Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Good opera-tors

The Mail on Sunday's Northern staffer Andy Chapman offers this wonderful piece of nostalgia. Back in the good old days when Ken Tucker was news editor at The Sun in Manchester he punctually rang news agencies around 9am and then again at 4pm looking for stories with the immortal words "anything for the schedule" (in the morning) and "any overnights" (in the afternoon). In honour of these regular calls hacks around Manchester produced a song to the tune of Giussepe Verde's La Donna e Mobile from Rigoletto. It was regularly sung in the 'Withy Grove' (Thomson House) then home to the Mirror, Sun, Telegraph, the Crown and Kettle and 'Yacht Club' (Yates's Wine Lodge) populated by journalists from the Express and The Abercrombie, Deansgate, home of the Mail titles. This is how it went.

Give me an overnight,
Anything will be alright,
We don't care if it's shite,
Our schedule's very light,
Bum tit or whore,
Ring 1-2-3-4"

(which was the old phone number for The Sun, Manchester)

Friday, 12 June 2009

A tall story

Journalism is often like potholing. You think you know where you are going but end up fumbling around in the dark. Sometimes your journey ends with you feeling wet, tired and depressed. Sometimes, however, you find yourself open mouthed in awe with a feeling of great elation.

The late Screaming Lord Sutch was a good contact of mine. And through David I was introduced to a dozen or more raving loony eccentrics including a man who had changed his name by deed poll to John Major. He even altered his address to 10 Downing Street despite actually living somewhere like 3 Acacia Avenue. The local postmen, however, always impeccably delivered his mail. Strange, because I regularly get post for a Chinese restaurant.

One day John telephoned and asked in a matter of fact voice: “Can you find me a dwarf for the UK’s first ever dwarf throwing contest?” Apparently the pastime was a hit in Australia and John thought he could become rich here by turning people of restricted growth into missiles. Always ready for a challenge, I began my search and within a day I had contacted Britain’s tiniest man Mike Henbury Ballan. Sometimes it pays to start small.

Even at just 2ft 11in Mike, 32, was a larger than life character. He worked as a customs and excise officer in Hampshire and even managed the office football team. But he also had showbiz experience, appearing in movies like Labyrinth and Return of the Jedi. He warmed immediately to the idea and thought he could go far as a human projectile, although in reality it was unlikely to be more than about five feet. I sensed a big page lead in a Sunday tabloid and a decent pay day.

Then tragedy. John had been told by the venue he would need a licence for dwarf throwing and when he applied for the document a local authority pen pusher not only told him it was impossible he also alerted every other local authority in the land. Suddenly dwarf throwing was on a par with dog fighting. Another world exclusive bites the dust. Another wrong turn in the pothole of life. I broke the sad news to Mike, who, like a true gentleman, was not short with me.

A few months later the telephone rang and a voice said: “It’s Mike Ballan, do you remember me?” He explained that he was getting married to his 4ft tall girlfriend Debbie Spencer and wanted me to write the exclusive story. The ceremony made a heart warming page lead in the Sun on May 31st 1991 (see picture).

A day later, because Mike had a brother of normal size, an American magazine rang and asked me to adapt the story - for very generous remuneration - to coincide with the release of the hit Hollywood movie Twins starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Kerching. Large ones all round, or not as the case may be.





Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Falsie Towers

I was drawn to journalism as a schoolboy by reading about writers like James Cameron. His book Point of Departure is still one of my favourites.

I was enthralled by stories like the time the news editor stunned Cameron by ordering him to go out and buy a pith helmet and a mosquito net because he was off to interview the Dalai Lama.


I found myself similarly surprised the day I was assigned to go undercover in a transvestite hotel in Oldham. It was my own fault for having a good idea and not keeping it to myself.

I had just turned in to do a casual night shift on the Sun in
Manchester to find two senior executives and several reporters in conference. Police had been tipped off that a security guard, who had disappeared with a large some of money, was in fact a cross-dresser and was holed up in a £60 a night hotel dressed as a French maid. The bobbies raided the place and carted the felon away, mascara doubtless running. But the establishment’s owner, a snake-hipped American called Rupert (pictured) who looked like any real man’s dream date, adamantly refused to let Fleet Street’s finest cross the threshold. Increasingly large sums had been offered – up to £10,000 I believe – but Rupert was determined that privacy and client confidentiality should not be breached.

“Look,” I said, almost absent mindedly, “it’s a hotel for goodness’ sake. Why don’t you just get someone to book in?” The look on the faces of my colleagues must have been very similar to the expression of Archimedes when his spilling bath water told him the volume of irregular objects could be calculated with precision.

Minutes later I was on my way to the Victorian terrace house, which was soon to be dubbed
Falsie Towers. Rupert, a Tina Turner look-alike, greeted me at the front door and showed me to my room. He advised me on what dress to wear for dinner, applied my make up, then disappeared to prepare the meal.

If there were other guests booked in they did not stray from their rooms. Rupert sat and chatted throughout dinner. But every time he departed to collect the next course I removed an auto-focus camera from my cleavage and captured the ambience of the mysterious dwelling. In the lounge I found dozens of photographs of satisfied customers, one carrying the message “who’s a naughty girl, then?”

My report duly appeared two days later. But I was mortified to be ordered to telephone Rupert and seek his reaction. Over dessert he had told me how he hired a private eye to track down one customer who didn’t pay up. My hand trembling, I dialled the number and soon heard Rupert’s honeyed drawl on the line. “You were very naughty,” he chided. “But since the piece appeared in the paper the telephone hasn’t stopped ringing with bookings!” It’s nice to do something for local businesses I always think. Luckily he never offered me a loyalty card.



Tuesday, 2 June 2009

A worrying trend

News here that one of the biggest and most important court reporting agencies in the land cannot cover its overheads is not only shocking it has serious implications for society.

When I started in journalism a staff or freelance reporter attended almost every case in every court in the UK. The shame of being convicted was part of the sentence, in my view. Nowadays, with the sad demise of local and national newspapers, only a tiny fraction of cases are properly covered. In 2002 when I attended Glossop magistrates to see former Manchester United star
Lee Martin convicted of benefit fraud the clerk to the court told me I was the first national reporter who had set foot in the chamber for five years. The man who scored the winning goal in an F A Cup Final had swindled £3,000 while earning thousands as a television pundit. The court heard that Martin felt ''nothing but shame and embarrassment''. Quite. There may always be mitigating circumstances and these can be put before the court. But surely a genuine show of contrition is part of the rehabilitation process. I doubt whether Martin transgressed again.

Clever people talk of micro-blogging replacing local journalism. But what blogger will sit in Glossop magistrates court all day? And court reporting is an art, for which an impeccable shorthand note is needed. Even if he was willing, does that micro-blogger have the relevant skills? Of course, newspapers should not be immune from general economic pressures. But the plight of companies like Strand News is an example of the very serious consequences that will follow the breakdown of traditional news coverage.

The day I brought down a Prime Minister

It was 1979 and the end of another busy day in Fleet Street. I was on the Daily Star, housed in what Private Eye always called the Black Lubyanka.

The stunning glass fronted building, designed by Sir Owen Williams, boasted a spectacular front hall with an ornate floor and curving marble staircase and featured in the 1961 film The Day The Earth caught Fire. It had an identical twin in Ancoats, Manchester, where I normally worked, which was briefly glimpsed in the 1951 movie The Man In The White Suit.

In the London office I remember a sign which read "Starway to the Stairs", which I thought was very clever. In Manchester, we had a writer called Pat Codd and there was a sign on the wall there with extracts from his work below the headline "Codds-wallop".

That evening the requisite number of celebrity reputations had been puffed or poisoned, the weather story had been done (was it “hailstones as big as golfballs” or “paving-stone cracking sunshine”? I can’t recall) and a few jars in The Old Bell beckoned. However, tonight was different.

My accomplice reporter Pam Francis and I had taken ownership of two invitations to a swanky PR event in The Savoy. We strolled in, mingled and sank as many glasses of champagne as decorum allowed. Now to find the exit before the tedious speeches began. Unfortunately, the Press officers had done their logistics and in a pincer movement of which von Clausewitz would have been proud, Pam and I were ushered into a large auditorium where someone began droning about something like fluoridation or animal rights in Kazakhstan.

We had to find a way out before deep vein thrombosis took hold. I spied a door so we wriggled along a side wall as inconspicuously as two Turkish greasy wrestlers in a nunnery and dashed for freedom. We found ourselves in the hotel’s kitchens, where the sharpening of knives did wonders for our slight inebriation. Having negotiated the stainless steel maze for less than a minute I spotted another door and urged Pam to follow me through it as quickly as possible.

I was still checking that Pam was right behind me as I burst through the door and collided shoulder to shoulder with Harold Wilson, who ended up on his back. Amid profuse apologies we both hauled the statesman to his feet, brushed him down and as befits our calling made our excuses and left. Luckily, he wasn’t smoking his pipe at the time.



Monday, 1 June 2009

All that glisters...

I used to be proud to call myself a journalist at one time. But over the years I feel my profession has been badly let down by many of its practitioners. Top of my list is Piers Morgan. How that man has the brass neck to sit on the Britain's Got Talent panel when he presided over the City Slickers scandal at the Mirror I don't know. But similar examples of poor journalism occur weekly. The latest incident to rile me follows. Take a look at this website. Impressive huh? Now go here. If the link does not work the two journos wrote a piece about Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi for which The Guardian in June had to publish a lengthy apology and correction. The article contained more than a dozen errors.As Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice: "All that glisters is not gold."

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Odd job

You are given some odd tasks as a journalist. One day the telephone rang and a contact asked me to find him a dwarf (sorry, a person of restricted growth) for the UK’s first ever dwarf-throwing contest. I’ll tell you about that another time.

But one of my strangest assignments was from a showbiz contact who wanted a new face for one of his singers. She was an accomplished club act but her career was in the doldrums and she wanted to become the UK’s top Madonna look-alike and sound-alike.

There was just one drawback. While she could passably sing like Madonna she looked more like Maradona. At the time the necessary cosmetic surgery cost around £16,000 and she could only afford half.

I set to work writing to about 20 plastic surgeons outlining the case. I was offering substantial coverage in a national newspaper in return for a hefty reduction in their fees. Nine replied and it so happened that one lived close to the lady’s home 300 miles away from mine.

I duly contacted a friend who was deputy editor of The Sun and received from him a letter saying how the story had the potential to be a double page spread in the world’s biggest selling daily newspaper. I drove down, picked up the warbler and eventually found the clinician’s lavish home.

The crunch of the gravel drive under our feet went on for some time as we passed the Rolls Royce and the huge mobile home. The surgeon asked me to wait in the “drawing room” while he interviewed my “client”. Some 20 minutes later the two of them emerged and he pronounced the singer physically and mentally fit to undergo the operation. It involved pulling the skin off her face like removing a Marigold from your hand and cutting here and there. Thankfully I hadn’t had breakfast.

“Wonderful,” I said and pulled the Sun letter from my inside pocket with a flourish. The surgeon read it carefully and handed it back to me. “Interesting, but there’s just one problem,” he said. “A few years ago the Sun newspaper called me Dr Frankenstein.” I gulped. “Really, you sued, of course?” He gave a shrug. “Well yes, but let’s put it this way, their lawyers were cleverer than mine!”

When I got home I checked the cuttings. The surgeon was quoted as saying: "I especially don't like doing operations in December. I don't like patients ringing me up moaning that they are bleeding while I'm carving the Christmas turkey."

I eventually arranged for another surgeon to perform the operation. We agreed to let the scars heal and then arrange a photo-shoot. But while I was away on holiday the singer gave an impromptu interview to a rival newspaper which sunk the whole project and left me out of pocket. Freelances live on results. I felt like rearranging her face myself. Mind, I’ve never seen or heard of her again. It just hurts whenever I hear Madonna sing "I'm So Stupid".....




Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Monkey business

In national newspapers photographers are “snappers” or “monkeys” and reporters are “blunts” (as in blunt nibs).

I’m not quite sure how and why the term monkey was coined. I vaguely recall former Daily Express photographer Peter Jackson who used to take a monkey doll to the political conferences of the major parties but I suspect the epithet was in use long before that. (Jacko, incidentally, died tragically when he fell from the bedroom window of a Maltese hotel room I was due to share with him. But I had to miss that Press trip).


Mirror snapper Andrew Stenning thinks the term comes from photographers following Prince Charles on foreign royal trips in the Seventies and Eighties. They had a habit of climbing up trees to get a better shot. Charles was annoyed about this and gave a packet of peanuts to some reporters with the comment "Here's some nuts for your monkey friends!"


While former Daily Star lensman Ciaran Donnelly swears it comes from Joe Gorrod of the Daily Mirror in Belfast during the troubles circa 1974. When Cyril Cain the photographer in Belfast was being asked about a story Joe opined if anyone wanted to know about it they "should talk to the organ grinder not the monkey".

Photographic lecturers or grumpy picture editors are accustomed to calling a particular image "a monkey shot" meaning a monkey with a camera could have taken it. Also, according to my old Fleet Street snapper pal Peter Wilcock, the term for continually looking at the LCD screen of a digital camera is called...' chimping'.

Anyway, monkeys are a legendary breed, a bit like goalkeepers really. Many of them are barking. But the world would be a sorrier place without them and their ability to do the unexpected has saved many a blunt (often from physical harm, see my earlier blog on Big Daddy: Question Time) while also delivering superb results of the painting-with-light variety.

My favourite monkey story involves a Liverpool-based photographer called Chris Neill, one of whose many skills is snapping footballers. Indeed, having read about his own alleged exploits (often inaccurately reported) in the autobiographies or biographies of Alex Ferguson, Phil Thompson, Robbie Fowler and Peter Crouch he is now thinking of writing a book on himself.

Chris, who works mainly for nationals, had been commissioned by the Manchester Evening News to take a picture of actor Bryan Mosley, who played Alf Roberts in Coronation Street. The venue was Manchester’s Midland Hotel and ever the pro Chris turned up early, ahead of the blunt who was to do the interview.

Having a drink in the piano bar, Chris spotted a figure in the distance whom he took for his former assistant head teacher at North Manchester High School for Boys, Alan Atherton (the dad of ex England cricket captain Mike by the way). Sidling over to him Chris said: “Hello, it’s Alan Atherton isn’t it?” To which the customer said: “No, my name is Dustin Hoffman.”

After apologising, Chris and the Hollywood legend got talking. It transpired he was in town for an episode of This Is Your Life and asked how long the cab ride was to the studio. Chris explained there was no need for a taxi, it was only 500 yards away and he could walk it. Hoffman departed to get changed.

Another sherbet later, the feature writer turned up and they proceeded to the lift to ascend to Bryan Mosley’s room. The lift door duly opened and out walked Hoffman, in tuxedo, saying: “Hi, Chris, and thanks for the directions.” Alas, Chris omitted to snap the look on the blunt’s face, which was, most certainly, a picture.





Sunday, 24 May 2009

Checking your facts

One of the downsides of freelancing is the lack of office banter and the instant wisdom that journalist colleagues can offer when you are unsure of something. Of course, in this fabulous digital age, you can always "Google". But as we know the internet is a minefield of dodgy facts and American misspellings. I once worked with a journalist in Manchester who was, reassuringly, a stickler for accuracy. But age, memory loss, a less eclectic worldly wisdom or a combination of all three led him to ask questions, sometimes almost rhetorically, or make statements which used to make me laugh. I began to note them down. Infuriatingly, I missplaced the document. But today, while clearing several years of detritus from my office, I found it. See what you think.



What's that big circle for in the middle of a football pitch?

Bobby Ball...is he part of a comedy duo?

The BBC radio programme Start the Week...is it on a Monday?

The Olympics, they're every five years aren't they?

I'm writing about that famous cricketer W.G.Wells

When Nat Lofthouse was dubbed the Lion of Vienna who were England playing?

This actor Michael Douglas...is he local?

What's a Mexican wave?

What's the word for one of those stories that we keep all to ourselves and no one else has got?

John Lennon...didn't he write most of the Beatles' songs?

Dunlop, they makes tyres don't they?

Screaming Lord Sutch, what was his real surname?

Have you heard of a television company called CNN?


And my personal favourite...
The Sooty Museum...is that someting to do with Indian burial rituals?

Ratners

The Tory grandee Anthony Steen, 69, who said voters had no right to know about his £87,000 expenses claims is surely a contender for that illustrious club Ratners. You know, the exclusive group of people who have torpedoed their own careers with ill-judged public statements. (For younger readers jewellery entrepreneur Gerald Ratner lost £500m after cracking a joke in public that some of his goods were ‘crap’). Let’s just reflect for a moment on the full idiocy of the MP for Totnes who told the BBC: “You know what it's about? Jealousy. I have got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral. It's the photographs that make it look like Balmoral but it's a merchant's house from the 19th century. It's not particularly attractive, but it does me nicely.” Now Totnes isn’t that far from Torquay. But not even Basil Fawlty would have been so dumb. Through my media training activities, I come across examples of foot-in-mouth disease all the time, many happily supplied by frustrated PR professionals whose clients seem hell bent on self destruction, despite repeated warnings. Another member of Ratners is surely the Army chief, who, when asked in 2005 why there are more suicides in the Army, than in the Navy or the Royal Air Force (and a third more than Civvy Street, incidentally) said that recruits to the Navy and RAF were “of a higher level of educational attainment”. Yes, soldiers are thick, in other words. A real comfort to the families of those who died at Deepcut Barracks. I’m fascinated by the psychology of all this. There seems to be a trigger in the psyche of some individuals which flips the moment they are put under the perceived stress of speaking publicly. Their utterances make Prince Philip seem measured, diplomatic even. I recall training the CEO of a very large and highly successful engineering conglomerate who had to present to city analysts but who could not wait to tell me, in his trial presentation, about the £40m his company had lost in some business venture. On another training session, simulating a crisis, in this case an explosion at a factory, a delegate I doorstepped told me he knew nothing. “Why not?” I asked. “Because,” he said “I have been abroad looking at alternative sites because we’re thinking of closing the plant.” It was the truth and potentially a very good story! In some ways it’s comforting to know that many people who reach the top in business, politics or elsewhere have this fault in their neuro-linguistic wiring. What can be done? Well, role play sessions can certainly identify the issue. Then interviewees can be counselled to use a simple technique, built around a few phrases, designed to engage the brain before the mouth opens. I must clarify, this isn’t stalling or avoiding questions, just keeping the interviewee well away from the self-destruct button. The methodology, if followed correctly, is foolproof. Most delegates pick it up quickly. If you are asked a question, why blunder in with the first thing that comes to mind? A former chairman of Britvic, a tough talking Glaswegian, summed it up nicely when he said on a course: “So, these phrases, they are just 10 different ways of saying ‘bollocks’.” Er, yes, but please don’t say that in public.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Question Time

What’s the toughest question you have ever had to ask? No, apart from “can you kindly settle that outstanding invoice?” I’d appreciate your examples. The three questions I would really love to ask are (a) “God, is there life after death?” (b) "Doris (Stokes) what are next week’s winning Euro Lottery numbers?” and (c) "Piers (Morgan) do you realise what a complete tw*t you are?” Journalists, of course, have to ask awkward questions. I recall in the late Seventies the scandal over an alleged plot by the then leader of the Liberal Party Jeremy Thorpe to murder his gay friend Norman Scott to save his political career. With a possible trial looming, Thorpe, probably badly advised, held a media conference to deny the claims. When questions were invited the BBC’s Keith Graves was straight in: “Have you ever had a homosexual relationship?" Thorpe hurrumphed and replied: “If you do not know why it is improper and indecent to put such a question to a public man you ought not to be here.” I once attended a media conference called by Greater Manchester Police who were hunting for a missing young girl. A Mirror reporter Denzil Sullivan, who looked like Father Jack in Father Ted, had already asked what kind of underwear was she wearing, when he added: "I hope you find her soon." To which the presiding Chief Inspector replied: “Denzil, I hope we find her before you do.” On a similar occasion the police had called the media gathering because an officer, suffering from depression, had gone AWOL with a weapon. Colleagues were afraid he would commit suicide. A hack asked: “How proficient with firearms is he?” To which the chairing officer responded: “Put it this way, he’s not going to miss.” Sometimes hacks ask the most stupid or mundane questions. Who can forget the television journalist who asked cricketer Mike Gatting, sporting a bloodied gash across his nose, “where did the ball hit you?” I remember attending a photo opportunity to unveil David Beckham signing a new boot deal worth zillions with adidas. After listening to half a dozen lame questions from assembled hacks on how soft the new boot was and similar tosh I asked: "what happens if you get crocked next week and never play again. Do they take the money back?” Becks grinned and said: “You’re a cheerful chap aren’t you”. But I suppose the toughest question I ever had to ask was put to the wrestler Big Daddy and it was : "is it right that your wife is a lesbian?” Big Daddy, a beast of a man, although born Shirley Crabtree, lived in a picturesque weaver’s cottage in Sowerby Bridge. It would have been an idyllic place to visit except for two things, the snarling Alstatian dog chained to a kennel a few feet from the front door and the note which read “If you are Press go away.” Undeterred, the photographer I was with, Jeff Ross, and I entered the cobbled yard, manoeuvred gingerly around the growling canine, so close we could feel his hot breath, and knocked. Big Daddy, 6ft 2in, came to the door dressed in a light purple track suit. Well, for a few seconds he was like a badly cropped photograph, the top of his head and the sides of his massive torso obscured by the door frame. One look at Jeff’s camera bag told him we weren’t autograph hunters. I put my question as diplomatically as I could but Big Daddy seemed strangely distracted. His wrath, initially at least, was directed at Ross, whom he grabbed in a hold I first heard Kent Walton describe on ITV's World of Sport and that wrestlers used for the notorious “piledriver” throw. This time Big Daddy wasn’t bothered to see whether Ross landed on his head or not. He simply threw him out of sight over the yard’s surrounding wall. It was clear we'd chosen an inappropriate time so naturally, I made my excuse and left, at a not inconsiderable velocity. Big Daddy, famous for his record breaking 64 inch chest and despite weighing 26st 9lbs, gave chase. He was gaining on me and I hate to think where my career would have gone had he caught me. Luckily, seconds earlier, a car had pulled up containing two representatives from the News of the World. Big Daddy stopped and the last memory I have is of him shaking the parked car almost off its chassis like Godzilla. Oh, and before you ask, if I remember correctly, the village gossip was that she batted for both sides. But it was probably just that, gossip.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The law of libel

“The three most important things in journalism...” my first editor Dougie Blackhall on the Whitley Bay Guardian (and Seaside Chronicle) told me in my first week “are accuracy, accuracy and accuracy.” No, before you ask, he never made it to Fleet Street. So it saddens me to see the Euro Lottery sums regularly handed out by newspapers and TV come to that in the libel courts. The pay-outs in the Madeleine McCann story alone would probably have been enough to save Northern Rock. Recent winners in the great gameshow Don’t Forget Your Truth Brush include West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola (culprit: the BBC) Former EastEnders star Mo George (Sun), campaigner Erin Pizzey (BBC) and of course that famous Big Brother “star” Charley Uchea (Daily Star). Touch wood, I have never been successfully sued myself although over the years I could have papered a reasonable size lounge with solicitors’ threatening letters. That should be a badge of honour. But many a hack has risen to editor level precisely because they haven’t worried about the midnight phone call from one of m’learned friends (or Rumpole of Ancoats as we called him at Express Newspapers). Defamation is caused by words which expose the victim - an individual or an organisation - to hatred, ridicule or contempt, which cause him or her or the organisation to be shunned or avoided…which lower his reputation in the eyes of right-thinking members of society….or which injures him in his office, profession or trade. The onus is very much on the publisher to justify what was put in the public domain. Internet sites are not exempt from libel laws. In a key judgement in 2002, the Australian high court ruled that mining magnate Joseph Gutnick could sue publisher Dow Jones under Australian law for alleged libel online. The judge deemed that the web was no different from newspapers or television. Understanding the libel laws, of course, made celebrity barrister George Carman a very rich man and I recommend the biography by his son Dominic called No Ordinary Man. I once received a letter from that august law firm Peter Carter Ruck after writing a yarn about high pressure salesmanship in the vending machine world. The company I was targeting had arm-twisted one of my sources to say he had been misquoted, promising all sorts of financial benefits. His conscience finally convinced him to retract the criticism of the story and the lawyers withdrew, still probably charging 10 times the fee I’d been paid for the tale. Sometimes the journalist’s true account is mangled in the sub-editing process. Members of Manchester’s gay community tried to sue me once over a story about hoax 999 calls to the fire brigade emanating from in and around Canal Street. After an over-enthusiastic sub had peppered the account with more puns and double-entendres than a Carry On movie I could see their point. Just think pole, chopper, helmet. Or on second thoughts, don’t. But some journalists seem to have a kamikaze wish to end up in the dock. A showbiz writer on the Sun once filed a breathless piece of prose which led the Bizarre column under the headline “Sting: Why I Have Taken Drugs”. The scribe claimed to have the performer born Gordon Sumner’s confession on tape. Several letters, threats and eventually a writ later he was asked to play the tape to the office lawyer and the Sun’s then editor Kelvin MacKenzie. The hushed room heard the critical exchange. Reporter: “Sting, have you ever taken drugs?” Sting, replying firmly: “No.” As the executives went pale and looked at each other, the hack said: “But it was the way he said ‘no’.” Sting trousered damages of £75,000.


Monday, 18 May 2009

MPs' expenses

The scandal over MPs' expenses rather puts to shame the so-called Spanish practices and creative accountancy of journalists over the years. I can't recall any colleagues claiming for maintenance of a moat or the purchase of a chandelier. But I can't be sure. Few hacks, especially those on national newspapers, have not been taken conspiratorially to one side over the years by a more experienced hand and shown the craft of fooling the beancounters upstairs. The late, former Daily Express man Trevor (Kennard) Reynolds had an ingenious ploy. He banked on the news editor, who signed the expenses forms, being too busy, so would put a reasonable claim in the box at the bottom although the actual figures above would often amount to almost twice as much. A diligent calculator-jabber would correct the error and authorise the higher amount to be paid. The perennial joke in the accounts department was of Trevor’s poor numeracy skills. But, of course, it was TKR who always had the last laugh. For a joke another Expressman once put in a claim for something like “hire of spaceship £1m”. Without checking, the busy news editor duly signed the chitty and the next thing to happen was an angry summons from the pub at lunchtime to attend a meeting with the chief accountant. Top sportswriter Peter Batt is said to have interviewed a racing trainer over the phone for a substantial article and duly put the receipt for a meal he’d had with his wife and two young kids on expenses. When quizzed as to why there were two “children’s portions” on the restaurant receipt a straight-faced Peter said: “They were jockeys”. One hack, in a district office, claimed for an imaginary pair of gumboots he said was essential to cover a story. Later he was told to bring in the actual boots because someone else might need them. He raced to the nearest army surplus shop, paid for a real pair, smeared them with mud and offered them to the news room. Later an accountant wrote: ‘Next time you go out on a job, maybe you could move a little faster if you undid the string at the top.’ I'm obliged to the website www.gentlemenranters.com for that story. One reporter sent to interview a talking dog charged £10 for a bone. When grilled by an incredulous news editor who said: “It must have been a big bone” the hack thumped the desk in anger and roared: “It was f***ing big dog.” Former Daily Star journalist Gordon Wilkinson went on a job to Bulgaria and returned with a receipt he’d found somewhere so duly submitted it as a restaurant charge. Unfortunately for him, someone in accounts spoke fluent Bulgarian and told him the receipt was actually for a washing machine. Another hack, asked why taxi bills submitted over a year bore consecutive numbers replied instantly: “I’m such a good customer they have given me a special account”. To celebrate a round of voluntary redundancy at Express newspapers in the Eighties, journalists devised a song which ran

Put it on expenses

We will show you how

Do not tear the a**e out

Simply disembowel

But the last word must go to photographer George Birch, sent to snap a cat peering through a mouse hole. He had to secure the cat’s hind legs with a tie purchased from a local ironmonger’s so it didn’t actually devour the rodent before George’s shutter had clicked. His expenses claim later famously read: “Money for old rope”.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

The secret of marketing

There’s a gag about a chap in a Rolls Royce who passes a Big Issue seller and recognises him as an old school chum. He stops and commiserates on his pal’s penury. The friend asks how the toff became so rich and he embarks on a long story about how he began collecting and selling firewood but making a pittance, then he collected more wood but still earned loose change and on and on it goes until the punchline: “then my uncle died and left me £20m.” I sometimes feel the same about marketing. At the 2008 How-Do Awards I sat next to a charming lady who said she was a marketing expert. I asked her to name the one book she had read that revealed the secret of that black art. It was called Simply Better, she said. So, after a trawl on the internet and ignoring the publisher’s marketing guff, I bought it, cheap, on Amazon. Some 216 pages later I, too, had the knowledge. The key piece of advice ran thus: devise your product or service, turn up on time at the right place, don’t knock the furniture over, do what you promised, don’t overcharge....and wait. Straight from the old Ronseal School of Business Studies. There was other stuff like “identifying generic category benefits” but you get my drift? Personally, I’m a great believer in serendipity. I recall once turning down the role of Royal correspondent on a national newspaper. The bloke who sat behind me took the job. A year later Diana had spilled him the beans and he was a millionaire. His name? Andrew Morton. I felt a bit like the Big Issue seller in the gag. You have to have talent, of course or an ingenious and original product. I remember spending 20 minutes on the telephone at the Sun trying to explain the system of patents to a reader who claimed he had invented the spiral staircase. Stelios chose a high risk strategy to market easyJet. He handed over care of his company’s reputation to the fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaker for Airline. Sure, the planes were often late or filled with drunken sots on a stag do to Latvia. But the tickets were £5 each way and the real stars of the show were the easyJet staff, so diplomatic and courteous they should be rounded up and sent to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict. One of the best marketers I ever encounted was a London barrow-boy I unearthed when asked by a newsdesk to find the “real life Del Boy”. He was straight out of Central casting. Black, curly, swept-back hair, drainpipe trousers and talked exactly like Tommy Steele. He revealed all the tricks of the costermonger’s trade. He certainly had the gift of the gab. Later I wrote about him again when he set up classes to teach others how to flog tacky porcelain angels from Taiwan for multiples of their true value. We lost touch and then one day I saw his name in a newspaper. He was listed as the number one television screen writer in the UK by Broadcast magazine. His name? Tony Jordan. But the man who could sell condoms in the Vatican relied on luck and subterfuge for his big break. Apparently, he joined the soap after sending a speculative script to the BBC about market traders, with a covering letter saying he had been born and raised in the East End of London. The BBC turned down the script but gave him a job on EastEnders because of his apparent life experience. What Tony never told me or the BBC was that he was actually a Northerner and kept that quiet for years until he was established. Not so much Little White Bull as Little White Lie. That’s serendipity.





Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Health and safety...

The awful, tragic story of the German doctor who killed a man with a lethal overdose on his first shift providing out-of-hours GP cover in Cambridgeshire reminds us all of the importance of health and safety regulations. Some petro-chemical plants I have visited in the course of my media training duties sit you down and demand you watch a 20 minute safety video and then answer 10 questions on the content. Tedious stuff but better than Emmerdale. More than a couple of wrong answers and you are refused entry. Meanwhile, every piece of electrical equipment has to be painstakingly tested "for sparks". The process can take an hour. No worry. Any frustration is far outweighed by the thought of not becoming a human flame-grilled whopper. Of course, you can go too far and journalists like Quentin Letts regularly poke fun at people like "topple testers" who wrestle tombstones on the suggestion that one day in the next millennium one might fall and crush a child or a badger. Headmasters who either ban conker fights or make contestants wear ridiculous laboratory goggles are similarly vilified. No one, of course, wants to return to the exploitation of the coal mines of yesteryear. But one media training delegate in the concrete products industry, a newly promoted manager, rather let his metaphorical safety mask slip, on tape, when he said: "In my day on the shop floor if you caught your hand in a mangle and asked for an entry in the accident book you were considered a nancy boy!" In my experience, newspaper offices appear to have an exemption from legislation, or, if they don't, few people pay the slightest attention to the rules. One time Sun editor Larry Lamb once fell head first on to a metal spike used to transfix unwanted stories. Printers were regularly badly burned by molten metal in pre photo-composition days. My own near-death experience came in the late 1990s in the Sun's Manchester office. From 6pm until midnight I would be the only living creature apart from a rather forlorn goldfish in the advertising department. When it wasn't busy I'd play keepy-uppy with the very ball Michael Owen had used to score a miraculous goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. The Sun, having bought it from the match referee, tried to present it to Michael who was then at Liverpool but he declined because of the fallout from the Hillsborough tragedy. The shift was progressing without incident when I became aware of a strange smell. Not gas, not sewage. A familiar smell, however, that reminded me of the fish market I visited as a child. But not a fishy smell, something chemical. I scoured the interlinked offices for clues in vain. Then I noticed I was becoming drowsy and my eyes were not focusing properly. That reminded me of the days I used to go to the Press Club until 4am. In desperation I rang the office manager who advised me to call 999. Now 111 Piccadilly has 17 floors and that means a mandatory "five pump call-out". So minutes later my solitary confinement was interrupted by 40 firefighters, many in breathing gear. They escorted me from the building and made a more professional search which quickly yielded the culprit: a faulty fridge, like the one pictured, but not (lawyers note) a Hotpoint. Its corroded pipes were leaking lethal ammonia (incidentally a by-product in the breakdown of fish proteins). The man in the white helmet said I had done the right thing. I could so easily have ended up in a fridge of my own and as a front page lead, too, with a posthumous herogram from the news editor no doubt. No, you can't mess with 'elf and safety.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

That's an interesting question...

The government was recently criticised in the media for spending vast sums of money to learn how not to answer questions. That's one perspective on media training. It's 19 years since I first became involved in delivering such training. The call came from the man pictured John Brand, founder of Sheffield-based TRT, which stands for Television and Radio Techniques. John, then in his forties, was a larger than life character, which is usually a euphemism for heavy drinker. John was certainly that. He once berated John Humphrys for doing media training "on the side" at a glittering Institute of Public Relations dinner in London, during pre-meal drinks. John, who was an officer of the IPR in those days, did not actually have the meal. Having imbibed liberally, just before grace was read and in full view of gathered dignitaries, he fell like an overloaded, old-fashioned coat stand off the podium and had to be carried out. That didn't get a mention in his seminal work on presentation skills. Having been a thespian in his early days, John later became a television presenter. But when a pioneering bid to bring cable television to Sheffield collapsed he diversified into training. In truth, he was always a frustrated performer. But delegates loved the stick he gave them on courses. His weakness, apart from whisky, was his love of two huge Great Danes. However much we told him to keep the dogs locked up on course days, run from a purpose built studio in his home, he would not listen. One day, one of them slavered over the leg of the Lord Mayor of Leeds, leaving a seven inch strip of phlegm on his trousers. Having repaired the damage, the other dog later left two huge wet muddy paw marks on the back of a millionaire businessman in what might have been a scene from a Disney cartoon. But one thing John always insisted upon was that delegates were not there to be taught how to avoid questions. Many people who have to be interviewed, or to speak in public, are either very nervous or simply don't know how to organise their material properly. They put the wrong emphasis on points and they fill their talk with complicated jargon. One man told me there was no such thing as "junk mail", oh no, it was "mission critical marketing collaterals". I have trained the great and the good, CEOs and captains of industry but never an MP. While I have trained many local politicians, it has never been to handle the hustings, more about explaining policy to council tax payers. In this ever more frenetic world it's absolutely vital that communication is clear, precise and effective. Sadly, drink eventually did for John and he died in his mid fifties. I would have paid good money to see him quiz Michael Martin on MPs' expenses, even in training.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Mr Methane

The appearance of Mr Methane on Britain's Got Talent recently brought back a few memories. I'd got wind, so to speak, that the UK's only professional flatulist was appearing. But I did not anticipate just how cruel and nasty the judges would be and how even the audience would turn against him like a legion of Roman Emperors sending an admittedly rather skinny gladiator to his fate. A real bummer. Simon Cowell told the 43-year-old: "Paul, you are without doubt the most hideously offensive person I have ever met". I doubt if that will worry Mickey Methane, from Macclesfield, whose real name is Paul Oldfield. He has been a consummate self publicist since I became the first journalist to write about him back in 1990 when he was 23. And however bilious the panel's comments, Mr Methane will be revelling in the PR value of his brief appearance on high profile national television. I took the first photograph of him to appear in the Manchester Evening News, sitting in my lounge astride my then six-year-old daughter's rocking horse. I don't think she ever used it afterwards. Paul, who is 6ft 7in tall, left school at 17 and did a variety of jobs including being a car park attendant and train driver. Five years later he devised his signature routine which you can see here and one of his first television appearances was on the James Whale Show. On another occasion, on foreign TV this time, he met Sweden's new female foreign minister Margaretha af Ugglas and promptly gave a rendition of God Save the Queen, the sound emanating from his back passage. Alimentary, my dear minister. Asked by me in a lifestyle quiz if he could recall his first kiss he said: "Yes, it was a Salford kiss and put my lights out." Thereafter, Mr Methane would ring periodically offering a range of daft stories. Some were usable, like the time he was booked as the cabaret at the Christmas Party of a major seller of women's perfume. When the managing director found out he went berserk and cancelled the party, yielding another national newspaper page lead. Paul continued his rounds of student gigs and zany foreign nightclub spots but he never got a sniff of the big time, unlike his great hero Le Petomane. The story ideas dwindled and eventually the calls stopped. My career as an unpaid PR for the Sultan of Stink was behind me. Paul once told me his ultimate ambition was to run a farm in the Lake District. I wonder if the appeal was the thought of all that muck spreading.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

My pal Gavin


My pal Gavin Hill is a genius. After more than a year of negotiations he is about to embark on filming a series of eight one hour fly-on-the-wall television documentary programmes under the working title Thai Cops. The shows follow the work of the police in exotic and sometimes seedy locations in Thailand, focusing a lot on the British recruits who have been specially hired to deal with the high numbers of foreign tourists. Many visitors, of course, end up worse for drink and in trouble with the law like the England fan in the picture taken from the "teaser tape" Gavin used to gain the commission. Gavin, who has come a long way since he read the news on Radio Piccadilly, has obtained amazing access from the authorities and will be visiting, among many places, the notorious "Bangkok Hilton" jail. What you might call his "Get Into Jail Free Card". Apparently several journalists have been killed on similar trips by inmates serving sentences of 60 or 70 years who rap their chains around your neck and choke the life out of you before you've even got your Press card out. Gavin is no stranger to danger, having dodged bullets in Afghanistan and in Iraq and been kidnapped by a tribe of cannibals on an island off Papua New Guinea, all high after munching on some hallucinogenic root vegetable. He also risked life and limb filming the outrageous antics of young people in the UK for a show called Generation Xcess here.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Why journalists go to pubs....

Journalists are synonymous with public houses. Historically they provided a place to confer with fellow scribes on what was called "a pack job", where quotes could be compared and facts checked. Crucially, of course, they offered sanctuary from inclement weather. The pub, however, is also a crucible of knowledge and information. In vino veritas, goes the phrase and when drink is taken good stories often circulate. It was in a pub that I stumbled on the story of one Paul Cunningham (pictured) , who is something of an employment law expert regularly appearing at industrial tribunals (although you must call them employment tribunals nowadays). You will have to buy a copy of May's North West Business Insider to read the piece in full but his career has included many episodes illustrating how the apparently driest and dullest institutions can be full of quirky humour. For example he once asked a proudly lesbian claimant the pivotal question. “Were you or were you not wearing a strap-on?” The object at the centre of the case, was not a sex aid but a medical one, a finger bandage. It would have cost his client around £20,000 in legal costs just to fight the case for two weekly hearings, if the client had not engaged Paul’s company MHL Support Ltd. However, when her new manager at a famous hair dressing salon unwittingly used the double entendre the gay 40-something crimper sued...for discrimination, victimisation and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation. The feelings of the assistant manager, it seemed, hurt far more than the digit she had caught with the scissors. The terminology was crucial and Paul persisted even when the judge inquired: “Mr Cunningham, must you really pursue this line of questioning?” Then, over lunch, came a discovery reminiscent of the sausage-eating video that sank the bid by actress Gillian Taylforth to sue The Sun for defamation. Paul recollected: “I strolled to Boots the chemist, bought a similar dressing and when the hearing resumed I asked the claimant what the labelling said.” It read “strap on”. Case dismissed.