Potts made the front page on Maggie’s visit to Beijing

Thatcher meets Deng Xiaoping in Beijing's Great Hall of the People 


I remember sitting in an interesting cafe in Victoria, London, not far from a Marsham Street flat into which Joe Kagan had generously allowed myself and my (now late) wife to decamp. The door still had the damage inflicted when agents forced entry to facilitate his Lordship's confinement for currency irregularities.

We had just landed, two-stone lighter, after an interesting sojourn and then expulsion from Beijing. It had come to pass that China Daily's job description of journalistic adviser did not include questioning authority.

I could explain more, but even now, people might suffer repercussions. (That's how it works, Lord of the Family Offshore Greensill Bullingdon Friend of China)...

I asked her, rhetorically, if she thought the Chinese had a repressive regime. We clinked our tea cups and agreed.

At that moment, I saw a newspaper on which the front page showed a picture of Paul Potts aboard an aircraft leading tributes to our great leader Margaret Thatcher, who had just visited and told the Chinese, in no uncertain terms, how to behave.

As usual, the Lobby lackeys had ignored the foreign facts and dictated our domestic news agenda.

We had passed Thatcher's plane midair as we left, not by voluntary, but by decreed, design.

The visit, Potts, pontificated, had been a triumph for his leader.

It was good to see a formerly rather modest Daily Telegraph reporter doing so well. The last time I had heard of him was Harry Winslade, the vertically challenged retired Naval officer and Daily Telegraph night news editor, telling him, phonewise, that his quotes were excellent, but the facts had to be substantiated.

I also read on that grey, penury-poised cafe morning, the very under-rated Dear Boy Hugh Davies valiantly venturing an out-shouted report in The Daily Telegraph — but that account was for those only with antenna who might have to wait for elaboration until a few weekend pints back home. (He was based in Beijing).

Potts triumphed with Thatcher's victory.

Only two bedraggled and hungry hacks, still hoarding half-eaten breakfast jam sachets salvaged in early-morning forays from tourist-discarded Beijing hotels, noticed certain details.

The Chinese usually welcome visitors with a banquet of honour, which the most important cadres attend.

Deng Xiaoping did not grace Maggie's meal with his presence — a pointed snub that few, other than about 1.4 million Chinese, had noticed. It was in the middle of a national non-spitting Chinese campaign, which everybody was religiously — and reluctantly — obeying.

I should not interrupt my account by mentioning very well-founded rumours (don't mention Nancy Tang, because, as Mao said: "Never trust an American girl") that an interpreter at Maggie's earlier visit to China for talks over Hong Kong had failed to literally translate Deng's smiling riposte that: "Tell the old cow, if she doesn't surrender it we will walk in and take it."

However, when Deng met her just after we left Beijing in the autumn of 1984, he pointedly repeatedly expectorated into a spittoon near her.

Oh, how the Chinese nation surreptitiously embraced the ridicule that seemed to go largely unnoticed by our Parliamentary newshounds.

I do hope, M'Lord, that Paul does see the humour in your little mischievous custard pie jape. (He won’t — Ed)

© Pat Prentice

24 June 2024

A former sub-editor remembers: Paul Potts’ habit of ripping up the front page late in the evening went beyond giving Night Editors apoplexy. The Express shared distribution with the Telegraph. If one publisher was so late it delayed the other’s distribution the late party paid a fine. A substantial fine.

Like others in his fan club  he did not understand production. And he didn’t want to know. Many times when I tried to explain the time taken to transmit a page, I was told “just type faster”.

And the costs accumulated.