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.