Motoring writers give lunch club the boot

The great and the good of the former Fleet Street's motoring writers at their final lunch CREDIT: DANIEL PULLEN


Yes it was a dining club, but what a dining club. John Langley, my motoring correspondent predecessor at The Daily Telegraph was the founding chairman of the Fleet Street Motoring Group (FSMG) in the early Eighties and the list of members reads like a Who's Who? of Fleet Street's finest motor-industry writers and journalists.

The FSMG met at Rules restaurant in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, because it was convenient, reassuringly grand but homely and it was also Langley's favourite restaurant (his leaving do was held there). Its aims, however, were strictly professional. Outlined in a piece from the UK Press Gazette, dated July 20 1981, Langley explained that the FSMG was formed to get the background on stories via some well-delivered questions to the motor industry's top people.

"A question and answer session over lunch with top people is still one of the best ways to get facts and opinions," he said.

And those FSMG lunches certainly attracted top-flight names, the first one being Sam Toy, chairman and MD of the Ford Motor Company; the second was George Turnbull, chairman and MD of the Talbot Motor Company.

Lunches were a litany of Rules's most celebrated dishes, including its wicked steak and kidney pudding, delicately cooked seafood and spectacularly light and scrumptious deserts. In truth, however, if a lunch was going as planned for the FSMG, the chefs at London's oldest restaurant would have burst into the Graham Greene room brandishing a kitchen knife. For such was the intensity of questions coming in like daisy cutters, the invited guest would barely have time for a mouthful or two. Correspondents might fork in a bit more, but furious note-taking was the main activity as you seldom walked out into a Covent Garden afternoon without a story to file.    

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The former motoring correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, John Langley

With a bottle or two of house red and white, plus a quick beer beforehand, this was Fleet Street at its best (or, depending how you look at it, worst). One thing that should be noted, though, is that this was no free lunch. The FSMG was an invitation-only subscription club and members paid for everyone's lunch, including that of the industry chiefs and their entourages. The quid pro quo was a story, sometimes several, not carefully scripted by spin doctors. This grilling over a grilled Dover sole was a high-stakes battle of wits, and the only simple rule was that everything was on the record unless specifically stated otherwise; it caught a few out.

The earliest members were: David Benson (Daily Express), Colin Dryden (The Daily Telegraph), Courtenay Edwards (Sunday Telegraph), Robert Glenton (Sunday Express), Kenneth Gooding (Financial Times), Roy Harry (Guardian), Michael Imeson (Press Association), Judith Jackson (Sunday Times), Michael Kemp (Daily Mail), Patrick Mennem (Daily Mirror), Frank Page (Observer) and Peter Waymark (The Times).

Some industry faces became almost regulars, Nick Scheele for example enjoyed the FSMG's hospitality several times as chief operating officer at Ford then chief executive of Jaguar. In the Nineties Roberto Testore, MD of Fiat, was delayed for a while as his bodyguards explained their choice of weapons at Heathrow. Dani Bahr, Lotus CEO, got caught by the on-the-record rule and tried in vain to take back his statements.

But even while the FSMG was being formed, the writing was on the wall for Grub Street; The Telegraph moved its printing operation to Docklands in 1986, just as The Times left for Wapping. The Telegraph's editorial operation moved to Docklands the following year. The Daily Mail left its Fleet Street home at Northcliffe House in Carmelite Street in 1988 as did The Daily Express, which left its infamous "Black Lubyanka" building for the Grey Lubyanka across the river in the same year. The last major news operation Reuters left its Lutyens-designed building in 2005 and that was it.  

Yet the FSMG name stuck and the motor industry management still turned up to enjoy a battle of wits and a scant forkful of brilliant food in the company of news-hungry journalists. But the supply was drying up. Bosses and journalists have little time for lunch these days, and all-powerful spin doctors and the Securities and Exchange Commission hate the idea off-the-cuff remarks that might alter the share value of a company. Information is power and these days the message is specifically targeted, usually at a compliant media outlet; the FSMG was starved of material.

And so last week, the last-ever FSMG meeting was convened and the Group wound up, with its small residual funds donated to the Marcus Rutherford Foundation run by former FSMG member Mike Rutherford.

It was a sad day, but probably inevitable. In its time, however, it at least proved to a few industry chiefs that there really is no such thing as a free lunch…

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre