20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 19

The media

A dawn to remember

Paul Johnson

Ihave an image of last Friday morning in Brighton of Sir Keith Joseph, immacu- late in Charvet dressing-gown and Sulka Pyjamas, clutching his red cabinet box; a figure from Bitter Sweet or, more accurate- ly, Cavalcade, against the background of the English Channel, which the dawn was turning an astonishing Mediterranean blue. Later a few of us, including Sir Robin Day, Lord Gowrie and Frank Johnson, crowded into a hotel room to watch the 912 transmission on BBC TV. As one who Is often critical of BBC news services these days, I must say the Corporation did magnificently on this occasion. I was amazed it had managed to get sconuch together so quickly, and John Harrison (until recently on the Daily Mail political staff) emerged as a first-class TV reporter. Towards the end of the morning, it was BBC TV's shot of Norman Tebbit at last being borne from the rubble, transposed into photographs, which dominated the front pages of the evenings on Friday and the nationals on Saturday morning. Reporters, photographers, TV crews converge swiftly on calamity like vultures, for what is disaster for others is meat and drink to them. As George Bernard Shaw Wrote in a striking letter to Kingsley Martin after the fall of Singapore in 1942: An editor must never let the news upset him. If he does so he will be lost, exactly as a schoolteacher is lost if she allows herself to become fond of her pupils, or a Bond Street picture dealer if he lets himself care so much for pictures that he cannot bear to part with them. To him the collapse of the British Commonwealth in the Far East must be as much in the day's work as the collapse of the Spanish Empire in South America or Gib- bon's Decline and Fall. The last regrouping of the world must be to him like the last murder or the last opening of parliament: news and nothing but news. He must be a good judge of news as a licensed victualler must be of liquor: but he must remember that a public 'house will kill its keeper if he drinks, and that a newspaper will kill its editor if he cannot announce the Day of Judgment without turning a hair.

Words of professional wisdom! The Brighton bomb was a horror but it pro- duced the best Friday story in a decade. For the evenings the timing was perfect, and the Brighton Evening Argus, with the event on its doorstep, did it full justice with a 96-point headline, 'Bombed!', and a superb photograph of the shattered Grand Hotel, taken at 4 a.m. by Cleland Rimmer, plus nine pages of photographs and stories inside. The London Standard also did well, Concentrating three pages just on the dramatic rescue of Norman Tebbit. Only a few hours before, at the Grand, I had congratulated Tebbit on making, off the cuff, by far the best joke of the conference, and it was his remarkable -ability to jest even in his agony which produced the classic Standard headline: 'Get Off My Bloody Feet, Fred!'

This was, above all, a photographer's story, for what readers wanted from the text were facts, not fine writing: the visual images spoke far louder than words. The Daily Express was lucky: their photo- grapher, John Downing, was actually in the bar at the Grand when the bomb went off. He wrote later: 'I got up to help people to get out and then professional instinct took over and I started taking pictures.' The smoke and dust provided a remark- able chiaroscuro, and the pictures he took of bruised and horrified couples, still in evening dress, clutching their way to safe- ty, were haunting in their power. He also took a memorable picture of the Thatch- ers, only moments after the blast, which the Express rightly made its front page under the headline 'Unbowed!'

The Daily Mirror, in a Cudlippian ges- ture, ran its front and back pages as one broadsheet and so found room for a poster-size headline, 'Murder!' and three big photos, one a magnificent shot of an injured policeman tended by his col- leagues. This picture, by a Standard photo- grapher, also appeared in the Sun, whose own David Hill had a tense and moving shot of the injured Sir Walter Clegg and his wife staggering to safety. The Daily Mail's headline, 'They Missed Her By Two Mi- nutes', made the point which probably struck readers most forcibly. It also had the best of the graphics showing where every- body was in the hotel, though perhaps the most informative picture of all was a high helicopter shot which dominated the front page of the Guardian. Another first-class helicopter shot, by Anthony Marshall, appeared in the Daily Telegraph, while the Times printed a huge (11" by 8") night photo of the hotel taken by John Manning only 15 minutes after the explosion.

In a wide range of descriptive stories it was Frank Johnson, as so often, who carried off the prize, with his cinema-verite of the 'sounds of revelry by night' preced- ing the carnage at the Grand. The Times sensibly gave it pride of place on its main feature page. Leader comment, I thought, was a bit mixed. The Daily Express called its editorial 'The Gunpowder Plot', though nobody, so far as I could see, pointed out that security appeared to be better in the days of James I than it is now, for those fuddy-duddy Jacobeans actually found the barrels in time. The Sun's leader headlines sounded like empty saloon-bar fuming: 'Exterminate Them! Track Down These Pitiless Provos like the Rats they Are!' As often happens with a really big story, the leader-writers were at a loss for something equally big to say, and tended to sound breathless. Most denounced terrorism and those in charge of security with even- handed hindsight. Referring to Mrs Thatcher's speech, the Guardian wrote of `the suppressed hysteria of the afternoon'. I didn't notice any such mood, suppressed or otherwise; and isn't 'hysteria' now the most overworked word in the Left's ver- nacular, to be banned except in its precise meaning?

The Times leader had a good phrase for terrorism, 'the one-eyed monster in its cave'. But after that it was downhill all the way, ending with 'Beyond the night comes the day; and with the dawn comes the hope that, onward and upward, the land will indeed be bright.' What is that guff sup- posed to mean? And who wrote it — the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald? I thought the Daily Telegraph had the strongest point about Mrs Thatcher: 'The critics who accuse her of being by nature too author- itarian, too fanatically devoted to the letter of the law, have had a tragic and decisive answer. Her diagnosis of the chief peril to which the country is exposed — the break- down of public order — has been vividly confirmed.'

The Friday morning blast has prevented me from writing about the curious case of the other bomb, which the Archbishop of Canterbury let off before the start of the Tory Conference. I shall deal with the topic next week.