Monday, June 11, 2018

Seeing mice - or smelling rats

A woman in her late twenties; smart, fairly articulate and seemingly rational, told a reporter she had bought a carton of fast food and found a mouse in it. Not a live one. One that was dead and presumably just a little cooked.

I say, presumably, because she no longer had it. She’d been advised to return it to the caterer’s head office for closer inspection and had brought this to light for all the right reasons; not for compensation, but to public-spiritedly warn others.

The reporter was not massively experienced but had all the right details in the right order: where the woman bought it, who served her, how she had opened the carton and “almost fainted” when she saw what was in there, returned to the counter, how the sales staff had “reeled in horror” at the sight and how their line manager had followed procedures by instantly sealing it in true forensic fashion and sending it off.

The story had been written and the company was approached for a comment to be added in due course.

All fairly straightforward and good local paper fodder; national even, had the girl not been a £25,000-a-year sales exec in High Street clothes but a power-dressed legal exec in the Square Mile and as photogenic as she was quoto-genic.

. . . and had she turned up with the said roasted rodent, or (you’d imagine, wouldn’t you) a few photographs snapped on the mobile before she handed it back.

So what did the sub do (don’t know why I’m talking in the third person, by the way. It’s obvious it was me keeping my hand in with a shift or two, but nonetheless…)

He called up the salesgirl himself (Easy. She worked in the office downstairs) and established: That it was a mouse: “oh yes, I think I know one when I see one. I hate them. It was too small to be a rat but it had eyes and ears . . . of course it was a mouse.”

That someone else had seen it: “The girl behind the counter and her boss. They both said OMG. That’s disgusting.”

That they would confirm that – and I mean, for example, the fortysomething boss going on the record and saying something like: “It was clearly dead but intact. It had legs and a tail. I put gloves on and examined it closely before putting it back. I put this in my report to head office.”

That the background had been explored properly: “We do get the odd one in occasionally but environmental services are happy our pest control measures are correct.”

The last two were wishful thinking and hadn’t been explored. Not through sloppiness particularly but because this was a mere customer says this, firm says that, mystery surrounds , what do we know? kind of story. Not an investigation. No-one was out to expose, just to report an incident.

The story was then injected with more circumspection than it had mouse droppings and more balance than a mouse-free diet. The editor was urged to keep it offline until the company had responded. Happily they did, after a follow-up call expanding on the request for a comment but with a more targeted line: Did the shop manager do the right thing? Have the right people at the right levels of authority seen it? And are you closing the shop and investigating properly?

They came back 20 minutes later with a measured and beautifully crafted response, expressing concern that the woman had suffered such a shock and thanking her for her vigilance. And they attached a photograph clearly showing a sizeable but unfortunate mass of interestingly shaped batter that, at another time, may have ended up on an Esther Rantzen show that had fun getting people’s reactions to turnips shaped like testicles and the like. But it was not a mouse. Any more than a pork scratching is a pig.

Unless, of course, someone very clever in the kitchen had cooked up a convenient cover story? Easy way to tell.

The woman was shown the picture and asked was that it? Surely, that would produce one of two responses. Either - “No. I said it had a tail and legs. It was clearly a mouse. That’s something odd scraped out of the deep-fryer.” Or – “Yes! Are you saying that isn’t a mouse? I don’t believe it. Look at it. What else is it?”

In the event it was neither. But it was one that, in relating this in greater detail to media students this week, I hoped demonstrated something about human behaviour, congnitive dissonance if you will, and the importance of circumspection.

“It could be. It was horrible. I didn’t exactly want to look too closely.”

Journalism 0, PR 1.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Here Today, here tomorrow

It’s not often a magazine celebrates having to make a correction, especially when announcing something as important as a death.

But Cornwall Today did just that last month, reporting its own demise on the announcement that Trinity Mirror was due to close the county-wide title after 20 years.

Editor Kirstie Newton opined on the title’s official Facebook page that the June issue was likely to be its last only to later report with some delight that it was safe after being bought by the Liskeard-based Sunday Independent.

She told readers she had been “deluged with calls and emails” from subscribers who told her how badly they would miss the magazine. Hardly surprising. It’s the best of a quite decent bunch serving a county enjoying something of a renaissance since the days I was down there launching a local weekly which later, you guessed it, had to be rescued to keep going.

The July issue of Cornwall Today, the first under Independent ownership, will be published on June 21.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Covering the courts - how dare they?

The troll abuse meted out to court reporter Stephanie Finnegan for daring to actually do her job and break the story of English Defence League founder’s imprisonment is beyond beyond ludicrous.

Finnegan received threats and her colleagues at Leeds Live faced abuse after they and The Independent successfully challenged reporting restrictions in the case against Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon).

The judge had originally intended to defer reporting until after the verdict until persuaded to change his mind. His verdict appears on the face of it to have been the right one. But, for me, two disturbing aspects emerged.

Firstly, the hypocrisy behind the backlash – Robinson got 13 months for, of all things, contempt for live-streaming details of a trial which was itself subject to a blanket reporting restriction.

And even worse was the fact that his supporters actually felt they had a cause for such indignation. If the regional media still had the resources to fill the press benches every day, instead of having to cherry-pick the few cases they can afford, open justice would never be seen as such an audacity in the first place.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Memories of a life at sea

Captain greybeard, aka ex-Mirrorman John Honeywell, who quit a few years back to devote himself to writing about life aboard cruise liners died this week, I learn.

There’s a nice piece here by Dave Monk that describes well the making of the bon viveur we both knew as an assistant editor on Today a few short decades ago.

He includes a quote I can hear him saying: “Any day at sea is better than a day in the office.”

And reading Dave's tribute, I take my hat off to John for turning that philosophy into a reality. Love to know if there's a sea equivalent to air miles. Bet he racked up a fair few.

And, had it not been for me, he may even have started collecting them - along with memories, anecdotes and a fair few inches of copy – a whole lot sooner. Back in 87 he was offered a trip, his first I seem to recall, on the Pacific Princess but, after much agonising, decided the ship as it was then was not quite child friendly enough for a family man; something he happened to mention with a sense of angst as he arrived for his shift.

I just happened to be the one sitting opposite when he told the travel editor Sarah Whitfield King who was keen we didn’t pass up the cabin they’d reserved for us.

Thus, I spent ten nights on a sun-lounger in the Med while Britain took the worst battering from gales in a generation and John stayed behind on a five-man beck bench in Vauxhall Bridge Road recording the whole thing.

His loss. My gain, I suppose. But it's fair to say he probably more than made up for it. And deservedly so. As news execs go, they serious didn't come any nicer.

And you'd have to run up a serious amount of sea miles before you found anyone willing to argue with that.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

A paper that never lost its voice

Editor Sarah Cox's understandable outpourings on the closure of her newspaper struck a chord with me.

I used to edit a local rival to her Bedfordshire on Sunday which, sadly, closed by Trinity Mirror last month.

The BoS as it is, or rather was, known locally, was replaced by a midweek paper staffed by so-called “community content creators” as part of wider changes throughout the Trinity group.

Cox reacted to the announcement by Tweeting: “Goes without saying my team and I are devastated about closure of [BoS]. Unfathomable. We need a strong local press more than ever.” And who can blame her? This was, after all, one of the last newspapers of a dying generation that actually prided itself on holding those in public office to account. It was founded by Frank Branston, a former People reporter, in 1977, five years before I became editor of the (yes, also now long defunct) rival, the Befordshire Journal.

It changed hands a few times. He sold it to Iliffe News and Media when he became the town's mayor, Local World had it for a while after it absorbed Iliffe and it became part of Trinity Mirror when it took over Local World in 2015.

Back in the eighties when I was there, competing with my free paper against the bigger, paid-for Bedfordshire Times, one of the biggest challenges as a tabloid was matching the sheer tenacity of Frank's approach to local news – and his unerring ability to get under the skin of a town with a massively diverse population and equally large scope for all sorts of dodgyness worth exposing.

Occasionally, when we broke something big that got the nationals interested, our local critics (and we broke enough to gain a few of them) would accuse us of being “a bit too BoS”.

I only ever saw that as a compliment. I haven't seen it for a while but did note Cox's comment that “losing a newspaper which is not afraid to be hated, ruffle feathers and annoy advertisers comes at a high price” which suggests that those old habits had lived on until the end.

I was also struck by the fact that she had taken the editor's chair six years after doing her work experience there. I, too, was a teaboy-turned editor back in the day, albeit on different papers.

Interestingly, one of those for whom I did fetch tea and run errands as a teenager, I later went on to hire to run my sports pages when I did finally make the editor's chair.

Anyway, such a shame. RIP, BoS. Cox will do well, doubtless. She doesn't sound like someone to let the grass grow under her feet. And certainly not someone afraid to voice an opinion. Rather like her newspaper.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Headlines - and giving them a head start

Every year when I'm prepping for a module on news production, I end up seeking howlers to put in front of students to demonstrate the pitfalls they'll face.

In the old days when subs desks were places to aspire to they were hard to come by and, rather than resort to the timeless classics, I'd have to make them up. As I did on Friday when showing undergrads at Westminster how Jacuzzi would probably sue if a generic headline named a no-brand spa bath as one of theirs as being faulty or how car crash with no injuries cannot be carnage.

Then I trawled the news the following day to find the gruesome story that various body parts had been uncovered in Sweden by police hunting the missing journalist Kim Wall.

And there it was in far too many headlines: the decapitated head.

Note to students. Head in Latin is caput. To decapitate means to cut off the head. You can decapitate a body, not a head. Take a bow, the Telegraph, Independent and Time for noting the head had been severed.

Ironically, one of the things I always tell students at the start of these classes is this – read the papers. All of them. All the time. It's the only way the styles will become familiar and you'll get into good habits.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Not your Standard editor, Mr Osborne

George Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Evening Standard, odd, daft even, as it may seem, is in one way, little more than the natural progression of modern journalism.

And it speaks volumes for where those with the power to hire and fire seem to see the role these days.

There's clear conflict with his job as cheerleader for investment fund but he won’t be the first senior hack to have held high office in politics. After all, most of us have done our fair share of moonlighting, even though we didn’t get paid £650 for a day a week.

But if the hon member for Tatton thinks editing an evening paper is something he can knock off before lunch and nipping across town to help run the country, he’s in for a rude awakening.

The days of the gentleman editor, poking his head into the newsroom once in a while to put a hand on the tiller between entertaining the great and the good and pontificating from platforms went out with the rest of the staff they had to make redundant.

Editing a paper at a time of wide-ranging constitutional chaos, when your plummeting circulation won’t even sustain a paying readership and when there’s a new app every week threatening to deliver the same message in a more relevant and appealing way, needs to be more overtime than full time.

I don’t blame him for not knowing that. He probably knows as little about newspapers as I do about running the Treasury. But his staff will, his boss should and the readers, such as they are, may well too.

Conflicts abound even if here is merit in having the capital’s premier publication toughing up as a battering ram against Theresa May’s runaway Brexit rollercoaster. But it’s not a part-time job and should be far more than just something to fit in between Commons, constituency, and consultancy.

David Miliband responded to the news by Tweeting that he was about to be named the next editor of Heat magazine. Tim Farron joked he should apply to edit Viz.

Joking aside, at least they would be more do-able, given their lead times and publication cycles.

Osborne inherits a seriously strong editorial team. He will have to learn fast if he is to impress them. And to do that he'll have to put in the hours and treat it with the respect it deserves and not as a high-profile and comparatively low-paid indulgence.

Either way, the issue is less about where it leaves the Evening Standard, more a case of what it says about the way we see newspapers these days.