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Paper Monitor raises an imaginary glass of champagne to James Whitaker, Fleet Street's legendary royal reporter, who has died following a battle against cancer.
Whitaker had the distinction of serving on all of Fleet Street's daily tabloid newsdesks. But it was at the Daily Mirror where he was best known. There he covered Princess Diana's divorce from Prince Charles and broke such scoops as Diana's relationship with Dodi Fayed and the Duchess of York's toe-related encounter.
Despite the fact he covered her private life in painful detail, the Princess of Wales remained fond of Whitaker, lending him his nickname The Big Red Tomato after spotting him skiing in a bright scarlet suit.
For Paper Monitor, however, the definitive anecdote of his career came in the wake of Diana's death. As the paper he served that night tells it:
The Mirror's news editor rang him and said: "We need 20,000 words and we need it in four hours." "Dear chap," replied James."Put me over to the copytaker." For four hours a relay of typists took down his words. One or two facts needed checking, but James delivered.
He was fond of self-parody, and never fell victim to the self-importance which he affected. As former colleague Roy Greenslade puts it in the Guardian: "He was aware of his booming, plummy voice, often telling how an Australian newspaper had once described him as sounding as if he was a retired brigadier addressing a pair of deaf daughters."
Nonetheless, according to Greenslade, "it was his habit to stack up a plate of smoked salmon sandwiches next to his typewriter alongside a bottle of champagne".
Towards the end of his career, according to the Daily Telegraph, Whitaker was given his own Mirror column, "the purpose of which was to enrage the readers and generate a large postbag. It worked: Whitaker used the space to complain about irritants such as the outrageous price of Krug and the difficulty of finding decent servants".
He rarely enraged those who knew him personally, however, and Paper Monitor often had cause to be grateful for Whitaker's generosity with his time on occasions when this columnist was ordered to harvest instant quotes from a royal expert. He will be missed.