5th August 2016 marks the day the last of the British journalists flocked the nest. Dundee based Sunday Post reporters, Gavin Sherriff and Darryl Smith were the last two to leave the newspaper’s London based office on Fleet Street, which closed its doors for the last time today. But why is this important?
Gavin and Darryl’s departure makes them the last two journalists to leave Fleet Street, a street which was known for decades as the epicentre of British journalism. Speaking to the BBC, Robin Esser, who was once editor of the Sunday Express described Fleet Street as being a “very, very important place” and a medium through which the British public received information.
Fleet Street holds the merit of printing the first British daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, which first blessed doorsteps across the country with its presence on 11th March, 1702. Dubbed ‘the street of shame’ by some, at its height, Fleet Street was the pinnacle of a journalist’s career. Almost every national newspaper and a number of provincial newspapers had offices dotted nearby.
Although what many are dubbing ‘the end of journalism’ has finally made its presence felt on Fleet Street, reports of the industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Speaking to the BBC, Darryl, a feature writer for the Sunday Post who worked from an office ‘the same as Sweeney Todd’s barber shop’, described how the industry’s demise was often foreseen by a number of London tour guides who would tell those on the tour how “Fleet Street no longer had any journalists working here.” He added how he’d often put his head out of the window and retort, “We are still here!”
It could be argued this began when American media tycoon Rupert Murdoch moved The Sun, the late News of the World, The Times and The Sunday Times away from Fleet Street, re-housing them in a complex at Wapping in East London in 1986. By 1988, every national newspaper, that once called Fleet Street home, relocated to Docklands, replacing the manual process with the cheaper computerised printing technology, which replaced ‘the merciless screeching of hot metal print’ for the telltale tapping of keyboards.
Infamous for its numerous pubs and dives, across Fleet Street, journalists sought out these places to both socialise and uncover stories; Darryl reminisced about meeting a colleague in a local wine bar El Vino. Pubs were considered the ideal location for budding reporters to hunt down news, and gossip about politics, with every paper considered to have its own pub. The Daily Telegraph was known to favour the King and Keys, while the Express frequented the Red Lion. Reporters from the Mirror could often be found in the deepest, darkest corners of the White Hart, affectionately known as ‘The Stab in the Back’, shortened to ‘The Stab’ due to its notoriety for housing dark office politics. Other notable locations included The Cheshire Cheese and Mac’s Café, printers and journalists’ café, which remain open to this day.
Speaking to the BBC, Gavin, who spent 32 years working from an office on Fleet Street, reminisced on his first days on Fleet Street affectionately, describing how the newsroom was heavy with smoke, accompanied by the deafening bashing about of typewriters, where he worked his way up to The Sunday Post’s London chief reporter. He commented, “The phones didn’t even work properly – I’d be amazed if I called someone and it connected the first time.” He continues to reminisce about “watching lorries with large rolls of paper struggling to get down side-streets to printing presses and lots of pubs, filled with journalists and printers. Now it’s an endless number of sandwich bars out there. Unthinkable 30 years ago.”
Speaking about his years of service to the BBC, Darryl concludes, “There is so much history here. And to be one of the last ones, I feel unworthy of the torch that I’m carrying.”
Gavin cites, “As someone who always wanted to be a journalist, and with a keen sense of history as well, just looking at the buildings even now still excites me. It makes me smile, when I think of how I now have that place in history.”
Robin Esser added, “at its height, Fleet Street was very, very important because television was in its early childhood, and there was no social media. So 85% of information to the public came through the newspapers. The departure of its last two journalists should be marked, but you have to look forwards, not backwards.”