A gem for journalists from the British Newspaper Archive

In Insider, Standard by Andrew BrookesLeave a Comment


Newspaper archives are a joyous thing, offering a window into the way we saw the world in the past. The stories, the way they’re written and the adverts published all make it easy to disappear down a rabbit hole when you’re rifling through the past pages of a paper.

In local newspapers, you often find yourself tasked with unearthing a few gems from yesteryear for an archive page. These features are a good way to reward older readers with some nostalgia and for younger reporters to get a sense of the issues that have been important over the decades. They’re also a rich primary source for historians too – and I found myself using newspapers to support my dissertation at university.

Jon Buss, my ex editor, has been exploring the archives for his own history studies. However, his journalist’s nose couldn’t help but lead him to a fascinating discovery about a certain someone for whom all reporters will have some affection.

So, fresh from telling us his pet peeves as an editor, Jon returns to this site to entertain us with the story of what he found. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I did:

The surprise discovery of a famous name

Signing-up to view the British Newspaper Archive as part of my continuing history studies I thought, as an exercise, I would start by checking out the Worthing Herald in Sussex because it was one of the papers I edited.

My eye was caught by some entries for the 1950s so I carefully keyed-in the search details and of course, like Doctor Who’s misbehaving Tardis, ended up somewhere completely different. February 27, 1926, to be exact.

Oh well, by chance on Page 11 I found an article about the annual get-together of the staff (or some of them) of Beckett Newspapers, owners of the Worthing Herald. The event was described as the Worthing Herald staff dinner but it was held at Eastbourne, and was for the whole company, which included papers all along the Sussex coast.

So I read the whole thing, a very formal and somewhat fawning account of this important social gathering. Whoever was doing the report would have known, of course, that he (for it would have been a he) was essentially writing to please his employers. Every important name was mentioned,  every t crossed, every respectful genuflection observed.

Even when I started writing for local newspapers in, ahem, 1968, virtually every report had a list at the end if it. If it was a funeral, it was the mourners – yes, every one of them. You stood at the church door at the funerals of perfectly ordinary citizens and asked the full name of everyone who came in. If you were reporting a village fete (at 16, I sometimes covered three on a Sunday afternoon – thanks for all the lifts, mum) it was the stallholders. If it was a parish council meeting, you would write “those attending included….”.

Old hands in the office would always advise the use of the word “included” in any list because if you left someone out, it provided a quick escape route when the Mayor’s third cousin removed complained because his name wasn’t there (cue a bollocking from the Deputy Editor, always the newsroom enforcer wherever you worked).

Lists were difficult stuff to get right, so when I got to the end of the report about the Beckett Newspapers dinner I took a professional interest in the list I discovered there.

This list noted there had been no formal speeches, by order of the company chairman, but recorded the names of all the after-dinner entertainers and what turns they did. One recited some Shakespeare, a tenor belted out a tune, a violinist performed a hit of the day…..there was clearly a mixture of invited performers and people who were obviously members of staff who were game for a laugh. A “humorous trio” of three unidentified staffers presented their version of “Show Me The Way To Go Home” (how they must have laughed), Mr W.G. Lawes performed the poem “Invictus” set to music and Mr F.D. Banks sang “Play The Game” to the accompaniment of a pianoforte.

And then, out of the blue, one name in the list leapt out at me.

Humorous song, L.C.J. McNae.

Hang on, check the date. Eastbourne, 1926. Can this be right? Can there have been more than one L.C.J. McNae? Was he really that old? Yes, no and yes are the answers to those questions. It was right, there has only ever been one L.C.J. McNae, and he does go back that far (born 1903).

Any trained journalist will instantly recognise the name. This is the man who, literally, wrote the book on newspaper law, libel and what reporters could or could not do in the world of courts, council meetings and tribunals. He is the reason we can tell a tort from a tart. It is his clear legal advice, studied carefully, which has given decades of junior scribblers the courage to stand-up in court and challenge the latest ludicrous, ill-informed decision by a magistrate or judge.

His name is so synonymous with the art of newspaper law that the text book on the matter is not just called Essential Law For Journalists. It is L.C.J. McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. And although it has been updated 23 times (I think), to take account of pesky things like the internet, this journalistic bible has always borne his name.

So here he is, before all this professional fame, aged 23, at the Beckett Newspapers yearly staff dinner. And providing entertainment for the assembled company in the form of a “humorous song”. My picture of him as a dour but practical Scotsman, scouring legal documents in order to explain them clearly and logically to people like me, telling fellow journalists with authority what amounts to defamation and what does not, vanished in an instant.

I know that Leonard McNae became a senior figure at the Press Association but in 1926, just eight years after The Great War must have decimated the Beckett staff ranks, he was obviously a junior with one of the company newspapers – I have no idea which one.

I would like to find out, and maybe I will stumble across the answer one day like I stumbled upon this article.

But what I would really like to know is the nature of the “humorous song” he recited to the gathering. Was it from the music halls of the day? Or was it braver….did he write something himself to poke (no doubt still respectful) fun at his olders and betters? Did he take to the after-dinner stage, as I like to think he did, in a relaxed, post-prandial state, bow tie freshly adjusted, with a few back-slaps from his well-oiled mates to send him on his way? Just how witty and clever could this have been? Was there a joke in there about the Contempt of Court Act?

For the time being, we just don’t know. If only there was a half-competent historian around here who could find out…..


Can you help to add to Jon’s story? Get in touch.