By Alun John
When Colonel Gaddafi broke off relations with the UK, all our diplomats had been recalled, together with their families. As with all expats, there was a lot of personal stuff to get home. One thing that couldn’t be brought home, however, was one family’s pet rabbit. It was going to be left behind to the mercies of the populace of the people’s republic of Libya.
‘We will rescue the rabbit,’ announced a confident Stewart Steven at the Mail on Sunday’s Tuesday conference.
The chosen rescuer was my old friend Keith Waldegrave. He was sent first to Paris to arrange a visa as we had no means of getting a Libyan visa in London, and then onward to Tripoli. He arrived safely, found the family and called with the news that the family members actually weren’t that bothered about the fate of the wretched rabbit after all. In fact, they were quite happy to leave it behind. This, of course, was not what Stewart wanted to hear – so I didn’t tell him.
Waldegrave was told to persuade the family and find a vet to provide the rabbit with the necessary papers and injections for travel. It also needed a flying case. Things went well and the rabbit was ready to fly by Friday.
Stewart was becoming more excited by the day. We had pictures of the rabbit in the garden of its Tripoli home and with the little girl that looked after it, and Waldegrave was booked on the Paris flight. Stewart was pacing the floor on Friday as take-off time neared. He went into deep conversation with John Butterworth on how best to display this latest exclusive gem.
Then I took a phone call and on a crackly line Waldegrave could be heard from Tripoli airport. Major problem. The airline was adamant the cage be placed in the hold. Keith was concerned that the rabbit, which had already been disturbed enough, would not survive the flight. I told him to insist the rabbit came into the cabin with him. No way, said the airline, it was cargo.
I told Keith to buy the rabbit a ticket and then it could fly on the seat next to him. Cellists did it all the time for their delicate instruments. A few moments pause and he reported the rabbit had successfully been bought a business class seat on the plane.
I also forgot to mention this slight hiccup to Stewart and he retreated to his office to busy himself with something else.
The flight went well. I don’t know what the rabbit was offered for lunch, but at least it didn’t actually become lunch. Keith carried it off in Paris, and then on another short hop (pardon me) to Gatwick, where the rabbit was placed in six weeks’ quarantine.
Stewart was delighted with the story. It made both the Front and the spread. We ran a competition to give the rabbit a new home and a new name and it made the paper once again. Following this, however, Stewart quite rightly lost interest – and threatened me with rabbit pie if I ever suggested a follow up on the anniversary of the flight.
The Mail on Sunday went from strength to strength and the circulation climbed. It was a great place to work, with exclusives thick on the ground and no lack of resources. However, I didn’t always make the best use of them.
Another week in charge, but this time things weren’t going well. Not much about and continuous pressure to produce. Stewart demanded to know on the Friday afternoon what I had in mind for page one and again, in a flash, I answered back with an instinctive idea. ‘The Princess of Wales will go into hospital to have her baby tonight’ I blurted out. Peals of laughter from the rest at the conference.
I came out of the meeting and called Lynne Hilton, a persistent girl photographer, and sent her to ‘doorstep’ St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, where the Princess was booked in. I finished the day, went home and waited. I got up in the morning and drove my usual route along the elevated section of the M40 in west London. Just as I got to the stretch where you can see the hospital, on cue came the news on the radio that the Princess had been safely delivered of a son in the night. ‘YES!’ I shouted and punched the air. Into the office and a warm glow at having made a good decision. In came the Back Bench and geared themselves up for a chance to be nice to the picture desk for a change. Everyone was positive, everything was fine.
Well, not everything.
I hadn’t actually spoken to Lynne yet. This was in the days well before mobile phones and I would have to wait to hear from her when she called in. She called. I answered. ‘What had it made?’ I asked. ‘What could you see? What did you get?’
‘Nothing,’ came the crushing reply. She had not seen the Princess arrive. She had been there all alone and simply could not be watching every possible entrance at once. Not her fault. Entirely mine. I should have backed my hunch fully and put more people on it. There would have been no problem putting six photographers there, but I just hadn’t backed my instinct. My mistake, pure and simple – and no excuses.
When the Back Bench heard this there was no holding them in their weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was the longest Saturday I have ever endured. Thereafter every time there was the slightest query about a picture it finished with: ‘If we haven’t missed this one as well!’ It was no consolation that all the other papers had missed it. That simply was not good enough.
Stewart, to his credit, later did offer a sympathetic word to me quietly in the corridor. I wouldn’t do that again though. If a story is worth covering, it’s worth covering properly.
After the Mail on Sunday Alun John became picture editor of The Independent, assistant editor of The European, and later managing director of Syndication International. He has been described by Private Eye as: ‘A fat, red faced Welshman ceaselessly gorging himself on an endless round of awards dinners and lunches.’
There’s more of his memories of Fleet Street in the Eighties at http://alunjohnascot.wordpress.com/