As the last two journalists on the iconic Fleet Street left last week, the occasion sparked a wave of nostalgia among reporters and others for an era spanning more than three centuries when the area provided a model for journalism across the English-speaking world, including India.
Located a few minutes’ walk from India House, Fleet Street has long been the metonym for the good, bad and ugly in British journalism since 1702, when London’s first newspaper, Daily Courant, was published from there. History hangs heavy in every part and pub here.
Reflected in films and literature, Fleet Street has reported the first draft of the history of the modern world, including the rise and fall of the British Empire. India featured prominently in its output, even if it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that Indian journalists appeared on the scene.
Mihir Bose, noted writer and sports journalist, was among the first Indians on Fleet Street. “It was a different world. Most editors didn’t know anyone of colour, they were not aware that they could write. It was considered that Indians could not write English well,” he said.
Bose, who wrote for The Sunday Times and other newspapers, said there were no Indians in the newsroom of any leading British newspaper based within a half-mile radius on Fleet Street in the 1970s and 1980s.
Other rare Indians at the time were sports writers Dicky Rutnagar and Sukumar Sen and cartoonist Abu Abraham. The main writers on India were those who had returned after reporting the country’s freedom struggle and independence, or prominent journalists such as James Cameron and Ian Jack.
The fortunes of Fleet Street as the centre of British journalism dwindled in the late 1980s, particularly after media magnate Rupert Murdoch took on powerful printers and moved the publication of The Times and The Sun to Wapping. Other newspapers subsequently moved out.
Left behind were memories of an era marked by smoke-filled newsrooms (mostly male-dominated), major technological changes (letter press, typewriters, telegraph, hot metal printing) and a culture that saw specific pubs patronised by specific newspapers and category of journalists.
“There was a lot of drinking. Lunch-time drinking was big. Every editor had a bar cabinet in his office. Sub-editors, writers, photographers – each group had its own favourite pub that the other would not visit,” Bose recalled.
An Indian journalist in a leading role was such a novelty even in the 1970s that when prominent broadcaster Kailash Budhwar was appointed the first Indian head of any BBC section in nearby Bush House in 1979, it became national news.
“There was no space for us Indians on Fleet Street. The BBC in fact held a press conference to announce my appointment as the head of Hindi service, it was reported widely. Until then, Indians were only contributors, not at the editorial level,” he said. The first Indian-origin editor of a mainstream publication was Amol Rajan of The Independent, appointed in 2013.
In the 1980s, some Indian newspapers, including Hindustan Times, set up offices on Fleet Street, but closed them over the years. That was the decade when more Indian journalists were seen on the street, which was facing tumultuous times.
Ashis Ray, who headed the ABP Group office on Fleet Street during 1981-89, said: “Offices of Indian newspapers are part of Fleet Street history. There was much interaction between us Indians and British journalists. We were members of the Scribes club and often interacted with journalists from Daily Mail, Observer.”
Besides providing the model for Indian journalism since 1780, when the first journal was published in colonial Calcutta, Fleet Street had a significant influence on contemporary Indian journalism – now a matter of research in British academia.
Swansea University academic Savyasaachi Jain said: “It was on Fleet Street that Murdoch introduced and perfected his ‘bottom line’ approach to journalism, which was quickly adopted in India since the early 1990s. The ‘Murdochisation of Indian journalism’ is a reality and now a key theme in journalism studies.”
India was reflected prominently in Fleet Street’s output in the heydays of the empire. Successive governments from the late 18th century onwards sought the support of Fleet Street while passing legislation related to India in the House of Commons.
The first prominent pro-India editor on Fleet Street was the irrepressible James Silk Buckingham, a Whig who edited the successful Calcutta Journal in Calcutta from 1818 to 1823, but was deported to London after taking on top officials of the East India Company.
Back in London, Buckingham launched the Oriental Herald and Colonial Review and continued his fulminations against the company government in India. During his time in Calcutta and in London, he encouraged the growth of “native” Indian press and sought increasing freedom for it.
Until last Friday, reporters Gavin Sherriff and Darryl Smith were known mostly to readers of the Dundee-based Sunday Post, but will now be known as the last of mainstream print journalists in Fleet Street, also known as the “Street of Shame”.