Born with Coal Dust in His Navel, His Victims Now Include Top Ministers, a Spin-Doctor and a PM's Peace of Mind

By Aitken, Ian | New Statesman (1996), January 15, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Born with Coal Dust in His Navel, His Victims Now Include Top Ministers, a Spin-Doctor and a PM's Peace of Mind


Aitken, Ian, New Statesman (1996)


One of Private Eye's many contributions to Fleet Street's rich folklore is the invention of Lunchtime O' Booze as the archetype of the steam-age, pre-computerised journalist. Hacks just like him could once be found in all the pubs that lined the Street of Shame. He and his sort thrived on typewriters, telephones and beer. They have found the e-mail revolution more challenging.

Private Eye once named grumpy old George Gale as the model. But Gale became teetotal towards the end of his life and wasn't quite right. A better example would be the man who now heads new Labour's list of most hated journalists: Peter Mandelson's nemesis, the author of two explosive political biographies, Mirror pundit and former Times reporter, Paul Routledge.

Not only does Routledge have a reputation as a professional drinker of heroic proportions, he also performs better than his more sober competitors. As most of his ex-bosses affirm, he is capable of taking on awesome quantities of liquor, but will still be in the office early next morning, throbbing with enthusiasm rather than a hangover. For him drinking is not just fun, it is also an effective tool in the search for a story. As one admiring ex-colleague puts it: "Paul sees it as his duty to get pissed with his contacts as often as possible."

The result, even before he took to writing books, was a string of memorable scoops. A prime example was his exposure of John Major's hatred for three members of his cabinet, whom the then prime minister described as "those bastards" during a private chat after finishing a television interview. Unfortunately for Major, the microphones were still live, and someone phoned Routledge with the quote. It set the tone for the last stages of the Major premiership.

Routledge was under sentence of death at the Observer when he delivered the "Bastardgate" story. Though the paper used the story with elan, it didn't save his job. His enemies - and his gruff Yorkshire manner has made a few - claimed that he did nothing to get the story beyond answering the phone. They missed the point, which is that Routledge's source chose him, and not someone else.

Yet his books rather than his news stories are what now assure Routledge of his place in contemporary history. His biography of Gordon Brown, published more than a year ago, supplied the first detailed account of the personal feud between the Chancellor and Tony Blair and their respective followers. His newly published biography of Peter Mandelson was the origin of the story about the loan of [pounds]370,000 to Mandelson from the Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson. It forced the resignation of both ministers, together with that of the man widely (but probably inaccurately) accused of being the source of the story, Brown's spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan.

Whether you regard that as a good or a bad thing, the toppling of two senior ministers and a top Treasury official is an astonishing feat for a journeyman journalist who plies his trade in spit-and-sawdust bars. Not only has he blown a gaping hole in the cabinet, he has also shaken the entire new Labour "project" to its foundations. All that activity at the beginning of this week, with ministers besieging the television studios in a desperate bid to restore the government's reputation for competence, is down to just one rumpled, middle-aged reporter: the 55-year-old Routledge.

He was born at No 15 Railway Terrace, Normanton, Yorkshire, the son of a railway clerk. Most of the rest of his male relatives were coal miners; as a colleague put it, "he had coal dust in his navel".

A scholarship boy at Normanton Grammar School, he moved on to Nottingham University. Soon after arriving there, however, there was a romantic drama when the 19-year-old Routledge eloped to Edinburgh with his 18-year-old girlfriend Lynne. They were married in Cramond Church, and their first daughter was born while they were still in their teens.

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