Tomorrow’s Anecdote is set in a small west country newspaper against the real-life backdrop of the late 1980s in Thatcher’s Britain. It was a time when it seemed true to say ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, as media moguls amassed their empires and prepared to take on the unions.
Provincial newspapers were also caught up in the frenzy. Even in small offices, the computer age was gaining momentum. With the so-called new technology, journalists could now input their copy directly – saving bosses time and money. ‘Direct input’ became the new battleground, epitomised by the infamously violent Wapping strike in 1986 – a pivotal moment when powerful unions confronted an industrial tycoon … and lost. In the aftermath, employers around the country sought to take advantage of the weakened printer workforce, and also ensure that the NUJ did not become too powerful itself.
One of the first attempts was at the offices of the Bath Evening Chronicle, where I worked in the late 1980s, during those awkward transitional years from hot metal to modern offset printing. Here, NUJ chapel members clashed with Wessex Newspapers in what amounted to be a test case over the ‘house agreement’. Negotiations failed and a score of journalists, including me, found themselves making headlines news as they went on strike for several weeks to defend the agreement and protest against union derecognition. Thanks to rival union members, a paltry paper still came out, but the NUJ hung on and finally won a deal of sorts. However, this was a rare victory, and soon the majority of NUJ chapels around the country had been derecognised and journalists obliged to sign personal contracts, allowing their future salary reviews to be ‘determined by the editor’ and their benefits slashed. Things got worse: negotiations were offered to defuse conflict, inducements of extra money were promised to encourage journalists to sign up for personal contracts and teams of strike-breakers from the rival Institute of Journalists were established in secret. The world of journalism is scurrilous, and that period was especially scuzzy.
For dramatic effect, I have shifted some key details, such as combining the year of the Great Storm on the night of October 15th, 1987, and the strike itself. In my defence, such strikes continued well into 1989 and beyond, as Michael Gove might be loath to recall. I have personal experience of both, having worked as splash sub at the Cambridge Evening News on the fateful morning of October 16th in 1987 (suffering the worst hangover of my life).
All the locations are based on towns and villages in the Bath area, although with appropriate name changes. The rest of the story – Clare Forrester’s irritating mother, shady family members, their dark deeds, and all sundry characters she meets in her hunt for the truth, are all fiction. More or less.
The title is part of a mantra oft-repeated by our delightful deputy editor in Bath at that time, a real ‘gentleman of the press’, whose father once ran the paper when it was a private concern. ‘Today’s drama is tomorrow’s anecdote,’ he would reassure the juniors as he pottered about the newsroom, in his beige slacks and matching cardigan, calming the frayed nerves of the junior journos – and avoiding the need to sit down at a computer and actually do any work.
Finally, the hideous ‘Man Management and Motivation’ course attended by the protagonist at the start (and which should rightfully have been renamed ‘How to Orchestrate the Constructive Dismissal of a Union Member and Get Away With It’) is all horribly true. On completion of said course, I was so appalled, I took the train back to Bath and promptly resigned. I have worked freelance ever since.
By Pamela Kelt, alias A. J. Monkton