Paul Foot: ‘The greatest campaigning journalist of his generation’
The best tribute to Paul Foot’s column in the Daily Mirror was paid by Kelvin MacKenzie. “What do you run that stuff for?” he said. “You would never see a column like that in The Sun.”
No indeed. That is one of the many reasons Foot’s column was so successful.
It was Daily Mirror through and through and that’s why it had such an enormous following. It was the only column where the poor, underprivileged and those without a voice could find redress for social, political, legal and corporate injustices.
Even if there were no story, Paul and his staff would do what they could for those up against the heartless face of bureaucracies, dealt off the bottom of the pack by two-faced politicians or ripped off by shyster spivs masquerading as City of London businessmen.
Paul Foot Reporting was introduced in 1979 by Mike Molloy, who was looking for a regular investigative and campaigning column. It was to win numerous awards, but the decision was remarkable and brave because Foot had built his reputation at Private Eye and Socialist Worker.
Yet it succeeded brilliantly, largely because Paul was not a prima donna and worked closely with the Mirror’s superb legal manager Hugh Corrie.
Interestingly for a working class newspaper, both were public schoolboys with fathers rooted deep in the colonial Establishment. Foot’s tireless investigative qualities and Corrie’s legal artistry even enabled the Mirror to accuse a man of murder, much to the understandable consternation of editorial director Tony Miles, long before Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail did it over Stephen Lawrence.
Foot had all the tools necessary to become the greatest campaigning journalist of his generation. A razor sharp, analytical brain, great compassion, a bottomless well of courage, devastating wit and a pen to match. He was loyal to all yet ruled by none. His principles were there for all to see and they never changed. Even Robert Maxwell didn’t take him on. He tried once, over an exposure of one of his friends, but was frustrated by a cunning plan. We told him the story had been watered down – that we could have accused his mate of much worse.
We couldn’t actually, but it worked.
Such a fierce spirit could take on Maxwell with ease, but it was never going to survive the Montgomery butchery that followed Maxwell’s death. The blood was on the wall for Paul when Montgomery fired me because I hadn’t “taken on those lefties in features”. Quite what else he expected to find in a left of centre newspaper features department he didn’t explain. Montgomery’s wholesale culling and rejection of all the best of what the Mirror stood for ended with Foot producing his page exposing this lunatic savagery being exercised on his own paper.
David Banks, Montgomery’s editor, not surprisingly wouldn’t publish it, demanded a substitute and Foot, equally unsurprisingly, refused to provide it. What he did was hand out free copies of his rejected page in front of the Mirror’s Holborn headquarters.
Foot left after almost 14 years.
Paul Foot stood for everything that is the best in journalism. He was fearless, painstaking in his accuracy, passionate, principled, searingly honest and his loyalty to friends and colleagues never wavered.
He instinctively took against those who exercised power for their own benefit and had nothing but contempt for the hypocrites, fools and knaves paraded through his column. It was a unique mixture of investigation, exposure, campaigns, polemic, far left politics, controlled anger and a determination to seek justice for those unable to obtain it for themselves. He had a rare ability to make our trade feel noble.
Paul Foot was the stuff of popular journalism and all who had the privilege to work with him are immeasurably the better for it. Not something you could easily say about David Montgomery.
By Richard Stott, editor of the Daily Mirror, 1985-89 and 1991-92