they were a chief executive, an editor or a junior reporter."

Jean was such a committed reporter that her idea of hell was to be stuck in a publishing meeting cut-off from her office telephone and her contacts. We were once sent on an awayday with magazine consultants complete with white boards and blue-sky thinking. Jean managed to escape halfway through, saying she had to ring Andrew Neil at the Sunday Times.

Jean was already working at the UK Press Gazette when I joined in 1984 in Temple Avenue, off Fleet Street, and we would often have a drink after work in the Old Bell with her husband Phil Morgan. Phil worked on the Sun news desk and was a lovely wry Welshman with a great sense of humour. Sadly, Phil died before many of the people who subsequently worked with Jean could meet him.

In my Press Gazette obit I said Jean was passionate about national and local newspapers and the importance of a free press. I also said Jean was trusted by tabloid journalists and editors at a time when they felt under fire from the “posh” papers and broadcasters and were often reluctant to speak publicly. I think this is because Jean and Phil knew many journalists from the popular end of Fleet Street and understood the pressures of putting out tabloid newspapers.

I also said Jean’s appearance could be deceptive and I had once overheard Daily Star editor Brian Hitchen telling members of his staff that Jean “looks like everyone’s favourite aunty but is very dangerous.” Someone else compared her to the fictional detective Miss Marple.

Her interviewing style was legendary. There was the full-frontal Morgan who got straight to the point, to the more subtle: “Congratulations on your new job, so why are you leaving, what’s going on there….” All taken down in Jean’s incredible speed writing which only she could understand.

Amanda Platell once told the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade: "Every time I was sacked, Jean knew before me. Every time I was promoted, Jean knew before I had time to call my mum."

Towards the end of Jean’s time at Press Gazette, we moved to Croydon under a new publishing company. Shortly after we arrived we got a memo saying the Christmas party was to be in a nightclub above the Blockbuster video shop. Worse, a new memo said the party theme was to be The Village People. Even worse. Another memo said we would be told which Village People character we would have to come as: The leather clad biker, Red Indian, construction worker or cowboy. Not long after there was a delighted whoop in the newsroom from Jean, who exclaimed: “I’ve been invited to Andrew Neil’s Christmas Party. Can’t make the do in Croydon.” She’d escaped again!

Croydon was a bit grim but we were saved when Philippa Kennedy, the ex-Daily Express news editor, was made our editor. Jean loved working with Philippa, who she regarded as a “proper” newspaper journalist. They got on like a house on fire, although occasionally I was called on to douse the flames.

Jean was appointed MBE for her work as a journalist, and we celebrated with Clare at the OXO Tower looking down on London. Jean finally decided to retire after 19 years working for Press Gazette and threw a big party attended by lots of the editors and journalists she had written about. A sign of how respected Jean was.

When Press Gazette was later bought by Piers Morgan and Matthew Freud we returned to Fleet Street. The week of our return I persuaded Jean to come out of retirement to help. Naturally, she got the splash with an exclusive story on how Hollywood star Sharon Stone was using a no-win, no-fee agreement to sue the Mail.

There was a symmetry. Jean and Press Gazette had come full circle, starting off in Temple Avenue, moved to Cockfosters, back to Clerkenwell and then out to Croydon and now back to Fleet Street. Jean had survived five owners and six editors and still producing brilliant stories.

Outside work Jean was the most marvellous friend to me and my family and many of the people she had worked with. We had lovely weekends at her cottage in East Sussex where she cooked up a storm with gourmet meals and we went walking in the nearby bluebell woods.

After Jean retired, we had gossipy lunches with old friends and colleagues at the El Parador restaurant near her flat in Camden. The El Parador owners liked Jean so much they often wouldn’t charge for the wine. Nothing better than walking into a restaurant to see Jean already there with a glass of wine ready for a good lunch.

As Jean’s health began to fail, she could no longer stay in her top floor mansion flat in London, with its killer stairs and no lift, and the decision was taken to move to Falmouth to live opposite Clare. What a good decision it was to make the move before the Covid lockdown. Clare did a wonderful job of not only caring for Jean but keeping in touch with all her old friends to tell us how she was doing. Clare’s been amazing.

Even when Jean was ill, she would always ask about members of my family and former colleagues. How are they? What are they doing? Still asking questions. Still interested in other people.

To start this tribute, I took my inspiration from Jean, so I thought I’d seek her help in how to end it. I wondered if she was here, what would she be doing? I imagined her sitting at the back, looking at her watch and saying: “Jon, do get on with it, and then we can go and have a glass of wine and a chat”

Oh, if only we all could….
  • A memorial service for Jean Morgan was held at St Bride's Church, Fleet St, on Thursday May 4.


Wednesday 21 December 2022

Media Quotes of the Year 2022: War in Europe, death of the Queen, bye-bye Boris and Lettuce Liz

What an extraordinary year for news. War in Europe, death of the Queen, partygate, a financial crisis and three Prime Ministers. Lettuce Liz to Liz Gerard.  InPublishing has published my Media Quotes of the Year 2022 here:

Monday 5 December 2022

Jean Morgan: Press Gazette chief reporter


My friend and former colleague Jean Morgan has died aged 86. Here is a piece I've written about Jean for Press Gazette:

Jean was a news editor’s dream. She had fantastic contacts and was a brilliant story getter. Journalists always took her calls because they wanted to know what she knew.

Jean joined UK Press Gazette, as it was then in 1984, but her roots were very much in newspapers and the regional press. She regarded UKPG as a newspaper and not a magazine.

She was passionate about national and local newspapers and the importance of a free press. Jean was trusted by tabloid journalists and editors at a time when they felt under fire from the “posh” papers and broadcasters and were often reluctant to speak publicly and put their head above the parapet to defend themselves. 

Jean’s appearance could be deceptive. I once overheard a Fleet Street editor telling members of his staff that Jean “looks like everyone’s favourite aunty but is very dangerous.” She was fearless and liked to bypass PR offices and go straight to the source. I remember Jean putting it bluntly to an evasive editor about the sudden departure of two of his staff: “I heard that you caught them rogering each other on your desk.”

Jean became an MBE for services to journalism in 2002. She said generously: "One never knows why we get these awards but I imagine it is something to do with our fight for the free press, which is what the Press Gazette is all about. This really is for everyone at the paper."

As Press Gazette’s various owners came and went and the office moved around London to Croydon and back to Fleet Street, Jean was a constant. She had a fierce intelligence and never ever backed down when she thought she was in the right. The force of her personality won over every new Press Gazette publisher and owner who quickly realised Jean was not be underestimated or patronised. When Jean finally retired from Press Gazette in 2003 she held a huge farewell bash attended by many of the editors and journalists she had spent the previous 19 years writing about.

One of them was Roy Greenslade, who had given Jean such an honest interview about the future of the tabloid press while he was editor of the Daily Mirror that Robert Maxwell sacked him.

Roy wrote in the Guardian: “I can certainly testify to Morgan's honesty and understanding. When I gave her what was considered an outspoken interview during my brief and stormy editorship of the Daily Mirror, she called back to ask whether I was really happy to be quoted on the record.

“For a reporter with an explosive scoop on her hands, she showed amazing concern and compassion. I agreed that she should publish and that article was later cited by Robert Maxwell as the reason for my departure from the Mirror.”

Both the Sun and Daily Mirror presented Jean with dummy front pages on her retirement, which she proudly displayed on the walls of her flat in London.

I once persuaded Jean to come out of retirement to help for a couple of weeks when we moved back to Fleet Street under the Piers Morgan/Matthew Freud ownership of Press Gazette. Naturally she got the splash with an exclusive story on how Hollywood star Sharon Stone was suing the Mail using a no-win, no-fee agreement. 

Piers Morgan tried to make her return permanent claiming, in his understated way, that it would be the “biggest comeback since Lazarus”. He had obviously forgiven Jean for one of her Press Gazette front page stories which was headlined: Piers Morgan ‘I was a total prat and a complete tosser’ - based on a leaked private letter he had sent to the editor of the Sun

Jean could not be persuaded to return but in retirement did sterling work as a trustee and member of the management committee of the Journalists’ Charity.

She was also a member of the Old Codgers group of journalists who used to meet for lunch but whose guest speakers, agonisingly for Jean, spoke strictly off the record so she could not report on what was said.

Jean started her journalism career on the Bridgend Advertiser as a trainee in 1954. Later she worked for the Bedfordshire Times, Leicestershire Evening Mail, South Wales Echo and then Thomson Regional Newspapers London Office, where among her assignments was interviewing pop stars and covering the Paris fashion shows. 

At the South Wales Echo she met and married Phil Morgan who went on to be a news editor at the Sun. In the last few years Jean moved out of London to Falmouth in Cornwall to live near her daughter, Clare, a
journalist who works in university communications. 

Jean was sharp, funny, good company and a great friend to me, my family and many of her old Press Gazette colleagues. We will all miss her very much.

  • Former Press Gazette editor Philippa Kennedy says: "One of my fondest memories was when Jean was working on a story involving the Daily Telegraph and I tried to help by ringing Murdoch Maclennan who was chief executive at the time. We had a chat and then he said: 'But Philippa, I’ve already given all this to Jean.’ Of course Jean would never reveal her sources, not even to me. That’s why people trusted her."
  • Naomi Marks, former Press Gazette features editor, adds: "I’ll miss her massively. Jean leaves behind her a swathe of younger generation of journalists who she unwittingly tutored and remain indebted to her in so many ways."
  • Jon Slattery adds: "Jean was such a good reporter she found out I was to be made redundant from a new job before I had even started. I was acting editor of Press Gazette but was leaving to join would-be PA rival UK News. Jean found out PA had won back the national press and UK News was not going ahead. I remember the fax beeping out the PA statement confirming her story just as we were putting the last issue to bed before Christmas. She got the splash (again) and luckily Press Gazette took me back."
  • Former Press Gazette broadcasting editor Steve Busfield writes: "RIP Jean. I learned so much from you during my year @pressgazette half a lifetime ago. She worked contacts relentlessly & had a great nose for a story - & did it with such charm. After her retirement our occasional lunches with @jonslattery were always fun."
  • Tim Walker remembers: "She was a very special lady and protective of her friends. When I got Mandrake on the Telegraph, she said she’d do a story in PG and I said quote me as saying ‘I’ll give Mandrake a new and distinctive quack.’ What do you mean, she said. I told her I thought Mandrake was a duck. Typically and charitably she let me rethink the quote!...I wonder why I thought Mandrake was a duck. I suppose I was thinking of Mallard."
  • Piers Morgan on Twitter: "Jean was a brilliant journalist, tenacious, mischievous, and a relentless scoop-breaker. RIP."
  • Former Press Gazette magazines editor Adam Smallman on Twitter on Jean: "A remarkable journalist, pin-sharp, a dear friend, hugely missed already."
  • Former Press Gazette editor Tony Loynes: "Jean was a fine and principled women who taught us all a lot."
  • Former Press Gazette editor Ian Reeves: “Jean’s great strength as a reporter – and she fiercely resisted any attempts to ‘promote’ her to any other role – was that she treated all of her sources with exactly the same genuine enthusiasm, whether they were a chief executive, an editor or a junior reporter."
  • Former Press Gazette chief sub editor Tarne Sinclair: "I am so glad that Jean was in my life and that I spoke to her just before she went into hospital...Adam is right, she was so sharp. I remember as a sub, if you ever queried her copy, you needed to make sure you had your facts right as Jean barely ever got her facts wrong... I learnt loads from her... and I am absolutely devastated she's gone. I thought she was invincible..."
Jean's funeral was held on 20 December at Treswithian Downs Crematorium, Camborne, Cornwall. Donations to Cancer Research UK.

Tuesday 2 August 2022

I've written an article on the Good and the Bad of Press Freedom 2022 in the UK for InPublishing magazine.  It includes libel lawyers shamed; legal costs; growing privacy law; Arron Banks vs Carole Cadwalladr; sources protected; the Government's policy of excluding media; Julian Assange and blocks on Freedom of Information. You can read it here.

Friday 15 July 2022

Mike Lowe RIP: Some of his greatest Grey Cardigan hits and one last blast at the grey-suits

As my tribute to Mike Lowe, I thought I would publish a few of my favourite quotes from his Grey Cardigan column I've featured on my blog over the years.  It's also a chance to give the bean-counters he loathed so much one last kicking.

Grey on local newspapers

"Look at the history of our newspapers and you will find that many of them were founded by local men and funded by local businesses - printers, campaigners, shopkeepers and solicitors. These men did not seek to make a vast fortune from their great adventure...Why can't the big groups sell off their failing titles to people who would actually love and nurture them?"

Grey on cuts in the regional press

"I met a regional daily newspaper manager the other day who seemed mystified at his title’s appalling ABC performance – down to the point at which weekly publication surely beckons.
“I don’t understand it Grey,” he said. “We’re coming out of the slump now, revenue should be picking up, but the sale is killing us. Advertisers are spending again, but they’re spending elsewhere. What’s going on?” I looked at him, thought once, thought twice, and then said nothing. If he can’t see that sacking half your journalists, dropping editions, closing your district offices, abandoning same-day printing, reducing the print run and slashing the marketing budget might possibly have some impact on your sales figures, then I’m not going to explain it to him."

Grey on centralised subbing

"Sadly, we have grown accustomed in recent years to seeing arrogant and uncaring newspaper managements shifting subbing jobs from individual newspapers to centralised production hubs. These faceless fuckwits take no account of the ruined careers and wrecked marriages left behind; their sole concern is the bottom line and the size of their next bonus."

Grey on bloggers

"Since the arrival of blogs everyone is a fucking journalist, and the sheer number of knobheads out there who are happy to churn out their boring, bland opinions just for the supposed glory of seeing their name in lights means that the notion of actually paying for well-written, thought-provoking words is now almost redundant. Why does this matter? Well it means that true creativity is stifled as writers and photographers give up the daily battle to put food on the table and the level of national debate continues to be dumbed down. Mark my words, it won’t be long before someone called @billyblogger24 is writing the leader column in The Times."

Grey reveals his departure from the Daily Beast:

"I’ve been replaced by a child in a suit. I leave with a framed front page, a valedictory drink at The Shivering Whippet, a small pay-off and my head held high. Now I’m in the dangerous waters of the unemployed or, as my previously departed colleagues called it, pursuing a new career as an editorial and PR consultant."

Grey on why the 'grey men in grey suits' forced out Northcliffe's outspoken editors 

"They couldn't handle the boardroom battles, the cult of 'Editorial is King' and the notion that people would fight to the death for what was right for their newspapers, their readers and their staff. So off they had to go."

Grey on the bean-counters

"This is a creative business, dependant for success on imagination, inspiration and risk-taking. Accountancy, with the best will in the world, isn’t. The grey suited bean-counters aren’t a stereotypical myth; they’re the Dementors of the business world, soul-sucking fiends capable of draining away your happiness...Our current crop of bosses might be best buddies of the corporate shareholders (not to mention their own bank managers), but over the past 10 years the dead hand of fiscal prudence certainly hasn’t done our newspapers any favours. We’ve lost thousands of jobs, millions of pounds in revenue and the ‘service’ we provide to our remaining readers is a pitiful shadow of what it used to be and still should be.
Shame on you, the lot of you."

So who was the Grey Cardigan?

Jon Slattery writes: I worked with Mike at the Lincs Echo with a sub who inspired Grey Cardigan. This is a blog post I wrote about the "real Cardigan".  

When I worked at Press Gazette the most common question I was asked was "who is the Grey Cardigan?" What people wanted to know was who wrote the column. I could never tell them that but I do know who the real Grey Cardigan is. I worked with the man who inspired the column, which gives the world view of a down table regional sub-editor, when I was a junior reporter on an evening paper in the Midlands.

He did indeed wear a grey cardigan along with a collar and tie and was the deputy chief sub. The reporters thought he was so miserable that when idling away a quiet afternoon by casting the paper's staff as they would to be portrayed in a Hollywood movie we decided he should be played by Peter Cushing. The actor was well known for his appearance in Hammer horror films where he portrayed Baron Frankenstein among other sinister characters.

Our subs, however, always insisted he was one of the wittiest men alive. All I could see was that his idea of fun was torturing the news editor. He got his opportunity to do this on a Saturday when he was acting chief sub.

When the news editor produced his standby page one splash, for example "Terror Dogs Stalk Estate" (ie. someone had phoned up earlier in the week about a couple of stray mutts), the original grey cardigan would spike it. Instead he would lead on some PA story that took his fancy, like a call for foreigners to be banned from using the NHS which was being made at a conference in Blackpool, miles outside our circulation area.

Oh, and his name was Bernard.

  • Press Gazette's tribute to Mike and an extract from a Grey Cardigan column can be read here