Wednesday, July 11, 2018

England's right to expect (updated)

Unless something goes disastrously wrong – and I don’t just mean losing - England will be heroes in the papers tomorrow morning. By heroes, I mean, they have made it to the World Cup Final or put up a suitably valiant fight in the process. Either way, having created a dream, most of the media will want to live it just a little longer, win or lose.

That’s because, again, most editors know a thing or two about judging the public mood and will be thinking of returning heroes, rather than also rans who faltered at the final fence.

Optimism is not just something to tap into and build on but to milk for as long as it can be. Think welcoming crowds at the airport, for a start.

When Terry Venables’ England lost our last semi-final (to Germany in Euro 96 when Gareth Southgate missed) they were lauded heroes all the same because they’d given us a party no-one wanted to end.

A far cry from when Glenn Hoddle’s side went out to Argentina in the ’98 World Cup. Piers Morgan’s Mirror even recreated a dartboard with David Beckham as the bullseye for a tantrum that reduced us to 10 men and effectively dumped us out.

But for now at least, everyone’s a winner.

Ain fact, as I write, the Sky News ticker is reminding us that “1966 was the last time England won the world Cup”.

Post-match update: see below...

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.