Sat, 20 April, 2024

Reflections of a Mirror Man

Posted: May 24th, 2021

IT’S hard to believe now but sports stories were once confined to back pages of Fleet Street newspapers. John Jackson was a pioneer at the Daily Mirror who changed all that, realising that sports-news stories from Olympic Games, World Cups, Wimbledon tennis and cricket tests aroused as much – if not more – interest as the competitions themselves.

The reporters who asked the questions the sportswriters dare not, in case they lost a contact, were named the Rotters. And John Jackson was known as the Chief Rotter.

Away from sport he covered everything from historic court cases and major crime to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and show-business scandals, ending his 35-year Fleet Street career at the death of his publisher Robert Maxwell off the Canary Islands.

One of Fleet Street’s legendary lunchtime raconteurs, John Jackson considers himself lucky to have been part of the best days in journalism, which to the present generations now seem as distant as the time of the dinosaurs. Fleet Street life may have been one long party, but the revels had a serious side too, and told millions of readers who bought their daily newspapers from street stalls, newsboys, or had them delivered to their homes every morning, how the world was shaping with terrible events, triumphs as well as glad days.

It seemed the great times would never end, but suddenly, with the arrival of new technology, the internet, social media and 24-hour rolling news, they did.

John Jackson wrote about so much – a man sentenced to death at the Old Bailey, earthquakes, murders, dog shows and showbiz shenanigans. But he was also the first in Fleet Street to get sports news events moved from the back, or even inner sports pages to the front of the paper.

And here’s that exclusive extract we promised you…


DALEY Thompson will go down in history as one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen, certainly the best this country has ever produced. It takes some all-rounder to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals and break the world record four times in the most gruelling of events – the decathlon. Despite the fact that his fame was achieved at the two Games – Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 – which were boycotted in turn by the super-powers, his performances were outstanding.

But when it came to public relations Daley was a non-starter. When competing he could run, jump, throw like a true champion, but one of his favourite activities was to tell the media to take a running jump. His behaviour in this and other areas often won over some public support but at times he overstepped the mark.

When Daley won BBC Sports Personality in 1982 he shambled forward on live TV wearing a track suit, and muttered something which sounded like: “I need a shit.” But nothing really can compare with [the result of] my intervention at a crowded press conference in Los Angeles when Daley suggested he was going to have babies with Princess Anne.

It all came on the day when Daley won his second decathlon gold and celebrated in his own controversial way. He brandished a T-shirt which suggested that “the world’s second-greatest athlete is gay” – a reference to America’s sprinting maestro Carl Lewis, who won four golds at those 1984 Games. On the victory rostrum Daley stuck his hands in his pockets and whistled during the playing of God Save the Queen.

Olympic Games 1984, Los Angeles, USA. Pic: Thanks to Mirrorpix

Then came the press conference in a massive tent, attended by several hundred journalists. Strict instructions were given that no one could speak until a microphone was handed to them. Sadly, sporting press conferences can often be dominated by nonsensical questions, usually from Americans. (“Daley, today you jumped 2.03m in the high jump. If you could go again would you jump higher?”)

Standing near my mate Jeremy Thompson (then ITN, later Sky), I decided I couldn’t stand anymore of this banal quizzing, so shouted: “Daley, the first person to congratulate you on the track was Princess Anne. What did she say to you?”

“She said I was a jolly good looking fellow,” replied Daley, who I am sure was pleased to have a non-decathlon question thrown at him.

I kept going, despite calls from the organisers to wait until a microphone had arrived. “Yesterday you said that if you retained your Olympic title you intended to have a rest and have babies. Who are you having these babies with?”

To a stunned audience the reply came: “You’ve just mentioned the lady.”

No stopping me now, so I hit back: “What does Capt Mark Phillips (Princess Anne’s then husband) think about this?”

“He hopes they’re all white.”

Needless to say apoplexy set in among the press chief and his microphone bearers, and with no help from colleagues my line of questioning was halted. But as it turned out, Daley decided he had had enough and headed for the exit alongside me. As he pulled up alongside I told him: “That’s your knighthood gone.” To which he replied: “I guess so.”

At that very moment he was stopped in his tracks when a television camera and microphone were pushed in his face, and a reporter said: “Station ABCD San Diego. Daley Thompson, tonight you must be a very happy man?”

Daley, who had a habit like other great sportsmen – John McEnroe and Ian Botham, when young, come to mind – of clicking his brain from lunatic to sensible, adopted a very serious tone. He had spent six months leading up to the Olympics training in San Diego.

“Daley Thompson, today you won a gold medal for Great Britain but would it be fair to say that a portion of it could be shared with the people of San Diego?”

Sensible Daley replied: “Yes, I must thank all the people of San Diego for the help, kindness and courtesy they have shown me. Without them I could not have won and, yes, I devote a part of my medal to them.”

Once again the same question: “Daley Thompson, tonight you must be a very happy man?”

Click, and brain was back in lunatic mode. “Yeah,” said Daley, “I haven’t been so happy since my granny caught her tits in the mangle.” The TV interview was terminated amid shouts of “cut”.

Two years later, at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Daley was up to both his winning and controversial tricks again. He won another gold medal without too much trouble. But the Games were sponsored by Guinness, and Daley took offence to this. Each athlete wore a bib with their number under the name Guinness.

On the first day of the decathlon my photographer colleague Monte Fresco spotted through his long lens that Daley had blacked out the word Guinness. In order to ask him about it I had to wait for a long time while he trained on the practice track in preparation for the second day of competition.

He finally strode off, holding a bottle of Coca Cola to his lips. When I asked why he had removed Guinness from his bib, he snarled: “I don’t drink the stuff, so why should I advertise it?”

Daley was then well known, and no doubt well remunerated, for his TV commercials advertising the drink Lucozade. I replied: “You advertise Lucozade, why are you drinking a big rival Coca Cola?” With that he threw the bottle on to the ground, and strode off.

Daley Thompson has become a great sporting ambassador for this country and does an awful lot of good work to help children and budding athletes. The world would be a sadder place without his like, whatever mode his brain is in.


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