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How did Fleet Street’s crime journalists get their scoops?


Chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, sometimes pill-popping, long hours, last-minute travel, often strained marriages, the pressure and hunger on to get the story, particularly murder, the bloodier or more chilling the better, Fleet Street’s Murder Gang, a name given to crime journalists in a 1947 Picture Post feature, were usually at crime scenes not long after the police arrived, and sometimes before, having listened in to police radios to get the ‘inside dope’ at a time when newspaper circulations ran into multi-millions, and the crime-sheets sold papers.

Ruthlessly competitive, news editors would send more cars to crime scenes than necessary, or order to block the cars of rivals, hacks would dismantle the ear and mouthpieces of nearby public telephones to prevent competitors from filing their stories, and potatoes would be forced into exhaust pipes to provide a head-start. There was also the cultivation of police contacts, often clandestinely, paying for the legal defence of murderers in return for a scoop, occasionally meeting killers on the run, putting up those acquitted in plush hotels and a chauffeur-driven company limousine to get the inside line, and the cosying up to the families of those convicted of the ultimate crime.

Knowledge was power, and every Murder Gang crime scribe worth his rationed or unrationed salt learned to speak without moving his lips, ready to dash out of the Red Lion pub opposite the Scotland Yard Press Bureau at a moment’s notice, drinking in Fleet Street watering holes such as El Vino and the Cheshire Cheese, and every other dive bar imaginable- it was a hard-living and sadly often a short-lived life for many of those men- and it was all men, as women were not allowed into that circle in those times, testosterone-soaked and tough, different times and different mores.

There was the Daily Express’s Murder Gang star Percy Hoskins, who had a grace-and-favour apartment on London’s Park Lane, wore the best threads, and counted J Edgar Hoover and Alfred Hitchcock among his friends, Norman ‘Jock’ Rae of the News of the World, a hardy man with a heart of gold and like Harry Procter of the Sunday Pictorial a serial getter of scoops, Harold ‘Jeep’ Whittall and Tom Tullett of the Daily Mirror, the latter once being handed a parcel containing female body parts by her killer in the newspaper’s offices, and many more hard-bitten professionals. They drank in the same pubs, shared a joke and a laugh, but the minute the tip came in, the chase was on, and they raced off in their heavy overcoats and trilbies, trying to get the story.

And stories they were - from the man who killed his wife and buried her in a blitzed-out London church, to one of the most famous miscarriages of justice cases in British history, which was triggered by a police shooting - get to the atmospheric crime scenes and unravel their incredible, often brutal stories with The Murder Gang.

By Neil Root

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