Censored Out Of Business

30 September 2012 – 06 October 2012

Banned Books Week takes place in the US:
The American Library Association is scheduled to hold its annual banned books week, which draws attention to the way authors self-censor as well as the books which attract outright bans. Events are run across the country. The week has been organised since 1981 and is always the last week in September.

Censored Out Of Business

Military censorship, old technology and rising print and labour costs forced my first publishing venture out of business after just four weeks.

It was a weekly newspaper called The Benning Bugle. The year was 1958. I had reached the advanced age of nine and was a massive Superman fan. Superman’s public identity was, as everyone knows, the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Using typical nine-year-old logic, I worked out that if I took up journalism I would soon be as strong as Superman.

The concept and mission statement was thus born. Now I needed to sort out the editorial, print, distribution and marketing. The easy bits.

For the editorial I relied on my own reporting skills and plagiarism.  My main source of copy was the scouting magazine Boy’s Life which provided me with a wealth of material on campfire-building , tent pitching and tales of derring do as well as fillers for the popular jokes column. A pet’s corner was filled by friends’ stories about their cats, dogs, rabbits and goldfish. There was one banner headline story each week written by “Editor and Star Reporter Tommy Arms.”

The printing was taken care of by my mother who was—initially—keen to support her son’s foray into entrepreneurial journalism. She dusted off her old depression-era  manual typewriter and, with carbon sheets, was able to produce four copies of the three-page “newspaper” at a time. The first issue was 20 copies and so she typed a total of 15 pages. This was pre-computer printer days and pre-photocopier days. The only other alternatives were a full-scale lino type or flatbed printer (out of the question) or a mimeograph machine which was briefly considered and quickly dismissed as too expensive for Tommy’s latest obsession.

For marketing and distribution I pulled in my little brother. Together we took an old table, turned it upside down, attached a rope to the front, wheels underneath and flung an old blanket over the top to keep out the sun. Thus we had a mobile newsagent’s shop. Bob pulled and I—as the star reporter, editor and publisher—sat in the shade handing out newspapers and collecting the five cent cover price. When Bob objected I bought him off with a promise not to beat him for as long as he pulled the mobile shop.

I should explain something about the all-important market/readers. They were children. And where I lived there were lots of them. To start with we were the demographic bump of the postwar baby boom. But that was only the beginning. My father was an American Army officer based at Fort Benning, Georgia. Hence the title The Benning Bugle. On American army bases everyone was segregated by rank. The ranks and non-commissioned officers lived in one section, the unmarried officers in another and the generals were on an unseen Mount Olympus. The married officers with children all lived together in a leafy suburb filled with parks, football fields and baseball diamonds. There were no old people. And in our section the children easily outnumbered the adults two to one.  Each of those kids was a potential reader.

The Benning Bugle was launched with the headline story about how Tommy Arms stood up to – and flattened –  the school bully when he tried to steal his lunchbox. It was a riveting read. Every single copy sold within half an hour. My brother didn’t even break a sweat pulling me down the street. I had one dollar in my pocket.

The overnight success of The Benning Bugle required a re-think of the business plan. Clearly, I needed to increase the print run. “Mom,” I told my printer, “ I need 50 copies next week.”

My mother seemed a bit hesitant and asked: “Are you sure dear?”

“Yes,” I replied in my best publisher/editor voice, “the demand is clearly there.”

“ But,” she said, “that will be 45 pages to type.”

”Yes, I know,” I said.

“Hmm, “ she said, and turned back to baking her delicious chocolate chip cookies while mumbling something along the lines of: “Yes, HE knows.”

Issue two was another runaway success. This time the lead story was an interview with the fire brigade (the firehouse was across the road) who had a lot to say about the stupidity of Captain Johnson’s wife. She had left  a  pan full of cooking fat on the stove while she watched daytime television.  Bob had to pull a little bit harder and further.  The third edition’s lead was a graphic account of the language used by Major Rountree when trying to pass a kidney stone.  It made a major contribution to increasing the vocabulary of my young readers. Again the print run was increased.

Two days before the fourth issue’s publication date my father took me to see a military display that he had helped to organise. It included all the latest rockets, tanks, and—most exciting of all—the top secret prototype of the new British-built hovercraft troop carrier. It was the perfect story for my fourth issue and all I had to do was reprint the details from the convenient programme we were given.

By now I was selling close to 100 copies a week. That netted me the unheard of sum of five dollars. But there were grumbles from the staff and other quarters.  My mother was now typing 90 pages a week and my brother was moaning about blisters from pulling  the rope.  The school bully’s father had threatened to flatten my father. Dad told him: “So now we know where your son learned to be a bully”. Mrs Johnson threatened to cut my mother out of her bridge club over the fire report.  She stood up for the First Amendment and told her “If I were you, I would have a word with the fire chief rather than trying to shoot the messenger.”

But that didn’t prevent dissatisfaction from the workforce.  My mother moaned that she now had to devote all day Friday to correcting my grammar, typing and stapling 100 copies of The Benning Bugle. My six-year-old brother whined about blisters and slavery.  I was trying to sort out my union problems over after-school milk and cookies  when my father walked in and announced: “The Benning Bugle is being shut down as of this instant.”

“Why,” I cried.

“Because,” my father replied with his sternest voice and penetrating gaze, “my commanding officer said we can’t have a kid’s newspaper passing on military secrets to the commie bastards. I have had to spend the entire afternoon going around the neighbourhood collecting every copy of your paper and burning it. “

I was shocked. All that work. All that brilliant prose.  All that excitement. All up  in flames. “You burnt my newspaper? “ I mumbled. The lower lip  quivered and the tears began to fall.

My brother and mother were almost just as shocked. They didn’t like the work, but they had been part of something bigger than themselves – if only for a few weeks. They looked on with sympathetic  long faces as my father put his arm around my shoulders and explained: “I had to follow orders son, and you do too.”

I was inconsolable – for about two hours. Then I turned my mind back to my previous love – archaeology – and started planning an expedition to discover Mayan gold in the Yucatan. Besides, my stint as a reporter had failed to produce a single Superman-type muscle for me, but it prepared my brother to become a super-ahtlete.

Sloshed

30 June 2012
Presidential election takes place in Iceland A presidential election is scheduled to take place in Iceland. In 2008 the election was uncontested. The incumbent Olafur Ragnar Grímsson, first elected in 1996, stood for a fourth term, and Astpor Magnusson, who stood unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2004, ruled out a candidacy. No challenger filed by the deadline to declare a candidacy, and so Olafur Ragnar’s fourth term was won uncontested.

Pissed

I have the utmost respect for the members of the British diplomatic service. So why did I piss on Her Majesty’s most senior representative in Iceland?

I was in Reykjavik for my first big foreign assignment—reporting the final Anglo-Icelandic Cod War. The dispute was over the right to harvest the diminishing cod stocks in a 200-mile zone around Iceland. Britain claimed historic fishing rights. Iceland claimed a 200-mile economic zone and financial necessity derived from the fact that 90 percent of their exports were codfish.

To enforce their claim, Iceland (population then about 250,000) deployed their tiny Coast Guard fleet to cut through the net cables of any British trawlers fishing in “Icelandic” waters. This was an extremely dangerous manoeuvre for the trawlermen because the drag on the nets meant that the shortened steel cables whipped back across the trawler decks at lightning speed. Anyone in their way would be sliced in half. So, The British government despatched the Royal Navy, to protect the trawlers. No trawlermen were killed but there were several collisions and diplomatic temperatures soared.

To further complicate matters, Iceland was a strategic member of NATO and the Cold War was still going strong. It didn’t contribute any ships or troops. Tiny Iceland, however, straddled what was called the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap which controlled the Soviet Navy’s entrance into the North Atlantic. Enter Super Power America. Under the auspices of NATO, they were able to control the GIUK gap with an airbase and radar listening post at Keflavik near the capital of Reykjavik. It didn’t take long for the Icelanders to demand withdrawal from NATO because they couldn’t bear to be in an alliance with the fish-stealing Brits. Withdrawal from NATO would, of course, mean the closure of Keflavik which would leave the GIUK Gap wide open.

Tensions were at their height when I turned up in Reykjavik in January 1976. Iceland was living up to its name. It was very cold. Helgi Agustsson, the press counsellor in the Icelandic Embassy in London, had arranged for me to stay with a friend and set up a number of interesting briefings with the foreign ministry, Coast Guard, fishermen and leading political figures. As I said before, it was my first big foreign assignment. Excitement does not begin to describe how I felt.

I had one week to learn everything I could about Iceland, cod, fishing in the North Atlantic , Keflavik and NATO and then write the definitive article. I had been told that a good performance meant a long and secure tenure in the dream job of diplomatic correspondent. My feet didn’t touch the ground—or rather ice—from the moment the plane landed. I was constantly on the move. If I wasn’t in the foreign ministry I was in the Icelandic Althing (parliament). If I wasn’t there, I was at Coast guard headquarters. If I wasn’t there, I was conducting my own man-in-the-street straw polls. Every night I returned to my lodgings to go over and re-order my notes. There was no time to eat (unusual for me) and very little sleep.

On the fifth day I learned that the British chargé d’affaires (the ambassador had been booted out) would like to see me at the ambassador’s residence for drinks and a chat. Wonderful, I was going to have a one-to-one briefing by HMG’s man on the spot. I duly turned up at the cocktail hour and was shown into a drawing room filled with chintz-covered furniture that would have done credit to any British stately home.

The chargé oozed British diplomatic charm as he invited me to sit on the most comfortable of the chintz armchairs next to a roaring fire . “Gin and tonic, old boy?” he asked. “That would be very nice, thank you.” Out came the bottle of Gordon’s, a tall glass and the bottle of tonic. The glass was filled nearly to the brim with gin and then a splash of tonic was added, along with a mischievous grin. Unlike most of my journalistic colleagues, I was not then, and never have been a big drinker. I looked slightly askance at the proffered G&T. I couldn’t, however, refuse or request a watered down version. That might be construed as rude. I was far too young, inexperienced and ambitious to be rude. So I accepted and started to slowly sip.

The charg then proceeded to feed me crisps and the party line on the Cod War: Britain’s historic rights, the threat to the British fishing industry, etcetera. He also regaled me with stories of Iceland: playing golf at midnight, radiators and hot water taps fed directly from volcanically heated springs, a 60 percent illegitimacy rate and a national pride which was second to none.

Our chat went on for about an hour and about halfway through it my glass emptied. In my mellowed state it didn’t occur to me to object when he filled it again with nine-tenths gin and one tenth tonic. Instead, I just downed it faster.

Finally my time was up. I had a dinner to attend and a taxi was on its way. I stood up. The room began to spin. I fell back into the chair. I stood up again. The room was still spinning. I took an unsteady step, gripping the armchair as I did so. The chargé chuckled with that look of “Yes. Success.” Then he took me firmly by the bicep and said in a kindly voice: “Let me give you a hand old boy,” and guided me to the door.

I mentioned earlier that it was January and that I was in the aptly named Iceland. As I stepped outside and the chargé shut the door behind me, one of the coldest winds I have ever felt whipped around the corner of the ambassador’s residence. I don’t know about you, but when my full bladder encounters an icy blast I immediately develop an overwhelming need to empty it. I leaned with one hand against the residence, unzipped my trousers and sighed with relief as a stream bore a yellow hole in the snow.

Halfway through my relief the door opened and the chargé came rushing out of the residence waving my wallet and shouting: “You dropped this old boy.”

Surprised, I turned still unzipped and still in full stream, and well and truly sprayed the bottom half of the chargé’s trousers. We both looked down, me in shock and he in surprise. The situation was saved by a throaty chuckle from the chargé. “I suppose,” he laughed, “I got you pissed so you pissed on me.”

He helped me to my taxi and I drove off to my dinner and he returned to the residence to change his trousers.

You may think the story ends there. It doesn’t. For some reason my wife Eileen refused to believe the story. But she learned otherwise. Years later Helgi Agustsson had risen through the ranks to become Iceland’s Ambassador in London. He had also become one of my closest friends and was godfather to my son Christopher. One of the results of this friendship was that Eileen and I were regularly invited to embassy receptions. At one of these receptions we were standing together talking to another couple when I overheard a familiar voice from the past exclaim: “And then the bloody journalist pissed all over my trousers.” I grabbed Eileen, turned to the voice and said:”Tell my wife about it, she doesn’t believe I did it.” What then followed was one of the more enjoyable and entertaining diplomatic receptions I have ever attended.

Temptation

21 March 2012 South Africa marks Human Rights Day
 Human Rights Day is scheduled to be marked in South Africa. On this day in 1960 the police killed 69 people at Sharpeville who were participating in a protest against the pass laws. Many were shot in the back. The carnage made world headlines. Four days later the government banned black political organisations, many leaders were arrested or went into exile. During the Apartheid era there were human rights abuses by all sides; Human Rights Day is an attempt to ensure that the people of South Africa are aware of their human rights and to ensure that such abuses never again occur.
 
TEMPTATION
 
The apartheid regime tempted me to the tune of 1.5 million pounds a year. I turned it down.
 
Actually, I am not certain if I turned it down or if it was my wife Eileen. I suppose it was a joint decision.
 
We had been married for about six months. Eileen had given up a promising career as a US diplomat to live with me in London. We decided to launch our own publication, a weekly international affairs listings magazine called Worldwatch.
 
Eileen’s last job in the State Department had been as the officer responsible for monitoring and developing America’s human rights policy towards Africa with special focus on South Africa. Ronald  Reagan was US President. FW de Klerk was South Africa’s president and Nelson Mandela was still  an imprisoned non-person.
 
To help Eileen establish her British credentials I arranged for her to give a talk at London’s premier foreign policy think tank the Royal Institute for International Relations (aka Chatham House). The subject was  America’s human rights policy in Africa. It was not her best effort. She was nervous and not helped by a heckler who decided that Eileen was an apologist for the Reagan Administration,  which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
 
The lecture caught the attention of Caspar Ventner, the number two in the South African Embassy. We liked to call him Caspar the friendly spook.He was certainly friendly. I never established if he actually worked for South Africa’s Bureau of State Security (the infamous Boss).
 
Any rate, he had heard about Eileen’s lecture and about our publishing plans and invited us to dinner at his  incredible house in Belgravia. There were about sixteen people around the table and we were the guests of honour. Eileen sat on Caspar’s right and I sat on his left. We were also the evening’s diplomatic  target.
 
The  conversation was pleasantly non-committal all through the cocktails, starters and main course. Caspar asked us about our publishing plans, how long we had been married, Eileen’s speech at Chatham House and various other non-controversial topics. Then , over the tiramisu, came the first bombshell. “Your magazine sounds fascinating,” he said. “We will definitely have to subscribe to it.”
 
“Great,” I replied, “how many subscriptions do you want?”
 
“Ten thousand,” he answered.
 
At a cost of 150 pounds a year each that came to 1.5 million pounds. Running the magazine came to 500,000 a year. That left a clear profit from the South African subscription alone of one million. Of course, it would put our editorial policy completely at the mercy of the apartheid regime. If they wanted us to take a particular line all they had to do was threaten to cancel their subscription. As it turned out, Caspar wanted even more.
 
“Just want one small thing in return,” He said.
 
“And that is?” I asked.
 
“Well, we would like Eileen to make a speaking tour of South Africa as the former human rights officer for Africa.”  And he turned to his right and smiled sweetly at my wife.
 
Eileen returned his smile with her best diplomatic beam:  “I’m sorry,” she said, “ I’m not very good at speeches.”
 
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, “ replied Caspar in his most reassuring voice, “we will write the speeches for you.”
 
Eileen and I were both flummoxed.  We just had a very nice dinner and didn’t want to be rude and tell Caspar to stick his offer up his a***, especially in front of 13 other people who had turned in their seats and were hanging on every word of our conversation.  Besides we were clearly at the mercy of a diplomatic master, as he looked down the table and asked: “What do the rest of you think? Should Tom and Eileen take the offer?”
 
Like the well-briefed Greek chorus that they were, every one of them shouted: “Take it, take it.” Some even banged their cutlery on the table.
 
Caspar turned to me, raised an eyebrow and said: “Well, there you have it. Everyone else thinks it is a great deal. How about it?”
 
“Um, um, um” I stuttered like the verbal  equivalent of a deer caught in the headlights. “Um, well, um, it’s also a big decision which requires some careful thought. We, um, um, need to discuss it,um.”
 
“Of course you do. You just have your coffee in the sitting room, talk about it and then tell us what you decide. Take as long as you like, we’ll just wait for you here.” He then stood up and pulled Eileen’s chair back slightly so we really had no option but to leave the table and go to the sitting room where coffee was already waiting.
 
Safe in the other room, which was probably bugged, Eileen turned to me and asked: “What are we going to do. Because I can tell you that I am not making a tour of South Africa giving speeches written by Pretoria.”
 
“And,” I said, “we can’t have the South Africans controlling the magazine by buying up 15,000 subscriptions.”
 
I wish I could say that that was where the conversation ended. That we decided then and there to march back into the dining room and reject Caspar’s deal.  But when we looked into each other’s eyes we both knew that the  financial security on offer was tempting. Even, if the subscription deal was pulled after a year, we would walk away with a cool million in the bank. On the other hand, deals like this never remained a secret.  It had become established intelligence practice for governments to finance “friendly” publishing ventures.  The Soviets did it, the Americans did it and the South Africans were notorious for it.  The journalists who accepted such deals were always found out. The result was financial wealth but professional ruin.
 
The answer had to be no.  We sat over our coffee for as long as possible and then went back to the dining and told Caspar we needed more time and left. A few days later I phoned him and gave him our negative answer. He was phlegmatic about it, but that was the last time Eileen and I were invited to a South African diplomatic function.
 

My Falklands War

02 April 2012
30th anniversary of the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands
The 30th anniversary of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkand Islands, known in Spanish as the Malvinas, which sparked a brief but bloody war with Britain in 1982, is scheduled to be marked. Argentinians mark the day as a veterans’ day of commemoration. Argentina has never officially relinquished her claim to the South Atlantic islands which are approximately 300 miles from the Argentinian coastline.

My Falklands War

The Falklands War made me. But two days before it started I was undone. On 31 March 1982 I left the post of Diplomatic Correspondent for Thomson Regional Newspapers (aka TRN) which in those days was Britain’s biggest newspaper group. I had held the job for eight years and loved it. Unfortunately the TRN management decided that a London operation was an expensive luxury and closed down 90 percent of it.

A big part of my job at TRN was keeping files on potential hotspots around the world. When the hotspot boiled over, I pulled out the file and became the instant expert. I was allowed to keep my files, filing cabinet and typewriter (we used typewriters in 1982) as part of the redundancy package I hammered out with the personnel director. Unfortunately, he forgot to tell the editor of this arrangement with the result that two policemen were sent to my flat to arrest me for theft when the editor discovered he was minus two filing cabinets and a typewriter. The misunderstanding was quickly resolved.

Any rate, on the 2nd of April 1982 I was esconced in the back room of my London flat overlooking Balham High Road and pondering an uncertain future as a freelance when the BBC flashed the news: The Argentines have invaded the Falkland Islands.

You could hear the incredulous sounds across the country: “The Falkland Islands? Who, what, where were the Falkland Islands.” I knew the answer. I was about one of 20 people who knew that the Falklands were not part of the Outer Hebrides. I was the only one of those twenty who was unemployed and owned a six-inch thick file which could turn me into an instant expert.

I knew that the Falklands were a collection of wind-swept islands in the South Atlantic inhabited by tens of thousands of sheep and a few hundred slightly mad Britons. I knew that the Argentines had for 150 years laid claim to the islands and called them the Malvinas. I knew that what was at stake was the thorny issue of self-determination by the territory’s inhabitants and that Iron Lady Thatcher could not back down without suffering repercussions in Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.

Relatively speaking, I really was an expert.

So, I put the coffee on to brew, pulled out my Falklands file, sat down at my desk and started to write. Four sleepless days and hundreds of cups of coffee later, I had completed a mini book.

I reckoned it would make a good one-off instant book-magazine. So I started phoning around for a publisher. About fourth on the list was Felix Dennis. Nowadays Felix is known as a very wealthy publisher who writes poetry on the side. In 1982 he was better known as one of the key defendants in the porno Oz trial and a struggling young publisher of part works and Kung Fu magazines.

Felix asked: “How soon can you be in my office.” I said: “Forty minutes.” Thirty minutes later he had read the first chapter. Ten minutes after that he had assigned me a desk in his West End offices and was on the phone to organise designer, distributor, typesetter, printer, etcetera. I was on the phone getting a picture researcher and then writing deep picture captions for pictures still to be found.

The next five days were a blur and a constant worry. The Falklands Task Force was assembled and steaming south, but at the same time US Secretary of State of Alexander Haig and UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar were shuttling between London, Washington, Buenos Aires and New York in a last-ditch attempt to broker a settlement. If they succeeded all my work was for nought. “They don’t stand a chance,” my diplomatic contacts assured me. Felix and I ploughed on.

“The Falklands Crisis” By Tom Arms, hit the streets on 12 April—just ten days after the Argentine invasion. It was a full-colour 36-page magazine with the history of the islands, background to the Anglo-Argentine dispute over the islands, highlights of the invasion, analysis of repercussions and likely outcome. Ten days may seem like a long time in today’s computerised world of instant news. In 1982 it was fast. Those were the days of typewriters, designers, typesetters, printers and motorcycle delivery rather than email. We were first on the streets and we beat our nearest rival by two weeks.

In total more than 250,000 copies were sold—the entire print run. It was a critical as well as commercial success. The day it was published the American Embassy phoned Felix’s office to order 650 copies. “What do you need 650 copies for? “ they were asked. “ We need a briefing paper for all of our senators and congressman and your magazine is the best we have found.”
A few days later I was watching a news clip of Perez de Cuellar arriving in Buenos Aires. Clearly seen sticking out of his jacket pocket was a rolled copy of my magazine.

Then came the calls for interviews—BBC, CBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, NZTV, they all wanted me on the air. The British national press had their own diplomatic corrrespondents who were fully employed churning out copy and didn’t have the time for interviews. Then there were the foreign newspapers. The Falklands were front page news across the globe and so they turned to the man who was available and had written the book. Gemini News, Detroit News, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Miami Herald to name a few were taking everything I could write. I even wrote for my old group TRN and in fact made more money out of them in the two months after I left then I did as a salaried employee in the six months before my departure.

After the war and the victory parade, The Daily Express approached me and asked me to go to Argentina as their correspondent. They couldn’t get any of their own people into the country because the aggrieved Argentines were refusing entry to British passport holders. I—fortuitously—had an American passport and an established expertise. There followed a glorious three months in South America interviewing the likes of ex- President Galtieri and other members of his junta and reporting on the aftermath of a Quixotic war.

When I returned to London the Express offered me the job of industrial correspondent. I turned it down. Foreign affairs was what interested me, and, besides, I had been bitten by the publishing bug and entrepreneurial journalism. The Falklands provided me with both the capital and the enthusiasm I needed to launch myself into a business which eventually morphed into FENS.