Saturday, September 17, 2016

'Even hardened newsmen' . . . and other myths

I remember as a teenage copy boy back in the day making a point of reading the text beneath the red pen lines of the subbed copy I had to dash off to the composing room. I did it because a likely lass who'd been in the job a few months longer warned me not to.

Too gruesome, she said. The bits they take out. But I was young. So these were the juicy bits the guys in green eye shades had all the fun of censoring.

It was an early insight into the complexities of news judgment and prompted me to ask a foreign corr, on the rare occasion one would speak spoke to an oik like me, why such detail would make even the first draft.

He gave me two replies. The first, in the formality of the office, was simply that "I just report. I leave all that to the subs." The second, after a few pints down the pub, was more revealing. He loved to convey whatever sense of drama or danger he could because it gave the job more of an edge.

The fact is, I was left for a long time with the impression that I was less likely to end up in therapy working on a subs desk than if I was in a war zone. Reading about atrocities second-hand and cropping the gore out of AP photos couldn't be as traumatic as seeing it first hand.

Odd then that, as I was to later discover, the few times I got close to anything uncomfortable as a reporter, the effect was minimalised, neutralised even, by the involvement of third parties such as police, rescuers, forensic teams and the like.

And the very few times I've gone home with a feeling that sleep may be hard to come by has been as a result of things I'd read, sometimes repeatedly over the course of a shift, updating and expanding as details emerged and having to absorb and understand in enough graphic detail to be able to effectively sanitise.

It feels almost gratuitous to elaborate so I won't, save to say that it was the mere realisation that what I was dealing with were actual events involving real people - sometimes as young as my own children were at the time, if that gives a clue, rather than scenes from something screened after the 9pm watershed.

It was no surprise then to learn that the likes of Storyful and Reported.ly and other eyewitness organisations are having to adopt policies to protect their, I imagine quite youngish, staff from the worst effects of days spent trawling social feeds and coming across what Storyful’s news projects chief Derek Bowlder describes as “unmediated and graphic evidence of brutality”.

One of the reasons the organisation has teamed up with a Dublin-based counselling service to introduce an Employee Assistance Program which lets them seek help in confidence if they feel unduly affected.

And all power to them. It's not that long ago an expression of disgust at an unsavoury scenario or other would have been met with an empathetic nod but a request for "a few minutes' fresh air" would have prompted raised eyebrows and a dismissed with a simple: “wuss”.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ipso, MPs and some early day notions

Ipso, Another day, another regulator. The names change, the stories come in anew. But the one thing guaranteed to stay the same: MPs will reach for the cliché drawer and brand the watchdog “toothless”.

It happened again a few hours ago when Sir Alan Moses appeared before the Commons culture, media and sport select committee.

MPs wanted to know why Ipso, set up two years ago after the Leveson inquiry, had not fined any newspaper it found to be in breach of its rules.

They also couldn’t understand why it had not insisted on equal prominence for corrections of dodgy headlines and why no-one had bothered to call the whistleblower’s hotline it set up for disgruntled staff with issues about what is expected of them.

Now, it may just be me but, reading through the ever-growing archive of complaints adjudications, I’d be hard pushed to find one worthy of a financial sanction, equally hard-pushed to find a breach so bad it warranted a splash apology and can’t realistically envisage many circumstances thus far when anyone would phone the hotline.

On the last point, I’m not suggesting there has never been any justification for such a call in the past two years, although I hope not. It’s just that, in the main, I think it’s something most journalists would have a problem with.

What I wouldn’t want to see is any regulator feeling pushed into a position where it felt it needed a scalp or two to feel properly blooded. It’s early days, the changes to the culture of certain newsrooms is palpable at the ground level and I sense a strong feeling among those at the top that they don’t want Ipso on their case lest it can be avoided.

That can have as much to do with the Leveson legacy as anything else but, for the moment, it exists. And while it does, there’ll be little to seriously test a fledgling watchdog. Early days. Methinks the MPs were questioning in haste.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On this day: the other side of the Telegraph's 9/11

Peter Foster’s piece in the Telegraph today recalls the day America came under attack on September 11, 15 years ago.

He nicely mixes fact with anecdote to bring quite a vivid inside view of what it was like to be in a daily newspaper office as the story of the decade was evolving.

But he tells only one part of the story, and an important one, given the the way we look at news today. By the time the newspaper went to press with its first, and highly memorable, edition, readers had been following every spit and cough of the story for the previous eight hours, thanks to a (then) fledgling news team online just two floors above their Canary Wharf offices.

Foster’s story begins by setting a typical newsroom scene – the senior team on the foreign desk were out at lunch. Five calls to mobiles went straight to voicemail and it took a waiter on a landline to deliver the message that they might want to get back to the office.

Upstairs, where the news team in total comprised only three, include myself as the then deputy editor, we were having lunch where we always did – at our desks.

Foster’s initial reaction – “I assumed it was a traffic spotter plane or a police chopper” – were mine exactly. Within five minutes we were leading the Home Page with a non-committal plane believed to have struck the World Trade Centre, partly because the only TV images available were taken from a nearby roof on the other side of the tower.

Unusually, and a sobering sign that this may be something bigger, editorial director Kim Fletcher appeared at my side and watched the next few moments on the TV that hung over my desk. “Probably a training flight?” I said. He was unconvinced. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. This looks bad.”

Then, two things happened.

Firstly, as I began fussing over when we were going to get an image to fit the tiny slot at the top of the page, it happened. Live on Sky TV, the second plane came into view and flew, as if in slow motion, into the second tower.

Secondly, an online newsroom schooled in uploading print copy, embellishing with links, images and meta-tags and providing snappy, running updates for office workers who didn’t want to wait for the 6pm news, suddenly became into a broadcast hub providing minute-by-minute coverage that continued throughout the day and night.

Had it happened a year earlier, I may well have been sitting downstairs on the end of the back bench with everyone else, looking forward to an afternoon of cramming the rest of the news into two pages, before planning and re-planning and trying to imagine what the first edition may look like.

As it was we planned and re-planned on the spin. We had no real video capability, limited access to pictures, no flexible CMS that allowed us to resize an reshape our Home Page, let alone a Twitter feed or even SMS alerts to alert the world of what we were doing.

In fact, in my head, I actually went backwards in time. To the days of filing from phone boxes at the scene, dictating adds and offering wraps and write-thrus as a story unfolded. To make the point, I added the words more soon (in those italics to express urgency) at the end each time we refreshed a refiled.

And, when all those old-fashioned agency things like attribution didn’t seem to cut it, we simply told the reader (users, some of my young team called them) straight: a statement is due any moment, keep refreshing, it’ll be here . . .

An IT lady called Theresa came over and gave an update on traffic. Someone said we were dealing with more than 100 request per second (huge in those days). Someone mentioned the strain on the system in being able to accommodate.

Someone else said CNN and the BBC had temporarily gone down through sheer volume and we were getting their cast-offs. Our pages were taking ages to load. Could we close some of our channels to keep news live?

I heard Editor Derek Bishton say something behind me about closing "all non-essentials" and things seemed to speed up.

On my right I had a rookie reporter called Ann Wasson, an American with family in New York, bashing out updates. I revised them by getting her to read outloud, send and go back in whioe I read over her shoulder. At one stage her voice faltered and a tear appeared as the closeness of it became clear and I told her to close the page for me to go in. She refused.

Fletcher told me “This isn’t enough. We need a new front page”. He took a designer and our best XML coder into a corner and reinvented the front end of the site. The next time we refreshed we had a headline Attack on America - one word away from the one the paper led with - the now-iconic image of the burning tower “and loads of slots for all the comment and analysis" we were amassing.

My wife rang and asked why I was in the office when TV pictures showed all the bankers in all the tower blocks pouring out on to the lawn outside. It reminded me to send the intern home and Fletcher assured me we could relocate to our City office if the building was evacuated.

IT Theresa came over with a mobile and a laptop and said, if we shared a taxi, she could keep me “live” until we got there.

In the event, we stayed. Six hours passed, the most appalling scenes were played out in front of us, the towers were reduced to rubble and she told me: “Well, so far, you’ve published 148 times.”

By the time the drama was over, we were reduced to minor updates and the odd “tweak”. But downstairs the newspaper was just getting into its stride. The batten had been passed. What we had been telling people all afternoon was now being recorded in massively more detail and backed by the sort of heavyweight analysis the Telegraph was known for.

Our night team came in and prepared to out all that online sometime after midnight. As calm returned to the room, I wandered downstairs and watched them in the full flow of organised chaos. I realised there was no baton, really. The paper would be a collector’s item and we’d merely “held the fort”.

I looked at a few proofs, went back upstairs and tinkered all night, keeping the Home Page as fresh as possible as night turned to day in foreign parts and readers, even those in tiny, unheard-of countries where we had five uniques, woke up and logged on.

Then, too late and too tired to drive home to Hertfordshire, I had a nap on the nurse’s couch in the medical room on the 11th floor. At about 4am, a cleaner’s vacuum bashed against the door and I awoke with a start. I was, after all, in a tower block in the heart of a financial centre.

It was only when I closed my eyes it fully dawned on me.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Inde to the end

It's appropriate that the passing of any newspaper should be mourned. But, in the case of the now online-only Independent, the eulogy should be a positive one.

Launched in the frenzied days of what was then called the newspaper revolution ( a rather hopeful euphemism for journalists being able to publish without asking print unions permission), it stood aloft for both standing by its founding principle and staying the course for three decades.

Oh how the other revolutionaries would have coveted such an achievement: Today (nine years), the Sunday Correspondent (14 months), the London Daily News (six months), the News on Sunday (eight months), the European (eight years) would surely loved to have seen the dawning of another day.

Big names were built on those papers as the hitherto hard-to-breach wall that was Fleet Street opened up a wealth of opportunity to provincial wannabes ( me included) who arrived and moved from on as one paper closed, knowing another would be opening sometime soon and, besides, you were eminently employable anyway because the established ones were still waking up to new technology (such as it was) and in need of your so-called skills.

The Inde stood apart because it deserved to. As a sub, I'd be among those who ridiculed the wordiness, the pomposity and the indulgence of those early editions but it excelled in the bigger picture by doing what great newspapers do - marking their territory.

This eulogy has many contributors but I was struck by one this afternoon. Eddie Shah, the man who started it all with the launch of Today, described it as the paper he would love to have launched.

Many of us who joined him in that adventure thought it was. The so-called independent voice we had been sold at our interviews was sold within xxx to Tiny Rowland's Lonhro - and quickly became the voice of the Lib-Dems, a fact most of us only discovered when we went went upstairs for an early view of the latest ad campaign !

Friday, February 05, 2016

My, how the tables have turned

There used to be a Fleet Street branch of the Leicester City supporters club. All unofficial, of course, and it's meetings were fairly ad-hoc and usually reserved for when there was a London game on and enough local knowledge to be assured 'the first pub you see when you turn left out of the tube' was all that was needed.

I won't name them all for fear of getting one wrong and confusing affiliations which just isn't done. It's players who go through transfer windows, fans stay put.

There weren't that many of us and in the latter years it was left to Express man Bill Wheeler to muster a crew together (usually his son from the Sun and a pal) to join us in being able to say 'I was there' when we lost to some old first division side whose players I'd never heard of.

Tickets were easy to come by if your annual membership or share certificate wasn't enough to get you into a big game because most sports editors we knew would find a couple going spare. And your rarity meant you were easily identified among the fans of 'real' clubs.

One Saturday afternoon in the Mirror building in Holborn a sports sub on deadline was sent my way when struggling to get a Midlands slip away. 'You from Leicester?' he asked as if expecting an apology.

He dropped a picture down. A player in blue, face partly obscured, number on his shirt hidden. 'Any idea who that is? Need it for the caption.' Indeed I did. It was a player whose opposite number at Arsenal, Man U, Chelsea, you name it, would have been household and wouldn't need a relative to identify the body.

I can't recall the full caption but it ended with words to the effect of: '. . . scores his second, despite a hapless lunge from Richard Smith'.

The club produced an season review on video called 'So near, yet so far', and the commentary began with the cheering words: 'No silverware but pleeeeenty of action...'

We were at Wembley half a dozen times in the nineties - nothing the stuff of legends; two league cups and four play-off finals, one even producing the best live game I've ever seen - and I was so proud ok my share dividend that I didn't even cash it. And not just because it was for 3p.

How times have changed. The City fan who wept his way through a radio interview shed tears for a forgotten generation of fans who are no longer asked 'do you know who this is?' But, 'do you think you'll hang on to him next season?'

I sat alongside Robbie Savage at the Watford Hilton a few Fridays ago. He was on his mobile the whole time so I eventually left without asking him whether I could replay his radio phone-in slot in which he repeatedly insisted a club like Leicester, with the funds and squad size they have, will never (his emphasis) win the premiership.

If, sorry, when, they do, I've every confidence my childhood local, the Leicester Mercury, will win the sort of plaudits given to the Oxford Mail for their recent performance in celebrating their club's achievement.

And they can run the pictures without captions. Anyone who cares will know who they are.

Monday, September 30, 2013

For crying out loud, let's make it the Ex-Factor

Didn't X Factor plunge to new depths at the weekend?

In a bid to harden up a somewhat tired format, producers introduced yet another level of degradation.

With the laughing stock acts behind us, and to be honest, they’re what make the show, not the half-decent sound-alike kids who blur into one by week five, we now have new ways of jangling the nerves of the young wannabes.

And how do we do that? By knowing they're not good enough but letting them think they are for a moment before jumping out with a “surprise”, you’re going home after all!

And worse, we make them sit on the stage in front of everyone while they watch the other acts do them out of a spot right in front of their teary eyes.

And this after the judges with their “will-we, won’t we” clichés have kept them dangling with lines such as “I’m really not sure about you,” followed by (even worse) “I’m sorry, but I'm afraid (pause, solemn shake of the head) “you're (beaming smile) . . . in my top six!”

Tears of joy on stage, usually the kind that precede severe palpitations and the need for oxygen, are matched by scenes of sheer despair from the chairs as the realisation dawns that the fat boy who’s just shown himself to be much, much better than you may just be taking your place.

One that was told to her face was the hapless young thing who was urged at the audition to drop her pals and go solo, only to have then shun her before the judges finally didnjust that. She staggered off the stage telling host Dermot O'Leary: "I've lost everything."

It’s been compared to the Suzanne Collins novel The Hunger Games in which children are forced to battle each other to the death. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, it’s more the Crying Game, or a snuffle movie, perhaps.

We’ve built a society that holds celebrity far higher than anything else to which most of these very ordinary shelf-stackers and rubbish sweepers can aspire.

Either way, reality TV will never wise up to reality. How long before we read tabloid stories of breakdown and serious self harm? There are column inches a plenty to come in this. Just not sure they're the ones we want.

Enough. It’s become a turn off. I suggest we do just that.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Go on, name that judge

Brighton Argus reporter Tim Ridgeway had to leave the press bench and turn detective recently just to find out the full name of a county court judge.

Ushers, usually the ones who know everything, couldn’t help and the clerk’s office simply declined to give Judge (Barbara) Wright’s name as they were not authorised to give personal details, according to Hold The Front Page. A hapless phone call later was followed by an email, and only when the Royal Courts of Justice PRs got involved did he get the answer he wanted.

Anyone who has spent any time in the courts, or dealing with officialdom generally, will sympathise. When I was based at St Albans Crown Court as part of an agency crew in the 70s, we collaborated on an A-Z of every judge, magistrate, solicitor and barrister that came our way, so we never came unstuck.

On those frantic days of five guilty pleas before lunch (five trips to the payphone and five hasty off—the-cuff reports) there wasn’t time to blink between recesses, let alone pass notes along the benches (would m’learned friend be good enough to provide his Christian name?) or nudge coppers and clipboard-holders in the waiting room.

Once, in a magistrates’ court in the Westcountry, I made a similar inquiry of a member of the bench I hadn’t seen before. I needed to profile the three JPs who would be deliberating on a matter that had got the little market town of Launceston all abuzz.

It was not forthcoming. The country reporters alongside me had never thought to ask and the somewhat deferential solicitors simply thought it bad form. After all, she was the wife of a local clergyman.

This was a place, you have to understand, where titles and forms of address were a matter of social heriarchy. My elderly neighbour, on discovering I worked for the local paper, handed me a notelet (her word) on how she should be referred to in print: Alderman Ms K. Wotnot (retd).

Anyway, the three of us on the press bench made a pact that, whoever found out first would ring the others. It wasn’t me, but I was, nevertheless, grateful that the call came quickly.

The reason for her reluctance was never known. But it could have had something to do with the subject of the bench’s deliberations. Police had swooped on a local newsagent and taken away half a dozen top-shelf mags.

Before they could rule on whether or not they were pornographic, they had to read every one of them.

Must’ve choked on her cucumber sandwiches. Poor Edith.