Janet Street-Porter remembers Fleet Street in the 1960s

Janet Street-Porter

There’s an apocryphal scene in Ink where budding photographer Beverley Goodway meets his potential boss, editor Larry Lamb (played by Richard Coyle), in a greasy spoon café.

Beverley turned out to be a bloke — not the girl Lamb had been expecting — and his previous experience was confined to photographing bodies in a morgue.

Lamb was desperately hiring staff for a new newspaper, one that he had to produce a first edition of within days. Goodway, a shy young man, asks what kind of pictures he would be taking, and Lamb replies: ‘Women’.

‘Not f***ing naked: Jesus…’ he continues. ‘Just like bras and pants and stuff, the usual. “Tasteful.” We might be planning to slaughter a great many sacred cows but no one’s going to go that far. This is f***ing England, after all’.

Janet Street Porter with her PA Ginny Allport

A year later, the stunningly successful ‘soaraway Sun’ launched Page 3 girls and nipples at breakfast. Rupert Murdoch’s attack on what he saw as a prudish and patronising British establishment was complete. My career in Fleet Street started at the same time as that of Murdoch, on a lowly rung on the ladder as a fashion writer and columnist on the Daily Mail. Those early years in Fleet Street were a tough learning curve, with blokes setting the agenda and hard-boiled women’s editors (like The Sun’s Joyce Hopkirk) fighting for more space for female-orientated stories, while at the same time encountering rampant sexism in the office. By the time I came to edit The Independent on Sunday in 1999, things were very different, but back in the 1960s it was the Stone Age for equal rights. Women were window dressing and provided frothy content.

In Ink, the office secretary, Diana, writes the horoscopes, while Hopkirk is determined to drag the men into the 20th century, telling them that ‘as much as we’re happy to run the usual rubbish about recipes and clothes, we also want to talk about sex. Because, and I really don’t want to unsettle anyone or anything, but, well, women masturbate.’ She then adds: ‘Fact is, there’s a difference between plastering pretty girls all over your rag as a sex object and recognising that women objectively enjoy sex.’ Her editor, Lamb, agrees but asks if sex could be described (‘just for now’, as he put it) as ‘love’.

Drinks on us: Janet Street-Porter with 1970s madam Cynthia Payne in 1981 (Alan Davidson)

Did the birth of the tabloid Sun in 1969 signal the start of the decline of the British media? The Sun was certainly a game-changer and Fleet Street has never been the same. Ink brilliantly captures the moment when a mouthy upstart from Australia — Bertie Carvel plays Murdoch — decided to take on the establishment that ran the British newspaper industry, and in the process, transformed our culture in a way that some still find offensive. In 1969, Murdoch bought the ailing Sun from the owners of the Mirror Group for just £800,000 (about a pound a reader) and launched it in direct competition with the Daily Mirror, even copying the colours of the masthead. The Sun was brash and frequently outrageous, with sport and real people the stars. Murdoch claimed that The Sun told the stories ordinary folk wanted to read, not what the bosses thought they should. This viewpoint placed him at war with rivals like the Daily Express and the Daily Mail from the outset and by the time The Sun printed pictures of topless women (using their first anniversary as an excuse) a year later, he was considered the enemy by Middle England, most MPs and feminists. This febrile atmosphere of the new era kicking The Establishment up the arse formed the background to my budding career as a young, ambitious journalist.

Shirley Conran was women’s editor of the Daily Mail and gave me a job as deputy fashion editor in March 1969. I’d left architectural college just 18 months before and had been working on a teenage magazine. I was not conventional Fleet Street material. My normal ‘work wear’ consisted of knitted shorts topped off with a green fur jacket and knee-high emerald green suede boots with red platforms. I reported for work at the Mail’s offices off Fleet Street to discover that Shirley was ‘working from home’ — she never returned to the building. The fashion editor, Sandy Fawkes, former wife of Wally Fawkes, the jazz musician and cartoonist, taught me how to survive in this male-dominated world where the men laying out the news pages wore white nylon shirts with horrible vests underneath. Ink brought back so many memories of the sheer maleness of those Fleet Street offices, where the day was divided into a regular routine and most of the women were either secretaries or simperers, with the odd battleaxe who dared to challenge the male supremacy.

Press gang: a scene from Ink

It also accurately shows how Murdoch realised that readers wanted to be entertained, didn’t care whether the horoscope was true or not, and loved reading about someone else’s problems. Hence the rise of ‘agony’ aunts, which allowed newspapers to talk in detail about sex and relationships under the guise of ‘help’. The Sun used readers (or ‘human interest stories’) to connect with their readers. As Murdoch says in Ink: ‘Get the readers to become the storytellers: call in with the news, their own lives, let them bring it to us rather than us chasing them.’ The change affected all the other papers. The letters pages were extended, every paper had horoscopes and personal stories. Famous people told their stories, their triumphs and their tragedies. Broadsheet newspapers were costly to produce and people wanted newspapers that were a convenient size for travelling to work.

Unlike today, the newspaper offices were literally next door to each other, with the composing rooms in the building. Giant lorries would trundle in, delivering rolls of newsprint to the presses each morning. And the drinking was legendary. Ink shows how the pub was where people got hired, fired and ratted on their colleagues. I often popped in to El Vino on Fleet Street at 1pm, where women were banned from buying their own drinks. I sat in the back room sipping champagne with Sandy Fawkes, Philip Hope-Wallace, The Guardian’s opera critic, and Derek Marks, editor of the Daily Express. Mid-afternoon emergencies were discussed over a beer, and on Fridays we’d file our copy and head to Soho for lunch at Wheelers, followed by hours of boozing with Francis Bacon in the Colony Room, then an early evening glass of wine in the French House on Dean Street. If I were still standing, I’d visit Gerry’s drinking club where Jeffrey Bernard would be holding court.

Boardroom blitz: Janet Street-Porter at the Daily Express in 1979;

After two years on the Mail and another two on the Evening Standard, I decided my liver could take no more. I did a deal with The Observer to write features for its colour magazine and my photographer husband and I went to live in California for a year, sending stories home. When I left the Evening Standard, the men in the composing room ‘banged me out’ with the metal plates, just like the scene in Ink.

Post-Sun, we’ve seen the rise of reality television and fake news. Murdoch turned our polite media world on its head. Carvel gives a mesmeric performance as the edgy, driven outsider, who took a massive gamble and — against all the odds — succeeded. Britain’s print media would never be the same again.