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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Letter to the Editor

The Autumn 2017 issue of The Journal, which, as a member of the Institute for 62 years, I always read with great interest, included an article about merging the Institute’s charities that particularly caught my eye. It seems plain that work has to be done to update the rules and trust deeds; and by the time you receive this letter doubtless the AGM will have voted on Resolution 20 proposed by Norman Bartlett. Whichever way any vote will have gone, I have one or two points to make on the subject. I hope they might encourage the Institute’s officers, Council members and the Professional Practices Board to think about the possibility of re-establishing one of the funds that were, as the article pointed out, “closed many years ago”. It could perhaps be re-introduced in an appropriately-adapted modern form. The fund I have in mind is the Oliver Madox Hueffer Fund.

Oliver Madox Hueffer was a journalist and brother of the best-selling 20th century writer and influential literary journalist, Ford Madox Ford. They were the sons of a German 19th century immigrant to Britain, Francis Hueffer. The brothers were born and educated in England and Anglicised their names after Germans had become unpopular during the 1914-18 Great War. They each introduced into their new names at least one of the names of their British grandfather, Ford Madox Brown, a Victorian painter closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Oliver’s brother (who fought in the British Army against the Germans and was wounded in the Great War) eliminated completely the German-sounding part of his original name from his new name, to become the Ford Madox Ford remembered in today’s major encyclopaedias. Oliver himself, however, seems to have been fairly brave (some would perhaps say foolhardy), in retaining in his new name his original German-sounding surname at a time when even the British royal family was changing its name from the Germanic “Battenberg” to the English “Windsor”.

Maverick

Oliver was obviously something of a maverick, which is not a bad quality in any independently-minded journalist. More important, though, from the Institute’s viewpoint, is that somewhere along the line he appears to have wanted to encourage young journalists. Hence the establishment, through the Institute, of the Oliver Madox Hueffer Fund.

I believe that I was the last beneficiary of that Fund in 1946. I was a 17-years-old “apprentice junior reporter” on the now-defunct Brighton morning newspaper, the Sussex Daily News, and its evening companion, the still-extant Argus. I won a national essay competition sponsored by the Fund for junior members of the Institute and was awarded the princely first prize of five guineas, nearly three times the £2 that I was being paid weekly while learning some of the crafts of journalism. I was invited to attend the annual general meeting of the Institute in London (with travel expenses paid by the Institute, from West Sussex to London and back). The then President, W.I. Andrews, Editor of the Yorkshire Post, handed the precious money to the callow youth before him, said a few kind words and wished me luck in my career. I certainly had it!

That President was knighted in 1954 as Sir Linton Andrews, was a President of the Guild of British Newspaper Editors and a founder member of the old Press Council. He died in 1972 when I was the BBC’s Africa Correspondent, covering stories of political and often sanguinary upheaval ranging from Amin’s oppressive antics in Uganda to Ian Smith’s declaration of Rhodesian independence (experiencing jail in, and deportation from, both countries); and from wars and military coups in Nigeria to the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and revolution there. I was on the air and on the screen almost daily for nine years while in Africa and I’ve often wondered if Sir Linton (if he ever watched TV or listened to Radio) perhaps recalled the occasion 16 years earlier when he had wished me luck.  If he did, I hope he was satisfied with the standard of my reporting!

Fall-out

A useful fall-out for me from the Fund’s essay award was publicity which helped me in my early struggles to become an established journalist. Memories of that spur me to write this letter because the Fund’s activity was the sort of thing that, in my view, the Institute should still pursue. The essay competition itself was normally triennial, although it was suspended during 1939-45, the competition previous to the one which I entered having been held in 1939. I think (but I am not sure) that the competition I won was actually the last. I may be wrong about that. If any reader has more knowledge on the matter I should be grateful for information.

The competition had been open to junior members of the Institute (then aged 21 or below), and it entailed writing an essay of 1,000 words on “My Favourite Newspaper – and Why”. I chose the old News Chronicle (the title of which I think is now owned by the Daily Mail); and the second prize of three guineas went to P.C. Byrne, aged 18, who chose the Daily Mail. News paragraphs about our successes appeared in October 1946 in local newspapers in the areas where he and I worked and in the trade press, including World’s Press News and Newspaper World. These attracted the attention of the then editor of the News Chronicle, Robin Cruickshank, who had been a distinguished Washington Correspondent during WW2. When he returned to London to become editor, he wrote a rollicking history of the newspapers called “Roaring Century”.

He invited me to London (again, travel expenses paid!) and when I met him he asked me to write him an annual note telling him what I was doing. Overwhelmed by the fact that this busy man, aged sixty or more and not in the best of health, was finding the time to encourage a mere cub reporter in the provinces, I complied. I wonder how many editors today might do anything similar?

Eventually, after obtaining the recognised journalistic General Certificate of Training and being formally accepted by the news industry as a qualified reporter, I was invited by Cruikshank to London from Bristol, where I was then on the staff of the Bristol Evening Post. I spent my entire annual holiday of three weeks working as a holiday relief reporter on the News Chronicle. It was a period of absolute bliss. I was 22; I was given lively assignments every day; and while in London I stayed with my mother, living in Kentish Town, and gave her whatever I could afford in return for my accommodation and breakfast.

I felt that I was really knocking on the doors of the old Fleet Street. I was also given valuable advice by another journalist, Norman Cursley. He was deputising as editor in Cruikshank’s absence because of ill-health – and he did me a good turn. While encouraging me as a reporter (most of my pieces were printed), he discouraged me in any long-term hopes about working for the newspaper, hinting at its financial problems and indicating that I would be sensible to look elsewhere for work. Sure enough, the News Chronicle died not long afterwards and so my first Fleet Street job came a year later when, at the age of 23, I joined the staff of the Press Association.

Assignments

That led, after three years with P.A., to nine years with The Daily Telegraph, nearly a quarter of a century with the BBC, and a full and satisfying career and existence as a foreign correspondent. I worked in over 100 countries, filing and broadcasting from places where I was based for some years at a time, such as Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, the USA during the Nixon years, and an Africa moving from colonial rule to independence and all-too-frequent chaos. I was given splendid assignments such as the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet, an investigation into slavery that persuaded the late King Feisal of Saudi Arabia to outlaw the practice of it in his country and for which I was made a member of the Anti-Slavery Society, and many other memorable journalistic “dream jobs”. I was, for example, the first BBC correspondent ever to visit the isolated Republic of Outer Mongolia and to broadcast from there, many years before that country established itself as a tourist attraction.

My final five years at the Corporation I spent in a dual role as BBC “Diplomatic and Court Correspondent,” the Court bit of the title meaning Buckingham Palace, not a Law Court. It’s a BBC post that’s been abolished to be replaced by one called “Royal Correspondent” – how I would have hated being so described, being anything other than royal! – that is now separated from the “Diplomatic Correspondent” part of my old job. It was in fact quite an effective money-saving exercise by the Corporation because the correspondent holding the job covered news about royalty as well as foreign news involving the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. It meant that the BBC paid only one journalist to do two jobs!

Returning to the Oliver Madox Hueffer Fund, I should be happy to help in the restoration of the Fund. If Institute members’ responses to this letter are positive I could offer not only some cash to assist in the re-establishment of the Fund but also a few ideas on conditions for entering the essay competition and potential themes – even titles – for subjects to be addressed.

POSTSCRIPT: I had been a junior member of the Institute when, on completing my apprenticeship, I was lured away from my employers by the old Worthing Herald (now merged with the Worthing Gazette) offering me more money. Having accepted the job, I found to my shock that an NUJ “closed shop” existed there, although it had never been mentioned until I turned up in the newsroom to begin work. I was forced to accept the switch by a fairly militant “father of the chapel” and an editor who himself was regarded, in Conservative Worthing, as being a bit of a Lefty, if only because he nearly always sported a red tie! With a recently-widowed mother and two younger sisters to help support I was in no position to argue so I became a reluctant NUJ member. But the pro-Soviet attitude displayed by that organisation later, during the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviets, in due course spurred me to quit and to move back to the Institute.

Then, upon joining the BBC in 1965 I found that most of the Corporation’s journalists were NUJ members, although there was no closed shop as such. So, a few of us formed a kind of informal Institute cell within the BBC, including characters well-known to older Institute members, such as the late Chris Underwood and the late Dominick Harrod. At 88, I can only hope that one day the NUJ might escape from the clutches of the Trades Union Congress and the extreme Left, to become as free and constructive as our Institute. I am not, however, very optimistic!

John Osman