Noel Botham: 'Fleet Street at its most deadly, seductive and crazy' - Press Gazette

Noel Botham: 'Fleet Street at its most deadly, seductive and crazy'

Noel Botham was laid to rest last week. He was the undisputed master of a school of journalism which would have given Lord Justice Leveson the vapours.

He practiced those traditional reporting arts of buying champagne by the bucketload, displaying an ever-open chequebook, paying bribes and extravagant tip-off money, making secret tape recordings and pursuing other old fashioned virtues which allowed him to age the way he liked, as a living legend infamous for serious mischief-making.   

He was also 100 per cent accurate in his fact-finding if not always his theories.

Among many tabloid contemporaries, he was a heroic figure. At one point he was possibly the best paid journalist in the land. 

Apart from his early days, Botham never knowingly used a press spokesman or official channels or even a proper office, preferring to work out of some of the highest of hotels and the lowest of clubs and pubs, dens and dives, as comfortable with pimps and prostitutes as he was with police, politicians and princesses.

He loved to finish an evening performing his fine Elvis impersonation. 

To be truthful, the overused term ‘living legend’ does not come close.

In his semi-bohemian notoriety Botham, who was 72, personified old Fleet Street at its most deadly, seductive and crazy, living life on the edge with all its horror and humour, energy and excess.

That explained the big turnout for his funeral at St Bride’s, followed by a wake at the French House, a pub he jointly owned in the demi-monde heart of Soho. 

As he would have approved, the drinking was prodigious and long. One strand of conversation was how a Leveson future, with all its good points, could ever accommodate a buccaneer like Botham, with all his equally good but different points.

Could the Roundheads tolerate a Cavalier? Or did King Noel have to pass on first? And – to boozily mix time and place – did his demise mark the end of the ancien regime and the beginning of the new Reign of Terror?

'Always start a story with a blast'

Yes, the Botham school of journalism had its questionable side when viewed from the present. But it was a rapier held at the Adam’s apple of power and pride. Are we really better off without it?

His life reads like a Hollywood screenplay, based as it was on two interdependant rivers, ink and alcohol. In his sense of sensationalist mission, his seeking after the mega-headline, he was a piece of social history.

There are so many stories, it is hard to know where to begin…

Dan Schwartz sounds like a man still traumatised from years holding down the most alarming job in journalism: signing off Botham’s gargantuan expenses claims. Schwartz usually deployed a prayer as well as a pen before forwarding them towards their then boss, Generoso Pope Jr., godson of the Mafia godfather Frank Costello.

At the time Botham had moved from chief reporter at the News of the World to become London editor of Pope’s National Enquirer, the US supermarket tabloid, and Schwartz was his editor in Florida. 

"Noel knew how to spend money on sources," says Schwartz. "He also knew how to spend money on a good time. The Enquirer penchant for throwing money around was legendary. Noel exceeded one and all. Champagne on the bar, cigarette in hand, five bottles of wine at a sitting and then off to work.

"'Dan,'  he used to tell me,  'always start a story with a blast.'  A blast meant heavy partying at some bar in whatever town you were in, with Noel closing down the locals with his rendition of Elvis."

The Enquirer’s editor-in-chief then was Scots-born Iain Calder who remembers Botham’s many scoops including a whole sequence following the death of Princess Grace of Monaco. 

"Noel was a bon vivant and seemed to consume enough champagne to keep the French economy in the black single-handed," he says. 

"Most of this seemed to be paid for by the Enquirer, as Noel’s expense sheet drove our accountants close to mental breakdown. I had to step in countless times to assure our bean counters that Noel continually provided the big story that helped us remain the biggest selling weekly – outside TVGuide –  in America.  He was worth it. Those bottles of champagne did NOT go to waste."

Botham was in his teens when he first hit the Street of Dreams.

His son Guy, now a successful Hollywood film producer, says: "He became the youngest night editor on Fleet Street.  He worked at the Daily Sketch and loved his job. 

"Then he became the highest paid freelance and a war correspondent.  He covered Aden and the Five Day War.  He was in the tank with Rabat when he reached the Wailing Wall and Rabat gave him his war map as a memento."

Brussels-based freelance Chris White remembers meeting the young Botham on a big story. 

'Liz is a dwarf with giant breasts'

"I was with him at the so-called Shropshire Siege where a farmer held his wife hostage and his farm was surrounded by police and army. 

"Noel arrived and we had a wonderful dinner with gallons of wine and champagne. Late at night he spotted some swords on the wall and a sword fight ensued and only ended after someone prodded him in the stomach. The next morning he didn't show for the usual champagne and orange juice and I asked the reception to check.

"He was in bed in pain. They called an ambulance – and discovered he had internal bleeding and only fifteen minutes to live."

Botham hit the headlines personally, most notably when he gave the eulogy at his friend Hughie Green’s funeral, revealing that Green was the real father of Paula Yates, something she didn’t know. He also firmly believed Princess Diana was murdered.

But it was his days as London man for the Enquirer that he will be best remembered for. 

Dan Schwartz says: "The first time I met Noel he was telling an audience in the Enquirer newsroom that Di’s marriage to Charles was doomed.  'They have nothing in common,' he said.  'She loves Neil Diamond and he reads poetry with 80 year-old-men.' Noel was right.  

"All the Fleet Street stories that publishers in Britain wouldn’t print found their way to Noel and  into print in America and then were finally covered on Fleet Street with shock and horror at the American reporting. This became a cottage industry covering eveything from Di’s lovers, to tampon talk, to Camilla and Fergie’s nasty snapshots."

Another worldwide scoop was a secret tape of Richard Burton with the headline quote: "Liz is a dwarf with giant breasts."

Iain Calder – Enquirer editor-in-chief 1974-96 – still hasn’t got over a night out with Noel and his wife Lesley during his own family trip to London. 

A force of nature

"The next day, my wife was so hungover that she just took off her clothes that morning and lay down on the cold tiles of the bathroom in our Savoy hotel room and moaned.  Even when the fire alarm went off and someone banged on the door saying it was a mandatory fire drill, Jane just shouted back: 'I’d rather burn to death than get up.'"

But Calder also sees the bigger picture.

"In eulogies, the words original and legend are thrown around. But Noel really was a legend and a force of nature. His loss may be the end of an era in British publishing."

Schwartz feels similar emotions towards his old friend.

"He was a complicated guy who actually wore many hats: reporter, intelligence operator, father, husband and esteemed bar mate. He had a great heart and a great wife in Lesley. He raised wonderful children and seemed to be everyone’s friend."

He adds: "There are many stories I can’t tell because of our tactics, but they add up to a legend.  

"I recall tracking him down somewhere in London to file on deadline, listening to him rant and rave about how it couldn’t be done and he didn’t give a hoot and then he would sober up and file it perfectly in just the nick of time, signing off, God Bless you Dan, as meek as a Priest."

Schwartz pauses and ends: "God Bless You, Noel."

Useless Information Society

In more recent years Botham founded, with the late Keith Waterhouse, the Useless Information Society, which led to a series of best-selling books. 

His publisher John Blake says: "Noel was part of a dying breed. I know I sound like an old git but journalism has become diluted, and Leveson is making it worse. People like Noel kept this country clean. He had no fear, he was a storyteller, a digger and a charmer.

"He was old school, not greedy, great big hearted. He was a proper journalist. We have emasculated our profession. People like Noel were feared by governments, the Royal Family, everybody, because he knew how to get the big story."