Happy Birthday, South Wales Argus, 120 years old today.
The paper has played a significant role in my life. Without their help, the Newport Welsh School would not have had the impetus that it had in 1969. I was infuriated. Often anger spurs action. I wrote about this.
'I've learnt a Welsh song at school,’ my daughter Rachel told me in 1969. Education in Newport then had no Welsh content in either language or culture. But as a gesture to Prince Charles’s Investiture celebrations one Welsh song was being taught. Proudly she sang me the words, ‘The land of my fathers is dear to me . . .’ This was ‘Hen Wlad fy nhadau’, the Welsh national Anthem, in English. That was the final straw. Even in the cosmopolitan areas of Cardiff where I was brought up we sang the anthem in Welsh.
Furious, on the same day I wrote an article for the Argus calling for the establishment of a Welsh school. There is no chance today that the Argus would print an article of that campaigning nature. Unknown to me there was already an Ysgol Meithrin, a Welsh nursery school, in another part of the town. Dedicated parents in Risca had a school up and running in spite of fierce opposition from local councillors. A campaigning group was formed and I became its secretary. In September 1971 the first class of the Newport Welsh unit opened with eight pupils. It was a difficult task to convince parents to trust their children to what seemed an educational gamble. Dare they have faith in a tiny unit with an uncertain future?
I paid for adverts to attract pupils to the school. The Argus was the only way to contact the parents we needed. The Argus helped again with a feature article by the beautiful Jo Type, their feature editor. She described the campaign as a 'soft sell'. Progress since then has been continuous, but against the solid bias and prejudice of local politicians. Shortly after the start of the Newport unit, I was invited to Merthyr to explain how it was done. The meeting of parents took place in the home of a young man employed at the local Hoover factory. His name was Dafydd Wigley. The future leader of Plaid Cymru.
The media has always been generous in reporting my parliamentary activities. Unfortunately my relations with the Argus crashed to a new low in 1994. My personal friendship with the editor Steve Hoselitz had weathered many storms. I frequently exchanged background information with him in a relationship of trust that was never ruptured. He never divulged to me the serious debasement of standards that was about to happen to the Argus. Others did.
New proprietors in 1993 were planning to send the paper downmarket. They invented a mythical Gwent family on which dummy editions of the paper were evaluated. Most of the members of Family Gwent were unemployed layabouts who spent the day drinking lager or watching porn videos in their lives of idleness and crime. Hoselitz always had high ideals for the Argus. At Westminster the paper enjoyed a good reputation. A previous editor Kenneth Loveland even ran a Friday arts page and a regular feature on local history. Breaking point was reached for some staff with an exercise on how far down market they could go before turning off Family Gwent. One feature would ask readers to match the faces of local notables with photographs of their posteriors. Understandably, Gwent’s great and good were reluctant to expose their behinds for the Argus photographer. Senior staff had to suffer the embarrassment. A procession followed the photographer into the gents toilet. The flashes intrigued the staff. To the background of office tittering very senior people took their turns. Possibly connected with this episode was a change of editor.
My ‘Commons Knowledge’ column was then filling a half of a broadsheet page and was well illustrated with photographs. The new editor told me he wanted ‘less politics’ in the column and more humour. Humour was there in abundance. I did not feel up writing a column on gardening or knitting. Politics is what MPs do.
He decided to ‘rest’ the column for a few weeks. The Cardiff based South Wales Echo were trying to elbow their way into Newport at that time. They offered cheap advertising in order to attack the Argus’s circulation. They asked me to write a column for them. My intention was to write for both papers. The new Argus editor disagreed.
The Echo were welcoming but changed the column to ‘First Reading’; it then became ‘Flynn on Friday’. Although the Echo is not read by many of my constituents, it had the largest circulation in the most influential heart of Wales. It is a legendary journal for anyone who is ‘Cardiff bred’.
Losing the column blocked my main channel of communication with constituents. It was an impetus to find others. My book Commons Knowledge, with the same name of the column, was part of the spin-off. I also upped my profile in the national media, especially in broadcasting. My website and blog now provide wide instantaneous access at a time when newspaper standards and readerships are falling. Never before have MPs enjoyed such brilliant instruments to contact and serve constituents. The denial of an outlet in the Argus not only provoked my first book but the five others I have written since.
My main memories of the Argus from 1972 to 1985 were their local government reporters Tom Ellis and Martin Martin. Both greatly missed. Tom was a thoroughly trusted, reliable and fair. He did not write shorthand so was grateful for the finished stories I fed to him. Martin was a swashbuckling tabloid chancer whose lively readable columns had a major influence on Gwent council life.
He was preceded by an elderly journalist who wrote under the pseudonym Man of Gwent. He told me of the 'pleasure' he had gained from watching a murderer being executed. He was accused of destroying the confidence of a young councillor by attacking him when he was the Newport Transport Committee Chairman. The Man of Gwent was unmoved. He was an old fashioned journalist of honour and integrity.
The past twenty years have been marked by a cut throat competition to stay in business in a hostile financial climate. It has maintained a viable but declining circulation. The feature page has been degraded with populist sub-prime Daily Mail scribbling - intended to provoke controversy.
The circulation area has been rich in socialist politicians including Nye Bevan, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The paper has never whole-heartedly supported any of them. In the past it was a Liberal supporting paper. Recently it have been stood for bland middle of the road causes.
There can by no going back to the halcyon days of an arts page or the unique local history feature of Fred Hando. These enrich local life. There have no authentic Gwent voices, with memories of local life, producing features in the past twenty years.
But there is hope for the future under the new editor. Already changes are being made. They are all beneficial. It would good to have a book on the history of the paper before memories fade.