Man of the People
Journalism lost one of its greatest sons this weekend.
He was Roy East, the man who spearheaded some of the Sunday People's most probing investigations during the scandal-ridden 50s and 60s. News reached me from Cornwall that he died after becoming ill in his garden.
Why is this a significant moment for me? Because, as I forge ahead in this world of weblogs, podcasts, 24-hour news and SMS messaging, there haven't been many - and I mean many - times when faced with a difficult story I haven't asked myself: what would Roy have done?
I worked with Roy in the seventies, shortly after he retired to Bodmin, set up the Cornwall News Service and started finding scandal and skulduggery among the clifftops and hedgerows.
He was one of those who brought Fleet Street to the High Street; finding the most amazing stories not in foreign embassies, Whitehall or City institutions, but windswept villages and cattle markets.
Driving across Bodmin Moor one day he came across a bearded jogger in a tracksuit and followed him, only to find he was running between two moorland cottages - and two wives and familes.
So Superdad was christened. Another Sunday splash for the man who had faced down gangsters and traffickers, exposed dodgy politicians and helped bring big names such as the insurance fraudster Emile Savundra to book.
Pals in Cornwall even now recall how he narrowly missed a jail sentence for contempt when he told a judge who asked him to name his sources at the Vassall Tribunal : “You must be joking.”
I was never sure if that was an exact quote, but the sentiment was spot on. This, of course, was the same seventysomething I once phoned from Canary Wharf on a Saturday night to ask for the name of a stringer to help track down a Lottery winner. He did it himself.
I remember once leaving a magistrates court with a tale about two paedophile nursery workers who were safely sidelined to admin duties as long as the case did not “attract too much unhelpful media attention”. The presiding JP had given the press bench a knowing look I took to be urging a sense of responsibility.
I was a cub and wet behind the ears. I went back to the office and told Roy. "Where do they live?” he asked. “Wadebridge, about 10 miles away.” "Good," he said, “bring your car round and grab a photographer.”
In the event, we caught the pair strolling along the main street. We kept going for 100 yards or so before pulling up outside a flower shop at which point he shoved the photographer inside, signalled for him to hide his lens among the flora and fauna in and placed his sizeable girth, in front of the window.
“Wait till they get to that lamppost over there,” he told me. “Then stop and ask them what prat told them they could keep their jobs. Appear sympathetic but get every detail.”
Then he turned to the photographer, by now flanked by an anxious sales assistant. “When they're in range, I'll move so you can get a clear shot,” he said. I glanced back as I walked away and he ushered me on. “And don't you get in the way or you'll be on tomorrow's front page too.”
We spoke many times by phone and, much to the chagrin of his wife Margaret, at length and into the evening, in the past few years. In one of the last, he told me he was looking forward to his 82nd birthday and I told him he sounded nothing like that age.
“I don't have one foot in the grave yet,” he said.
“That's because it's still jammed in someone's front door,” I replied.
I wouldn't have been far wrong