Nick Jones

General

What Shadows, Chris Hannan’s dramatic play about the build-up and aftermath of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, explores the fracturing of a family friendship, while nailing at the same time an important home truth about a politician attempting to manipulate the news media.

Seeing my mother make her principled stand in rebuking Powell for exploiting immigration, and then hearing her berate my father for having advised Powell on how to promote the speech, prompted some timely reflection on my part, a salutary reminder perhaps of my own culpability as a journalist. 

Hannan’s production, which had its premiere at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1.11.2016), has Ian McDiarmid in the lead role; George Costigan as my father, Clem Jones, former editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star; and Paula Wilcox as Marjorie Jones.

In my mother’s opinion Powell, to further his political career, had crossed an unforgivable line when he raised fears about Wolverhampton’s rising immigrant population, describing what he claimed was the plight of the last white woman living in a street near our home, a war widow who had been harassed by “wide-grinning piccaninnies.”

January 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act. A new book, FOI 10 years on: freedom fighting or lazy journalism (Abramis) is due to be published in February 2015).Nicholas Jones explores the errors of judgements that led to self-inflicted humiliation, and that culminated, after four years’ prevarication, in calamitous repercussions for confidence in the political process.

British politicians have continued to pay a heavy price for the House of Commons’ wilful obstruction of the disclosure required by the Freedom of Information Act.  An explosion of public anger in May 2009 that followed revelations about the way Members of Parliament had abused their expenses, and in some cases even defrauded the taxpayer, was far greater and lasted far longer than would probably have been the case if the Parliamentary authorities had started answering journalists’ inquiries as soon as the Act finally took effect in January 2005. The lesson of the Westminster expenses scandal is that if a managed release of information is rejected, and then subsequently thwarted, journalists will always try to retaliate and that illicitly-acquired data can invariably find a buyer in today’s competitive media market place.

What Do We Mean By Local? The Rise, Fall and Possible Rise Again of Local Journalism, due to be published in September, reflects on the golden age of the provincial press and examines the future prospects for local newspapers and other local news outlets.

My father Clem Jones was editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star throughout the 1960s and he helped a provincial pace setter gain national prominence.  Strong local news coverage and innovative localism in sales and distribution drove circulation ever upwards.

In a chapter for What Do We Mean By Local? I explore ­– from the perspective of a schoolboy and then trainee reporter – the highs and lows, and also stresses and strains, of what it must have been like editing one of the most successful local evening newspapers in the country.

My father, who joined the Express and Star as district reporter at Bilston in 1943, had over the years become a close friend of Enoch Powell since his election as Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West in 1950.  

The two men would talk animatedly for hours; my father admired Powell’s diligence as a constituency MP and Powell, who was fascinated by the processes involved in news management, was eager for tips on how to use the media to promote his political career.

But their friendship was shattered by the racist tone of Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968. My father, who had gained an unconditional exemption from war service as a conscientious objector – and who had been sacked in 1940 for refusing to report stories in support of the war effort – was about to find that once again his own editorial principles would be tested almost to destruction.

 

Chris Huhne’s downfall had a thread running through it which connected him to the disgrace of a long-line of post-war politicians. In almost every case it was the work of journalists which was responsible for initially exposing their misdemeanours or sexual infidelities yet those involved seemed to have believed mistakenly that they could somehow outwit the ability of Britain’s national newspapers to hold the powerful to account.

Whether it was John Profumo, John Stonehouse, David Mellor, Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken or John Prescott, they had all learned how to use – and to even manipulate – the news media yet in the end they could not keep the journalists at bay.

Often because of their prominent positions in public life or their acquaintance with newspaper proprietors, editors and broadcasting executives, politicians believe they have established some kind of protection against the worst excesses of the tabloid press.

They tend to become overconfident; they sometimes make the mistake of threatening to go over the heads of reporters direct to the editor or worst of all, try to play one newspaper or news outlet off against another  -- a sure fire way of encouraging Tony Blair’s “feral beasts” to take even greater risks.

Donating my father’s papers to Wolverhampton Archives was a sobering experience. Tucked away inside voluminous scrapbooks from the 1940s was a letter of dismissal for a failure to carry out his “journalistic duties”. But a refusal to write stories in support of the war effort was a principled stand that would have to be reversed...

------------------------

A reporter having to struggle with his or her conscience is not the kind of story line likely to win much public sympathy at a time when the headlines have been dominated for so long by allegations of phone hacking and the bribing of police officers.  Journalists do get sacked because of their convictions but examples among my generation seem few and far between.  Indeed I freely admit that during my fifty years as a reporter I cannot remember having such strong feelings on an issue that I felt the need to stand up and be counted in support of my beliefs.

Having had no experience of the inner turmoil which might have resulted if I had ever put my job on the line, I felt increasingly inadequate as I read and re-read correspondence tucked away in long-forgotten family scrapbooks.

Six months after the start of the Second World War, my father Clement Jones wrote a letter accusing his editor of “a violation of principle” for having assigned him to report events being held to raise morale of the troops and boost arms production.

As with many of those who saw active service but were subsequently reluctant to discuss their front-line experiences, so it was with my father; he died without ever describing what it must have been like to get sacked, become a conscientious objector and then within two years be forced by dint of family hardship to have to put his pacifist beliefs to one side and return to war-time news reporting.

Scrapbooks, letters and other personal papers belonging to the late Clement Jones, former editor of the Express and Star, are being donated by Nicholas Jones to Wolverhampton Archives.  The collection reveals how seventy years ago the challenge of reporting events in war-torn Bilston by a conscientious objector helped launch the career of a celebrated Wolverhampton journalist. His reports of the famous war-time parliamentary by-election in Bilston in September 1944 attracted the attention of Lord Beaverbrook  - but Jones turned down the offer of a job on the Daily Express

Bilston in the mid 1940s was unquestionably at the heart of the Black Country: smoke particles were falling at the rate of nearly 1,400 tons per year per square mile over the whole town.

This was just one of the telling war-time statistics unearthed by my father Clement Jones, then an idealistic young journalist, who became the Express and Star’s Bilston reporter in June 1943 and whose reports highlighted what must have been some of the worst living conditions in the West Midlands

The pall of smoke from steel works and factories was so bad – and prevailing winds deposited so much soot, dust and grime on nearby houses – that Bilston became the setting in May 1944 for what Jones reported was a “unique” investigation into atmospheric pollution and the most comprehensive survey of its kind conducted anywhere in the country.

Gauges and dishes were placed around the town. Deposits were collected every two days and by using six different instruments Bilston’s salvage officer Eric Sheldon was able to weigh them to an accuracy of one-tenth of a milligramme.

Jones described how any local housewife would have agreed immediately that the air of Bilston was dirty: if she went to the best room in the house she would be able to “draw her finger over the polished surfaces to show the grime and dust deposited from the air.”

Phone hacking at the News of the World was not simply the “tip of the iceberg of journalistic bad practice” but one of many damning “icebergs” which would be revealed by the Leveson Inquiry.  This is the bleak assessment of Mark Lewis, solicitor for the parents of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.  He was at the forefront of the Hacked Off campaign for the widest possible investigation into the conduct of Rupert Murdoch’s journalists. 

MPs and journalists were put in their place by a feisty panel of four life peers at the annual “cash for questions” evening held to raise funds for the Journalists’ Charity. 

Sky News presenter Anna Botting, who hosted the event, had a fistful of questions from the guests who crowded into a marquee on the terrace of the House of Commons for one of the most popular events in the charity’s social calendar (20.6.2011).

Any understanding of the power of the British news media – and especially that of the national press – has to take into account the differences between journalism here in the UK and other comparable countries such as the USA or our nearest neighbours in Europe.  In many ways British journalists are a race apart; they’re very tribal; they like to hunt as a pack once the chase has begun; and as our politicians are the first to acknowledge, they take no prisoners.  The politics of Britain are shaped and influenced by the media in ways which other parliaments and legislators find hard to comprehend.  

 

Where Power Lies, Prime Ministers v the MediaBy Lance Price, Simon and Schuster   Lance Price provides an engaging mea culpa for his days as a Downing Street press officer under Tony Blair but then weakens his own credibility by presenting a demolition job on Gordon Brown’s Premiership based almost entirely on un-attributable quotations from anonymous sources.