Monday, December 17, 2012

Boycott your paper, Nadine? Get outa here!

Nadine Dorries, the MP the Tories deselected for bunking off to appear in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! insists she will never speak to her local paper again. Well, one of them, at least.

The paper in question is the Bedfordshire on Sunday, a somewhat feisty organ that covers her mid Bedfordshire constituency.

Given the headlines she's been getting lately I'm not surprised she's finding the publicity machine she kick-started a difficult one to stop. She's already been reported as saying she'll call the police if another red top turns up on her doorstep.

If that's true and not one of the "salacious andinaccurate" stories she complains so bitterly about, she needs to know it's a problematic tactic at best and one that would only produce more of the sort of headlines she doesn't want.

Once an issue dies, and luckily her Nadine, we’re on borrowed time with hers, it’s the tears and tantrums they leave in their wake that tends to revive them.

And, to be honest, there’s not much to write about in her neck of the woods. The council magazine that popped through her letterbox last week was all about restoration of the war memorial, dog poo in the high street and access to wheelie bins.

But this isn't about the balance between what constitutes privacy or trespass (which may be the better tool in this instance) and the legitimate right to inquire of a public figure. It's about empathy, albeit a tacit one.

Let me explain. I was editor of the Bedfordshire Journal, a weekly newspaper which covered her mid Bedfordshire constituency long before the 2005 election at which she won what was an extremely safe seat.

I’m talking 1984-1985 (note: it was later bought by the Herald Post group and subsumed into Thomson Free Newspapers) when Sir Nicholas Lyall was in office, long before he became Attorney General under John Major and ages before the Churchill Matrix affair threw his name into the headlines. To be honest, I rarely spoke to him, aside from acknowledging his press releases and taking the odd call from his agent.

I had more to do with Sir Trevor Skeet, his North Beds counterpart and a gangling New Zealander with enough of the Bon viveur about him to help flesh out the gang of bigwigs who'd attend anything that involved shaking hands with a glass in one of them. And, yes, that did include me.

I never had a discussion with him that involved eating Ostrich testicles in the Australian jungle, more a case of the effects the dumping nuclear waste would have on local villagers and his pet topic of how he'd sort out striking miners.

It was the sort of relationship that exists between many local paper editors and their MPs in many constituencies: an uneasy truce, in some cases, a pact, based on the implicit understanding that one needs the other. But often - and I've been reminded of this countless times by MPs, be it at Commons functions, charity bashes or Downing Street receptions - the only papers they trust are their local ones.

That may be because those papers are less interested in digging the dirt, don't have the resources to do so, or simply know the difference between a genuine issue and something that smacks of someone in an office in London taking a flyer.

But it's also because they're on the spot and see what happens day-to-day, rather than descending on a postcode they've never heard of, running up a few expenses and turning on their heels for the motorway.

So it's always a shame when I hear that an MP has cut off dialogue with a paper that probably shares many of her concerns and ideas on the issues that affect what is essentially a joint constituency, be they readers or voters.

If the idea of pretending that a news outlet that speaks directly to thousands of your constituents doesn't exist was one formulated on the advice of a press adviser, I'd make them lie in a coffin for ten minutes with only maggots and a TV camera for company.

I never fell out with my MPs, then again they didn't thrust themselves into the limelight in a bid to talk to millions on a reality show.

I did at some stage with most people in public life, though, in my undisguised bid to make my paper worth buying and give me a leg up into Fleet Street. My spats, with everyone from senior police officers to council chiefs and even a local gangster, were put to rest in, among other places, the lounge bar at Flitwick Manor, a posh hotel in the next village to Nadine's.

Not all of those encounters resulted in either of us seeing eye-to-eye, but it did keep communications open.

But back to the Beds on Sunday. if it was going to be any paper to hack her off, it was always going to be that one, not the Times and Citizen, one with a more sober approach and one with which she still apparently gets on. So, here's the empathy.

The BoS was a rival in my day; a tabloid that chased the same sort of eye-catching off-diary stuff we did. We gave each other a run for our money, poking our noses behind the scenes of the days’ big issues and tended towards headlines with the word scandal in them. We left the paper of record stuff to The Times, as it was then known.

Its editor in those days was the meteoric Frank Branston, a man who went on to become the mayor Bedford and later have a bypass named after him. He and I would share a pint, steal each other's staff once in a while but maintain a tacit gentlemen's agreement to play by the rules.

But he had one extra, and difficult, task that I didn't. He had to of fill a gossip column each week in a town where not a lot happens. And, as one of those putting themselves about, I was as fair game as anyone.

I was chided for "empire building" when I described myself pompously as group editor (well, we did have separate editions for the likes of Biggleswade and Ampthill), attacked mercilessly when a coach broke down during channel hop for readers and given a pasting for (allegedly) having my own staff rewrite a profile piece on my departure because it wasn't glowing enough.

All, er, total b******s of course. But I would say that wouldn't I?

Anyway, it was all too long ago to be searchable today, unlike the attacks on Nadine, if that is indeed what they are. So when a former red top hack tipped me the wink at what the trade press were saying the weekend, I had a look at their website in search of the “salacious and inaccurate” stories that had so wound her up.

Not sure I found them. There was loads of post-jungle stuff, including those threats to call police, some rather OTT Twitter rants and a daft nomination for a pinhead of the year award. Hardly enough to make you choke on a witchety grub.

Mind you, it didn’t help that the predictive text rendered her name as Marine Forties.

Still, I'm sure she’d agree, it's an improvement on Mad Nad.



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The uncomfortable truth about Croydon

A council chief bans reporters from a public meeting because he is "uncomfortable" with their presence. Two local papers and a blogger from Croydon were asked to leave so he could address a local forum about regeneration plans.

Croydon Council CEO John Rouse told the gathering in West Croydon: "It's not my job to place myself in a position where I have to defend council policy and have my words scrutinised." A vote was taken to exclude reporters from two local papers and a popular blog.

Inexplicably, the Forum members followed his lead and the meeting was held in secret. One objector walked out in protest.

A couple of points worth noting: One, yes it is, Mr Rouse. Two, the objector should have stayed and taken notes.

It’s nice to see local papers actually attending such meetings these days, giving the low staffing levels. But the end of this particular wedge is looking very thin indeed.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Copytakers - is the typecasting deserved?

A Guardian blog about copytakers injected a little nostalgia. Roy Greenslade Recalls all-too-familiar anecdotes of an age before laptops and smart phones in which touch typists, most them in Fleet Street, men, would take dictation using headphones from reporters on the road.

They were a breed unto themselves; impatient know-alls often, intimidating to the young reporter filing off the cuff, sometimes abrasive and downright rude if they thought what you were filing was not up to scratch. But, it has to be said, extremely helpful on occasions.

Like the time I described a "war veteran" in his forties (this was in 1974) and was told: "he'd have been still at school. Get yer maffs right."

Or the time one on the Evening Standard completed my sentence: "...let me guess, he was jailed for eight years."

How did he know? Because he'd typed it already when he'd taken it from a faster, more diligent rival. He assured me I could continue but the other one had already been through the rather unforgiving Joe Dray and it's probably not good to flag up the fact that you've missed thre first edition.

They were also the unofficial arbiters of good sense and style. Filing an intro which began "Singing superstar Cilla Black" to get a muttered, "I think we know who she is", should have told me something about the overuse of adjectives.

We had our own copytaker at the Herts Headline agency I worked for in St Albans in 1974. She would take non-urgent copy that needed to go via the newsdesk. She once passed a piece through to news editor Steve Payne who came on and said: "What do you mean his alibi was that he was insane?" In Spain, I insisted. in Spain. And the Land Rover they used as a getaway car? In the cuttings it's a Range Rover. I know. I'd said Range Rover. The hapless (and not long for the door) copytaker explained: "I thought it was a mistake. My dad's mate has got a Land Rover."

Better still was the one on one of the broadsheets (too long ago to remember which, but there are those who will recall the telling) who interrupted when I described a celeb driving an Aston Martin DB3 "as featured in the James Bond film Goldfinger". He cut in: "you mean the book. The film had a DB4. Or, to be precise, a DB Mark four."

"Are you sure?"

"Dead sure."

"OK, let's say book then."

"Very well. But our style is novel."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Congratulations, we're having a cliche

Today’s Mail royal baby special includes an inevitable comparison piece on the pregnant Kate and Princess Diana. Under a page 9 headline (yep, it’s the first 14 pages)  Oh what a contrast, it looks at how time have changed so dramatically for a expectant mother of a future heir.

It’s a pity their tabloid rivals didn’t follow their lead, with cliché after cliché cribbed from 30 years ago, according to the faded cuttings from the days when Yours Truly was doorstepping the Princess of Wales.
Ma’am’s the word, said the Mirror (it was a secret from the Queen we’re told, unlike the last time when Mum was just keeping tight-lipped).  Prince and Princess of Wails was another corker to vie with the Sun’s Nappy and glorious, tucked a few pages back from the inevitable Kate expectations.

If I get a moment, I’ll dig out William’s birth ones so we can see what to expect in nine months’ time.
One idea that was new was a quirky PS piece at the foot of the Sun’s Page 3: Headlined, What the baby will look like, their “graphics experts” came up with a boy and a girl after studying pictures of the couple.

Just hope it’s not a boy. So will you if you follow this link and scroll down a bit.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The report, then the retort. No surprises then

Just as I predicted, David Cameron moved like lightning to block the merest suggestion by Lord Leveson that newspapers could be tarred by the brush of legislation.  He’s right. For many reasons. Too many to mention here. And he’s as right as the judge was in many of his assertions on the best and the worst if a free press. More of that later.

But, as today’s Mirror pointed out, to legislate now, in whatever limited form, would be akin to following Caesar across the Rubicon to a situation from which there is no retreat.

There are laws, loads of them, and I see them close and personal every day, that deal with damage to reputations, invasions of privacy, bribery, trespass, harassment, contempt and all manner of issues that can be thrown at the media. There is a body in place to arbitrate at a lower level, albeit not a terribly well supported one, and we’ve seen a frenzy of police inquiries, internal investigations, arrests, jailings and sword-falling the like of which I cannot remember in 40-odd years in the business.

For the past year, any suggestion that the media is able to do what it likes and get away with it, must surely have been dispelled time and again. What’s required is a way of ensuring compliance with the laws we have already. Not new ones.

A few weeks ago, I attended a forum by the media lawyers Association at which there appeared to be a universal condemnation of any new laws to control what they already see as a fairly tightly controlled press.

From a legal perspective that may be so, from an ethical one, far from it. I heard a lot of evidence from the less glamorous end of the witness statements and recognised a lot of what was being said as a mere scratching of the surface. Hands up to that on behalf of many, and those who have listened to my after-dinner talks on “the good (sic) old days” will know what I mean.

There’s no doubt that regulation will change and firm up. And for a time after that there will be a difference to be seen. The rogue reporter (those who were caught cast out by euphemism as bad examples) will be reigned in and proprietors will once again ask editors for reassurance that “we don’t do that sort of thing, do we?”  

Only when the dust settles from that and, backed (hopefully) by a few exclusives that have changed our world for the better, will we be able to judge the new ground.

Lord Leveson made a point of the fact that this was the seventh inquiry in 70 years and almost spat out the assertion that there must not be an eighth. There will be.  I know thaty and so does he. Although it will not be directed entirely at the printed press.

But for now, we have to steer away from a reporting line to Ofcom or whatever other back-door route leads to a government minister (especially not a government minister) and face the music in the most accountable spirit in which we call others to account.

But forget a new press law. And forget the likes of the rather at-odds-with-itself Hacked Off campaign.

The only game in town today is Backed Off.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Same again, Dave

David Cameron has already decided how he will respond to Mr Justice Leveson's report on Thursday. Only he and his closest aides will know the details but it will stop short of the one thing he can't afford to do - turn against him the very people he wanted investigating.

Using the most finely honed of political tools such as compromise, lobbying and outright spin, he will do the political equivalent of something more needing of Sarah Beeney than Andy Coulson and refurbish the now legendary Last Chance Saloon.

There'll be a new sign outside, last orders may be called earlier, and there may be bouncers on the door, but there'll be no immediate change to Fleet Street's licensing laws. Not just yet.

At least they were the key points I noted as my contribution to a discussion on Leveson's Legacy last week. Made, appropriately enough, in a rather historic Fleet Street pub called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

If I'm wrong, I'll buy the next round.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Another Jimmy riddle

I'd be intrigued to know if the ever-expanding jimmy Savile file includes an incident in 1976 in which he visited the Cornish gateway town on Launceston.

Not many celebs went that far for charity visits in those days so, having woken up to it a tad late, it was natural for the Cornwall Courier to rouse its snapper early to get a shot of him leaving town.

And so it was that an early right hand page carried a picture of the tracksuited star in the back seat of his car as it sat outside the White Hart Hotel in the Market square.

I, like a BBC executive or a Grateful charity beneficiary, did not give it a thought when the editor asked casually of the snapper: "I don’t suppose you got one of the bird?” (apology: this was the seventies)

He didn't because she was presumably long gone by the time the car arrived and presumably getting ready for school.

Either way, unless my memory is playing tricks, it was apparent we knew the identity of his guest as did a great number in what was, after all, a small and close community.

Worse still, it was all a bit too dog-bites-man to warrant a local paper’s attention.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Don't snub the sub

Every year for a handful of consecutive Fridays I teach second year media students the fundamentals of subbing, a skill usually developed over years of hacking, slashing, honing and sculpting everything from wedding captions and WI reports to splashes that can change governments and leaders that tell millions what to think.

It's not the easiest job in the world to get across just what the role is all about when so much communication is instant, not to say roughly-hewn, these days.

So, where to start.

Is it about the churn of dozens of stories a day, shifts that go through the night, lawyers on your shoulder, updates, adds and corrections coming at you every time you finally squeeze the gist of something you barely understand into half a dozen pars - and a late train home full of drunks.

Or is it the chance to engage today with the issues we’ll be talking about tomorrow, polishing raw facts filed under duress from news's front line and relishing in the sheer variety of a night that can embroil you in the adrenalin rush of crime, the intrigue of politics, and the glamour of showbiz, before unwinding with a leisurely drive home through near-deserted streets to the sound of Carmen on the CD?

Answers on a postcard. Thing is, it's important that it is taught, and as thoroughly as it should be practised.

Which is why every week, alongside all the fun stuff such as how newsrooms function, what style is all about, the clever devices that pull spreads together, I throw them column inch after column inch of text to (you guessed it) hack, slash, hone and sculpt until it resembles something worthy of a place on a page.

With a big screen on the wall and 40-odd students plugged into row upon row of Apple Macs, we learn to be as cynical as Paxman, as fastidious as Victor Meldrew and as poetic as Martin Amis.

Okay, bit of an exaggeration, but it's enough to know you just may have set the odd one on their way to becoming the next Leslie Sellers.

Why is that important to me? Because a few weeks after each course completes, I turn up at any one of several other venues, most recently Roehampton University and Greenwich College, to talk about media careers to students from some of the UK’s most prestigious schools.

They bring with them their local papers for discussion, many of which do serious credit to the communities they serve. As I’ve posted countless times, I’m a serious defender of the role of local papers.

But each time I ask: have they had the benefit of a sub's red pen?

Sadly, too often, it's clear they haven't. Which is a shame when you pick up something packed to the rafters with real local news and the message is lost among phrasing more Leslie Neilson than Leslie Sellers.

With new entrants getting fewer and younger, and with more of them filing remotely and often in abundance to meet quotas, surely it’s worth dropping a few self-indulgent columns just to restore the odd shift as press day approaches.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The IT Crowd loses one of its own

Sad to say Roger Hussey, the Jewish Chronicle's IT manager, died last week at his home in Essex. He was 57 years old - 55 when doctors told him he had cancer and 56 when they told him there was nothing more they could do. I was his boss. I had to step out of a reader event in Manchester, wine glass in hand, when he rang to tell me the news.

He spoke as if explaining how to defrag a PC, going into some detail about the diagnosis and the likely surgical scenarios. He was a mathematician, and despite what must have been a hammer blow of a shock, acutely alive to the logic of it all and chillingly analytical.

I went back to the reception, more shaken than the hands of the guests I'd been greeting. A couple of days later, he was back in his den. I'd call it an office but, well, you’ve all seen the IT Crowd.

Surrounded by cardboard boxes of cables, half-built PCs, CDS and old fashioned lever arch files, there was a man who knew the fuse rating of every plug in the building, the longevity and serial number of every server and the state of every data point.

With his somewhat shambling gait, lank blond hair and often reflective demeanour, he personified the quirky blend of mathematician and nutty professor that define the most imaginative IT brains; the sort that never take risks, value data as currency but have enough Robot Wars about them to keep you going when all you have is a looming deadline, a U2 battery and a coathanger.

He was an old school liquid luncher, more than once an after-work bon viveur who could catch the last train out of Fenchurch Street for the coast and be back at his desk by 9.30 without a flinch. No doubt hacks on the Basildon Echo will recognise that.

Once, when staff arrived at the office to find it barricaded by the National Grid because of a gas leak in the road, he appeared at my side as I looked down on the throng from the window. How did he get in? Best you don’t know, he said.

Here was an unflappable cryptic crossword of a man; loyal, brutally honest, fun-loving in an almost childlike way, yet stubborn to the point of arrogance when defending what needed defending. Never afraid to tell senior management they were (with respect, squire) not totally correct sometimes, he would follow a brief to the letter once a decision had been made.

He was strictly server-side. Engaging with a luddite public was never part of his job description (and yes, he did show me) nor was “wiping the a** of those who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a keyboard”. When one did get the past the human firewalls he'd lined up, he was charming and informative. Not so, when demanding to know why it had happened.

No better example of his complexity came when he did what Special Branch and the police cyber-crime unit (PC PCs to him) failed to do – locate the identity of someone who had attempted to hack the JC website. Asked to come down to the editorial conference to tell us how he did it, his explanation was indecypheraby Cantona. Two and a half years on I'm none the wiser.

After his diagnosis, he worked for months as if nothing had happened, dutifully booking time off for “medical reasons” and passing off major surgery as someone in “a surgical mask turning him off and turning him on again.”

He managed a performance or two with Rostock, a rock group in which he played bass and was still pushing for one last gig before it became physically impossible. A couple he did manage were for his children, both of whom brought their weddings forward so he could attend - and sing.

Throughout his “Uncle Dick leave”, he was never more than an email away, constantly reminding, suggesting, advising, first from a PC, then a laptop, and finally an iphone when he could no longer sit or stand. I'd say: “You're supposed to be convalescing.” He'd reply: “You're supposed to be doing it right!”

The mischievous humour he brought into the office – key passwords were often clever corruptions of 70s sitcom sketches – never left him. He would email with details of appointments with his “Uncle Ologist”, or talk about being injected with “paint thinners”.

His 56th birthday party included a pop quiz. I couldn't stay till the end but, having bored everyone with tales of my days as a teenage stringer for NME in the 70s, claimed to have been well ahead by the time I left, having casually boasted about how “I was there” when a song was recorded or a concert played.

He humoured me for months until the day he was whisked to hospital. I sent a text to ask why and he replied: “Pink Floyd song.”

I had to trawl Wikipedia to realise he was having breathing difficulties. I later asked how I was expected to know that, he told me: “I thought you'd have been there.”

He didn't suffer fools. I'm just glad he suffers no more.

He was a one-off. A lovely man, a consumate professional and the dearest of friends.

IT is worse off for having to evolve without him.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Drip, drip, drip - and that was just the coverage

It wasn’t the rain that put the dampeners on the Diamond Jubilee river pageant – it was the BBC.

Rarely have I cringed so much at the way our national broadcaster manages to demean itself in front of a global audience that holds it in such high regard.

Presenters, some seasoned event broadcasters, others bit-part add-ons from popular TV shows burbled their way through hours of coverage, desperately trying to fill voids of silence as if paid by the word.

To be told the royal barge is now heading “out towards the City of London – the real financial power”, and made to “look at all the crowds - this is what her reign has been leading to” was bad enough, but even understandable given the audience reach.

But to see Anneka Rice tell an artist whose acrylics were smudged beyond recognition by the downpour: “That’s so monet! He'd have been so proud”, or Matt Allwright tell us a woman who lives on a barge is surrounded by luxury because “she has sofas and everything” was banal.

Then we had John Sergeant on Westminster bridge gamefully trying to get the crowd behind him to cheer and Tess Daly being knighted in the studio by a man in drag!

And we did we have to be informed that small boats were being rowed by people “up since 10 without a toilet break”? Oh yes, and the woman on the barge’s dog had been good to “cross its legs” during the proceedings.

Forget Fearne Cotton’s embarrassing interview with a war veteran (she could have got his name right) and the fact that the opening of Tower bridge heralded “an extraordinary machine lifting an extraordinary road into the sky” before cutting away and missing most of it.

I can’t remember who said “The rain is the one thing no-one has any control over”. But by then I was past caring.

Executive editor Ben Weston took the view not to “point and shoot” but to “try and bring it to life”.

At least we know where to point the blame.

Friday, May 18, 2012

An Exclusive worth spiking

Just when I thought Leveson was the final nail in the coffin of journalism's reputation, along comes ITV’s The Exclusives, the Fleet Street’s Got Talent for youngsters who want to make the grade live on TV.

For those who didn’t see it last night - and it was flogged to death in the run-up - six wannabes were chosen from an X-factor style queue of hopefuls, put into an Apprentice-style house and thrown in at the deep end like Celebs in a jungle.

They comprised a typical researchers shopping list .. a glamour model called Hayley, a nerd called Chris, someone who never went to uni but lives to write … a toxic mix guaranteed to so we give us rows, tears, handbags and elbows while we watch them grow and mature under the watchful eye of editors thrust into the limelight because bosses at Bauer know the marketing value of reality TV.

But did they kick off by learning some journalistic basics to set them on heir way? Something to redress the balance of the past few months and show we're not all obsessed with celebrity tittle-tattle? Nope, the deep end consisted of typical intern work of returning shoot-loan clothes to PRs and transcribing interviews before being told to force their way to the red carpet and blag the odd quote from, yes, D-list celebs.

It was fun to see one of them snatch three or four words from one then ask her to repeat them gain because he didn’t get all of five words on tape, and annoying to see one of the transcribers looking so bored when he may have actually learned something about conducting an interview. Then there was a gaffe-prone chat with Amy Winehouse’s dad and the shame a lad called Stuart felt when he didn’t recognise the cast of Made in Chelsea.

But wore was to come when the big assignment meant going out on to the streets to identify blokes who wouldn’t mind taking their tops of for a photoshoot.

Not only did we witness then wandering the streets like Apprentice candidates flogging their last biro as a deadline loomed, shouting “Are there any men here who are Scottish, Irish or Welsh?” but they'd enjoyed a briefing that involved dragging a fit lad from the editorial floor in front of them and getting him to take his shirt off, just in case there was any doubt.

And there was me thinking the industry was in trouble.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Passing the screen test

I've just spent a few pleasant hours at Winchester University watching their journalism students put together their weekly broadcast.

Part of it was spent in a studio listening to producers guide anchors toward their best shot and cue up videos on hyper-local stuff from education reforms to a historic palace being rebuilt with Lego.

I also had a look at their website, all hand-built in the bedroom geek's tool that is Joomla, but crammed with everything you'd want from a local paper site. Memo to Hampshire Gazette: there’s a deal to be done, chaps.

The team was an interesting mix of 2nd year undergrads and MA students, devised to accommodate academic workloads but also one which had the advantage of mixing youth with experience.

They made all the usual mistakes of not getting the most out of their visuals but took great strides in initiative by getting bang on top of the news. Using Twitter to grab an instant interview with the local football club’s new boss was one.

You can see the results here and what I thought of it here.

What you won't see is journalism head Chris Horrie introducing someone who lays claim to being something of a digital early adopter as "a good old fashioned inkie".

A week earlier, I gave one of my twice-yearly talks to the young and aspirational on the Inspiring Futures scheme at Roehampton University and organiser Simon Clarke cited my "decades of experience across a range of media".

Decades? Little wonder then that on Tuesday, to the amazement of colleagues, I actually forgot it was my birthday until a one of them handed me a card.

It even came with a small present and the leading question: "Do you know what day it is?"

Let me guess? A good day to bury bad news?