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50 years not out in Fleet Street

Blog | By Mary Kenny | Apr 04, 2019


It would be surprising if things hadn’t changed in over fifty years in journalism. But what intrigues me most is the alteration of status.

When I first became a journalist, back in the middle 1960s, it was not an entirely respectable trade. One of the ways you got into journalism was by hanging around a pub. My first excursion into hanging around a pub was, in retrospect, quite distinguished: the pub was “Le Falstaff” in Montparnasse, where Peter Lennon used to drink with Sam Beckett (and talk about cricket). I knew Peter slightly, and was helped by another Irish pal, Joe Carroll, and that’s how I started worming my way into the newspaper trade.

And 'trade' is the operative word. The night editor of the Manchester Guardian (as it was then) told me, 'We don’t want varsity men here. Give me rough, hard-working lads and lasses any time.'

Mary Kenny, Dublin, 1970

In Fleet Street, when I got a full-time job, the bohemianism of the 'trade' was evident, and there were as many chancers, topers, bounders and rogues as there were genuinely conscientious and accomplished reporters. But I never heard the word 'ethics' mentioned. Indeed, I was advised, if reporting on a tragic death or accident, to steal a photograph of the deceased, usually from the piano in a family’s front parlour.

The #MeToo generation of feminists might be appalled at some of the morals that prevailed. Fleet Street’s ace female reporter, the late Anne Sharpley, advised me, upon embarking on a foreign assignment, 'Always sleep with the Reuters man, doll.' (That was to ensure agency copy was endorsed by the copy from Reuters, the leading news agency). If you had sex appeal – as Sharpley had – she regarded it as an asset to be advanced.

Then journalism grew embourgeoisé. The rough lads and lasses were replaced by the varsity guys and gals. I daresay it improved: more women meant more sobriety and, indeed, more ethics. Journalism became not only respectable but sought after. Perhaps television bestowed high status and now everyone wanted to be in 'the media'. Then the internet enabled nearly everyone to do so.

The 'trade' is taken much more seriously fifty-plus years on. Yet puzzlingly (or perhaps not) there is less money available today, and the BBC, for example, often expects journalists to work for nothing. But heigh-ho – once upon a time the going was good!