Festival Diary: The moment that left Val McDermid speechless as a journalist

Having never been entirely convinced by the concept of a golden era of journalism, it was oddly reassuring to hear some of Val McDermid’s horror stories of the trade at the book festival.

Val Dermid was appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Pako Mera
Val Dermid was appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Pako Mera

The crime writer, who has drawn from her own experiences of journalism in the 1970s and 1980s for her new series of novels following the character Allie Burns.

McDermid recalled her astonishment when she started with the Mirror Group in Manchester - and discovered there were only three women within its 137-strong workforce, one for each of its titles.

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When a vacancy opened up, McDermid alerted her editor about a rising star who had been working Saturday shifts.

Edinburgh City Council leader Cammy Day.

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    She said: “She was really good, tenacious, clever and smart. She came at things from a different direction, thought outside the box and got things that other people weren’t getting.“He looked at me with complete bafflement on his face and actually said: ‘But we’ve already got a woman.’ For once I was speechless.”

    McDermid, whose experiences working beneath Robert Maxwell – a “complete shit” but also “extraordinarily charming” when he wanted to be – inspired one of the main characters in her new novel 1989, and journalist Allan Little swapped tales of bullying and “beastly” bosses.

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    Little recalled a story about Maxwell “stamping his authority” on the newsroom of the Daily Mirror by dismissing someone he came across with their feet on a desk.

    "He said: ‘You, stand up. How much do you earn?’ He blurted out his salary. Maxwell went into his pocket, took out three months salary and handed it to him. It turned out he didn’t even work there.”

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    The general weirdness of this month was underlined in another discussion about this member of the fourth estate.

    More than ever, it's been almost impossible to walk along a street in the city centre – not because of the growing rubbish mountains, but due to the number of people that I’ve recognised or vice versa.

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    However the usual questions about the best shows I’ve seen or my recommendations have most definitely been replaced with the frankly bizarre query: “Have you sorted the bin strike out yet?”

    This might be down to a flurry of intemperate tweets over the last week, lambasting the politicians at local and national level who have spent the last week pointing their fingers at each other rather than sorting out the excruciating mess around every street corner.

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    Word reached me that my tweets were being quoted in a heated council debate, with former council leader Adam McVey pouncing on my description of the “woefully poor leadership in the city, the worst I can recall in 30 years.”

    It was almost inevitable that within hours I had ran into the current Labour council leader Cammy Day – Mr McVey’s coalition partner until the election earlier this year – who had sought refuge from the rammies over the rubbish in the UK Government’s headquarters in Edinburgh at a reception celebrating 75 years of the International Festival.

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    After cursing my sudden appearance, his mood lightened as he confirmed my suspicions that Mr McVey had failed to read out the entirety of my tweet, which berated his party colleagues in the Scottish Government for being “posted missing on the state of the city.”