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The Day the Music Died

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IN THE attic of your memory, can you recall the music of a typewriter? That sweet cacophony of clattering, clunking and tinkling, produced solely by a blurring of fingers. Imagine an orchestra of such machines in a newspaper office, the players twitching like marionettes, driven by deadlines and their personal demons, until the protesting screech of a ratchet proclaims a last sheet snatched triumphantly from a roller. Welcome to the Guardian in its late sane period, circa 1987.

 At odd moments a hush falls on this tintinnabulation of typists, like the sudden silence of cicadas, and then you might discern the muffled thump of a Lamson pneumatic tube spitting out one of the capsules that convey stories and information to the newspaper’s digestive organs. Here the words produced by journalists are masticated and regurgitated, cast in metal and finally bolted to revolving drums. The whole caboodle might easily be mistaken for a factory from an earlier industrial age. It’s magnificent, but . . .

On the day the music died, they removed the typewriters and installed word processors. It marked the start of an almost imperceptible decline that would become progressively steeper. For most production departments, the final ding of a typewriter bell sounded their death knell. Generations of acquired skills became surplus to requirements.

The alien word processors were to trigger a dynamic which led eventually to a press that sees and hears no evil.  Lazy journalism. Wilfully misleading journalism. Corrupt journalism. And the ills of newspapers were to become the ills of British institutions and government. An exaggeration? A little, perhaps. Other newspapers managed things differently, but the pathway was broadly the same.

It happened like this. In the beginning was the word, and the word was typed on to three carbon-copy sheets – one for the Desk, one for the Readers’ department and one for the Composing Room. Careful thought went into the intro, for if you experienced a change of heart you had to crank another sheaf of paper through the roller and mark it with the catchline, byline, date and page destination. Clean copy often merited a more prominent position in the paper.

Computers completely dispensed with this hassle. Wonderful. Now you could dash off a whole story in the knowledge that it could be recast with a few strokes of the keys. Except that the screen imparted a flattering lustre to your hastily contrived sentences. That looks rather good, you’d thinkGradually you took less care; after all, you were under the cosh.

Most journalists had come up through reporters’ rooms, where any hint of literary aspiration was quickly drummed out of them. Clichéswere greatly preferable to phrases that might confuse the reader. But those who defied such pressures found themselves succumbing to the computers’ soporific allure. They, too, were being de-skilled at a time when ‘quality’ newspapers were consciously dumbing down in a vain attempt to attract new readers.

A premonition that this step of ‘progress’ could eventually backfire led me and my Diary co-writer to retain the only two remaining typewriters in captivity. I recalled a throw-away remark by Len Deighton, one of the first authors to use a word processor, discussing his update of the anti-hero Harry Palmer books. He no longer felt any ‘mental warmth’ for what he had written on the screen, he told me. It puzzled me at the time, but I began to realise what he meant.

A typewritten story is the tangible product of a writer’s endeavours: you can hold it in your hand and annotate it in the margin. It’s real, whereas sentences on a screen seem cold and impersonal. You have surrendered something to the computer – a sense of ownership. Now someone further up the food chain can read your article as you write it.

Let us return our gaze, as if through a toy shop window, to the newspaper with all its humming parts. Over at the sub-editors’ table, a stoical group is busy performing heroic surgery on copy, their instruments arrayed before them – razor blades, bottles of Cow Gum and spikes mounted on wooden bases. For reasons that can only be guessed at, most are equipped with Swiss Army knives. Computers will soon deprive them of their Cow Gum and page layout expertise but burden them with fact checking.

Fact checking and correcting writers’ infelicities are, for now, the province of the Readers’ department. Their zeal is reflected in Private Eye’s references to ‘The Grauniad’. To be fair, some Readers have their minds on higher things – selling cheap cigarettes and other seasonal bargains to grateful members of staff. One day the Readers vanished in a puff of smoke, never to be seen again.

The Librarians are also dab hands with a razor, cutting out printed articles to compile files. Files are soon redundant. Computers will automatically dispatch articles to shared newspaper databases, a brilliant innovation except . . . history ceases to exist before 1987, when computer filing begins. The Library cull leaves a skeleton staff.

Downstairs, the Composing Room soundtrack is dominated by linotype machines and heavy trays of metal type being moved. Here, journalists and compositors work together to fit stories into their allotted spaces. Their mutual respect is reflected in playful if sometimes technical banter: ‘Don’t f**k me about tonight, Sunshine. I want this page fitting like a pr*ck in a bowler hat.’

Some compositors have day jobs as taxi drivers and odd-job builders.  Unlike the journalists – insular, preferring their own company and mentally locked inside the Guardian’s ivory tower – the compositors operate in the real world. For many journalists, these evening encounters represent a rare contact with real people. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Wapping dispute, which eventually crippled their union and ushered in new technology, the ‘inkies’ are a great bunch of guys (no women, naturally). Also, they know the Guardian to be on permanent life support and seldom take drastic industrial action.

Compositors, linotype operators, copy takers, librarians, photo-block processors, all fall victim to the computer. The benefit of slashing labour costs has translated into greater efficiency: deadlines are set back an hour. The corrosive process is just beginning for journalists.

Under Peter Preston, the Guardian’s decent if enigmatic editor whose politics remained a mystery even to his lieutenants, a thousand flowers had bloomed. The opinion pages gave equal prominence to the views of Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. The staff may have included a Marxist, a Stalinist, a Maoist, one self-identifying Conservative and quite a few Labour Party members, but most journalists adhered to the paper’s impartiality code – within its flexible liberal-Labour margins.

The internet caught newspapers flat-footed. The realisation that their readership was being stolen by unreliable and hateful online sources prompted several contradictory responses. In an effort to win back these apostates, articles enthusiastically extolled the wonders of the accursed super-highway. The paper offered itself free online, long before the advent of advertising, thus depriving itself of revenue.

In a further attempt to make its voice heard in this new marketplace, senior journalists were encouraged to post blogs. The temptation to express their personal views, long suppressed, proved too much for some. Inevitably, this loosening of fetters caught on in the lower ranks. Like monks in an impoverished order, Guardian journalists believed themselves to be the most virtuous of all, and perhaps they were – the mirror told them so. Now they could cast aside old habits. They were primed to embrace the computer’s next mutation.

Social media released the worst in human nature. The righteous Guardian was eager to exploit divisions in the ensuing tribal wars – global warming, Donald Trump, Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson etc. However, the paper’s high moral tone was exposed as a sham when Preston and then his successor, Alan Rusbridger, buckled under pressure and hung their sources out to dry in the Sarah Tisdall and Julian Assange episodes respectively. Since 2012 the paper has received $12.2million from Bill Gates, ostensibly for noble causes. Yet it is the servant who accepts the money.

In 1989 I moved to the Sunday Times – from the sublime to the ridiculous, some said, but they were two sides of the same coin. The paper was also busily de-skilling and dumbing down. The internet was so versatile that most journalists worked with their phones and computers, rarely venturing out into the real world.

The prime duties of newspapers are to tell the news and alert the public to information the government is withholding. Selective reporting is nothing new. Disseminating government propaganda uncritically is something else entirely. To endorse official misinformation on matters of life and death is the beyond shameful. But to ignore the biggest scandal of our times is the ultimate betrayal.

The constant stream of fake news is creating a new reality. And the worst imaginable news is that newspapers are enjoying themselves

Postscript: The NRA mantra is that guns don’t kill, people do. It’s an admission that while guns are reliable, human beings are not. The same might be said for computers and their operators. In the hands of vaccine companies, behaviourologists and journalists, computers can be far more devastating than guns.

Obviously, we cannot return to the age of typewriters; progress has no reverse gear. But typewriters can save lives. A Guardian colleague was flying in an unarmoured helicopter over the Vietnamese jungle when the Vietcong unleashed a burst of gunfire through the floor. The war correspondent had stowed his sturdy portable typewriter under his seat; it took the bullet and saved him from the fate of the fictional helicopter pilot ‘No-Entry’ Jones. Jones’s exit-wound was only too apparent, but they never found the entry wound . . .

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Stuart Wavell
Stuart Wavell
Stuart Wavell is a retired journalist.

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