"Notes from Unreasonable Behavior"
Don McCullen, Unreasonable Behavior: an Autobiography (London: Vintage Books/Random House, 1992)
THE NASTIEST PLACE ON EARTH
THE RUMBLINGS SINCE Rupert Murdoch's arrival at the Sunday Times became much more ominous towards the end of 1983 when there was a change of editor. Frank Giles, a survivor of the old regime, was edged into early retirement to make way for a man little more than half his age.
Andrew Neil, then thirty-four, although he looked much older, was said to be Murdoch's first choice as editor. He was appointed, it was said, to shake up the newspaper, to get those staff who would serve the new Murdoch purpose hopping in fear of their lives, and those who would not on the road. The idea was, in business parlance, to emerge with a leaner, fitter and more profitable enterprise, stripped of all unserviceable assets. It was a sign of the Thatcher times.
I didn't have much chance to appreciate Neil's early impact because the magazine had mercifully sent me off to 'the nastiest place on earth.'
The plan was for Simon Winchester and I to identify and then go and explore the place that best fitted that description. It obviously had to be one of those African republics where the leader always had a fresh supply of blood in the fridge, but the problem was deciding which one. In the end we homed in on the island of Fernando Po in the Republic of Equatorial Guinea where, as Simon later put it, independence had 'transformed purgatory into hell.'
The country had not long since got rid of its Amin-figure. Macias Nguena Bioko, the deranged leader of a tribe known as the Fang, had led the revolt against Spanish rule. As president of Equatorial Guinea, he ruled by terror, superstition and arbitrary edict, killing off countless subjects and twelve of his own ministers. The church was banned. When his wife Monica ran off, he issued a decree forbidding any child to be named Monica. Life after Macias had scarcely improved. A United Nations report on the country described it simply, and accurately, as 'decomposed.' On the island of Fernando Po plantations were overgrown and the cocoa crop lay rotting and unharvested while people starved in the streets. Poverty and demoralization were all around. Simon and I spent most of our fortnight there sleeping on warehouse floors and dining on bananas and stewed rat.
It was a relief to get back to civilization, though soon after reaching London, at a dinner party with Larraine, I started feeling very strange, very sick and -- after one glass of wine -- very drunk. She took me to the local hospital, where they diagnosed a stomach upset and sent me home. It was only due to Larraine's persistence I didn't die from cerebral malaria. Eventually she got me into the Tropical Diseases hospital where they diagnosed and treated the real condition. At the same time Simon Winchester was in the isolation wing of a hospital in Oxford, suffering from the same revenge of Fernando Po. pp. 270-271
When I was well enough to get my bearings again, Andrew Neil was in the fourth month of his reign at the Sunday Times. Distinct parallels with Equatorial Guinea were emerging. Demoralization was widespread. Heads rolled. Reporters complained of their copy being axed, or rewritten; political lines were enforced; photographers moaned about cut-backs.
Redundancies were on offer and many rushed to take them as a retreat from what they saw as a bullying regime. Each day would see another person clearing his desk. It was obvious that Neil had an open checque to clear out the old Harry Evans hierarchy and replace it with his own loyalists, more amenable to Murdoch's way of thinking. p. 271
. . .
The work did not dry up by accident. At an early stage Neil gathered the magazine staff around him to describe the way ahead. A friend who was at the meeting summed up its message for me when I returned from abroad: no more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues. And that was the direction things took. p. 272
[Something he said resulted in Don McCullen leaving the Sunday Times]
. . .
“I still work for the Sunday Times, but they don’t use me. I stand around in the office, and don’t know why I’m there. The paper has completely changed: it’s not a newspaper, it’s a consumer magazine, really no different from a mail order catalogue. And what do I do, model safari suits? Cover some Women’s Institute reception? . . . People are starting to reject, or at least turn their backs on my sort. They seem happy with the way the press is developing. The certainly don’t need me to show them nasty pictures. I should wise up: what is the point of killing myself for a newspaper proprietor who wouldn’t bat an eyelid on hearing you’d died?” p. 273
HEART OF DARKNESS
"There as a kind of shock wave going through Fleet Street -- and not only Fleet Street, but the whole of the magazine world. It was the unofficial announcement of the end of photo-journalism. There were the monetarist-sharp Eighties and they didn't want any more shocking pictures of war, horror and famine. They wanted style. They wanted to go for consumer images. No marketing operation wanted its products advertised alongside a dying child in Ethiopia or Beirut. Now they didn't have to worry any more. The newspapers were on their side.
Domestic marketing could hardly be the driving force of what I understood by journalism." [emphasis added] p. 276