Few industries have changed as dramatically during the past two decades as my industry – the TV news business. Newsrooms have become chrome and glass citadels to advances in communication technology. News has become a celebration of the instant transmission of information around the world. News organisations, mostly owned by multinational entertainment conglomerates, aspire to represent the beating heart of globalisation. In their headquarters, rows of television monitors display a world of constantly fluctuating share prices, live feeds from press conferences or, occasionally, real-time combat from the frontline of war.
It wasn’t always like that. And while the scale of progress in global communication is both jaw-dropping and, no doubt, beneficial to our knowledge of the world, there are down-sides that are rarely discussed. They are brushed aside as Luddite protests amidst the marketing brouhaha of new gadgetry and the messianic beliefs surrounding what technology can achieve. In the news business, the ability to gather news has been revolutionised and one element of the job has gone missing altogether. Alcohol.
There was a time when the great majority of Britain’s journalists were more or less permanently sozzled. When I started in the BBC a quarter of a century ago, the newsroom was a brown, dingy cavern, uncarpeted and heaving with cigarette smoke. The sound of clattering typewriters was only interrupted by the occasional ‘What the fuck do you call this?’ as a senior editor tore up a first draft by a junior sub-editor. It was an overwhelmingly male environment, and each news bulletin would culminate with a trip to the bar.
There were only three news programmes a day. In the era before 24-hour news, there was ample time to enjoy a few rounds before preparing the next bulletin. World events seemingly paused while newsroom staff exercised their arm muscles in the bar. Even lunch was often only liquid; three pints of beer was the standard for one flame-haired editor of the BBC’s bulletins from Parliament. I was a junior member of a team of three sub-editors and to fail to keep up meant not paying for one’s round. As an ambitious and hopeful intern, the option of a healthy lunch was out of the question.
It was not unusual for a newsroom sub-editor to pull out a hip flask and take a slug or two in between visits to the bar. I remember being offered a scotch at about ten in the morning by a hardened lead story writer from Glasgow. I was allocated to be his assistant that day.
‘Right’ he growled, rolling up his sleeves. ‘Let’s get started.’ He offered me his flask. The whisky burnt my throat and made me momentarily dizzy; to refuse would have appeared both unmanly and a display of lack of commitment to the job. I was told this was not a ‘job’ – it was a lifestyle. Much of the day in the newsroom was spent poised, waiting for something to happen, followed by frenetic bursts of intense activity as the clock ticked toward the deadline. Like lamb and mint sauce, alcohol and adrenalin seemed natural partners in a journalist’s life.
It was not unusual for the editor of the BBC’s TV News to check into a clinic to ‘dry out’ for a few weeks a year. Newsreaders, too, were well known inside the BBC for reading while completely drunk; when one popular and respected British anchor returned on air after his ‘holiday’ – the euphemism used for ‘drying out’ – his voice was several octaves higher than before. A week or so later, it was back to its usual, gravely pitch.
One of my first jobs in the newsroom was as a ‘copy-taster’. Before computers, it was a role allocated to a junior journalist, whose task was to alert the duty editor of important stories that appeared on ticker-tape wire copy. One busy day, while Britain was at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, there was a crisis involving access to combat footage.
The head of TV News was leaning on the edge of the table, speaking to that day’s programme boss. The ‘copy-taster’ always sat at the top table next to the programme editor. I noticed that the head of news was a little unsteady on his feet. Then his hand slipped off the edge of the table and caught me between my legs. We both fell, on top of each other, onto the floor. I was clutching my testicles in agony, while newsroom staff rushed to our assistance, trying to pick us both up while I was writhing in pain.
The head of news apologised profusely, placing his face close to mine, his whisky breath potent enough to momentarily ease my suffering. We were both carried, limping, by newsroom staff; the editor to his office and me, well, you guessed it, to the bar. And it was only 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning.
This particular head of news had a fine reputation as a journalist and his drinking followed a pattern that was simply accepted. His predecessor was forced to resign after a drunken incident in a house that had been commandeered by the media. Across the road, the police had laid siege to a building where an IRA unit was holed up after taking a middle-aged couple hostage. The news boss had visited the location to raise the moral of his staff, who’d been patiently waiting for the six-day siege to end. The head of news tripped and tumbled down the stairs while under the influence. He lost his job not because he’d been drunk, but because his tumble had been captured by a phalanx of press photographers.
This drinking culture disappeared only relatively recently – alongside the major changes in technology. The turning point was arguably the first Gulf War in 1991. It was later claimed to be ‘CNN’s war’; in the satirical Hollywood production, Three Kings, made a decade after, the character played by George Clooney is caught having sex with a reporter from a satellite news network. His commanding officer scolds him and highlights a central aim of Operation Storm: ‘This is a media war, a media war! I’m gonna straighten you out’.
I didn’t realise it then, as CNN’s satellite dishes dominated the skies, but the media’s reporting of conflict and political violence was to change forever. Gone would be the cavalier, devil- may-care war reporter with hip flask; the brave men and women whose reports and pictures forced the United States’ government to rethink its war in Vietnam. Now, embedded journalists sign health and safety forms and remain under the strict gaze of government forces.
But in 1991, enough ‘old Vietnam hands’ remained in their jobs and those based in Saudi Arabia faced a dilemma. It is a ‘dry’ nation, where penalties for possessing alcohol are severe. But some of the world’s best investigative journalists were able to find a solution; find out how western expats from the oil industry managed. One evening, an Australian hack brought in a pot of industrial alcohol somehow extracted from floor cleaning fluid. Along came some mixers and there you have it; add tonic and it becomes a ‘G&T’. Add ginger ale, and it’s a scotch and Canadian. With orange juice, it’s a ‘vodka orange’.
When the war ended, most British journalists felt a little more thirsty than usual, even those who’d survived on floor cleaner. A chartered Boeing 737 was hired to fly a jubilant press corps from Kuwait City to London. Naturally, the flight included copious amounts of complimentary drink. The celebratory atmosphere on board soon deteriorated; one man molested a flight attendant. A fight broke out amongst rival teams. Bottles of empty champagne were thrown down the aisles. The pilot appealed for calm without success. We were by now over Italy and, fearing the safety of the flight crew, the pilot made an emergency landing in Rome.
A scolding pilot told Britain’s finest journalists to sober up and return to the plane the next morning. Personally, I was peacefully drunk and a few of us went into Rome and checked into a hotel – and continued drinking. The next morning, the two newspaper colleagues and myself, massaging hangovers and feeling somewhat ashamed, were all waiting to return to the plane. We hailed a taxi; ‘To the airport please’. We arrived at Leonardo da Vinci in good time. But where was our plane? No one seemed to know. By the time we found out that our charter had landed at Ciampino airport, it had taken off, with our luggage, for London. We had to purchase new tickets and followed on the next Alitalia flight.
The life of a journalist in Britain’s newspapers has mirrored the changes in the electronic media. The press has moved from Fleet Street, with its host of legendary watering holes such as El Vino’s, to renovated business parks in east London.
The demise of the drinking culture in itself, of course, should be celebrated. Healthier livers, better lifestyles and fewer hangovers. But the nature of journalism – in subtle ways – has also disappeared along with the lunchtime drink.
Now a cautious half pint at lunch is frowned upon by media bosses. Perrier water became the de rigueur drink of aspiring young interns. The heads of TV news organisations would only ever be photographed holding a BlackBerry in one hand and a glass of bottled water in the other. Expensive management courses trained journalists in running companies, transforming them from passionate writers and programme makers into corporate executives.
Those versed in ‘management speak’ and health and safety legislation are often the primary candidates for promotion. Britain’s newspaper journalists rub shoulders with bankers and businessmen in Canary Wharf and Wapping; the profession has been ‘corporatised’.
In my view, journalism should be playing a robust role as the Fourth Estate, a profession that forces the powerful to account for their actions. As the brave Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, once said, the function of journalism is ‘to monitor power and the centres of power.’
In today’s often frenzied 24/7 environment, there is little energy or appetite to debate the day’s events in the bar. Job insecurities and the sausage factory of constant programming has often prevented journalists having the time or resources to question the validity of the information they receive.
One cannot justify a profession where alcohol consumption is an obligatory entry ritual. But a drink-free culture is also not politically neutral. A person can challenge authority more easily with beer in his belly. When a newsroom looks like the trading floor of a stock market and journalists resemble computer operators, I begin to wonder whose interests the profession is serving.
Taken from the latest issue of the Italian magazine Slowfood (number 27)
Phil Rees is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster