Ever wanted to see your byline below a bright red-top, or puzzled over how to break into the seemingly closed world of newspapers? Then you’re probably already familiar with Fleet Street Fox.
She first poked her head above the parapet a few years ago, prompted by a collapsing personal life and the need to vent. But over the past two years, Foxy went from anonymous Tweeter and blogger grousing about her ex-husband and spilling the dirt on Fleet Street newsrooms to defender of tabloids and the best source for an un-moderated take on the press.
For some time, since a few high-profile outings by Jemima Khan and others, her identity has been one of the internet’s worst kept secrets. The fox is well and truly out of her hole now: she’s revealed her identity as Susie Boniface, formerly of the Sunday Mirror (and quite a few other papers), and published a book, The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox, that goes into greater detail on that personal crisis – as well as spilling the beans on UK journalism from a particularly privileged standpoint.
We met up with Susie in a London wine bar to pick her brains on the merits of the tabloids, local newsrooms, Leveson, and plenty else.
She knew for a long time that she wanted to be a journalist, bypassing university in favour of going straight into work. “I just wanted to be a journalist, and that was all it was,” she says. “I remember being about 12 years old, and it was 1989 and the Berlin Wall was coming down. I was watching it on the telly with my mum. Kate Adie was there, telling everyone why it was so important – and behind her were all these people with garden forks and spades, and bare hands, trying to break the wall down: real hairs on the back of your neck job. I remember telling my mum that it was what I wanted to do, and she said ‘What, you want to be on telly with a spoon?’ But what I wanted was to be there when the important stuff was happening. And that one feeling was enough inspiration to keep me going through all the years to come.”
She did work experience placements at the local paper in Kent, as well as school journalism, and got her first job in a very straightforward manner – she asked for it. “The local editor [on the Kent-Sussex Courier] said that he’d rather have me straight out of school, when I hadn’t been ruined by writing essays,” she says. “Also, I was cheaper that way – he didn’t say that at the time but that’s what he meant.”
Local papers were long-heralded as the best form of journalistic training: an opportunity that is dying out now as many papers are centralised and budgets are cut. But for building a career in Fleet Street, Susie reckons they’re hard to beat. “When I first went to a national, it was a big step up but it was bearable because of the training. Working on a local paper teaches you to be very straight, and to deal with the public – I was writing about villages and towns that I knew, about my own former teachers and my parents’ friends. So if I got something wrong then they knew where I lived! Everyone would come and tell you if you made a mistake.”
She thinks that reporters who hop straight from university onto a national lack the grounding and coping mechanisms that thorough training gives you. Johann Hari comes up at one point and she says he could have done with someone coming by his desk when he’d got his facts wrong. “Everyone needs to be slapped around a bit now and again by the boss – a bit of rough love makes you a better journalist. But Hari should have been sacked. He was just making shit up!”
When Boniface first adopted the Fleet Street Fox persona, it was a way to vent about her personal life and, almost inadvertently at times, dish the dirt on her profession. But once the News of the World/phone-hacking scandal broke, she found herself cast in the role of tabloid defender.
Even now, she shrugs off claims that she represents anyone else. “There are 30,000 print journalists in the UK and they’ve all got their own views,” she says. But she maintains that the actions of the few have resulted in the smearing of a large group of people. “When the NOTW shut down Twitter was just crowing about it. I had friends who lost their jobs that day who weren’t phone-hackers, who didn’t know about phone-hacking, who had been employed five or ten years after the events in question. So I just wanted to represent the other side of it – those 268 people, with mortgages and babies, who lost their jobs.
“It was the most successful English language newspaper in the world: it was Manchester United. Then it just got turned off, like a lightswitch.”
Most hacks couldn’t take to the internet and defend their profession, nor give their unfettered views on the Leveson Inquiry. But the online platform and audience she’d built up meant that Boniface had the capability and was happy to assume the position.
“All the editors who gave evidence at Leveson were on the back foot: newspaper share prices depended on what they said, because the City was watching; there were hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake. So they couldn’t be brusque, couldn’t say ‘This is a pile of shit’.”
As a fervent believer in a free press, she believes regulation of the sort proposed by the Leveson Inquiry would be dangerous. “Journalists aren’t just there to get cheap drinks on expenses. We’re custodians of the press, of what went before and will come after – not just for our readers, but for the rest of the country. We have the mother of all free presses in this country and it can’t be that your options are … just asking Max Mosley if you’re allowed to print something or not. Fleet Street’s a diaspora: if we fuck up the freedom of the press, then it has repercussions in Ghana, in Korea, all across the world.”
She gave her views on regulation to Lord Justice Leveson when he visited a newsroom where she was working, and he invited her to give evidence to the inquiry. “I said I can’t, because then I can’t do my job. I need to be able to sit in a bar and earwig on someone else’s conversation and I can’t do that if I’ve just been on the 6 o’clock news with Robin Jay.”
This question of the anonymity needed to be a tabloid reporter is at odds with outing herself and promoting the book: hence the move to freelancing and writing columns. She admits that her younger self might not have considered columnists to be ‘real journalists’: “but that was when I was young and enthusiastic. I think I’ve earned my stripes now – and I’m sick of reading columns from people who’ve been on the telly but can’t write. It just annoys me when there are people doing a skilled job who aren’t very skilled at it.”
She isn’t a fan of columnists who emerge straight from university, nor of journalism Masters – “bollocks, utter bollocks”. Instead, the best qualification for becoming a journalist, she says, is unrelenting enthusiasm. “If you want to do it, then do it,” she says, recalling someone who asked her questions for twenty minutes after a lecture the other day, sufficiently annoying her to the point of memorability: “I’d give that girl a job over the hundred other students that were in the room, because she hadn’t given up.
“If someone came to me for a job, what I’d want to know is: can you do it? Can you cope with someone screaming in your face? Can you cope with being called a cunt every day? Can you deal with someone who’s crying, can you persuade them to give you their story?”
Journalism can seem like a pipe dream of a profession at times, dominated by contacts, networks, arcane lingo and confusing machines. “People will try and make you give up at every single stage,” she says. “Your editor, your parents, your loved ones, press officers, governmental special advisers – they will all try and make you give up. But if you’re enthusiastic enough about a story that you’ll chase someone down the road or knock on the door, then you’ve won. That’s all you need. Everything else comes eventually.”