Tom Mangold started his reporting life on the East Molesey and Ditton Gazette for 80p a week. After working as a war correspondent and investigative reporter for BBC TV news, he joined BBC TV’s Panorama where he stayed for some 28 years, making over 120 editions. He is the author of four previous books, two of which became international bestsellers. One of his books on the Vietnam War has been purchased by Hollywood and will be filmed next year. A story he wrote for The Times about a murder he and housewife Susan Galbreath investigated in Kentucky will also be filmed next year for BBC Films. His memoir Splashed! A Life From Print to Panorama was published November 8th.
Tell us about your new book Splashed! A Life From Print to Panorama.
Splashed! tries to be the antidote to boring self-promoting autobiographies by journalists who take themselves seriously. Instead, it is a collection of anecdotes, some rather raucous, some I hope quite humorous, and just a couple or so serious chapters about subjects that interest me enough to share, especially now I think the coast is clear. It’s a pick up, put down sort of book containing material that I usually prattled on about at the end of dinner parties and three or four brandies in. There are some hopefully revealing glimpses behind the prim curtain of BBC TV’s Panorama, where I slogged for a quarter of a century, together with a glimpse of life in Fleet Street during the fifties and sixties when telephone hacking would have been regarded as a purely minor infringement alongside parking on a double yellow line.
You’ve written bestselling novels and non-fiction in the past. How different was it writing about events from your own life?
I set myself a simple standard when writing my memoirs. If I’m not enjoying the writing, and the re-writing, and the re-re-writing, then the reader won’t enjoy the product. I worked very hard to try and cut every ounce of fat from every story and then to throw out the stories that didn’t, on reflection, please me sufficiently. As it happens, I re-wrote the book seventeen times. Writing is a bit like stick whittling. You carry on and on until suddenly you look down and you’ve managed to fashion a real wooden Rodin! Or so you pray.
What did you enjoy most and least about working with an editor on your latest book? How different is the editorial relationship when working on a book as opposed to a newspaper?
I’ve written all my life. News editors and sub-editors on newspapers, and producers in broadcast journalism, are all very nasty creatures specialising in cruelty because they would all like to be out on the road as reporters and not stuck behind a desk. The battles were furious and often quite bloody. Most serious knife fights ended in a fatigued draw, or when a senior manager called a halt, or when the deadline simply overwhelmed us all. On the other hand, I did find writing for a Fleet Street red top forced me to embrace brevity, focus and, above all, the power of the intro. This served me well in broadcast journalism. When writing a book an entirely different discipline applies. Your editor is not a hostile figure screaming at you down the telephone, but usually (not invariably) a kindly professional only too accustomed to the anxieties and creative insecurities of the writer. I have written two international bestsellers, one major seller, one embarrassing flop and now my memoirs. In every case, I elevated my editor to the position of chief psychologist, counsellor and personal cheerleader. As far as I am concerned, the editor is always the boss and I have never rejected advice from him or her. My Biteback Publishing editor once looked at a totally incoherent and inchoate chapter I sent her and emailed me a note saying she found the chapter: ‘A little bumpy.’ God bless ’em all.
What is your advice to anyone looking to write and publish a book?
I have three golden rules:
- Do not ever, ever, take yourself seriously.
- Do it yourself.
- Worship only at the altar of Occam’s Razor.
You’re vocal in your opinion on your fellow journalists’ autobiographies. What in your view makes some better than others?
My colleagues write autobiographies that tell stories of derring-do (John Simpson), how they hate their fathers (Jeremy Paxman), how they marched into some hostile capital at the head of the liberators and so on. These are good, worthy tomes. But are they books that readers outside our journalistic village actually want to read? Very, very few news events, which made history at the time, have the shelf-life to be told from the reporter’s personal point of view many years later. I think one needs to be a Hemingway, or Edward Murrow, James Cameron or Woodward and Bernstein to get away with that kind of biography. I’ve never held a dinner party spell-bound with my stories of war, or the investigations into Big Pharma and the like. But I have made dinner guests laugh at the cock-ups, disasters, failures and missed opportunities of my journalistic career. Hence Splashed!.
Anyone who wants to write and publish a book must not only love writing but must have a style that is sufficiently distinctive to merit the investment of twenty quid or so by the reader. I am currently reading a novel where the storyline is incredibly thin. She thinks her husband is double-crossing her and is trying to find out. He appears to have died in a car accident. That’s it. But the narrative drive is incredibly powerful, the identification with the characters wholly involving, and the use of language so clever and prolific that I know I would never dare try to write a novel myself. I’m not reading that book: I’m embedded in it. Now that’s writing. If you can match that – try it. If not, then write non-fiction. But I tell you what, if you really have a book inside you, and feel the pregnancy growing, it’ll come out. Trust me. Then trust yourself.