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That Reminds Me: Tony Gallagher, one of the good guys

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CONGRATULATIONS to my former colleague Tony Gallagher, who has been appointed editor of the Times. Following stints at the Telegraph and the Sun, this makes him one of a rare or possibly unique breed to have been in charge of three national newspapers.

I met him in 1990, when at the age of 27 he moved from Today to become a reporter on the Daily Mail where I was a sub-editor. He soon filed a series of exclusive stories about Princess Diana and promotion to news editor was not long in coming.

If news editing under Paul Dacre isn’t the hardest job in journalism, if not the world, then I don’t know what is. Tony had to be up with the lark, reading the opposition papers’ final editions, before heading to the office to prepare his strategy for the day. First task was to work out how to deal with the inevitable savage bollocking from Dacre over the stories he had missed. He once told me over an outrageously expensive couple of pints at the Builder’s Arms in Kensington (a former haunt of the great Patrick Hamilton) that when he read out his schedule at morning editorial conference the editor constantly interrupted with complaints about what was in the rival papers. Exasperated, Gallagher once told him: ‘Listen, why bother with a morning schedule? I’ll just present you with a list of the stories the others have got and we haven’t.’

Apart from having to run a large team of reporters and specialist writers while under a constant barrage of criticism from above, Tony had to gird his loins for the main ordeal of the day – evening conference. Under Dacre’s gimlet gaze, the hapless news editor had to convince him that he had produced at least 20 unbeatable stories, while at the same time provide an entertaining commentary to prevent the boss falling asleep, as was his wont.

He had a set of trademark phrases to sell particular types of story which might not initially appeal to the editor. A tale involving old people would invariably be described as a ‘sepia-tinted dress-up’. Medical matters would have ‘the imprimatur of The Lancet’. Esoteric political issues would be ‘a bit inside the Beltway’. And something a bit scummier than the Mail would normally use would be ‘a good real-world story’.

Gallagher was an excellent conference performer – he had to be.  Among his predecessors was the legendary Ian Monk, who was renowned for his creativity with the facts. Reporters would be ‘leafing through dusty tomes as we speak’ in search for some historical corroboration when in fact they were in the pub on their fifth pint. Monk, incidentally, went on to form his own PR firm and represent Wayne Rooney, another Herculean task.

After conference and another rubbishing from Dacre, Tony had to reorganise his forces ready for the push towards first edition, with a deadline nominally of 9.30pm but usually much later after the editor had torn up what news pages had been completed by nine o’clock.

By the time father-of-three Gallagher got home to his family in Chiswick, the kids were long in bed. But his day was not over. He had to wait for the first editions of the ‘foreigners’, as the rivals were called, skim through them and brief the night news desk on what follow-ups to organise. A few snatched hours of sleep and the whole process would begin again. Some weeks, when deputies and assistants were sick or on holiday, the news editor had to put in six working days of 17 or 18 hours.

Yet Tony always remained courteous to the subs and found time to chat about football (he is a huge West Ham fan) and music. He was particularly fond of Randy Newman and Tom Waits, and I was able to put him on to the delights of the Be Good Tanyas. 

How he kept up this gruelling regime for many years while avoiding burnout was a source of mystery and admiration to me. Yet stick it he did and was rewarded in 2006 with a promotion to assistant editor.

Months later he was poached by the Telegraph, which made him head of news and in 2007 deputy editor. With the editor, Will Lewis, in only nominal charge, it was Gallagher who masterminded one of the great scoops of the early 21st century, the MPs’ expenses scandal. He was made editor in 2009.

Our paths crossed again that year when the Mail decreed that the four-night week worked by sub-editors should be replaced by a nine-day fortnight. With two young children, this promised to make life far more difficult for me and my wife Margaret, also a full-time sub. I contacted Tony and we met for lunch at the Goring Hotel, near the Telegraph’s space-age new office in Victoria.

He told me that he and news editor Chris Evans, another Mail veteran (now Telegraph editor), had recently been chatting and remarked how much they missed having an aggressive sub-editor loudly challenging sub-standard copy and keeping the newsdesk on their toes. At this point Tony did a more than passable impression of my unreconstructed northern accent. We agreed that I should join the Telegraph newsdesk on a four-day week, rewriting copy before it was sent to the subs. He took me back to the office, where a production-type bloke proudly told me that Page Three of that day’s edition had been drawn at 10am the day before. He blenched when I replied: ‘All that time to prepare it and it still reads like f***ing gibberish.’

After weeks went by without communication I got an email from the same chap saying: ‘Good news! The board are making a decision tomorrow.’ The following day he phoned me to say the job was mine – but only if I was prepared to do a five-day week. So that was that.

Margaret and I stayed on the Mail until we retired in 2012. We got around the working-hours problem by still doing four-night weeks, while every fortnight I would compensate by taking out one of the young trainee subs for lunch to give them career advice while Margaret produced a revised style guide for the paper.

In 2014, as sales of the Telegraph plummeted, Gallagher was sacked. He responded by training as a chef at his favourite London restaurant, Moro, but in 2015 returned to the Mail as a deputy editor. He declared: ‘My huge admiration for Paul Dacre is well known and I am greatly looking forward to joining his outstanding team.’ Four months later, however, he was made editor of the Sun after which he was pictured out running with Boris Johnson. He moved to the Times as deputy editor in 2020, taking the next step up last week at the age of 58 after many months in charge while editor John Witherow was on long-term sick leave. Let’s hope that, now he’s officially the boss, he’ll take an axe to the Times’s burgeoning wokery.

My abiding memory of Tony Gallagher is a story I have told previously here and hope you will forgive my repeating.

Almost 30 years ago our much-loved family GP hanged himself after discovering his wife, the mother of their two children, was having an affair. I told Tony and he agreed that it would make a great story. He sent a reporter to talk to the doctor’s parents in South Wales. They confirmed the tragedy but begged him not to report it because they feared that if it appeared in print, their daughter-in-law would never let them see their grandchildren again.

He passed this message on to Gallagher, who agreed not to publish on compassionate grounds, although it would have made a powerful exclusive. 

Bless him.

Old jokes’ home

I told my wife she was drawing her eyebrows too high. She looked surprised.

A PS from PG

Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.

PG Wodehouse: Jill The Reckless (kindly suggested by reader Iain Murray).

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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