Sat, 13 April, 2024

We knew ‘im when ‘e ‘ad nowt – memories of Phil Mellor

Posted: May 11th, 2018

Some wonderful tributes to and anecdotes about former Mirror deputy news editor PHIL MELLOR from friends and family were enjoyed by a packed congregation at his memorial service at St Bride’s (May 9, 2018). Here they are, in full, for those who couldn’t be there…

Phil: the Friend and Colleague – FRANK THORNE
My name is Frank Thorne, former reporter on the Daily Mirror and Australian foreign correspondent.
Like Phil, I had over 40 years in journalism, most of it at the top level. I am the person in Fleet Street who knew Phil the longest and I am privileged to have been asked by Phil’s wife, Ann, and his two sons, James and Edward, to give my personal tribute to a legendary Mirror newsman.
We first met as 17 year olds employed as trainee reporters on different local newspapers under the Journal newspaper group in our native Lancashire.
Phil was on the Farnworth Journal, having been born and brought up nearby in his beloved Bury, and I was on the Eccles Journal, having been born and brought up in the Urmston and Flixton area, many miles away in the sprawling suburbs of Manchester.
Meeting Phil for the first time, both as trainees at the head office at the Bolton Evening News where we went once a week for training classes, was, I recall, a mixture of fear and fascination. We were chalk and cheese. The fear for me was that Phil came from a journalistic background. His dad, Frank, was a respected Daily Telegraph journalist in Manchester, and his uncle was the formidable news editor of the Manchester Evening News, so he knew what he was talking about.
Journalism was Phil’s birthright. Whereas I was out of my depth as a council-house guttersnipe whose reading matter growing up were the weekly comics The Beano and The Dandy, whose heroes included Desperate Dan, Dennis the Menace and Roy of the Rovers.
The fascination from the moment I met Phil was his broad Bury (or Bewry) accent, which was so far from my own Coronation Street-style Manchester drawl. I could not resist impersonating him.
So by the time I arrived on the editorial staff of the Mirror many years later, I would entertain particularly the Scottish contingent of the reporting team, including Ramsay Smith, wee Gordon Hay and the late Don Mackay, by pretending Phil had just walked into the Stab right behind them. “That story’s so old, it should be written in Latin!” “Am ah right, Frank? Aam right me armt ah?”
Despite our start on local papers in the Swinging Sixities, Phil was a young fogey even as a teenager. Although he had the looks and neat haircut of a clean-cut schoolboy, he was hardly a dedicated follower of fashion. The Mellor lifetime look was old-man woollen jackets with large check patterns, sensible trousers with no discernible waistline, and usually immaculately shined brogue-style shoes. I’m sure it will come back in fashion one day. And, of course, he loved his weak, milky tea.
When we met up years later in Fleet Street, Phil had not changed a bit. He had made his way through the system from the Bury Times in the 1960s to the Daily Sketch in London and then on to the Daily Mirror, thanks to the formidable Dan Ferrari. When Phil was briefly news editor of the Daily Star, we occasionally joined up on pub crawls to terrorise opposition journalists up and down Fleet Street.
Phil’s close relationship with columnist Carole Malone had a rocky start when, as news editor of the Daily Star, he called her over to the news desk to give her a dressing down about the length of her mini-shirt, which was little more than a pelmet. Phil told her “I can’t send you out on a story looking like that.” He instructed Carole to go home and change into something more appropriate. Her shift would start when she got back. He won her respect.
Phil then moved back to the Mirror as deputy news editor under Tom Hendry. They were a good team. Former Mirrorman Alastair McQueen told me, having worked closely with Phil both as a reporter and a newsdesk staffer over many years: “I am firmly of the opinion he was the best news editor the Mirror NEVER had.”
Phil became one of my immediate bosses when I joined the Mirror in 1989, but he was more of a mate. A great example of this was when my elder daughter Kate had to do a school project writing about the First World War. Phil was the first there to loan us a book of the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, so she got top marks.
I am indebted to Phil for his instinct in steering me towards the dodgy financial dealings of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. It took a Mirror team of myself, Ted Oliver and Terry Pattinson, ably assisted by northern photographer Phil Spencer, eight months to unravel. We won the Press Club’s Scoop of the Year, and later Reporter of the Year for revealing that Scargill and his two right-hand men bought their home with cash donated by Col. Gadaffi of Libya. So thanks and God Bless you for all that, Phil.
After proprietor Robert Maxwell went overboard with our pensions, I decided Australia was my next step, but I needed a pay-off to do it. It was Phil Mellor who quietly pointed me in the right direction. Within three days, my deal was done and my lucrative future as a foreign correspondent was secured. So thanks, again, Phil.
A classic example of Phil’s instinctive Mirror mentality I witnessed was on a slow news day. Tom Hendry had no Page One story and was very anxious when Phil took a long liquid lunch. However, when he returned very mellow from a few pints, Phil straight away told Tom the splash was obvious. He pointed out that a loyal Mrs Mopp had worked for her firm for 40 years. Her reward was a new mop. But the firm’s chief executive had received a bonus of hundreds of thousands for his service. It made a powerful split page one, with a picture of Mrs Mopp on one side and the fat cat executive on the other.
Phil always had that common Mirror touch, which is why I was surprised after I’d left the Mirror for Australia to hear that he had left the Mirror for The Sun. You can take the man out of the Mirror, but you can’t take the Mirror out of the man. And so it proved to be. Despite the efforts of his mate then Sun Editor Kelvin MacKenzie, the sun quickly set on Phil’s job there. Kelvin left and Phil was soon back at Mirror Group. In his semi-retirement, Phil did two long days a week as trouble-shooter and night news editor of the Sunday Mirror.
Since his death, following a year-long battle with cancer, plenty of people have come forward full of praise for the way Phil did his job and helped young journalists along their journey. Typical is this Facebook comment by talented feature writer and magazine editor Fran Bowden: “Phil was so kind to me when I first joined the Mirror and then at The Sun. Why don’t the bastards you meet at work ever seem to go first? It’s always the wonderful people who you hope will live forever.”
And this from Ross Anderson: “Phil was not only a great mate and one of the finest journalists I ever worked with, he was one of the few people capable of making me laugh out loud.”
Sunday Mirror reporter Nick Owens told me that Phil’s catchphrases in the newsroom when he arrived on a Friday were the stuff of legend: “Have you had a haircut, Owens, or have you just had your ears lowered?” or “Penrose, you’re wearing a black tie – is that because the news editor’s seen your list?” In his own words, Owens wrote: “He taught me about professionalism. Checking, checking and checking. And about caring for the reader. Again and again he would go above and beyond for somebody who had called in with a problem.”
Respected writer Olga Craig said: “Phil was one of the best.”
On a far more serious note, there was the sunny morning in July, 1982 when The Star’s then Royal correspondent, James Whitaker, was driving through Knightsbridge when he came across the carnage when two cavalrymen and seven of their horses had been blown to pieces by a Provisional IRA bomb.
A shaken and sickened Whitaker stopped and phoned the Star news desk to say he was an eye-witness to the horrific scene. Phil told me later James was so traumatised he was literally sobbing down the phone. James was largely incoherent, so Phil calmed him down and more or less interviewed him about the carnage and what he had witnessed. Phil then wrote the Page One splash and contributed to several news pages, which appeared the following day under the byline of James Whitaker.
Distinguished Mirror columnist Paul Callan, recalling the Zeebrugge Ferry disaster: “Phil was a wonderful colleague who would help you out of a pickle. He saved my bacon on one occasion. I was sent to Belgium to write colour about the sinking of the cross-channel ferry. But – and this was the only time in a long career that it happened – I got too pissed to file. No excuses. Phil was on the Mirror news desk and just told me to sleep it off. He then wrote a colour piece, in my style, and put it out. No one else knew, least of all at the editor. It even got a good show in the next day’s paper, complete with my by-line. I rang Phil the following day, full of thanks and a huge mea culpa. “He just said: ‘Don’t do it again and you owe me a pint!’.”
Callan, who cannot be here today due to health reasons, told me: “It was the act of a true colleague – and a brilliant, highly-skilled journalist.”
These are just a few examples of Phil Mellor, a man of integrity and absolute professionalism who I was proud to call a colleague and, better still, a friend.
Phil would have turned 70 today. I wish he was here so I could wish him many happy returns. Instead, Phil has joined his old Mirror editor Richard Stott, and other departed colleagues, including fellow editor Ernie Burrington, reporter Don Mackay and, sadly, more recently, former chairman of Mirror Group Tony Miles, and top photographer Bill Kennedy, in the Great Newsroom in the Sky. Rest in Peace, old pal: “I’ll keep your voice alive. Am Ah Right? Aam right me, armta?”

Phil: the Mentor – ALASTAIR CAMPBELL
It should surprise nobody that Phil ended up sharing his life with a teacher. Because HE was a teacher, and it is Phil the teacher, Phil the mentor, Phil the coach, that I want to talk about.
What do we look for in a teacher? We look for someone with greater knowledge than us. Phil knew so much, about the trade certainly, about stories, how to get them, what to do with them; but also about any issue, the ramifications of any story that suddenly arose. Knowledge poured out of him.
But we also look for someone willing to pass that knowledge on. Phil wanted you to succeed. He was the embodiment of that wonderful Harry Truman quote “It is amazing what a small group of men can achieve, provided nobody cares who gets the credit.’ Fair to say Phil was more Truman than Trump in his leadership style.
We want teachers to stretch us, but we want them to be kind. Phil’s kindness was in part what stretched us. He wanted us to do well. We wanted to do well for him. When Phil said to his young bucks in later years “I knew you when you were nowt!,” it was not the putdown often meant in that blunt Northern phrase, but a source of shared pride in progress made.
We want teachers who will forgive us our mistakes, but make sure we learn from them. I first came across Phil as a newly graduated Mirror trainee, not yet offered a staff job, so I was shifting around Fleet Street, and got a run of night shifts on the Daily Star. When Phil had interviewed me, I did not exactly say I could drive, but nor did I say that I couldn’t. So when The Sun dropped with a story that Phil wanted me to follow up by driving out to Essex, I had to admit the truth, I didn’t have a’car. ‘I’ll get you one to borrow,” he said. “I can’t actually drive”, I said, fearing my Star shifts were ending. Instead, Phil shouted across to the picture desk… “Sap, got a job for you in Essex.”
When we got back, Tony Sapiano having been unconvinced of the merits of the pictorial quality of the story, Phil took me aside. He didn’t TELL me to get a driving licence or else, as that was never his style. He suggested it would help my career if I did. He was a much better teacher than the various driving instructors I had, but at the fifth time of trying, I got my licence.
We want teachers to inspire us. That Phil did that was clear in so many of the letters sent to the family after he died, in which his humanity and decency shone through. Hugh Whittow on how Phil had encouraged him to leave The Star for a better job on The Sun, even though it would mean the loss of a good reporter to the newsroom, because he felt it would be good for Hugh’s career at that time. Jon Ungoed Thomas, now chief reporter at The Sunday Times, who said after being offered his first job on a national paper by Phil, filled with encouragement, wisdom and advice, he walked down Fleet Street feeling a foot taller. That feeling is the greatest gift a teacher can give, because it makes us what we become, and Jon is one of many who received that gift from Phil.
Phil made up his own mind about people, rather than listen to gossip. He saw it as his job to make sure that the young and unsure starting out were properly treated, made to feel welcome, always given encouragement.
So this, from James Saville – no, not that one – but news editor at the Sunday Mirror when Phil was there, who wrote to Phil’s son James: “I’m so sorry to hear about your Dad. He was such a positive influence on so many young journalists coming through the ranks, including myself. Unless talking about Sly Bailey, he was someone who never needed to shout and cause a drama to get his points heard – instead used his wit, wisdom and talent. On a personal level he really helped me open up when my own Dad passed away and we had many a good chat over a pint or two.”
Helping you when you’re struggling, that’s something else the good teacher does. I can see plenty of people in here who took their troubles to Phil at various points. He was a broad shoulder to cry on. He was a huge source of strength and support to me at my lowest point, after a breakdown in the mid-80s, when I thought my career was over.
We want teachers to calm us when we’re losing control. Many the frustrated reporter or the angry executive who has been advised by Phil to “sit down with a nice cup of milky tea”.
I have no doubt Phil could have gone higher up the executive ladder. But he was so much more comfortable with those who did the digging and doorstepping than those sat in leather chairs in their offices. Sly Bailey wasn’t the only executive to feel the wit… Mirrormen here will all remember the especially tall executive Phil liked to call “Dithering Heights”. Phil’s caustic wit tended to be directed up the hierarchy, his kindness and compassion in the other direction. That is why reporters, subs, secretaries, and drivers loved him.
He wasn’t just kind to reporters. Almost uniquely, he was really kind to readers. You’d be sitting there waiting for an assignment, and he’d put a call through from someone who had called the newsdesk, with the words “there’s no story in this, but have a chat with this old dear, she sounds lonely”.
That approach came from his teachers in journalism, his dad and his uncle who were something of legends in Manchester’s Fleet Street. The compassion at the heart of their journalism, as we will hear from James when he tells the story about Phil’s most prized possession, was the inspiration for his approach to journalism, and to life. Phil took his kindness everywhere he went.
In a world full of boasters and bull-shitters, Phil was a modest man with a lot to boast about, if he had been more Trump than Truman. I have never come across anyone who knew him who didn’t like him. That is quite an achievement, because let’s be honest, there are not many who have been through several decades in Fleet Street about whom that can be said.
So we will miss him. After forty odd years bantering about our respective struggling Lancashire football teams, him Bury, me Burnley, I will especially miss being able to send him pictures and messages from the European cities we will be playing in this year. I can hear him now… “Burnley in Europe? I knew them when they were nowt!…” – then that infectious chuckle that always carried the same message: “If it makes you happy, it makes me happy. If it’s good for you, it’s good for me.” That is the sign of a great teacher …

Bringing Sparkle to the DeskEDWARD MELLOR
Dad had such a special sense of humour. His quick wit was known to generations of journalists. The often repeated Mellor-isms could be relied upon to lighten the mood when newsrooms were tense or to placate frustrated reporters.
Dad was equally witty on paper and delighted in pricking pomposity with a pen. “Bringing Sparkle to the Desk” is one such example. It’s a memo dad sent to a senior executive – whose blushes we’ve spared.
Dear x,
As per instructions, I passed on your message to Jane Adams about having a quick tidy up of your desk at the weekend.
Her initial reaction offended my young ears.
It was along the lines that during 30 years in journalism she had been asked to do most things, some of which I assume may have been of a sexual nature. However, she had never been asked to be a Mrs Mopp!
I offered to purchase a pair of Marigold gloves, a new J-cloth, some Mr Sheen and an anti-static duster. She immediately quoted some Human Rights clause and a threat of legal action.
I therefore took her tirade as a refusal.
She did point out that she never actually sits at the high table of the News Desk. Knowing her station in life, she sits where I normally sit on a Friday.
She rather inferred that those who make the mess should clear it up.
She said the eighteen properties that she owns around the country are always spotless. She has a staff of cleaners and would be happy to give you their names and addresses
Pip, Pip
Mr Sheen, who shines everything clean.

Phil: a Man of PrincipalJAMES MELLOR

“I have received a letter that makes me proud.
“The wife of a distinguished public figure was innocently enmeshed in a tragedy of a very shocking nature. She as a result became the object of undignified and ill-mannered attention by reporters.
“One man among them showed a proper respect and sympathy for her feelings. That man got the facts because he alone could be trusted to deal with them factually and without exaggeration for dramatic effect.
“As a reporter, he lived up to the highest traditions of his profession, and as a member of one of my staffs he brought credit – and his story – to Kemsley Newspapers.”
This letter was written about Phil’s journalist father, Frank, by the newspaper baron Lord Kemsley. It was an enormous source of pride for Dad – and a source of inspiration. Framed and hanging on the hallway wall, it was rare for Dad not to read it before heading off to work.
As a boy, Dad would sit on the stairs and listen to Frank dispensing advice to young reporters whom he’d invited back to the family home in Bury for tea. Frank’s willingness to share his knowledge and to encourage reporters had a lasting effect on Dad – and he took it with him to Fleet Street.
No stranger to its watering holes, it’s fair to say that Dad enjoyed the boisterous celebrations that inevitably followed a scoop and the baiting of reporters from rival newspapers.
But you were just as likely to find him in a quiet corner with a reporter who needed thoughtful and practical advice on how to save his investigation, his job or even his marriage.
If a colleague ever sought Dad’s help – professional or personal – he would give it, no matter what. Dad liked reporters who didn’t just talk the talk, but also walked the walk – preferably in suitably shined shoes.
More than a few people here will have been told by Dad: “I can’t send you out to interview a cabinet minister wearing shoes like that.”
I don’t know if Alastair [Campbell] was ever denied an interview on the grounds of scuffed shoes, but it further illustrates Dad’s belief that if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing properly.
Ironically, when Dad was at home tending to his vegetable plot, he would dress rather like the scruffy brother of Compo from Last of the Summer Wine.
Not that he was shy about it. Dad would delight in going to the local shops, raising a foot to show off the gaping hole in his shoe and telling a bemused assistant: “Specially air-conditioned, don’t you know.”
Dad loved military history and his favourite film was Zulu. He was particularly fond of Colour Sergeant Frank Bourne, as portrayed by the actor Nigel Green. It was not unknown for Dad to arrive home late and watch Zulu, toasting the victory at Rorke’s Drift with a brandy and singing along to Men of Harlech. On one occasion, he was found unsteadily re-enacting the movie with a sofa doubling as the famous mission station and the family dog as a sandbag.
The sentiments expressed in many letters after Dad’s death reminded me of Colour Sergeant Bourne – no-nonsense, straight-talking, avuncular, kind.
As one former colleague said: “Phil provided stability in a frenzied newsroom, a spirit of calm, wit and humanity whenever the going got rough – as it often did.”
But Colour Sergeant Mellor – the devoted family man – had a sensitive side.
He covered Lockerbie, the Brighton bombing and the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, but the story of which he was most proud was about Tara King, a little blind girl forced to live in a squalid Nottingham council flat with her single mum – no heating and with mould growing on the walls.
It was the day of a royal wedding with Princess Anne marrying Commander Tim Laurence – a no-brainer splash for the red tops.
But having recruited the legendary Mirror agony aunt Marge Propps to his cause, Dad convinced the then Mirror editor Richard Stott to splash on the story of Tara – and highlight Britain’s social inequality.
Setting aside the fact that it appeared necessary for the Mirror in those days to have an agony aunt actually in conference, it shows how Dad – through the pages of the Mirror – felt a duty to help sing those songs of angry men.
Dad disliked bullies – be they hypocritical politicians, fat cat utility chiefs and even abusive readers. The tirade of one reader was silenced when Dad interrupted to say that he planned to visit a church on the way home so he could light a candle – for the man’s family.
On another occasion, he wrote a personal cheque for £10 to a reader who had wrongly thought he had got three numbers on the National Lottery due to a printing error. Dad’s accompanying note suggested that if the reader really had balls, he’d double the sum and donate it charity.
As Frank had done for Phil, Dad inspired me to become a journalist. As a boy, I too listened as he shared stories of Fleet Street escapades, campaigns fought and won and supporting reporters. It says everything that all I’ve ever needed to gain approval in a newsroom is for someone to tell the reporting team: “He’s Phil Mellor’s son.”
I’ll leave the pay-off not to a newspaper baron, but to one of Dad’s reporters – as I think he would have wanted.
“Whenever I think of Phil, I hear the voice, funny with a mordant wit, but devoid of cynicism – as authentic as he was. He remained the Northern lad with a mission to champion the underdog. It motivated him, both as a journalist and as a human being.
“Phil was quintessentially Mirror – the one we were all proud to work for.”

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