IN THE age before laptops and mobiles, copytakers were the crucial first link between reporters in the field and the printed word. They were mainly female, almost all could touch-type, and, like spaghetti Westerns, they fell into categories roughly equating to the Good, the Bad and the Decidedly Ugly of Attitude.

 

A good copytaker was worth his or her weight in gold, able to overcome crackly phone lines and drink-distorted reporters' dictation to faithfully reproduce the crisp, tightly written stories the writer intended. They did it on banks of heavy-duty desk typewriters, pounding out the words on carbon-copy paper transported in "takes" to waiting newsdesks.


More importantly, they could do it in time to beat the deadlines which dominated all newspaper life. But it didn't always turn out that way and the results of misheard phrases could end up as howlers on the page. By the laws of natural malice which govern all journalistic endeavour, the first hurdle to be surmounted for the pre-mobile hack pack was finding a working phone box.


In Scotland's major cities, that could be a real challenge. Even when the handset produced the satisfying purr of a functioning line, the box itself always smelled of stale urine and old fish and chips. It was a widely held belief in some quarters that BT actually sprayed their boxes with these pungent aromas and covered the handsets with grease to make reporters feel more comfortable. When a journalist was operating out of town or abroad, the familiar voice of a staff copytaker could be a soothing and reassuring touch of contact with home.


On the other hand, there were individuals among their number whose greeting of "Copy!" could send a shiver of fear down the most hardened hack's spine. The Herald/Times had one ancient male copytaker who used to berate cub reporters roundly when their dictation speed or phrasing exceeded 20 words a minute. He was also slightly deaf, which was not a tremendous aid to freeflowing exchanges of information on crackling landlines.
When the hack raised his voice in the knowledge that the copytaker's hearing was not up to the mark, the individual would shout: "I'm not deaf! All you young reporters think you're Dick Barton!" (Who?) Baffled by this, we finally discovered that Dick Barton had been a fictional BBC radio hero and master of derring-do back in the late 1940s.


But Mr Deaf and Irascible had nothing on someone I shall call "Big Maggie" to avoid identifying the guilty party. She was slightly deaf, almost totally stupid, and was blessed with a complete lack of curiosity. That meant she never asked for a phrase or sentence to be repeated when she hadn't heard it properly.


Instead, she simply tapped out what she imagined had been said, oblivious to context or common sense. During the 1991 Gulf War, when I was stuck in Saudi Arabia for six months to cover the action, this produced one of the worst howlers of my career.


I had been living out in the desert with the British 4th Armoured Brigade and had befriended an Army photographer and fellow Scot named Andy Mason. When the ground war finally began after months of bombing, I quoted him in a despatch relayed by military satphone.


With only one chance to put the copy across and a time difference which made filing a nightmare, I had the bad luck to get Big Maggie on the other end of the line at the crucial moment. After banging over some colour stuff to set the scene, I added: "Sergeant Andy Mason said, quotes:". BM, having misheard, and flatly refusing to ask for a repeat, took this down as "A sergeant and a Mason said". It slipped through all the supposed failsafe gates of newsdesk, copytaster and back bench revise and appeared in the Herald the next morning as Maggie's version. Thus was born Lodge Desert Storm 1991.


Later the same year, Maggie struck again. I was with a UK government delegation to war-torn Bosnia and was in Sarajevo when the Serbs launched a mortar attack on the crowded main market there. A single bomb detonated in mid-air, its shrapnel scything down and killing more than 60 civilians and wounding scores more. It was the kind of carnage I had not witnessed in covering five previous wars. We also all knew it would inevitably be the final straw which would force Nato to intervene in a conflict which had already claimed more than 200,000 lives, and I had a precious personal account of it.
The Serbs casually bombarding the stricken city from the dominating heights of Mount Igman had finally gone too far. But the problem on the ground was that Sarajevo's electricity supply and telephone system had been one of the first casualties of the Serbian siege and artillery bombardment. It was a major story in anyone's book. But there was no working phone in the entire city to which I could gain access. I hitched a ride back out to the coast on a UN helicopter and then thumbed another ride out to HMS Coventry, a Royal Navy warship patrolling the Adriatic.


Once on board, I immediately sought permission to use the vessel's facilities to send out the story. Unfortunately, Malcolm Riflkind, the then Defence Secretary, arrived at about the same time and commandeered the ship's entire electronic communications' suite. Three other reporters from Fleet Street had also managed to worm their way aboard, intent on being first out with accounts of the atrocity. We sat together in the ship's wardroom for more than two hours, fuming at the delay, united briefly in our inability to call our offices and fretting furiously as deadlines approached. Just then, a helicopter crewman wandered up and asked me if I had a scar running just under my hairline and back towards my scalp. I said I did, amazed at how he knew. I had acquired the "war wound" in the Falklands almost a decade before when I mistimed the leap to board a helicopter taking off from just behind the front line and smashed head-first into a machine-gun mount in the door. The crewman simply smiled mysteriously and whispered that I should follow him out a minute after he left the wardroom.


When I joined him in the corridor outside, he told me he'd been the loadmaster who'd hauled my unconscious body into the helicopter and slapped a field-dressing on the wound. He then said that, since we were fellow-Falklands veterans, he was prepared to let me use a ship-to-shore radio connection overlooked by the politicians.


It was a fragile link plagued with atmospheric interference, but it was the only link in town, as they say. At that point, I would gladly have accepted a carrier-pigeon if one had been made available. The old maxim of "the best story in the world is utterly useless if it's still in your notebook at edition time" was by then echoing dully and painfully through my brain. I should have known my luck was too good to last. When the connection with the office was made, Big Maggie answered the call at the copytakers' desk.


The result? My world exclusive datelined story read not "from HMS Coventry off the Yugoslav coast", but simply "from Coventry". Readers might well have been justifiably baffled by the fact that I'd apparently been able to witness the mortar attack from the heart of the English Midlands. More to the point, BM never thought to question the fact that Coventry was almost 2000 miles from where the attack occurred. It would just never had occurred to her to do so.


But there was, as always, another side to the equation. Where one copytaker was an unmitgated disaster-in-the-making, others were superb. One of best of these was Drew "Blinky" Thompson. He had been a court reporter for a Glasgow evening paper no longer in existence, and had decided when it closed to ease his own stress levels and keep a roof over his head by taking the only job available as a copytaker.


He was fast - he could type as fast as a reporter could dictate - and he knew better than most of those on the line to him what constituted the bones of a good story and the snappy essentials of an attention-grabbing intro. It was a pleasure to put a tale across when he was on the other end of the line.
Better than that, he had an unassuming method of telling young reporters that they could improve a phrase or sharpen up a first par without leaving them with the impression they were being lectured or talked down to.


Blinky would simply say: "Shall I read that last par or sentence back to you?" Those of us who knew him also knew that meant he thought we could do better. He never, ever mentioned his many years at the High Court as part of a team which covered most of Scotland's major trials of the late 1950s and '60s.


Some of us eventually reached the point where we would ask him for suggestions. He never volunteered improvements, but his solicited comments were always welcome and invariably put a gloss on what would otherwise have been merely average copy. Drew, long retired, was truly a gentleman copytaker and one of the last of a rare and dying breed.


In my time as a war reporter I have witnessed the gradual demise of the copytaker. In the Falklands in1982, we had to hand-print our copy on increasingly wet sheets of paper to enable them to be read by military censors based back one of the ships anchored off the beach-head.
The stories were then transmitted back to the Ministry of Defence for further vetting before being released to copytakers at our papers. We had no control over the timing of that release.


The last we saw of our copy in the front line was when we handed it to a helicopter pilot to be delivered back to the "minders" 60 miles behind us.
Since the pilots understandably had other priorities than relaying reporters' copy and sometimes forgot, filing stories was a frustrating and erratic process.
By the time I covered the Iraq conflict in 2003 I was unaware that I was filing the last of the phone-copy stories.


Those of us embedded with military units for the invasion were sent out with laptops and satellite phones. Compared with the Falklands, when such devices did not exist, it was supposed to be easy.


Despite expectation, Iraq proved little better. Our laptops and their fragile batteries were not built for sandstorms and desert temperatures of 110 degrees. Mine gave up the electronic ghost after two days. The Scotsman's machine lasted another 24 hours.


We were then reduced once more to hand-printing copy to be perused by our escort officers and using the satphones to call Harrogate.
There were many catches to that method. The first was that passing jets tended to break the satphone signal. And it's a feature of front lines that fast jets tend to hurtle overhead annoyingly often.


The second was that filing an 800-word piece could take up to an hour so it needed repeated re-dialling and the likely prospect of being connected to a different copytaker each time. This also meant the hassle of trying to ensure they joined up the disparate sections of story in the right order.


The heat of the desert day and the freezing cold of the desert night also played havoc with phone batteries. Every call was a race against time.


The temperature gradient meant that batteries which might be expected to work for up to three hours in the UK lasted barely 50 minutes in Iraq.


Despite the newsdesk's sublime belief that we could just plug them into a magical recharger out in the sandy wastes, the real-life process was trifle more complex.


We stole a Land Rover battery and rigged up a Heath Robinson contraption involving an inverter and two elastic bands to restore power. But it took four to five hours to achieve a full charge for each satphone. That process dictated our lives.


Then there was the perennial problem of transmitting copy a few pars at a time in a distinctive Scottish accent to a copytaker or copytakers back in Yorkshire, which revels in its own distinctive and frequently incompatible dialect.


One woman asked every day for two months if Black Watch was "one word or two?" I suspect she must have been Big Maggie's English niece. It was often easier to communicate with captured Iraqis.


That said, there were two Yorkshire copytakers who were unfailingly solicitous about our personal condition during the campaign.


One told me to take cover and forget about filing copy when she heard the approaching explosions from a creeping Iraqi mortar bombardment heading in my direction.


I ended up filing from the bottom of a slit-trench, with the genuinely concerned copytaker asking "Are you all right, dear?" after each few sentences and between mortar blasts.


Copytaking may be a dying profession, but it should never be allowed to expire entirely. Electronics are wonderful when they work. They are useless when they don't. Any reporter worth his or her salt should always have a Plan B to cope with communications' failure.


Then it's back to basics. And basics include a phone link to a human being who can take copy.

 

Ian Bruce, Herald Defence Correspondent, 1982-2009