A visitor leaves the headquarters of News International Newspapers in London. Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Once upon a time, the British news business lived on one famous London street — Fleet Street — stretching just a few blocks from the Law Courts to just short of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Back in the early 1980s, the unions were powerful, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and I was a lowly Fleet Street freelancer who made radio programs and wrote newspaper and magazine articles for hire.
The News of the World was, as it trumpeted from its front cover every weekend, Britain’s best-selling Sunday newspaper. It was a wildly profitable jewel in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. treasure chest, and well known to the hacks (and hackettes) of Fleet Street as the provider of one of the best paydays in British journalism.
It turned the embarrassing details of the private lives of politicians and entertainers into big circulation and a mixture of envy and shame among reporters about what sold in the British news business.
“I would collect my meager wages in cash from the agency, and at the end of the week pick up my huge ‘pay packet,’ also in cash, from the News of the World offices on Fleet Street.”
Remember, this was before voicemail, cell phones and sexting. It was before the much wider tabloidization of news in the English-speaking world, a trend for which Murdoch has been one of the midwives and chief beneficiaries. Smutty compulsions, drinking problems, marital infidelity and a lot of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting marked the pages of the paper. If you were working somewhere else, you might sneer about the topless girls and breathless revelations, then shake your head in wonder about just how the paper dug up the well-reported story on the next page.
As these things used to work, a friend was talking to a friend of a friend about me, and reported back that the News of the World, or “The Screws” as it was known by many, might have a project for me. It was common for many offices to serve lunch to their employees as a perk. High-income tax rates made lunch a more attractive benefit to some workers than a raise. An editor had heard that the dining rooms of central London government offices had illegal aliens staffing their kitchens. One employment agency in particular was sending out the illegal workers to feed British civil servants. Could I check it out?
I headed to the agency, and told the woman in charge I was an American (true). I told them I had no papers (not true), and had basically run out of money (occasionally true). Was there work? You bet. And no papers, no problem. I was wearing a wire, getting it all on tape, including the instructions to leave most of the employment application blank.
My editors could not believe their luck when I was assigned for my first day of work to the kitchen at the Institute of Directors on Pall Mall. I would be cleaning up the lunch leavings of some of the most powerful and well-connected businessmen in Britain, busing tables amid the genteel hum and clinking glasses of a landmark building on an exclusive London street.
I ended up working at a series of lunchrooms, prepping plates, busing tables and washing the midday dishes for thousands of public employees. I would collect my meager wages in cash from the agency, and at the end of the week pick up my huge “pay packet,” also in cash, from the News of the World offices on Fleet Street.
My co-workers in the kitchens were a motley collection of Eastern Europeans, Spanish and Portuguese, and Middle Easterners, all surprised at first by the presence of an American, and eventually letting their hair down about the pay, the conditions and how they came to be in Britain. They all lived in a vast underground economy of casual work, payment in cash and various addresses they used for various papers…depending on who was asking. British taxpayers were paying for the lunches of British employees, and buying the labor of illegal workers hustling to make a few pounds here and there.
Eventually, we had enough to go to press. My editors did what was called “the showdown” with the operator of the agency. The paper used my reporting, and that of a young reporter of South Asian ancestry also working the lunchrooms, to shut down the employment agency and really embarrass the publicly operated kitchens running on illegal labor. It was a minor coup for a major British paper, sandwiched in among the lurid tales of booze and sex and misconduct that made “The News of the Screws” what it was.
I made a lot of money, learned a lot about my craft and still remember how to use a professional kitchen-sized dishwasher.
Fleet Street is just an address now. The community that the satirical magazine Private Eye called the “Street of Shame” doesn’t really have that much to be ashamed of any more. The grand headquarters of the country’s national newspapers have dispersed all over the London metropolitan area. The nose-filling aroma of ink, and the paper dust thrown off from tons of newsprint, no longer fill the damp streets in the middle of the night.
After living for decades right on the edge (and sometimes over the edge) of outrageousness, disturbing questions about phone hackings and criminal activity have finally done the News of the World in. Regarding the earlier incarnations of the paper, I, for one, am sorry to see you go.