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.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

There's rapping . . . and taking the rap

Let’s be clear. Coronation street star Chris Fountain never raped anyone.

He merely sang a nasty song about it.

But at first glance, on a newsstand, garage forecourt or even a doormat, you may not think so.

It was such a comment, one along the lines of, “another one of dem Corrie lot’s bin done” which confirmed it. Mum and daughter in a queue in Sainsbury’s discussing how the “well fit” lad who plays gormless Tommy Duckworth in the soap has apparently joined the growing list of TV stars arrested of sex offences.

The problem was the use of the word “rap”, particularly in its alliterative form as “rape-rap”. True, he did sing a rap song that had rape in it.

But the ambiguity is self-made: rap being a longstanding tabloid short-form for a criminal conviction. The Sunday Mirror went with a p13 piece: Rape rap Corrie star is told: Grovel on TV. Yesterday, the Daily Mirror compounded it with a splash as the story moved on: Corrie star is axed for rape rap. The Sunday version, to add to the confusion, led with Top TV actor in teen sex quiz.

A P4-5 spread revealed that he remains for the moment anonymous. Other tabloids used the latest revelation to make reference to the pending cases against fellow Street stars Michael Le Vell and Bill Roache.

In isolation, mum and daughter apart, no-one who looked closely would be in any doubt that he was guilty of a discretion, not a crime. But online searches, particularly from the US, where the word has an entirely different meaning, will leave the poor lad forever labelled the rape-rap soap star.

Like this, this, this and this...

Being written out of the series is one thing . . .

Friday, August 09, 2013

Bloodletting all round

If you want to see what a provincial newspaper office full of reporters looked like a few years ago, watch tonight’s conclusion to Denise Mina’s TV adaptation, The Field of Blood. More importantly, you will actually get to see some out of the office, doing what they’re paid to do.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a crime drama set in Glasgow during the miner’s strike of the eighties; one of those where a plucky young reporter called paddy manages to defy family poverty, sexism so institutionalised it may as well be in the company handbook, and solve crimes the police can’t.

It’s also interesting as it pitches itself at a turning point for an industry and a decade; one in which publishes got fed up with the sort of strikes it’s reporting on, clunky technology and chunky expenses.

It mixes all sorts of stereotypes; new female boss who barged wide-shouldered through the glass ceiling to direct her smart-ass patter at cost-cutting, saddo-yet-principled editor who never goes home, whisky flasks in drawers, older hacks being shunted aside, younger ones catching the eye.

But the staff dress as charity-shop they did, act as they did, mention NUJ every time someone challenges the status quo and gather in smoky bars after work to whinge.

A good test is whether real-life journalists rate it, and the reviews so far have been good. But there’s daftness too. The reporters travel in pairs like cops (do they make their notes separately too, like judges always ask them?) plucky Paddy, the one who solves all the crimes, happily takes a £50 bung in front of McVie, her grizzled old mentor, then gets all persuasive on a picket line to grab a background chat with an activist about a dead lawyer and hardly musters a pertinent question before letting her drift off like an old college pal she see later.

And what was that about coppers and hacks never mixing? A Detective in the press club? Don’t recall that being a rule not to break. Some of the best story investments I ever made were cash in the police social tombolas.

At least it doesn’t over-rely on the biggest cliché in period scene setting; background music. And it does put the eighties in perspective. These were problem days. The miner’s strike followed the Falklands War and Afghanistan, President Reagan’s Soviet sabra-rattling had anyone who could afford it musing over planning permission for nuclear bunkers. Wall Street, privatisation, and the loadsamoney economy were yet to be enjoyed.

Last night’s episode ended with McVie’s car being bombed. That’s where fiction kicks in hard, although this was a time of IRA threats and controlled explosions. And if you follow Reporters Without Borders, you’ll realise such threats do become fact sometimes.

Not sure if McVie survives to complete the crossword he was doing while Paddy emptied someone’s dustbin. If he doesn’t you can bet there’d be some good to come of it.

The villain behind it all would be, to be all eighties about it, bang to rights. And they’d save a wallop on the redundancy.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Murdoch: now he says sorry to staff

So, Rupert Murdoch has finally apologised to staff about his extraordinary over-reaction in the wake of the phone-tapping scandal.

He admitted to Sun staff that he had panicked as the allegations piled up and made them "victims" of the inevitable fallout. He over-rteacted when it became personal, in other words.

It’s hard to find a kind word in Wapping even a year later about the knee-jerk closure of the News of the World. And as for the internal management standards committee, it’s just best not to breathe its name.

The climbdown, a whole year later, may have gone down well in some quarters but, if he’s honest with himself, he knows this is something he should have done a long time ago, rather than bowing under the weight of personal pressure.

An internal inquiry is one thing, cleaning up your act and co-operating with police another. But to go from years of turning blind-eyes to unsavoury but acceptable practices to one of sheer disbelief and outrage when the lid was lifted was a step way beyond a bung to a dodgy copper or a fiddle with a pin number. He may well not know about any of what was going on, but he knows his market and his industry.

And now the ultimate in back-tracking: he may keep on anyone convicted of a criminal offence? In a way, I’m even warmed a little by that. If I’d shopped or sacked everyone I’d ever worked, with for or alongside, for being a little dodgy now and again, it’d be like editing the paper on your own in those days when strikes used to clear newsrooms.

Even so, I’m not sure what message this sends out to an already cynical readership, such as they are. Making independent corporate judgments is one thing, as is deciding enough is enough when it comes to throwing more staff on the bonfire, but a wholesale U-turn because a year has passed and the Leveson message is, as it was always going to be, in disarray? Dunno.

And to make matters worse, the whole thing came to light because someone secretly recorded it. You couldn’t make it up.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Front pages and first instincts

It was odd to see the Newcastle journal promoting the best front page it never had by referencing the art desk’s alternative to the one it ran criticising former soccer boss Joe Kinnear's return to their local club as director of football.

After producing quite an eye-catching splash headline “A Joke”, which pretty much summed up fans' views, it then began showing the one it didn't print and explaining why.

Headlined, “We scoured the Toon to find someone backing Joe Kinnear and this is what we found”, it produced a blank space.

Not sure why they felt the need to tell readers they have more than one good idea. If every art desk gathered up all the pages it had stuck in front of the editor before being told “nearly but not quite”, or “nice try, just not for us,” it could produce a spread every month.

One of the perks of spending so many years on the late shifts of nationals used to be flipping through the earlier versions of pages littering the back bench, those often produced hours before you clocked on, before the cleaners binned them. Looking back, think I missed a trick.

The pages you never saw. Just have to sort the copyright.

Talking of dramatic front pages, especially those in which the emotionally charged subject of sport moves up from the back, I was highly impressed by the way the Watford Observer handled their team’s Wembley play-off defeat recently.

No cliches just a stunning long lens shot of the moment the dream ended after their former star player scored from a penalty in the dying seconds. Against a backdrop of their own fans, the players were shadowed out as mourners at their own funeral.

I saw it belatedly as I have connections in the town (worked for the paper briefly as a cub in the 70s) and was immediately struck by the effectiveness of its simplicity.

There was another agenda and more irony though. A few days earlier, I was at the game at Vicarage Road that they won to reach the final. They were playing my team, Leicester City (born there, childhood fan, shareholder).

I couldn't get a ticket. Even old investors have to apply early. So I bought one from someone local, which put me in the wrong part of the ground, surrounded by yellow shirts worn by people talking about players I'd never heard of and how crap my lot’s defence was. But, it was one of those games that ensures people live and breathe football. This is why:

It’s all square and already minutes into injury time. Our best player decides to take a dive and wins a penalty. Everyone within 100 yards of me in every direction is in shock. I can't believe we got away with it, await the goal that will send us to Wembley for the umpteenth time and sneak away with my head buried lest someone notices I'm not one of them.

Their goalie (who used to live up the road from me) somehow keeps it out – twice; legs, chest, you name it - and their nippy frontmen who'd run us ragged all afternoon, pop down the other end and score.

The pitch gets invaded. People with whom I've the opposite in common, give me hugs, kisses and handshakes as I sneak away with my head buried; past a bakers where I once worked as a student, through a park where I'd taken my kids cycling, to my car parked in a road where I used to walk my first girlfriend’s dog.

One of my sons who'd watched the game live on his laptop rang to console as I listened to their fans still singing in the stadium a mile away and I consoled myself that, at least, there may well be premiership games nearby next season.

When I got home I trawled YouTube for fan videos of the travesty I'd just witnessed and found one taken a few feet to my right (if you're really observant, I'm the one whose face looks like the bloke in Gladiator when he arrived home) and dreamed about all the other Wembley playoffs, taking my son to the City guest box or my dad to the terraces when I couldn't get an invite and Colin Randall on the Telegraph news desk found me a last-minute tout.

Then the next day, I saw the Leicester Mercury with the headline “We thought it was all over - it is now”. Now that was cliched. It was as if, still in shock, no-one could be bothered.

I know which paper I'd rather have been editing that week.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Not quite the full Monty

No matter how often I read it, I still can't help wincing at David Montgomery's assertion that in future journalism will be conducted "without the human interface".

He used it to explain how papers in his Local World group will be affected by the switch from print to digital.

In a statement to the culture and media select committee he described how the role of journalists will change as they "harvest content", adding that "Journalists collecting stories one by one is hugely unproductive. They will have to have new skills, greater responsibility for self publishing on different platforms".

It did cause a little controversy, although in reality he's doing nothing more than trotting out the obvious, and to a large extent, if you accept he’s talking philosophically, saying nothing more than anyone else looking to the future.

But is this the Monty I knew, who would jump all over his middle bench for committing such faux pas as describing a buyer as a purchaser or a car as a vehicle?

I just hope his multi-platform self-publisher's interface keeps faith with the Monty of old when harvesting their content for real.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Snapper dies - but the image remains vivid

Sadenned once again to learn of the death of yet another former colleague. This time it was Tony Gregory, former chief photographer of the Herts Advertiser in St Albans. And as if to bring the news even closer to home, he died after suffering a heart attack in what was, until recently, my local.

It also brought back a few memories of the days when newsrooms were crammed to the rafters with staff, lunches were long, workloads manageable at a canter and expenses went through on the nod.

But for all that, the papers were editorially strong, no-one appeared in court in relative secrecy and local councils were held properly to account. And no one could place a quirky small ad in a shop window and not expect a call from the newsdesk.

Greg, as he was known, was one of those larger-than-life characters who boomed their way around newsrooms, barrel-chesting their way through the day and "getting it sorted" in that robust, no-nonsense but highly ethical way that defined his generation.

He was there on my first day. One of the few still in the office at midday. I'd had a long drive from the westcounntry and didn't show until 1.00, just as the newsroom had emptied for a two-hour liquid lunch.

The editor knew I'd be late. He'd offered to store some of my stuff at his rambling old mill house in return for an early start date. But Greg didn't know that.

"New boy?" he asked, looking at his watch from the doorway of the darkroom as I sat there alone. I was a bit cocky back then and just replied: "doesn't do to be too keen."

"You'll go far," he replied. The ambiguity remains to this day.

He had a team of four or five, as i recall The reporters' desk was about 12-strong, from the old lags who knew everyone and everything to the training scheme modshipmites who called people sir on the phone. There was a newsdesk of two, about eight subs (maybe more) two district desks (four or five) a social desk of two and five more on the sports desk.

We were paid in cash in little brown envelopes the editor's secretary brought around on a Friday, before popping back again a few hours later with the exes. I claimed a tenner's worth at the end of my first week but that was laundered into £25 by the FoC who "hadn't fought all those battles" just so some boy scout could let the side down.

We did two stories a day, by and large, but the diary was as comprehensive as the schools in those days. The youngsters got stuck into pump features like Down Your Way, the seniors did death knocks and the pre-Leveson ones who stayed up to watch Lou Grant in the days before betamax video, even fronted up villains, preferably with Greg standing behind them with a Nikon dangling like a pendant from his neck and chipping in with "it's a fair question, pal."

The editor wore a colourful waistcoat, read the Village Voice and talked of "getting the vibe", the news editor was from up north and smoked a pipe at his desk, the snappers wore jeans, there was a hamster of a librarian who would let his car idle for a full ten pollutant minutes before engaging gear because he'd read something about optimum engine heat, a 5ft 4in bulldog of a chief reporter who'd ask geezers in the pub who they were looking at; the most senior hack on the desk had a handlebar moustache and the most junior a punk haircut. The babes in the ad room next door were all out of our league and the smoothies in suits they sat next to were derided by those of us who would have secretly claimed legit expenses for a month for plant cutting of their cool.

You couldn't have got more character in a room if you'd had oak beams and open brickwork.

When Robert Runcie left the city to become Archbishop of Canterbury, he told me in his exit interview the thing he'd missed most was "the dear old Herts Ad" he could never live without.

About a year ago, I went back there as part of a fact-find on behalf of my students and found a newsroom of five doing everything: writing and subbing all sections, cobbling together ad features and updating the website.

The current editor told me tales of jumping fences to jog across fields to the scene of a major fire, so the spirit is still there, even if the resources aren't.

Greg remained in the area after retirement and, like me, would have got the now-free edition through his letterbox every week. He had his fair share of illness but was a legendary non-complainer and if you read Medeliene Burton's piece here you'll see why (note the bit about helping Spitfires take off and you'll learn more of what built that generation).

The industry today may not be the one he remembers, but he goes to his grave with the comfort that he was there at the best of times.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

What's the point of telling the truth?

Long ago, when Chris Huhne was just a young reporter on the Liverpool Echo, I was doorstepping a magistrates clerk 500 miles away for a comment about why someone who had paid a £100 fine and forgot to add 20p was being threatened with jail.

The clerk, a surly retired barrister, had written to the lady to tell her this, which is why it was a story.

Except that the clerk insisted he had not, an insistence delivered with a sneer and a curt: “if there’s nothing else, good day to you.”

When I showed him a letter, he told me “the system” must have dispatched it in error. It was signed by his assistant as a pp. He thanked me for my time and, again, insisted that was the end of it.

When I showed him a more forceful follow-up letter, this time signed by him, he asked me why such a small matter was of interest.

I told him he'd answered his own question and asked why he had sent such a second letter if the first was merely an admin error.

He insisted he hadn't. It wasn't his signature. I showed him a copy of the covering letter he signs every time the court listings go out to newspapers like mine. The signatures matched. He said he must have signed it "without looking properly – I deal with a lot of correspondence”.

So, how could he explain the third, distinctly more aggressive, letter?

He didn’t look at this one, and merely told me told me I was a pipsqueak and that he knew my chairman.

It made a better quote than "we apologise" or "we have launched an investigation".

But the 10-minute exchange in the doorway of his office told me more about the importance of pertinent questioning, empirical evidence and the easy way someone of advancing years and in a position of authority can so easily disregard the truth as an unnecessary annoyance when faced with something so irrelevant as a legitimate question.

Like Mr Huhne, who ironically was my age and also cutting his teeth on local newspapers at the time, he clearly missed the point(s).