SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024


Dacre wanted to bring down Tatchell, not only was he Labour candidate but he was also GAY


It seems by-elections adding to Tory woes will be held on May 2. I was only ever involved in reporting on one of these over 40 years ago.

In February 1983 I brought in a story to the Daily Mail resulting in my elevation to ‘flavour of the month‘ in the eyes of recently promoted news editor Paul Dacre.

For some reason a couple of days earlier I had found myself in Villiers Street, a small road near Charing Cross Station – home to medal and militaria dealers. There on display for sale were gongs awarded to British servicemen for their role in liberating the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invaders in the summer of ‘82.

The military was a caste revered and exalted by the Mail almost as much as policemen. The fact that some so recently recognised for their service were hawking their baubles was, I thought, a natural story. So it proved to be, with a big page lead inside, a congratulatory memo from Dacre and an additional payment of  £100 authorised by him from accounts.

Dacre came up to me the following day in the newsroom, flung one of his simian arms around my shoulder, and said: “Tell me about yourself.“ I did. Then in a conspiratorial whisper he said; “Do you know The Copper pub on Tower Bridge?” I did. “Meet me there at 7.30pm tonight — and don’t tell anyone.“

I did and I didn’t.

I was nursing a pint when Dacre walked in to the hostelry on the bridge’s south side approach road. “You cunt!” were his first words to me. “You’re wearing brown in town!” His eyes had gravitated to my feet, clad in my posh brown Church’s shoes. Gosh. If only I had been sent to Eton (where Dacre would later deport both of his sons to) I might have known better.

Pleasantries dispensed with, Dacre proceeded to explain the reason for our liaison in a part of London I am sure he was entirely unfamiliar with. In a little over three weeks there was to be a by-election in working class Bermondsey, hardly a top-hat’s-toss from where we were now sitting. Moderate Labour MP Bob Mellish had resigned citing disillusion with what he saw as the leftward lurch of his party, setting the stage for 16 candidates vying to replace him.

The Mail had its venom sacs filled to bursting for one of them in particular: a certain Peter Tatchell. Radical, antipodean, young and — horror of Daily Mail horrors — homosexual, Tatchell was the Labour candidate the ‘voice of middle England’ was determined to bring down at all costs.

A glaze, of the sort left by melted jam that glistens when exquisitely brushed by Gordon Ramsay across the tops of apricot tarts, befogged the eyes of Dacre as he outlined his masterplan for the destruction of Peter Tatchell. “This cunt must be exposed for the cunt he is,” ejaculated my new sponsor. “He is fucking unelectable and we must show him to be so.” I don’t recall him frothing — perhaps it was just the cream from the top of his pint of Guinness — but he gave a very convincing performance of a soul possessed by all the furies.

Tatchell, he espoused, was Plasticine in the hands of the Militant Tendency of the Labour Party, a far-left rent-a-trot grouping hell-bent on offering babies’ blood on tap, demolishing the nuclear family, money, religion and the monarchy: a sort of Khmer Rouge of the occident skulking in the villages, towns and cities of the England the Daily Mail supported like a Playtex girdle.

My brief? “Infiltrate Tatchell’s campaign, get close to Militant, prove their connection to him, how he is THEIR candidate.

“No-one must know what you are up to. Not your fucking girlfriend, not your fucking mother.” He didn’t mention my fucking father, probably thinking he must have fucked off long before delivering the essential no-fucking-brown-in-town lecture I had clearly not been provided with.

He told me not to go back to the Mail HQ, not to speak with other reporters there, to call him at home late in the evening ( always late: he worked all of God’s sent daylight hours) and to ensure that nobody rumbled me. My reward for this subterfuge, and unmasking of the enemy within, would be a six-month reporting contract.

The six-month contract. For freelance wretches like me these offered real and imagined benefits. The real one was a paid salary and decent expenses for half-a-year: the imagined was the hope of a staff job at the end of it, the ultimate leg-up from province to metropolis, from repertory theatre to the grand stage of the West End.

The Big Time!

Well, that was at least the theory.

When Dacre had left to wend his way home to Islington, I walked despondently back over the bridge to begin my own sojourn to my damp digs in Seven Kings in Essex. Despondent because, in my heart, I believed the Labour party was better for the country than the Tories. I had been a party member in my teens. Despondent also, as I knew my overarching ambition would allow for me to betray the few shards of principles I possessed to do Dacre’s, and the Mail’s, bidding.

‘Dacre had one pencil between his teeth and another in his fist’

Monday duly found me at the Bermondsey Labour election HQ volunteering for leafleting and door-knocking on behalf of the Marxist Golem Associated Newspapers needed to stop.

I met homophobic voters willing to be quoted and Militant supporters wishing to remain anonymous. After two weeks of footpadding around the dismal, rainy council estates of Bermondsey I was summoned to Chez Dacre the Saturday before Thursday’s election.

Dacre opened the door wearing cords...and brown suede shoes. There was me thinking Islington was part of London but I kept my footwear fashion thoughts to myself.

He ushered me into a pleasant sitting room where that gateway drug to proper classical music — Vivaldi’s Four Seasons — was oozing from the speakers of an expensive stereo system. A pleasant faced woman, Dacre’s wife Kathleen, popped her head around the doorjamb, said hello, and informed us lunch would be ready in about an hour.

This being the pre-digital epoch, I handed Dacre two typed stories — one a news article about the shocking infiltration by Militant into the Tatchell campaign machine, the second a commentary by me about aforementioned shocking infiltration.

Dacre had one pencil between his teeth and another in his fist. He began crossing out and scribbling new sentences in, muttering to himself all the while: “That’s crap...can’t say that...yes, like that phrase....” He interspersed his work with admonishments, telling me to “fucking shut up” when I dared to speak. He worked with the verve and energy of an Orwellian MinTru scribe, taking great care over each word and sentence.

That I thought both pieces were, in that ultimate definition of tabloid journalism, ‘a gothic castle built on the head of a pin,’ mattered not. Dacre could smell Tatchell’s blood in the water and my copy was the chum to lure him to his doom.

The stories ran on Monday morning, four days before the 24 February 1983 poll. ‘Tatchell in Militant’s Grip’ thundered page one with my heavily Dacred comment piece on page two.

Thursday saw Tatchell smashed into a distant second place with the biggest-ever swing away from Labour and Liberal Simon Hughes was elected. Even he would later apologise for the “dirty” campaign that focussed on Tatchell’s sexuality. I never saw Tatchell comment upon my part in his downfall. 

But he did not lose in vain — the day after his defeat my dubious work was rewarded with the vaunted six-month contract of my dreams, initiating what was, beyond question, the most unhappy period of my life.

9 April 2024