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THE Morning Star would not have lasted nearly 90 years without the efforts of numbers of unsung heroes.
Journalists, fundraisers, printers, lawyers and more, on the staff or not, Britain’s socialist daily could not have survived bans, advertising boycotts and institutional hostility if we hadn’t been able to count on the dedication of comrades ready to move heaven and Earth for the paper over the decades.
Among its journalists a number of names stand out for the brilliance of their contributions — among them our founding editor William Rust, who also distinguished himself with his war reporting from Spain; the longstanding chief subeditor George Allan Hutt, under whose stewardship the paper won numerous design awards and who was also the longest ever editor of the NUJ journal The Journalist; reporter Alan Winnington, whose eyewitness pamphlet I Saw the Truth in Korea’s exposure of war crimes by Britain’s ally South Korea proved so explosive that the Tory Cabinet discussed prosecuting our then editor JR Campbell for treason.
Future histories of our paper will recognise John Haylett, who retired last month after 35 years working for the Morning Star, among that illustrious company.
Our political editor for the last 11 years, John was editor of the Morning Star from 1995 to 2008, a period in which it emerged from the aftermath of the cold war to develop a distinct identity and role on the 21st-century left, grew in size (weekday editions in 1995 were often just eight pages, while John used his last column as editor to announce its rise to 16 and 20 at weekends) and moved to full colour printing.
For a newspaper proudly associated with the cause of international socialism, the ’90s, when Francis Fukuyama was proclaiming the “end of history” and Tony Blair dismantling the Labour Party’s commitment to socialism by ditching Clause IV, were a difficult decade.
Lots of observers didn’t expect the Morning Star to survive; our longstanding former news editor and parliamentary reporter Roger Bagley recalls Blair himself evading a question by answering: “The Morning Star? Does that still exist?” to titters from his assembled cronies. That it did, and does still, is in no small part down to John’s determination that it should.
“I would not downplay the enormous contribution of [John’s predecessor as editor] Tony Chater or [then chief executive of the PPPS co-op] Mary Rosser in saving the paper by maintaining its politics in the 1980s and early ’90s” (when the Communist Party of Great Britain abandoned much of its class politics, expelled many of its members and eventually dissolved itself), says the leader of the re-established Communist Party Robert Griffiths. “But I would say it was John as editor who secured the survival of the paper after that.
“John said the only way to survive was to grow. He pushed hard for investment in the Morning Star and battled to win it new friends in the trade union movement and across the left politically.”
When the paper under John’s leadership moved to its current premises in 2003, Bob Crow and Tony Benn were among those who addressed the reception to mark the event; Crow’s assessment that “the only voice that we have in the workplace on a daily basis as a newspaper is the Morning Star” and Benn’s salute to “overwhelmingly the best daily newspaper in Britain” showed that John’s efforts had paid off and the importance of maintaining a socialist voice in the media was being increasingly recognised across the movement.
By that point John had been working at the paper for 20 years. Roger, then news editor, first encountered him as a “militant rank-and-filer” delegate at a conference of the Union of Post Office Workers (which became the Union of Communication Workers in 1980 and part of today’s CWU in 1995).
An operator in international telecoms, he led a strike at the International Exchange and was already a Communist Party cadre. He joined the Morning Star in 1983 as a reporter, at a time when the struggle between Eurocommunists and those who remained committed to a Marxist-Leninist class struggle outlook in the Communist Party of Great Britain was getting acute.
Roger recalls that news of John’s recruitment “ruffled the feathers of the right-wing mob … I was warned: ‘Watch out, they’re putting this hard man in’.”
“But Chater was playing a very good role,” Roger continues, “the Communist Party leadership and the right on the paper were trying to stop solid comrades from coming on. John didn’t have journalistic experience. But from the start it was clear he wanted to learn the trade.
“As a news editor it was a joy. He was a first-rate journalist who wanted to learn — and very modest. We got a lot of graduates who felt they would ‘do two years at the paper’ as a sort of contribution to the movement but weren’t really interested in learning journalism. But John picked up on everything. One day I said to him: ‘You never know when a story might drop — it pays to have an overnight bag ready in case you need to dash off somewhere.’ The very next day he came in with a bag with essentials. He was ready to be sent anywhere at any notice.”
That flexibility has always been an essential requirement at a hand-to-mouth, small staffed operation like the Morning Star. Doing my own work experience at the paper in 2001, I got my first introduction to the musical-chairs aspect of working at the paper, when production editor (and later editor) Bill Benfield approached John as we were talking.
“Foreign department’s sick,” Bill said in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the paper’s practice of referring to the occupants of one-person desks as manager or editor of that desk, implying a larger operation than we in fact have.
“I guess I’m doing it then,” John sighed. In my two-week placement I also came to recognise the kindness that Roger also remembers, with John, together with Bill and then circulation manager Ivan Beavis, ensuring I was looked after, given a varied range of roles to shadow to get the most out of my time there and checking in each morning and evening to see how I was doing.
“He had a reputation for toughness but he was very kind and considerate when members of staff had problems,” Roger says.
Among staff he had a reputation for a sharp sense of humour — “Scouse humour,” Roger says — and an unfailing attention to detail.
Long after he had stepped down as editor, I and colleagues were used to receiving morning emails politely pointing out each error in that morning’s paper.
Knowing that John had proofread something was a guarantee it wouldn’t contain mistakes.
Assistant editor Ros Sitwell recalls him wandering round the newsroom irate because he had mislaid his red pen for correcting page-proofs. “Attention everybody!” Bill cried, “John’s lost his rod of correction!”
“Surely you mean the red of correction,” John parried. “No, you’re the red of correction,” Bill retorted.
Chief subeditor Indie Purcell agrees that John has been “always educating but never patronising. I personally have so much to thank him for — when and when not to use possessive apostrophes, for instance. I’m grateful for his dedication to the paper and his unwavering support for the staff — always happy to get us out of a pickle when we desperately needed his help. Not to mention those 5am emails pointing out the ‘one is too many’ errors that had slipped through the net.
“The Star will certainly be a poorer place without John’s boundless wisdom, sharp wit and friendly — mild but stern — manner.
So thanks for everything, John, you are AMAZEBALLS,” Indie says.
His humour often comes out in emails — initially sharp-sounding reproofs for mistakes would soon soften when you explained circumstances. Once, when I pointed out how many people had called in sick in response to a criticism, he replied: “Sounds more like the Marie Celeste than a newsroom, Ben. Carry on.”
Or he would take people to task for mistakes of a different nature, showing his own love of good food and wine — after an email from Ivan saying he would be unable to complete a Fund column because he was on his way to “12 oysters and a bottle of Chianti at the Fete” (de l’Humanité), John was appalled.
“Oysters with Chianti Ivan you fecking barbarian! The only acceptable accompaniment to oysters is a bottle of Muscadet sur Lie, as you will find at the various Breton stalls. Christiane will be disgusted with your lack of judgement.”
John’s political shrewdness and attention to detail meant he rose quickly at the Morning Star. His first major reporting job was joining the People’s March for Jobs and reporting from it.
Then came the miners’ strike of 1984-85, in which his “skills as a journalist and incisive analysis of the class struggle” were noticed.
In 1985 he became assistant editor and he succeeded Dave Whitfield as deputy editor in 1989. Mick Costello, who worked as the paper’s lead industrial reporter at the time, praises his “feel for the politics of the labour movement.
“He always displays limitless optimism and energy and his devotion to the Communist Party and the Morning Star are exceptional,” Mick says. “In that period he displayed a great respect for the socialist countries. He was not sycophantic, but he understood the tremendous importance of the Soviet bloc and of solidarity with it.”
Mick recalls John’s deep interest in liberation movements, particularly his work in solidarity with the Grenadian left after its revolution was crushed by the US invasion of 1983, his support for Cuba and his close work with Britain’s South African community in the struggle against apartheid.
John’s interest in South African politics has remained strong, and when the Morning Star wanted an expert to cover the Cuban role in the fight against apartheid for our Cuban Revolution 60th anniversary special in December, I went straight to him.
He was always ready for political debate: “Anyone listening to us would have imagined we were having a row, but we never were,” Mick says.
John was the obvious choice to succeed Chater when the latter announced his retirement in 1994, and he did so, but the paper’s chief executive Mary Rosser intended her son-in-law for the role.
When John successfully nominated Rob Griffiths as general secretary to the first executive after the 1997 Communist Party congress, the row exploded, with Rosser, wife of sitting general secretary Mike Hicks, sacking him on trumped-up charges.
The six-week strike that followed by journalists demanding his reinstatement illustrates the high regard in which he was held and is covered in more detail by David Nicholson in this pullout.
“John’s contribution is about much more than the internal battles we had to face,” Rob says, “but he was always one of the staunchest. If a confrontation was necessary, he would win over the faint hearts.”
These confrontations were never personal but about matters of deepest principle — as previously observed the strike was not merely about who sat in the editor’s chair but about securing a future for the Morning Star.
And John’s communist principles are evident in all aspects of his life. Colleagues and friends note his passionate opposition to “all forms of racism and prejudice,” and John’s willingness to take on racists extended to physical confrontation which once brought the unwelcome attention of the law.
Rob, best man at John’s wedding to Sian in Cardiganshire, says the residents of a rural county hotel there had never seen so many people of Caribbean descent there — and that many of these guests, from John’s family, said they had never had such a warm reception from a white community.
“Some have supported the Welsh rugby team ever since,” he chuckles. “John’s great pleasure at any social. He just seems to love people, their weaknesses as much as their strengths. And he’s the staunchest, most loyal friend anyone could wish to have, though someone who will always speak his mind without hesitation.”
The tribute certainly ties in with John’s mentoring, advice and support throughout my time at the paper, with periodic disagreements on one political matter or another never getting in the way of an excellent working relationship.
He showed boundless willingness to help the Star in whatever way he could, not dreaming of retirement until his illness made it essential and actually increasing his workload over the past year.
As soon as technological changes in the production process introduced in December 2017 meant John could effectively help proofread from his home in Cardiff, where he moved with his wife in 2006, he offered to help do this and was soon taking on a huge amount of copy-editing while continuing to supply numerous editorials and regular features.
Despite not having worked in the newsroom on a regular basis for 12 years, everyone felt the impact when he was signed off sick at the end of last year, such was the enormous daily contribution he was still making.
There cannot be many in the paper’s history who have given so much of themselves to its success.
As Jeremy Corbyn, another longstanding friend who joined the NUJ picket lines of the official dispute to demand his reinstatement as editor in 1998, says: “John has stood by his principles of trade unionism, solidarity and internationalism. His work for the Morning Star has ensured we all have a daily paper of the left.
“It brings us news and views that challenge injustice, racism and reports on struggles all over the world. Thanks John for all the work, humour and solidarity — from one of the readers.”
Thousands of other readers, along with colleagues, comrades and friends, will also be saluting John’s fantastic work as we mark his retirement.
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