A diary columnist would have beaten Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate. So says James Hughes-Onslow, the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary veteran and one of Fleet Street’s longest serving diarists.
Keeping in the shadows, with bylines a rarity, the 67-year-old has been surprising newspaper readers with quirky anecdotes for nearly half a century.
He began writing diary pieces in 1967 when, as an advertising salesman for the Daily Sketch (“a horrible job”), he was introduced to Londoner’s Diary editor Magnus Linklater. He has been writing for the diary, on and off, ever since.
Before joining the Standard full time in 1984, Hughes-Onslow enjoyed stints as a diary columnist on The Sunday Telegraph, Daily Express and Spectator.
At the Standard, as well as contributing to the diary, Hughes-Onslow had his own column, Man About Town, and also edited the television and letters pages.
After 12 years, he was “booted out” by incoming Standard editor Max Hastings. Then, after settling at the Daily Express diary, he was again dropped by that paper’s newly-appointed editor Rosie Boycott in 1998. Hastings allowed him back, and
Hughes-Onslow has now been on the Londoner’s Diary for 15 years straight. In addition, he has assumed the unique position of being a memorial service correspondent for The Oldie magazine.
Despite not having a byline in the Standard, his presence hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Did I tell you how Tony Blair guest edited the Standard a year ago? Seeing me across the newsroom, he came over and said: ‘Some things never change.’
“‘What do you mean?’ I said.
“‘You were doing this job when I was at Oxford!’”
Hughes-Onslow believes the diary can be a source of big stories. He claims that a diarist would have broken Watergate because they would have listened to Martha Mitchell, the wife of President Nixon’s attorney general.
“Republican party bosses tried to sedate her and stop her talking to the press. But she was speaking the truth about Watergate,” Hughes-Onslow says.
“I think the papers did report Martha Mitchell’s hysterical claims about malpractices by her husband John Mitchell… But they always suggested she was a silly old bag with an axe to grind against him. They didn’t accept that she might know what she was talking about.”
He adds: “If people had just listened to her in the first place they would have got the story. Very often it is the unimportant events which turn out to be of great size.”
After making a living out of telling stories for nearly 50 years, it’s perhaps not surprising that Hughes-Onslow talks in anecdotes.
One of his favourite recent stories was one that featured in the Londoner’s Diary revealing the truth behind Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon this year.
A few days before Murray’s victory Hughes-Onslow noted that he had cut down on his consumption of bananas during breaks from play. After speaking to a practitioner of Chinese medicine, the diary stated that if Murray stayed off the “yellow devils” (which he did), he would win.
“We also had a story about [Novak] Djokovic visiting a Buddhist temple in Wimbledon so that he could meditate and achieve peace of mind… Bananas and meditation proved to be the key to Wimbledon. Sports writers and newshounds wouldn’t admit this [but] diary writers give you the real news.”
The Londoner’s Diary has acted as a training ground for some of the most successful journalists in the country.
It has never offered any structured training but has always given “opportunities for scribblers to write about almost any subject that interests them”. And, clearly, that helps produce good journalists. Max Hastings, Sarah Sands, Richard Addis, Nick Davies, Emma Soames and many more have started at the diary and gone on to bigger jobs.
But opportunities are drying up. At its peak during Hughes-Onslow’s time, the diary employed 12 journalists, permitting ample opportunity to attend all the parties and meet the right people. Now staffing stands at four.
But it’s still a sizeable investment to make for two pages considering the Standard has a total editorial staff of around 100.
Meanwhile, other newspaper diaries have suffered further cuts, and the Standard’s still rivals any of its national counterparts in terms of resources.
In 2009, both The Observer and The Times dropped their long-running diaries, Pendennis and People respectively. At the time, with cuts having to come from somewhere, many would have believed diaries were on their way out. Former diarist
Giles Coren, for instance, described the section as “outmoded” and “totally pointless”.
Whether Coren was right or not, someone at The Times appears to think differently. Despite the recent axing of 20 editorial jobs, diary columns have returned to the paper after a four-year absence, with two journalists working on the daily TMS (Thomas More Square) diary full time.
The future of the diary
No doubt Hughes-Onslow would approve of the revival of a broadsheet diary, even if it does mean more competition. But he doesn’t champion all diary columns, and takes issue with the purely celebrity-focused approach.
“When I started in the 60s and 70s people were obsessed with titles,” he says.
“Nowadays, now the peerages have been abolished, I don’t think anyone cares any longer. They are completely driven by celebrities. Showbiz celebrities. Which I find depressing.
“It seems the more famous people are, the less they have to say, either because they’re very guarded or because their lives are so unreal.”
He adds: “In the old days diaries loved titles and genuine eccentrics but not any more… Some papers don’t mention peers’ titles. Increasingly they get titles wrong because no one cares about them.”
Hughes-Onslow is not optimistic about the future of the traditional diary. As well as the celebrity obsession, he is also concerned about the extent to which diaries can rely on the internet.
“People spend a lot of time on their screens… And I think there’s no substitute for getting out and meeting people. Because then they come and tell you stories,” he says.
He thinks that diarists have become too dependent on “PR handouts, which will mean more of their professional clients and tedious over-exposed celebrities”. And he says that that means some of the best stories are being missed.
“It worries me when I hear young reporters in a crowded room saying: ‘There is no one here.’ They mean no one famous but they might find less famous people more interesting.”