I’ve been a newsman all my working life; living in fear of getting something wrong. Waking in a sweat at 2 am when the first edition of the paper was being stacked on newsagents’ counters or thrown over fences. Going over in my mind what was said by a Prime Minister, a call-girl or a criminal and knowing it was on the front page. Did you get it right?
Because if you got it wrong you got the sack; or worse, your newspaper also got sued and if it lost, hundreds of thousands of pounds could be the penalty.
That is why I was one of the first in Fleet Street – 50 years ago – to use a tape-recorder for interviews.
The first tape-recorder I bought was a cumbersome, reel-to-reel affair, too heavy to be lugged about, but on which I recorded jazz and the odd chat with my Dad. It had nothing to do with reporting, but it intrigued me that a voice could be plucked out of the ether and played back forever. The next one I bought was smaller; it used reels, three inches in diameter which could be conveniently airmailed to and from Australia giving me gossip from my parents in their lounge-room in country Beechworth, Victoria. Their voices filled my small bed-sitter 12,000 miles away in London, where I was a 24-year-old hopeful trying to get a job. But the machine needed mains power and was hardly portable.
Then I bought a smaller, portable recorder called a Fi-Cord, a sophisticated Swiss-made machine not much larger than a small paperback, and I could now sit in the summer sunshine in Hyde Park and hear Dad talk about his garden covered in frost in Australia; or record what Stanley Lowe, King of the English con-men, told me about his profession.
Because my shorthand was bad (I was the dunce of our cadet-reporter class at The Herald in Melbourne) I began to use the Fi-Cord in all interviews when I joined the London Daily Mail. Unfortunately it had a battery problem. As the mercury batteries ran down, the resultant interview often sounded like a mad Donald Duck, just transcribable if you listened patiently. The BBC at this time was still using arm-stretching heavy reel-to-reel, far too unwieldy for a reporter on the run, but sturdily reliable for voice broadcast.
I started chatting to a Cockney radio serviceman in Soho to whom I regularly went to buy Fi-Cord batteries. What could be done about telephone interviews? I could record my questions, but not the answers I was getting from the other end.
‘No problem,’said Mick. He went through to his workshop and five minutes later returned with a lead that had a jack at one end–to plug into the tape-recorder–and a suction microphone on the other that wetted with saliva, adhered itself to the telephone hand-piece. The result was a transfer of both my voice and that of the person I was interviewing, onto the little whirring tapes.
This was, he explained, illegal under the UK Post Office telephony regulations. The law, though it had never been tested in court, decreed that: thou shalt not record another person’s voice without their permission. This had to be ignored. No reporter worth his expense account was going to warn an interviewee that he was being recorded on tape, innocent electronic note-taking though it might have been. The person being interviewed would have taken fright and hung up.
I used taped interviews–legal and illegal–to give me interviews for 16 books. On the golf-course in the US once, I was muttering into my recorder to be embarrassingly yelled at by the great Sam Snead. If I didn’t desist, he snarled, he might shove the machine in a most uncomfortable place. In the five years that I worked with Colonel Eugene Bird, the Spandau Prison Director, to collaborate on the life of Rudolf Hess in prison, I relied on him sitting hour after hour in Hess’s Berlin cell, secretly recording the old Nazi’s thoughts on my tape-recorder.
I took two recorders into the lounge-room of Rupert Murdoch’s mother, Dame Elisabeth, placing one before her, and one before her billionaire son, so as not to miss a word of their remarkable exchanges about his naughty childhood.
Dr. William McBride, famous for his warnings about the drug Thalidomide, wept into my recorder the night he was struck off. Would-be politicians, who said things to me on tape and then denied them when they were published, were furious that they had been taped, but had to admit their perversity when the tape was played back.
Mr Richard Adamson, the man who said he was responsible for the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, talked for hours to me on tape, describing in vivid terms what he saw as the wall was broken through and the world’s most astounding treasures revealed; eerily filling my room with the scene of the actual moment of opening the world’s most astonishing sarcophagus.
Without tape, any reporter could read from his note-book; but unable to prove his ‘shorthand notes’ were jotted down at the time the words were uttered, or even if they were uttered. I never wanted this to happen to me, so I recorded every word I gathered, ready to be played back as irrefutable evidence.
When I finished recording an interview I still had to transcribe what the interviewee said, using a foot pedal control that stopped and started the tape. It took time, but the system gave me an accurate, verbatim record of every word spoken, an important requirement for a freelance writer: one mistake in Fleet Street and you were out. Not banned by just one newspaper, but by all of them. Word of any unreliability, or accusations of misquoting somebody spread fast. I had resigned from my reporter’s job on the Mail to be free to write features.
The Mail had been happy to take my articles for its weekday feature pages and I intended to tap into a lucrative new market offered by popular Sunday papers like The People and News of the World, which paid thousands of pounds for three and four-part series.
So I was alarmed to be accused of falsification – just three weeks into my decision to go freelance.
The allegation that I had faked an article was serious, for it came from a firm of lawyers. They had complained about a feature I’d written for the Mail that week and I was summoned to see the managing editor.
A news item in The Times, some days earlier, had reported that nurses earning a miserable £7 a week in public hospitals were quitting their jobs, signing up with a London nursing agency and then returning to the same wards to be paid double the amount by a hospital system blackmailed by a starvation of staff. The nursing agency The Times named, was just one of several enthusiastically cashing in on the situation. I thought there might be an article in it for the Daily Mail, and the features editor agreed.
From home I phoned the secretary/manager at one agency, identified myself, and asked if she could tell me how the agency system worked. I had the suction microphone sucking and the tape turning as we spoke.
Mary, a chatty Scot, said she was only too happy to help. What a lovely day it was outside. Her cat was perched on the window-sill in front of her, preening itself in the sun, and she was sorry to be inside.
She obligingly explained the nursing situation and the number of nurses she had on her books. And, she said, there were scores of low-paid hospital nurses on salary, just waiting to be signed on and jump ship; to quit a ward and then go back to their original jobs at twice the pay. Mary was a talker and the interview went on for 35 minutes. When we had finished, I phoned the manager of a London teaching hospital who confirmed the frustrating accuracy of what I’d been told. He said he was worried by the potential damage to his hospital budget.
I laboriously transcribed the tapes and wrote the article which appeared next day in the Mail to be read by millions; some writing to the editor to say how appalling they found the vicious circle.
Next day my phone rang; the managing editor on the line and that meant trouble. managing rditors rarely called freelance journalists, or any journalist. Dealing with problems was usually a task left to executives much lower in the pecking order.
Was this the end?
Mr Bill Matthewman was blunt and to the point. The nursing agency was not only denying the truth of my article; but it was also denying that its secretary manager had ever spoken to me! The agency was owned by a partnership of wealthy and important solicitors and they wanted a retraction. Would I like to come into the office to explain?
I asked for an appointment that afternoon and having prepared myself, caught the Tube into the office, my stomach sickening. Was this the end of Desmond Zwar Features?
Matthewman, a tall, kindly fellow, made it clear when I sat down that if what the solicitors had said was true, the paper and I were in trouble.
I opened my briefcase and handed him 18 closely-typed pages and a tape cassette which began with the words: ‘This is Desmond Zwar, I write for the Daily Mail and would like to interview you about’… and then switched to the chatterer, Mary, describing the loveliness of the weather, the antics of the cat and the salary situation of nurses joining her agency. A relieved smile passed over his face. ‘Is that the way you always do it?’I said I did, and it was done precisely to guard myself against accusations like these. Here was firm evidence that would stand up in court to prove the allegations of faking, blatantly untrue. What the Post Office did about the taping if it got to court was another matter.
It would have been sweet to hear the reaction from the dodgy solicitors when confronted with the evidence, but being the professional he was, the managing editor kept the affair to himself. They had ‘tried it on’, was all he said, and in doing so, were obviously quite unconcerned about destroying a career.
Desmond Zwar began a newspaper cadetship on the Albury Border Morning Mail, and then moved to The Herald, Melbourne, to be employed by the late Sir Keith Murdoch. (He was to write Sir Keith’s Life 30 years later). He went to Fleet Street, London, and joined the London Daily Mail, where he worked as reporter, foreign correspondent, feature writer and latterly acting as features wditor, remaining with the paper for 11 Years.
He had his own features service in London and concentrated on newspaper and magazine non-fiction series for Sunday newspapers and women’s magazines. He was Australian columnist for the UK Mail for four years. He worked in Public Relations with a leading Melbourne PR company and latterly had his own weekly newspaper. He has written 16 non-fiction books, most of them published internationally and many of them available on the Kindle
THE QUEEN, RUPERT & ME A REPORTER’S EXTRAORDINARY LIFE, Sid Harta Publishing.
TALKING TO RUDOLF HESS. The History Press.
DID THIS MAN FIND TUTANKHAMUN?