A rotten Petrie dish
Up yours, media whores! The death of Sun ‘legend’ and liar Tom Petrie provokes the usual outbreak of self-aggrandisement from the Murdoch press.
Previously | Hack explanations
John Kay's obits make the woman he killed a footnote
I didn’t have a proofreader today so any typos are obviously intentional…
One of the benefits of being a villain’s sidekick is that your own disgusting deeds tend to be overshadowed by your boss’s antics: Mr Smee doesn’t end up in the crocodile1 that swallows Captain Hook; Muttley doesn’t have to deal with the parking tickets that get slapped on the Mean Machine, Dick Dastardly does; and despite his 41 years in Spandau — no ballet included — Rudolf Hess doesn’t get nearly as many hours as Hitler dedicated to him on the History Channel.
Tom Petrie, the former Sun news editor, who died on March 10 2023, was one of Kelvin MacKenzie’s lieutenants during the tabloid’s reign of terror in the eighties, when profits soared in inverse relation to its moral standing. While MacKenzie is still wetting himself in public for attention — during one of his latest segments on GB News, he called for the SAS to execute people smugglers — Petrie was unknown outside the industry.
After losing out to Neil ‘Wolfman’ Wallace in a power struggle and being canned by MacKenzie, Petrie sloped off into ignominous exile at the Daily Mail and The People. He never got a second act at The Sun as a columnist like MacKenzie — who now rages often at his old home after being dumped in 2017 for comparing the footballer Ross Barclay, who is mixed race, to a gorilla — but was given luxurious obituaries in the News UK titles this week.
As with the tributes to John Kay, who was welcomed back to News International after killing his wife, and obits for the bilious old blimp Paul Johson, The Times eulogy to Petrie is a classic example of how the British press wallows in its past ‘glories’ and smoothes away the horrors.2
The obituary opens with an anecdote that is not so much ‘well worn’ as worn so thin that the arse is showing:
At midday on November 2, 1990, thousands of Britons congregated on the white cliffs of Dover, looked out to sea, flicked the V-sign and shouted in unison, “UP YOURS DELORS!”
They were acting in response to a front-page headline in The Sun newspaper, using the same phrase, written by the paper’s long-serving news editor Tom Petrie. It was a slow news day and, with no obvious candidates for the “splash”, the newsman seized upon a speech by Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, about the creation of a “European superstate”. Petrie recalled: “I just said, why don’t we urge the nation to turn towards Paris and shout Up Yours Delors!”
There’s a lot going on in those two paragraphs but it all hinges on the hackneyed hacks’ line, “It was a slow news day.” There is no such thing as a slow news day, only a news day when journalists and editors can find nothing to titillate them; there are always stories to be told and received tabloid wisdom that sometimes stories must be created is a convenient lie rather than an inescapable reality.
What The Times is celebrating in the opening to that Petrie obit is not journalism but a kind of malignant fiction writing where real people become characters that dance to the editorial line. On the day after that ‘protest’ in Dover, a report in The Daily Telegraph — which was still committing the occasional act of journalism back then — explained:
Yesterday was Deafen Delors Day, one of the lesser-known dates in the British calendar. It was billed by The Sun as the day for the British to give vent to their fury with M Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission.
But it seems that the paper’s attempts — spearheaded by its diplomatic staff — to persuade the British at noon yesterday to look south towards “Frogland”, raise two fingers and shout, “Up yours, Delors” fell on stony ground.
The biggest crowd (chiefly Sun journalists) gathered to protest against M Delors outside the gates of the paper’s Wapping headquarters, and a few members of the public apparently made their way to Shakespeare Cliff, outside Dover, where presumably the chances of being heard on the Continent were marginally greater. But a brief check of the suggested venues for spontaneous xenophobia showed a distinct lack of interest. There were no demonstrators at the Little Chef in Dunkirk, Kent, none outside Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop at Guiseley, West Yorkshire, none outside the Bradford Museum of Photography, and none outside County Hall, in Maidstone Kent.
It’s worth remembering that the Telegraph was and remains one of The Sun’s rivals and that its then-Brussels correspondent, Boris Johnson, had spent his first year in that job filing increasingly fabricated tales about the Commission, including Delors. One of those stories was used as inspiration for Margaret Thatcher’s “no, no, no” statement in the House of Commons.
News International executives, including its chief executive Andrew Knight (Sunday Times columnist India Knight’s step-father, who remains on the Times board) were “unavailable for comment” but Petrie was happy to talk:
Mr Tom Petrie, The Sun’s news editor, was more forthcoming. He took holidays in France, and shamelessly admitted that he found the ordinary French man on the street to be “very nice”.
He said: “The main target is Jacques Delors, the Europrat. Why should we have a left-wing Frenchman telling us to give up the £ for the Ecu?”
The Boston Globe said the front page and the accompanying ‘gags’ represented “one of [the paper’s] most aggressive outbursts since the Falklands War with Argentina” and recounted how The Sun “appealed to its patriotic readers to ‘tell the feelthy French to Frog Off.’” It was not alone in noticing the headline; many US papers picked up on the story and rolled their eyes at it.
Sun readers had a busy week what with psychic experiments on Monday and yelling ‘Up Yours Delors’ on Friday. The latter was an example of Sunstroke at its finest. Thursday’s front page had a photograph of a hand making a V-sign with the message: “The Sun today calls on its patriotic family of readers to tell the feelthy French to FROG OFF! … At the stroke of noon tomorrow, we invite all true blue Brits to face France and yell ‘Up yours, Delors’”…
… there was a half page of French ‘jokes’ — though most of these were recycled from the ‘Hop off you frogs’ campaign of 1984… but a zany new touch was added with the inclusion of 10 Questions du Sun a Jacques Delors in French. Next day, Patrick Hennessy (Eton and Oxford) was photographed being beaten by a French maid for getting the grammar wrong. I sometimes delude myself I have got used to The Sun and then it amazes me all over again.
Hennessy, the spanked translator, went on to be political editor of The Sunday Telegraph then Deputy Director of Communications for the Labour Party; he’s now Director of Communications for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
The French found the whole performance ludicrous; a newscaster on France 5 joked at the end of his evening bulletin:
If the English are going to line up on the cliffs of Dover to shout abuse at us, perhaps they should all just take one more step towards France.”
The best response — quoted by The Guardian — came from the duty editor at the radio station France Info who said:
We have other things to do. We have a saying, ‘la bave du crapaud n’atteint pas la blanche colombe’ (the toad’s slime can’t touch the white dove).
The Times obit pays tribute to Petrie by abiding by his tactic of lies, deception and ludicrous exaggeration. There were no “thousands on the cliff” and The Sun headline was seen as embarrassing by other newspapers and, seemingly, News International execs who refused to speak on the record about it.
The next section of the ‘tribute’ makes it clear why The Times is so keen on ‘printing the legend’ (another common hack justification for lies):
The Sun’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, said at the paper’s 50th birthday celebrations in 2019 that [‘Up Yours, Delors] was his favourite Sun headline of all time.
A 1996 Toronto Sun profile of Murdoch said the Up Yours, Delors front page was hanging on the wall in his Hollywood office.
Having gloried in the fiction of the Delors debacle, The Times obit jumped to the Falklands War and Petrie’s cosplay antics during it:
[He] put his newsdesk on a pseudo-military footing and renamed himself “Commander Petrie”, wearing a military cap and brandishing a swagger stick. His journalists were conferred with ranks and his office was transformed into a “war room”, with a portrait of Winston Churchill and a chart behind his desk mapping ships lost and battles that had taken place overnight. It was in such an atmosphere that the paper produced one of its most notorious front-page headlines, “Gotcha”, to report on the sinking of the light cruiser Belgrano.
My dad was in the Royal Navy during the Falklands War, serving as a medic on HMS Leeds Castle. I don’t find Petrie’s games to be a hilarious anecdote; they serve as a perfect illustration of the paper’s mix of japery and jingoism during that period. 649 Argentinians, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders died during the conflict; all the while Petrie was cunting about in his cap; a Walter Mitty with a word processor.
Petrie’s desire to play soldiers pops up again in The Times’ remembrance of the ‘Battle of Wapping’:
Petrie reverted to military mode when Murdoch revolutionised the newspaper industry several years later by modernising printing techniques at a new plant in Wapping, east London. The move met with a militant response from the print unions and the “Wapping dispute” from January 1986 was a frightening time for journalists being bussed in and out of the complex. Petrie sought to boost morale when he hired an armoured vehicle containing the page 3 model Samantha Fox to break the picket line.
In The Nottingham Evening Post, columnist Caroline Stringer — who stopped working with the animals of the British press to work with the better-trained residents of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home — wrote:
… any paper which prints a front-page story about Samantha Fox in Wapping, headlines it The *** rolls out the big ‘uns and includes the line ‘Bravely pointing her bazookas at the enemy lines…’ deserves to be shot at by anyone who can get within range.
Nothing but respect for her policy of not writing The Sun’s name out in full but if I did that this edition would feature more desperate stars than Red Nose Day.
The day before the Samantha Fox front page, The Sun named its first “Wapping Hero”, a newsagent called Joan Hatfield who it claimed had won her medal for “[defying] a bully who ordered her to dump the soaraway Sun.” The paper claimed it had struck one hundred medals bearing the words ‘I’m a Wapping Hero’ to be distributed to those “who [showed] courage in battling to get The Sun through to [its] loyal readers.” I wonder if Petrie pinned one on himself.
Despite leaning on Chris Horrie and Peter Chippindale’s Stick It Up Your Punter! The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper later in the obit, The Times’ retelling of the Wapping dispute is (unsurprisingly) rather different to the book’s version:
… Although production had been sporadically disrupted, no issues of Murdoch’s papers had ever been completely lost. Brenda Dean, the leader of SOGAT, later admitted that she had known Murdoch had won the moment the first TNT lorry drove out of the plant. This total rout was the last stage in the process of breaking the power of the printers’ Fleet Street chapels. It had also exacted a heavy toll in huge personal trauma for many individuals enduring the hardship of a futile year without pay. One picket committed suicide under the strain, a number of marriages were broken, and many were injured in the pitched battles with the police.
The obit goes on to celebrate more examples of Petrie ‘creating’ stories through stunts: Sending Welsh lamb to Paris to be handed out after a ‘ban’; getting hacks to hunt down a put-upon donkey in Spain (a historical debacle I covered here); and triggering the infamous scam story ‘Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster) on the back of a press release from Max Clifford (whose final residence was not his huge house but HM Prison Littlehey). There was a hamster; it did not get eaten.
That didn’t matter to Petrie and The Times quotes him approvingly in the obit:
Petrie had his headline and indeed it would later be voted the best yet. “It met all the criteria for a Sun front-page lead. It was exclusive, it had human interest, it was surprising, even shocking,” Petrie recalled. A hamster was duly found and flown by helicopter to Starr’s home, where the comedian recreated the scene for a photographer.
It was exclusive (no one else wanted it); it had human interest (it was a series of lies about humans, including one famous one); it was surprising (because it was bullshit); and even shocking (because it was bullshit).
Having completed its dance through Petrie’s despicography, The Times reaches the ‘but he was kind to children and animals (so long as they weren’t famous or hamsters)’ section of the tribute:
A kindly man despite his bluster, Petrie was known for arriving in the newsroom at 7am because he loved it there. He wanted his staff to love it too and believed in “putting the fun into The Sun”.
The pipe-smoker would use a brass megaphone to summon reporters to give them their latest assignment underneath a multicoloured plastic parrot that hovered over his desk. The megaphone would also alert his staff to breaking stories, while a squeaking doll of Margaret Thatcher was squeezed whenever a story phoned in by a reader was “stood up” for publication.
Ian Hepburn, a former crime reporter, said: “Most newsrooms in that era were like bear pits, but thanks to Tom, The Sun was like the Palladium.”
Like the Palladium, The Sun was a stage for outrageous behaviour, loud noises, and unbelievable deceptions. The following paragraph shows how unhinged the British press was then and continues to be:
Petrie was renowned for taking “bollockings” for the team and protecting his reporters from MacKenzie’s invective. The reporters in turn showed great loyalty to him. Young recruits would be taken out for heroic afternoon drinking sessions. Mike Smith, now foreign editor of The Times and Sunday Times, recalled the mixture of admiration and fear at watching Petrie swallow a pint of beer in seconds.
Abusive conditions and unpleasant individuals are seen as par for the course in newsrooms as are unhealthy relationships with alcohol. Is it any surprise we have newspapers that hate everyone when they are staffed by so many people who hate themselves?
The obit ends as dishonestly as it begins with a truncated version of how Petrie came to leave The Sun, lifted from Horrie and Chippindale’s book:
On one of his rare days off, Neil “Wolfman” Wallis deputised for him and, according to Stick It Up Your Punter, took it upon himself to phone Petrie at home and lambast him about the way he ran the newsdesk. MacKenzie then phoned him and appeared to take Wallis’s side regarding the criticisms. Petrie did not feel he had to defend himself to the editor about criticism from a junior colleague, who, he added archly, had been a prime mover in a story about Elton John that led to the paper paying £1 million in damages. The next day it was clear that Petrie was no longer an employee.
The Elton John lies included false stories about rent boys and fabricated claims that the singer had paid to have his dogs’ voiceboxes removed. Neil Wallis was employed by News International until 2009; his company went on to offer “strategic comms advice and support” to the Metropolitan Police; in 2011, he was arrested as part of the investigations into phone hacking but was later unanimously cleared of all charges.
The obit makes a big point of saying Petrie was “not a man to harbour grudges” and “was reconciled with MacKenzie”. It’s an interesting line given the former Sun editor’s own major and oft-repeated grudge against the Murdoch empire.
The tribute ends with a paragraph that revisits the Freddie Starr story:
… many years later Lea La Salle revealed that Starr had never actually eaten her hamster. “He just went and got two big slices of bread, doorstop things, and buttered them, and when he sat down on the settee he had the hamster between them. He did bite into the bread, but not the hamster. I was upset because the hamster was covered in butter.” Like many a tabloid journalist before him, Petrie rarely let the truth get in the way of a good story.
The Times puts a big emphasis on the word “tabloid” there but it’s no better than its red-top sibling no matter how much it kids itself. It’s another indictment against the British press that the phrase “rarely let the truth get in the way of a good story” is used so blithely.
Tom Petrie got the reward of a good and faithful henchman: One last set of lies.
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