Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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...

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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.