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Hold the Front Page

December 18, 2013

Hearing of the death of Ronnie Biggs sent me into a reflective mood: not just about the Train Robbery, but also about news journalism in those far off days of the early 60s.

When the cleverly planned heist was imperfectly executed at Sears Crossing near Bridego Bridge at Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, I was just 11 years old. Already I was fascinated by newspapers and news, and it strikes me, as I write this, that many of my memories of contemporary news are actually templated by the front page of the Daily Express – the paper of choice in mine and maybe the majority of households at the time.

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“Kennedy assassinated”, “Marilyn found dead” and many others, in huge headline print on a full sized, black, white and grey broadsheet page are like icons for the relevant bits of my memory folders, and, though old buffers such as myself, are never slow to rant about the iniquities of rolling news, sound bite broadcasting, and shallow writing, it’s actually quite an effort to recall how different news coverage was in those days.

This was only a generation after the BBC Radio News had solemnly intoned one morning: “There is no news – as the world has been asleep for the last 12 hours”; television newsreaders had only appeared on screen in 1955 – before that the news had been read by a disembodied voice over a series of still pictures and graphics.

When I first flew into Ha Noi a decade ago, I realized that, despite nightly news coverage throughout the 60s, my only true image of the city was its name printed in black on a grey map of north Viet Nam.

It sounds like a strange claim but there was less news in those days. That applies obviously to the number of bulletins available on radio or television, but also to the accessibility of information and sources. Much that was reported came from government sources and was often intoned by elderly men in sensible suits. If they were outside they would be wearing hats or possibly getting in and out of cars with a wave. To report a major news event, a film crew needed to be dispatched, the film returned, processed, edited and included in the news coverage. For anywhere outside of the greater London area this all might take so long that the local Evening paper – or sometimes the following day’s Daily, would have ‘got the scoop’.

Well into the 60s, the best way of seeing good quality, colour footage of major events was probably the cinema’s newsreels. The news was up to two weeks ‘old’, but at least you could see what had happened.

The rapid development over the next few years of landline and then satellite communications technology changed all that, of course, and soon ‘live from the scene’ became a commonplace on the television news, albeit requiring the use of heavy and bulky equipment. My first clear memory of extended live coverage of a news event was of the Aberfan disaster in October 1966, and, tragically, that was only made possible by the length of time it took to clear the sludge and slurry and uncover the school building. It was another first in that I think it was the first time news had been broadcast specially during day time rather than in the evening.

So news access was limited in the early 60s and you had the feeling that state of affairs was very satisfactory to the Establishment (See Lucan ). It was an attitude which perhaps explains the government’s almost total failure to deal with the Profumo affair once the press had started to report it in depth.

If you take a news agenda which was heavily political, limited in live coverage, controlled by the establishment, and with little connection with local people, it’s not surprising that an event like the Train Robbery – with an equivalent of £40 million stolen – got big treatment from the media. The fact that it happened on August 8th – prime silly season territory – only added to its allure, for the newspapers especially.

In a sense, it was the story that kept on giving for newshounds, and conveniently placed for Fleet Street. There was the robbery, the search for the robbers, their capture, their trials, their sentencing, their escapes, the worldwide searches, the recaptures, their ‘afterlives’ and now their demise. Throw in the mixture of “The Mail Train”, nicknames for both cops and robbers, and a cheeky chappy like Ronald Biggs, and it was an editor’s dream of an event.

This explains partly why it has remained so visible in the public’s eye. The media promoted it, many of the Robbers eventually caught on to the possibility of legitimate gains from their ‘stories’, which they told with varying amounts of honesty or accuracy, and, for the public, it became one of those events symbolic of the pre-Beatles Sixties, all black and white, strange cars, and men in hats and raincoats.

There’s another reason as well, of course. In a society as repressed and repressive as the fifties and sixties were in Britain, there was always the temptation to celebrate the cocking of a snook at authority, especially if it could be done vicariously. The response: “Good on yer, lads” reflects this, as well as a bizarre sentimentality about crime, which perisists when folk talk about that particular era, as being peopled by those who were ‘good to their mums’ and wouldn’t hurt a fly if they could help it. It doesn’t sit well with the brutal activities of the Krays and their colleagues in ‘the Smoke’, but the Train Robbers were low enough in the food chain to be dissociated with that brand of violence; even the coshing of driver Mills seems to have been a result of panic rather than intent – when the gang discovered ‘Biggsy’ had provided an engine driver unfamiliar with the model being used on the Mail Train.

Perhaps Bruce Reynolds and co merely benefited from that strange British choice of underworld heroes ranging from Robin Hood through Dick Turpin to Rob Roy – all seemingly portrayed at one time or other by David Niven!

And what of the Train Robbers? Do they deserve their position in 20th Century folklore? I suppose they do, albeit tongue in cheek. It was an audacious raid which took advantage of almost incredible laxness of security on behalf of the GPO; it was relatively well planned by the standards of the time, despite some glaring errors and mistakes, and the various escapes and manhunts entertained the public in some grey times. As one of the policemen commented on Ronnie Biggs: “At least he brought some comedy to the grim world of crime.”

I think it’s possible to let the Robbers raise a wry smile without necessarily glorifying what they did. It’s not even clear whether their story supports the tenet that crime doesn’t pay, or not. Certainly those of my political persuasion would suggest far more money was robbed from the Post Office more recently.

A lot of families found their lives ruined by what happened at Sears Crossing and later on – from the partners and children of the Robbers themselves, to the obsessed amongst the police investigators, to the two who were on the footplate of the engine. Driver Mills, despite persistent myth, died from leukaemia around 7 years later, not the effects of his injuries during the robbery, though he never worked again, and his fireman that day, David Whitby, died in 1972 at the young age of 34, from a heart attack. This is not to defend the use of violence, but it does reflect the level of misinformation grown up around the whole event.

Were the Robbers the clever masterminds they were made out to be in some parts of the media? Not really – their crime was ingenious in part but, had they been as clever as they thought, they would have been earning an honest living – and they wouldn’t have been caught. It’s tempting to suggest that these days they would have been working in the City – for far higher takings.

From a news point of view, it was the right crime in the right place at the right time; it was about the last time in their lives that the Robbers’ timing was that fortunate.

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