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Best job in the world
After almost 50 years in the same job, one might expect the novelty to have diminished somewhat. But Argus Appeal Patron Nick Owen admits he still gets a thrill from seeing his byline on a story, still “can’t understand”
why anyone wouldn’t want to be a journalist.
Now a part-time presenter for BBC News, the 65-year-old says, “I can’t believe, even now, I’m being paid to do something so compelling.”
Owen started his career aged 17, when he was taken on by the Surrey Mirror, a paper he continues to write for today. He’d left school a year earlier but, as he writes in new memoir Days Like This, that was no hindrance in journalism, where “a five O-Level boy stood as much chance as an Oxbridge graduate when it came to getting and reporting the news”.
He progressed to Fleet Street, working in the City office of the Evening Standard, where he recalls a baffling introduction to the City editor, who informed him they were terribly busy because the pound “was roaring its head off”. The 1960s and 1970s were golden years for journalists, with lengthy liquid lunches a standard practice and expenses considered to be there for the fiddling. Owen describes a colleague being called into the editor’s office and told his large expenses claim was “quite unacceptable”.
It needed to be much larger, the editor explained, or queries would be raised about other reporters’ claims.
There’s a sense, reading the book, of a man who’s never been able to believe his good fortune.
After making a gaffe at the Standard which led to the threat of libel proceedings, Owen feared it was all over. Then he was offered a job on the Financial Times. He began his TV career in 1981 by walking into the BBC’s appointments department and telling the woman behind the counter he would like to work for them. It’s a route, he writes, that could not possibly be copied by journalists today. Owen later spent 17 years with ITN, before becoming, to his great surprise, royal correspondent for ITV. He had always had a strong feeling that the monarchy was an anachronism.
“But I always say if a door is even a quarter open, go through it. There’s nothing worse than regrets.”
As it turned out, those were to be some of the most significant years of his career.
He spent time with Princess Diana – at the time, our first real global celebrity – and later had the grim task of covering her death.
“I still think those were some of the saddest few days in modern British history,” he writes. But “the lessons of Diana” have since been learned by everyone – not just the Royal Family, but also the media. Rather than drawing parallels between Kate Middleton and Diana, as some have, he sees differences. “I see a Royal Family much more conscious of the need to help and embrace a newcomer. I see someone much more poised and worldly than Diana ever was and someone who, as far as I can see, is marrying someone who will give her the love and affection we all need.”
Now living in Reigate, Surrey, with second wife Brenda (a former reporter for The Argus), Owen considers himself fortunate to remain “ringside”
at major news stories. He has always been able to switch off, however. “A lot of journalists I know are news-aholics; I’m not. I’ve always found it possible to go on holiday and not worry about what’s happening in the news.”
He has four grown-up daughters, one of whom spent seven years working as a reporter for the Daily Mirror. He was delighted, of course. Even in the midst of the phone-hacking scandal and plummeting newspaper sales, he continues to encourage anyone considering journalism as a career.
“It’s like all the things that are worthwhile in life – if someone really wants to do it, they should do it. Even with all the difficulties we’re facing, there will always be a role for journalists in whatever form the media takes in the future.”
Has he ever entertained the notion of a different career? “I left school with the equivalent of five GCSEs and I know I couldn’t have gone on to university – and I never had any desire to – but I’ve always thought I might have liked to have been a history teacher at a good university. But that’s if I hadn’t been a journalist, which I firmly believe is the most interesting and fun way to spend your life.”
* Days Like This is published by Blenheim Press Ltd, priced £9.95. Read our review opposite