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Richard Burton





Last Build Date: Sun, 19 Nov 2017 19:50:49 +0000

 



Memories of a life at sea

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 08:12:00 +0000

Captain greybeard, aka ex-Mirrorman John Honeywell, who quit a few years back to devote himself to writing about life aboard cruise liners died this week, I learn.

There’s a nice piece here by Dave Monk that describes well the making of the bon viveur we both knew as an assistant editor on Today a few short decades ago.

He includes a quote I can hear him saying: “Any day at sea is better than a day in the office.”

And reading Dave's tribute, I take my hat off to John for turning that philosophy into a reality. Love to know if there's a sea equivalent to air miles. Bet he racked up a fair few.

And, had it not been for me, he may even have started collecting them - along with memories, anecdotes and a fair few inches of copy – a whole lot sooner. Back in 87 he was offered a trip, his first I seem to recall, on the Pacific Princess but, after much agonising, decided the ship as it was then was not quite child friendly enough for a family man; something he happened to mention with a sense of angst as he arrived for his shift.

I just happened to be the one sitting opposite when he told the travel editor Sarah Whitfield King who was keen we didn’t pass up the cabin they’d reserved for us.

Thus, I spent ten nights on a sun-lounger in the Med while Britain took the worst battering from gales in a generation and John stayed behind on a five-man beck bench in Vauxhall Bridge Road recording the whole thing.

His loss. My gain, I suppose. But it's fair to say he probably more than made up for it. And deservedly so. As news execs go, they serious didn't come any nicer.

And you'd have to run up a serious amount of sea miles before you found anyone willing to argue with that.(image)



A paper that never lost its voice

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 08:06:00 +0000

Editor Sarah Cox's understandable outpourings on the closure of her newspaper struck a chord with me.

I used to edit a local rival to her Bedfordshire on Sunday which, sadly, closed by Trinity Mirror last month.

The BoS as it is, or rather was, known locally, was replaced by a midweek paper staffed by so-called “community content creators” as part of wider changes throughout the Trinity group.

Cox reacted to the announcement by Tweeting: “Goes without saying my team and I are devastated about closure of [BoS]. Unfathomable. We need a strong local press more than ever.” (image) And who can blame her? This was, after all, one of the last newspapers of a dying generation that actually prided itself on holding those in public office to account. It was founded by Frank Branston, a former People reporter, in 1977, five years before I became editor of the (yes, also now long defunct) rival, the Befordshire Journal.

It changed hands a few times. He sold it to Iliffe News and Media when he became the town's mayor, Local World had it for a while after it absorbed Iliffe and it became part of Trinity Mirror when it took over Local World in 2015.

Back in the eighties when I was there, competing with my free paper against the bigger, paid-for Bedfordshire Times, one of the biggest challenges as a tabloid was matching the sheer tenacity of Frank's approach to local news – and his unerring ability to get under the skin of a town with a massively diverse population and equally large scope for all sorts of dodgyness worth exposing.

Occasionally, when we broke something big that got the nationals interested, our local critics (and we broke enough to gain a few of them) would accuse us of being “a bit too BoS”.

I only ever saw that as a compliment. I haven't seen it for a while but did note Cox's comment that “losing a newspaper which is not afraid to be hated, ruffle feathers and annoy advertisers comes at a high price” which suggests that those old habits had lived on until the end.

I was also struck by the fact that she had taken the editor's chair six years after doing her work experience there. I, too, was a teaboy-turned editor back in the day, albeit on different papers.

Interestingly, one of those for whom I did fetch tea and run errands as a teenager, I later went on to hire to run my sports pages when I did finally make the editor's chair.

Anyway, such a shame. RIP, BoS. Cox will do well, doubtless. She doesn't sound like someone to let the grass grow under her feet. And certainly not someone afraid to voice an opinion. Rather like her newspaper.

(image)



Headlines - and giving them a head start

Mon, 09 Oct 2017 22:24:00 +0000

Every year when I'm prepping for a module on news production, I end up seeking howlers to put in front of students to demonstrate the pitfalls they'll face.

In the old days when subs desks were places to aspire to they were hard to come by and, rather than resort to the timeless classics, I'd have to make them up. As I did on Friday when showing undergrads at Westminster how Jacuzzi would probably sue if a generic headline named a no-brand spa bath as one of theirs as being faulty or how car crash with no injuries cannot be carnage.

Then I trawled the news the following day to find the gruesome story that various body parts had been uncovered in Sweden by police hunting the missing journalist Kim Wall.

And there it was in far too many headlines: the decapitated head.

Note to students. Head in Latin is caput. To decapitate means to cut off the head. You can decapitate a body, not a head. Take a bow, the Telegraph, Independent and Time for noting the head had been severed.

Ironically, one of the things I always tell students at the start of these classes is this – read the papers. All of them. All the time. It's the only way the styles will become familiar and you'll get into good habits.(image)



Not your Standard editor, Mr Osborne

Fri, 17 Mar 2017 23:37:00 +0000

George Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Evening Standard, odd, daft even, as it may seem, is in one way, little more than the natural progression of modern journalism.

And it speaks volumes for where those with the power to hire and fire seem to see the role these days.

There's clear conflict with his job as cheerleader for investment fund but he won’t be the first senior hack to have held high office in politics. After all, most of us have done our fair share of moonlighting, even though we didn’t get paid £650 for a day a week.

But if the hon member for Tatton thinks editing an evening paper is something he can knock off before lunch and nipping across town to help run the country, he’s in for a rude awakening.

The days of the gentleman editor, poking his head into the newsroom once in a while to put a hand on the tiller between entertaining the great and the good and pontificating from platforms went out with the rest of the staff they had to make redundant.

Editing a paper at a time of wide-ranging constitutional chaos, when your plummeting circulation won’t even sustain a paying readership and when there’s a new app every week threatening to deliver the same message in a more relevant and appealing way, needs to be more overtime than full time.

I don’t blame him for not knowing that. He probably knows as little about newspapers as I do about running the Treasury. But his staff will, his boss should and the readers, such as they are, may well too.

Conflicts abound even if here is merit in having the capital’s premier publication toughing up as a battering ram against Theresa May’s runaway Brexit rollercoaster. But it’s not a part-time job and should be far more than just something to fit in between Commons, constituency, and consultancy.

David Miliband responded to the news by Tweeting that he was about to be named the next editor of Heat magazine. Tim Farron joked he should apply to edit Viz.

Joking aside, at least they would be more do-able, given their lead times and publication cycles.

Osborne inherits a seriously strong editorial team. He will have to learn fast if he is to impress them. And to do that he'll have to put in the hours and treat it with the respect it deserves and not as a high-profile and comparatively low-paid indulgence.

Either way, the issue is less about where it leaves the Evening Standard, more a case of what it says about the way we see newspapers these days.(image)



You don’t need long knives to put down a Fox

Sun, 26 Feb 2017 22:25:00 +0000

When a fellow Leicester fan remarked as we lined the streets to watch our heroes pass with the Premiership trophy: “can you imagine anything better than this?” there was a universal shaking of heads.

But I had one further scenario in mind. If I could perhaps, don the mascot suit and run out with the team for the first home game of the following season, that would probably, I had to admit, put the topping on the pizza.

As a fan since schooldays, a former club member/shareholder and proud over of an actual brick from the rubble of the actual now-demolished City Stadium, a chance to be Filbert Fox for 90 minutes would have cemented a lifelong relationship with the club like little else.

But after last Thursday’s disgusting dismissal of our now-legendary manager Claudio Ranieri the only image I had in mind was this fittingly poignant one created by Telegraph cartoonist Matt Pritchet. The one where a club official brought a vet to the stadium and told him: “We’d like to have the team’s mascot put down.” And they might as well have done, as most of Fleet Street seemed to recognise with equally-fitting attacks on the club’s Thai owners for managing to turn football’s greatest fairytale into a sordid and sorry soap opera of back-stabbing and deceit.

Like most of Matt’s cartoons, it said in a picture what many columnists would take an inside-back dps to do: you might as well kill the mascot, they’ve already killed the spirit of the club.

How reassuring then to see fellow Italian Jose Mourino wear the initials CR on his chest at a press conference the following day.

He may have been echoing what the Milan-based daily Gazzetta dello Sport described with their splash: Inglesi Ingrati (ungrateful English).

Or he may just have been giving us a subtle lesson in the sort of humility, good grace and sense of fair play few involved in this sorry affair, if not the current game, would understand.

What do I mean? Semplice: A season earlier, the same thing had happened to him when he was sacked by Chelsea only a few months after having won them Premiership title. And he isisted that, while it was “a giant negative” in his career – “I realise it was peanuts to what happened with Claudio”.

And which was the game that cold December day that sealed his fate? Only an embarassing 2-1 defeat at the hands of Ranieri’s Leicester City.(image)



Time to play the Trump card

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 21:40:00 +0000

Why was it only Associated Press and TIME Magazine that had the presence of mind to act appropriately when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hand-picked a select group of journalists for a private “gaggle” in his office.

The off-camera gathering with news outlets seen as less hostile to the Trump regime (and I chose that word deliberately) was a way of blocking the likes of CNN, BBC, The New York Times, LA Times, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, The Hill, and the Daily Mail from attending a regular press briefing.

The chosen few included the rightist Breitbart News, One America News Network, and The Washington Times, all of whom attended.

White House Correspondents’ Association president Jeff Mason immediately called on those allowed in to share the material with press corps colleagues locked out. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. But it’s surely the least they can do, given they didn’t have the mettle to take the AP/Time route – and boycott it.(image)



Brexit and the edge of reason

Sun, 16 Oct 2016 00:33:00 +0000

I often tell – and, I admit, delight in the comic irony – of the time I subbed a piece one Saturday afternoon for the Sunday Telegraph praising the way John Major effectively saw off a back-bench revolt, only to skip across town to do the late-stop on the S. Mirror and get stuck into the same story - telling how party “rebels” had a now red-faced PM bang to rights. But that’s politics. I cared only that the copy sang. To what tune was not an issue when it came to time and a half for the anti-social nature of the shift. So, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Boris Johnson, entirely coincidentally, a Telegraph staffer at around that time, was just as, shall we say, flexible with his political “angle” when it came to penning his thoughts on the EU. In his new book on the Brexit campaign, All Out War, Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman describes how Johnson, in an article written but never published for The Daily Telegraph, wrote of Britain as “a global force for good”, adding: “It is surely a boon for the world and for Europe that she should be ¬intimately engaged in the EU." Boris, apparently, warned that Brexit could lead to an economic shock, Scottish independence and even Russian aggression, the latter showing impressive foresight, given Moscow’s plans to send an aircraft carrier through the English Channel as a sign of open defiance over Syria. According to Shipman, the article was written two days before Bozza’s surprise announcement that he would campaign to leave the EU. So the story goes; he had already written one Telegraph column arguing a case for leaving, then wrote the Remain piece as a way of clarifying his thoughts, before doing a final pro-Brexit one for publication. Sky News’ Jon Craig goes behind the scenes on the intrigue in what appears more reminiscent of Brian Rix than the likes of Jim Hacker or Malcolm Tucker. But for the rest of us, it does make it ever more difficult to appear positive when faced with the usual down-the-pub attacks about how you can’t believe half of what you read in the papers. Problem is, if much of the cringe-worthy rhetoric spouted either side of the mistimed-misjudged and miscalculated Brexit vote is examined closely enough, you probably can’t.Certainly, one campaign not afraid of advancing that notion, and gaining traction in the process, has been Reasons2Remain which goes as far as listing no less than 300 of them so far. That's one of their graphics above. In tandem with others, it’s the work of the former BBC investigative reporter Jon Danzig, not one I've ever known to pull his punches – and, from first reading, appears to do a far better job of challenging the sort of outrageous spin, half-truths and downright untruths behind the Leave campaign than David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Corbyn could muster between them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be either out of a job, or struggling to keep them - and the country wouldn’t be in the desperate state it is now. It’s gloomy reading in places but worth bookmarking as there's, sadly, lots more to come.[...]



'Even hardened newsmen' . . . and other myths

Sat, 17 Sep 2016 18:43:00 +0000

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”.(image)



Ipso, MPs and some early day notions

Tue, 13 Sep 2016 19:24:00 +0000

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.

(image)



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

Sun, 11 Sep 2016 11:12:00 +0000

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 c[...]



Inde to the end

Sat, 13 Feb 2016 13:45:00 +0000

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 !(image)



My, how the tables have turned

Fri, 05 Feb 2016 18:18:00 +0000

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.[...]



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

Mon, 30 Sep 2013 08:47:00 +0000

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.

(image)



Go on, name that judge

Tue, 24 Sep 2013 08:57:00 +0000

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.

(image)



There's rapping . . . and taking the rap

Tue, 20 Aug 2013 14:37:00 +0000

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 . . .


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Bloodletting all round

Fri, 09 Aug 2013 11:51:00 +0000

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.

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Murdoch: now he says sorry to staff

Fri, 05 Jul 2013 08:11:00 +0000

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.

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Front pages and first instincts

Tue, 25 Jun 2013 11:01:00 +0000

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 [...]



Not quite the full Monty

Mon, 17 Jun 2013 17:10:00 +0000

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.

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Snapper dies - but the image remains vivid

Tue, 30 Apr 2013 08:11:00 +0000

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 [...]



What's the point of telling the truth?

Thu, 07 Feb 2013 07:47:00 +0000

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).

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Boycott your paper, Nadine? Get outa here!

Mon, 17 Dec 2012 08:50:00 +0000

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 counterpartand 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 m[...]



The uncomfortable truth about Croydon

Tue, 11 Dec 2012 17:57:00 +0000


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.(image)



Copytakers - is the typecasting deserved?

Sun, 09 Dec 2012 14:30:00 +0000

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."

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Congratulations, we're having a cliche

Tue, 04 Dec 2012 08:11:00 +0000


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.
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