Sun, 21 July, 2024

Graham Ball

Posted: May 5th, 2020

We’ve just heard the sad news that the Sunday People’s GRAHAM BALL died yesterday [May 4, 2020]. Pictured here in 1984, Graham had been admitted to a London hospital following a fall at his home. Tributes and more when we have them. (Pic: Mirrorpix)

With thanks to RIC PAPINEAU, FRANK THORNE and others:     GRAHAM BALL, who has died at the age of 69, was from Fleet Street’s old school. An investigative and campaigning journalist for more than 35 years, his newspaper life stretched from tabloid exposés on the Sunday People to investigations for TV’s The Cook Report, and encompassed campaigns for The Independent as well as leaders and literary reviews for the Express.

He was part of an era of excess, but is remembered as much for his prodigious intellect and humour as for the drinking escapades that were inseparable from a newspaper career. A man who was interested in everything and made everything interesting, he followed his love of history with a BA in the subject at Birkbeck College in his fifties, and was working towards an MA on “press and propaganda in wartime” in his retirement.

But cricket was Graham’s lifelong passion. In 1978 he gathered together some journalist colleagues to form The Grub Street Casuals, and for the next two decades he organised and captained the team, and led the bowling attack with pin-point accuracy.

Graham was born in Rochford, Essex and grew up in Leigh-on-Sea. After leaving Southend High School he won a place on the prestigious Mirror training scheme based in Plymouth, a spawning ground for many national newspaper journalists. During training on the Devon newspapers, Graham met his future wife, fellow trainee Tessa Hilton, who went on the edit the Sunday Mirror.

Another trainee and Fleet Street journalist, Richard Holledge, remembers trying to set up a South Devon branch of the Young Liberals with Graham. Holledge recalls: “We ran a news item in the South Devon News. However, only two turned up for the inaugural meeting; Graham and me. And he was late”.

Bally, as he became known, loved a big car, but could afford only gas-guzzling old wrecks in the early days, and friends remember how, to nobody’s surprise except Graham’s, they would break down. He bid for and bought a much loved Jag despite seeing it pushed into the auction.

Hopelessly lost on the way to a story in another bargain buy, and finally stuck in an increasingly boggy track, he was forced to park and proceed on foot. Returning next day, the track proved to be part of the River Tamar as the tide turned. Water now flowed through the car’s radiator grill – and the car had been stripped of its wheels.

In 1972 Graham joined the Sunday People in Manchester, transferring to London two years later. In 1977, during an exposé of the notorious convicted paedophile and self-styled Bishop of Medway Roger Gleaves, Graham and two other reporters, David Alford and Frank Murphy, helped to organise the rescue of Tommy Wylie, a previous victim who had fallen back into Gleaves’s clutches, and hid him away in a bolthole in the country.

David Alford takes up the story: “That was our undoing because Gleaves was suing everyone connected to his past – the TV documentary makers, even the Wandsworth barber who cut his hair. Wylie was an essential witness in one of Gleaves’s private prosecutions, and Gleaves convinced a stipendiary magistrate that we were withholding his witness.

“Frank, Graham and I were hauled before the magistrate by the police and our reluctance to say where Wylie was got us a night in Brixton Prison. What really worried us was that we might be going back to Brixton for another night – for a second strip search, compulsory public bath and screaming, demented prisoners keeping us awake. Fortunately the Mirror Group lawyers won our release minutes before the strip-searches began.” All the charges were later dismissed.

The fate of all top reporters is to be promoted away from their métier, and so it was with Graham. He was moved to the news desk and to edit the People’s showbusiness gossip column before being made head of investigations.

In 1989 he joined The Sun as assistant editor, but on his first day discovered the previous incumbent was still in position. Telling Kelvin MacKenzie: “You offered me one of the best jobs in Fleet Street. Let me know when it’s free”, Graham walked out on day two, prompting MacKenzie to run a story on the “shortest-lived executive” with a cartoon of Graham climbing over the wall at Wapping. The Mirror retaliated with a photofit of Kelvin illustrating a story about “the psychopath boss who drove an exec to quit his job in less than 48 hours”. Graham eventually won his employment case against The Sun.

Graham freelanced for The Oldie and The Independent, and, with Tim Minogue, set up one of the first outsourcing operations producing a weekly supplement, Crime Buster, for the Sunday People. In 1997, Graham was freelancing for TV’s The Cook Report and was researching the fugitive fraudster Asil Nadir, whose company, Polly Peck, collapsed in 1991 with debts of £1.3 billion. Roger Cook remembers: “Nadir was an absolute charmer, and was adept at playing games with numbers, but Graham saw through him in short order. Terrier-like, he pursued the story through innumerable twists and turns until we had the ammunition we needed. Nothing was too much trouble.

“On one occasion in Cyprus we had to travel between the north and south of that divided island, across the so-called Green Line. To do this, you had to fly out to a neutral country and then back in again, and we simply didn’t have the time. The ever-resourceful Graham found us a man whose abandoned house straddled the border, and for a small fee we left the north of Cyprus through his front door and arrived in the south through the back door. Job done!”

Graham later joined the Independent on Sunday, and as campaigns editor he masterminded Rosie Boycott’s crusade to decriminalise cannabis, which included organising the rally in Trafalgar Square in 1998. He also travelled with Unicef, reporting on the plight of children in Cambodia and in the Philippines.

He followed Boycott to the Express, and for the rest of his newspaper years, under the editorship Martin Townsend, Graham was campaigns editor, comment editor and literary editor of the Express and then Sunday Express. He enjoyed mentoring younger writers, and commissioning and writing reviews and comment. Running the books page allowed him to indulge his appetite for biography, military and newspaper history, and philosophy.

As skipper of his Grub Street Casuals, Graham was known for his tenacious bowling. Wicketkeeper Roy Wright remembers: “Graham was the best. He was deceptively good, with his short run-up fooling the batsmen into thinking he was a slow bowler – but the ball usually came fizzing through. I always wanted to stand up to the stumps to his bowling but he was just too quick so I had to stand back. No disrespect to Grub St, but Graham could have played cricket at a much higher level.”

Regular players included Tim Minogue, Garth Gibbs, Frank Thorne, David Alford, Roy Wright, Ric Papineau and Richard Holledge, along with dozens of others making occasional appearances on Sundays and on the annual tours in England and Wales.

Grub Street Casuals CC on tour in the mid-80s: Back row, left to right – Evenden Junior, Richard Holledge, Skipper Graham Ball, Gerard Kiley, John Smyth, David Papineau, David Barnes. Front row, l to r: Tim Minogue, Frank Thorne, Roy Wright, Ric Papineau

When the papers moved out of Fleet Street it became too difficult to keep the team going, and Graham joined his local Buckhurst Hill Cricket Club where he was a player, secretary and then chairman.

Bally had his demons but is remembered by many as the most big-hearted man in the room; a great conversationalist, raconteur, and humorist, still collecting stories wherever he happened to be. After spending time at Kenward Trust rehab in Yalding, Kent, he settled in the village. With his unfailing interest in everyone and everything, he made good friendships, enjoyed the Yalding Art Group and was welcomed by the community.

He is survived by Tessa, his children Oscar, Thomas and Rebecca and four grandchildren.

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