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Feature: Interview - Geoffrey Goodman talks to Dan Carrier

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Published: 3 February, 2011
by DAN CARRIER

The Press behaving like burglars... so what’s new? 

HE first remem­bers current affairs being discussed over egg cartons and rashers of bacon at Tommy Meredith’s dairy in Park Street, Camden Town. 

The shopkeeper gossiped about the Prince of Wales, soon to be King, but, as Tommy put it, “he was too busy f***ing some American woman named Wallis Simpson” and that the newspapers refused to print this, “despite most of us knowing exactly what is going on”. 

It made a mark on the young Geoffrey Good­man, who spent the next 60 years working in the newspaper trade. In his memoir of a life as a political reporter – now in paper­back – he reveals what it is like to have a front-row seat to watch the Punch and Judy  antics of Brit­ish post-war politics. 

His contacts book contains the key figures, many of whom became close friends as well as professional acquaintances: Nye Bevan and Michael Foot were  allies, while he also became a trusted aide of Harold Wilson.

Others he got to know  well included his one-time boss Robert Maxwell, Tory premiers Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, trade unionist Jack Jones, media baron Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mirror’s legendary editor, Hugh Cudlipp. 

Of the Tory leaders, he got on well with Heath: an invitation to Chequers is recounted. Geoffrey was taken by Heath on a tour, and while the reason for being there was to discuss the urgent economic situation, Heath was  more interested in showing off the Chequers sound system playing Mozart. 

“He was a prime minister who was more absorbed with music than politics,” recalls Geoffrey. Another politician he both covered and worked with was Michael Foot whom he believed was too cultured for the Commons.

“The closer you got to him, the more you realised he was in the wrong place: he was a writer, a philosopher, a tremendous humanist,” says Geoffrey. “Once involved in the murky business of politics, you have to face the cruel reality of being a careful with the truth. That just was not Michael. He strayed into a political life, perhaps wrongly.”

Writing a memoir that spans five decades sounds arduous in terms of deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, and this is not about what Geoffrey had for breakfast, but how a leading journalist witnessed the events that shaped the nation.

“I did not keep a daily diary like Campbell or Blair,” he says. “I wanted to tell of the ambience of being close to the centre of power.”

This also leads him to consider how his trade has changed since he started on the Liverpool Echo when he was demobbed. The rise of rolling news channels and Twitter mean information is out there in vast quantities, but it’s not being siphoned effectively. Instead, says Geoffrey, it leaves an information overload that has telling effects.

“Do not confuse a strong Press with avail­ability of information,” he concludes. “We have information bombarding people, in a manner that was inconceivable when I first started. But what we do not have is the depth of knowledge, and this translates into a lack of understanding about key current issues.” He believes spin doctors have become a barrier between the root of the story – the politician – and the reporter, and there is no longer the crucial off-the-record briefings. 

“In the old days you had time to reflect,” he says. “This does not exist now, because of the urge to be first with a scoop, no matter how weak and spurious that scoop is.”

Of the current furore over phone hacking he says: “Violating the law to invade privacy is simply unacceptable, but in the old days we had reporters behaving like burglars, which was the same but without technology,” says Geoffrey. “The tabloids had ‘picture snatchers’ on the editorial staff, and they would go into homes and steal. Phone tapping is a form of burglary. You are stealing material you would otherwise not be able to obtain. The media have got to recognise that unless they are prepared to accept voluntary restraint then it is inevitable governments will introduce legislation to protect privacy.”

It is long overdue, he says: more than 30 years ago he sat on a Royal Commission into the Press. “We said then there was a case for an ethical code along the lines the BBC was run on,” he says. Nothing happened. “The Press Complaints Commission is pathetic, and unless newspaper editors accept the need for voluntary codes they stick to,  there basically has to be legislation now,” he says.

• From Bevan to Blair: 50 years’ reporting in the political front line. By Geoffrey Goodman. Revel Barker paperback £9.99

• Next week: Geoffrey Goodman reviews Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism

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