Current Edition

My race? No one made it an issue

Current edition, Volume 35, Number 1, March 2024

These days, race, diversity, religion and multicultural Britain have all become pressing issues for newspapers. So how should they be covered? Having a diverse staff is a necessity but that, by itself, is not enough. There has to be diversity among the decision-makers as well – the departmental editors who actually commission the stories.

Following a bereavement, I have been engaging in the cathartic process of decluttering, and find the heaps of newspapers with the stories I have done over the last 50 years offer almost a social history of how much the country has changed. To be sure, the Indian community, in particular, has prospered. But I tell my friends to give due credit to the Brits, for the seeds of success were planted on very fertile soil. My own experience bears that out, for even the right-wing newspapers turned out to be surprisingly liberal once you were inside the tent.

The year was 1973 and my first day at The Daily Telegraph, at 135 Fleet Street, was singularly unpromising. In fact, I half expected to be called in and told “Thank you, but we don’t think this is going to work”. After eight months on the Hampstead and Highgate News (it’s only recently that I discovered that the local vicar then, the Rev Richard Truss, was Liz Truss’s uncle) and three years with the Glasgow Herald, at 56 Fleet Street, I had crossed over to The Daily Telegraph. It was to be a six-month trial with no promise of a job at the end. On my first day, I was sent down to the lobby to meet a Peter Cook EL Wisty type of figure who had come in with a bulging suitcase offering a tip on “national security”.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“I’d like to see a reporter.”

“I am a reporter.”

“You don’t understand – I’d like to see a real reporter.”

At the time, I did wonder what use I would be to the paper if I couldn’t carry out such a simple task. Bill Tadd, the news editor, did not look up from his (dog racing?) magazine.

“Mr Tadd?”

“Yes?” he replied gruffly.

“He wants to see a real reporter.”

“Tell him to **** off.”

Two months into my trial, I was sent to cover a demonstration against the visiting Portuguese prime minister, Marcelo Caetano. It was led by the one-time student firebrand Tariq Ali, famously involved in anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Grosvenor Square in 1968, who had been unusually low profile for some time.

“Sir,” I approached him, “you have been very quiet.”

“Who do you work for?” he asked.

“The Daily Telegraph.”

“I didn’t think they employed blacks.”

Seeing me redden, he took pity and told me he had been on good behaviour while waiting for his British passport to come through.

My turn to be taken aback: “A British passport!”

“Just a travel document,” he said dismissively.

My intro tried to sum up the contradiction: “Tariq Ali, scourge of the

British establishment, has acquired a UK passport. He said it was ‘just a

travel document’.”

In the morning, Tadd called me in: “How are you getting on?”

“OK, sir.”

“I suppose you want a job?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s see what we can do.”

Next day, I received my letter of appointment. I felt guilty that two Englishmen taken on at the same time as me were not offered jobs. The reporter-cum-office “plumber” who broke into Tadd’s cabinet found scrawled in green ink on my file: “Can see both sides of race question.”

There were no other Indian reporters in Fleet Street that I can recall. I thought of myself as a “DTR” – Daily Telegraph reporter. It was for the night news editor, Harry Winslade, to cross out DTR on copy and substitute the reporter’s byline if he felt that was deserving.

Rummaging through old clippings, I came across an obituary notice for T A Sandrock, the Telegraph’s legendary crime correspondent. Sent to help Tom at Baker Street during the days of the IRA bombs, I did precisely nothing to assist him. But he called copytakers and began: “By Amit Roy and T A Sandrock ….”

I confessed all to Winslade: “Actually, I don’t deserve a byline – it’s just

Tom’s story.”

He nodded: “I have already taken your name off, old boy.”

Subsequently, he crossed out DTR on nearly all my stories.

It took a while to get used to the Telegraph’s vast network of stringers. One day, asked to answer phones on the news desk, I called out: “Billy Ricky has a story…” There were puzzled looks before explosions of laughter:

“Amit, you idiot, it’s our stringer from Billericay.”

When news and comment were different realms

The great strength of the Telegraph was that although it was a Tory newspaper, it kept news distinctly separate from comment. In fact, after the 1979 general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power, the defeated Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, is reported to have said that of all the newspapers, the Telegraph’s news coverage was the fairest. In the two elections in 1974 and the one in 1979, I joined others in doing “constituency surveys”. We made predictions after interviewing opposing candidates. There was a culture deeply ingrained into us of getting quotes from both sides in any dispute.

In the 1976 Grunwick dispute at the photo processing plant in Brent, north London, the Telegraph sided with the owner, George Ward. Sent to cover the story, I disguised myself with a white lab coat and was bussed in with the mostly Asian workers. I was convinced that my piece, which was totally in support of the workers, would be spiked. I looked at the paper the next morning to find it was the second lead on page one. The union leader, the late Jack Dromey, who married Harriet Harman after meeting her on the Grunwick picket line, confessed he was shocked by the Telegraph’s coverage (in a good way, I think). I learnt that the Telegraph delighted in behaving at times in a maverick way. No one was funnier or more subversive than the late great Frank Johnson, who invented the whole business of sketchwriting.

Although the editor – Bill Deedes – looked after the comment side, the real power rested with the managing editor, Peter Eastwood. He felt he knew India because he had served in Kohima. He had one principle: never give a reporter what he wants. It took me years to convince him to send me on foreign assignments, not least because there was a long pecking order in a well-staffed newsroom. By way of training, I was sent to Belfast. The army took me into a Catholic area in the back of a truck. The Catholic protestors stopped clattering their bin lids and pointed to me: “Who’s that?”

“Father Christmas!”

Both sides laughed. I was a little embarrassed that there was now a serious risk of peace breaking out.

I was keen to go to Rhodesia to witness its reincarnation as Zimbabwe. Eastwood sent me instead to Iran in 1979 – where I walked into possibly the biggest foreign story of the decade. This was when revolutionary students took hostages at the American embassy in Teheran.

On day one, I urged the foreign desk to ignore the story, one of my many misjudgments over the decades. Echoing Mrs Thatcher, I argued the hostage takers should be denied “the oxygen of publicity”. I was told to file every little detail. I did – 2,000 words. Those were the days of messages written in cablese. It took me a while to work out the meaning of the telex slip pushed under my hotel door in the morning. It was sent by the foreign editor, Ricky Marsh, in the name of Eastwood: “proRoy exEastwood your Iran file leads paper.”

The next day, the British embassy was overrun, inconveniently close to deadline. From a phone booth outside the embassy, I reversed charges and got through to a copytaker, who was soothing as she took the story para by para. “Take it calmly, Mr Roy,” she said. “You have used that adjective before….”

There was a touch of old England in the comment from David Reddaway, a young diplomat: “The hordes came over the wall but the children carried on with their pillow fight. We played croquet on the lawn and then had bangers and mash.”

I had detected the Telegraph’s weakness for anything that conjured up the world of PG Wodehouse. It took an hour to file. I was mentally and physically drained but it was a turning point in my life. Ayatollah Khomeini, whom I later met on three occasions, quickly ended the British siege because he wanted to focus on the “nest of spies”, local lingo for the US embassy. I visited the embassy pretty much on a daily basis during the 444 days that the hostage crisis lasted. I went back to Iran for subsequent visits. My large tin trunk is still in the basement of the Intercontinental Hotel, as far as I know.

Most of the names in my Iran contacts book met violent deaths. Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the foreign minister, was executed. Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, Iran’s number two man, was blown up at the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party. Khomeini himself died in 1989 but not before passing a fatwa on Salman Rushdie. As a journalist, it was invaluable being at the birth of modern Islamic fundamentalism, which would spill over into the UK. In 2005, four home-grown British suicide bombers struck London’s transport system, killing 52 people and injuring 770.

There were four years on the Daily Mail under David English: to my mind, the greatest editor Britain has produced. Then there were four years on The Sunday Times, under Andrew Neil, who was brave enough to ask Mick Brown and me to do a full page on his ex-girlfriend and former Miss India, Pamella Bordes (she is now the distinguished photographer Pamela Singh). Bill Deedes eased my return to the The Sunday Telegraph, first under Trevor Grove and then Charles Moore. When Charles took over as editor of The Daily Telegraph, I switched over with him.

My cuttings tell the story of immigration

In 1973, before Suella Braverman was born, we religiously broke down immigration statistics from the Home Office. If “New Commonwealth” immigration was down, it was to be welcomed. And vice versa. Half a century later, we have Rishi Sunak as prime minister. I think the British evolution – or is it revolution? – is reflected in my cuttings.

Back in 1973, British Asians, Indians particularly, voted Labour with their eyes closed because Clement Attlee had given independence to India in 1947. I saw the tide turning after Ted Heath declared Britain had a moral and legal duty to admit Uganda Asians expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. On the 25th anniversary of the expulsions, I rang Heath to tell him that the refugees he had admitted, and who began voting Tory by way of thanks, thought 1972 was his “finest hour”.

“Very kind of you,” he said, both pleased and embarrassed by the praise.

John Major, on becoming prime minister, held a dinner at No10 for influential Indians. I have the page three from the Telegraph of December 2, 1991, with the leaked seating plan. David Cameron brought in a diverse cabinet, Boris Johnson even more so. I bumped into Boris at a Diwali party hosted by the Hindujas when he said warmly: “We Telegraph people must stick together.”

My being Indian was in many ways an advantage because I managed to get the first interviews at critical times with the likes of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli, and Raul Alfonsin in Buenos Aires. The Indian embassy and, on one occasion, even Rajiv Gandhi, then India’s prime minister, put in a word on my behalf. Peregrine Worsthorne arrived in Argentina at the same time but when he didn’t get his interview, he wrote a full page in The Sunday Telegraph complaining I was an enterprising fellow who had “tricked” Alfonsin into seeing me for the Daily Mail. He added that the new democratically elected president of Argentina had also wanted to be “kind to the Third World”. Perry and I had got on well during my Sunday Telegraph days.

Newspapers remain crucial in shaping public perceptions. When I listen to LBC, it is clear a high proportion of listeners are repeating what they have read in their papers. This is why it would be beneficial for papers to have greater diversity in the decision-making process, otherwise there is danger of groupthink.

In 1990, when I got back from interviewing a young cricketer in Bombay, the Sunday Times sports editor wouldn’t budge. “We don’t write about little schoolboys.” But I managed to get a feature into News Review – “The boy who would be king bat”. It was the first piece on Sachin Tendulkar, who was 17 when he got his first Test century at Old Trafford that summer.

The managing editor summoned me and said wearily that my Asian Rich List had names such as Swraj Paul and the Hindujas, which “would mean nothing to our readers”. The previous year, I had told him about a book that was causing consternation in India. “Just a small immigrant story,” he ruled. But Andrew Neil asked me to write a four-page pull-out after the BBC TV news led with Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie over The Satanic Verses.

For now, I have to say that my decluttering isn’t going all that well.

Amit Roy

Amit Roy is editor at large at Eastern Eye, a British Asian weekly newspaper, and also Europe correspondent of The Telegraph of India. He has worked for the Hampstead and Highgate News, the Glasgow Herald, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and The Sunday Times.

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