By Siddy Shivdasani
There’s a lot I can’t say.
But I think Rupert Murdoch once complained about my (check) shirt.
I don’t know exactly how it came to be that I ended up in 1999 as a sub-editor at the spiritual heart of his empire: the now defunct News of the World.
I came directly from being the editor of Eastern Eye, which was then a British-Asian red-top in many ways modelled on The Sun, though not the politics or with the tits.
I did finally end up spending the majority of my career on on what was then the biggest-selling national newspaper, where you could publish pictures of tits but not write “tits”.
As a leftie, mixed race boy from Brixton, I never really had any genuine belief that I would end up as a journalist, let alone chief sub (Chief Sub-editor) for one evening on the country’s biggest-circulation paper.
My grounding was firmly in Eastern Eye, where I started as work experience. I did also have a stint at The Voice as a design sub and then as editor of Asian Xpress.
By the way, the News of the World was known in the industry as “The Screws”, as in the “Screws of the World”.
I gained a lot of exposure in the mainstream for my work as Eastern Eye editor during the 1999 London nail-bombing campaign. I must have done at least half a dozen TV interviews and countless radio spots.
But I fell out with my publisher and decided to try and give it a shot on national papers. I did shifts at the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail.
I was also offered shifts at The Independent and the Mail on Sunday, whose editor interviewed me personally to pick my brains about rich lists.
But somehow, The Screws felt right. I don’t know what that says about me.
A lot of Fleet Street legends were playing out the last chapters of their careers there and they took to me after a few weeks. I loved being their mascot, privately referring to them as “Dad’s Army”.
I developed my headline writing skills greatly and, frankly, didn’t realise what sub-editing was about until I turned up there. For the uninitiated, it involves editing stories, checking for libel, fact checking, writing headlines and writing captions.
Cutting to the chase, I ended up on The Sun a few years later and it was a lot more intense and competitive. I was floundering after a few months and at some point I had what was thought at the time to be a nervous breakdown.
Actually, I was in a psychotic episode and was diagnosed with bipolar 1 six years later.
I was a “news sub” but it turns out that I was close to being effectively relegated in my early days there to being a “features sub”, which would have been like a slow death to me because the key department for “subs” was news.
Somehow after I came back, I got my head down, got on with it and my career started progressing again. I started climbing the greasy pole, always able to pull out a brilliant headline whenever I was in a tight spot.
The headline that turned it around for me was when the National Lottery slogan was: “It could be you.”
It was a pretty boring picture story relating to four chances to win four a pound. Lottery operator Camelot flew in four attractive, blonde young ladies from the US who happened to be quadruplets. They were all in the picture lined up in identical clothes.
Headline: “It could be you or you or you or you.”
To be honest, I didn’t know what the bosses would make of it, wondering if it was taking taking the piss too far but they absolutely loved it, even the ones who disliked me. The chief sub said: “Someone very, very high up liked it.”
Camelot dropped the “It could be you” slogan soon after, admitting: “It probably won’t be you.”
I will say this for Murdoch in the Noughties: He didn’t give a fuck about class and he was prepared to pay roughly 20% more than his rivals to get the best journalists (which, regarding the latter, is no longer the case).
But it was a tough environment and I felt targeted at times. I think I’m right in saying that I was the first person of colour sub on The Screws and again on The Sun. I also do anyway tend to inspire extreme reactions.
There’s one thing you need to know if you are working for the Murdoch Empire, there’s one opinion that count: Murdoch’s. If you have your ego under control then you realise that you’re not even a cog, just oil.
But I did enjoy a certain amount of autonomy and I exploited that to further my own causes as much as possible, not least when I chief subbed the political page (page two) for around a year.
I could probably write a book on working for News International (now rebranded News UK after the phone-hacking scandal) but I’m not going to. One little tale sums it up, though…
It’s insane when you think about Murdoch having a personal fortune upwards of £11billion considering we had to make do with broken chairs in “Fortress Wapping” in east London.
I thought I could get the company to repair or replace them but I was wrong. They had a scheme to help people sit in a healthy position and I signed up to it. I wish I hadn’t. When I was phoned up to book my “lesson”, I told the nurse that my chair was broken. But she didn’t want to know.
I got into an argument with her and she threatened to put the phone down on me, so I put the phone down on her, thinking I’ll make do with the broken chair. Next thing I know, I was facing the sack!
Eventually, I had to see the company doctor and then had my joke of a lesson on how to sit on a chair. The, incidentally Irish, nurse said at the beginning that we should forget about everything that was said before.
But as soon as the joke of a lesson was over, she started telling me off for putting the phone down on her. I didn’t take it lying down and I think she got the idea that I was a live one.
If you’re not one of the anointed ones, that’s what it’s like working for Murdoch.