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When sexism was routine: the life of the female reporter in 1970s London

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

The Fleet Street Girls: The Women Who Broke Down the Doors of the Gentleman’s Club Julie Welch

Trapeze, pp.724, 16.99

This book made me almost weep with nostalgia, but heaven knows what today’s snowflakes will make of it. Fleet Street working conditions were horrendous — the offices were filthy, and covered in a thick pall of cigarette smoke. There’d be frequent wastepaper bin fires when someone threw a smouldering cigarette into a bin full of paper and a male journalist would pee on it to put it out. (Nobody had bottles of water on their desks in those days.) The noise was ear-splitting, with everyone shouting into their phones above the constant clatter of Remingtons. When the presses started to roll around 4 p.m., the whole building shook. ‘Actually,’ Julie Welch observes, ‘that was quite erotic.’

Sexism was routine. If you were one of the rare women in Fleet Street, you felt insulted if men didn’t pat your bottom or tell you you had nice legs. Everyone was drunk nearly all the time. When conference started at 11 a.m. all the subs would troop off to the pub, except one junior who was left on guard duty to phone the pub when conference finished. All the newspapers had their own favoured pubs, as well as the City Golf Club, which was a melting pot for the different newspapers and the place you went when you were fired and needed to scout for another job. The big cheeses went to El Vino’s — but not if they were women, who were only allowed to sit in the back room. Three-hour, three-bottle lunches were common and you would sometimes come across colleagues sleeping them off under their desks.

And then quite suddenly, in 1986, it all stopped. Rupert Murdoch whisked his papers off to Wapping, and within a decade all the other newspapers had gone. With new technology, newspaper offices became quiet, clean, sober environments that might as well have been building societies. Valerie Grove recalls her shock when she moved from the Evening Standard in Fleet Street to the Sunday Timesat Wapping — ‘such a hideous, windowless, modern, silent office and nobody talking or going to the pub or lunching’. No lunching!

I only caught the tail end of Fleet Street because I was nudging 40 by the time I arrived, and anyway I worked for the Sunday Express magazine which had its own office round the corner in Fetter Lane, not in Fleet Street itself. But Welch was right in the thick of it, and made her name by becoming the first ever woman football reporter in August l973. This was an earth-shattering breakthrough at the time — women had sometimes covered sports such as show-jumping, but never football. She was 23 and was working as the sports desk secretary at the Observer when the sports editor asked if she’d like to report the Coventry City vs Tottenham Hotspur game. He wasn’t taking such a risk — she was mad keen on football and had already won the Telegraph Young Writer of the Year award — but there was still amazement when she walked into the Coventry press box.

And then after the game she had to write her 500 words and dictate it over the phone to the Observer copytaker (she started ‘Coventry have the gift of ebullience’) and she realised that the entire press room had fallen silent because everyone was listening. But one of them kindly told her: ‘That was very good.’ The Observerthought so too, and made her its regular football writer. She was ecstatic. ‘I am being paid to watch football.  It therefore makes me the envy of every man in the country.’

Fleet Street was so male-dominated in those days, she says she barely spoke to another woman from one month to the next. But for this book she has interviewed many of the women who were there at the time, and recalls other women journalists such as Anne Sharpley who advised them: ‘Always sleep with the Reuters man.’ Sharpley was a serious foreign reporter, notorious for sabotaging phones once she’d filed her story so that other reporters couldn’t use them; but many women journalists were only used for stunts — one of them had to phone the Archbishop of Canterbury at 7 a.m. to ask what side of the bed he slept on.

Welch gave up football writing in l986 because she realised she was older than most of the players and it felt ‘kind of indecent’ to be interviewing them. Anyway she had commissions to write books and film scripts — she felt she had grown out of journalism. And, as Mary Kenny told her: ‘It isall writing on water.’ But she had a proud moment last year when she went to the opening of the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium and overheard one male journo asking another why there was a women’s toilet in the media centre. He replied: ‘Julie Welch.’ Such is journalistic fame.

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