Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The great swine flu swindle

We are either on the brink of extinction or all about to get a bit of a cold.
Swine flu intrigues me from a journalistic point of view.
Firstly, as a moderately fit and healthy, youngish man, I comfortably predict a bout of piggy cough will not kill me. So I clearly write this with a sense of smug satisfaction.
Swine flu fears have been in the news for months ever since a few Mexicans died from it.
Initially reports from Mexico had well over 150 dead in a few weeks of the discovery of the new strain.
Was this going to be the pandemic every national newspaper had been waiting for to take Jade Goody off the front page? Oh yes.
The word 'deadly' was attached to this pork-crackling of a cold and the world's end was comfortably predicted.
When reality bit and the actual death toll in Mexico - already renowned for its excellent health service - was revealed to be a more modest 17, who really cared?
By this time the snouty sniffle was already in Blighty.
Aaaagh the headlines screamed. We are all going to die!
Since the porcine version of the bubonic plague has been among us, 30 people have actually died. Most had 'underlying health problems' - a seemingly terminal diagnosis these days - and so the healthiest among us breathed a smallish sigh of relief.
However, when a GP and a young girl died without the prior sickness issues we were all vulnerable again.
Headlines declared us all dead. No hope for humanity, isolate yourself and keep away from the unclean lest you succumb!!
The doc, in reality, also suffered from heart disease and high blood pressure, and had viral pneumonia.
Today, we discover the young girl died from a septic shock complication due to tonsillitis.
The health authorities still do not know how many of the 30 deaths attributed to swine flu actually died from swine flu.
Normal, common or garden, get-it-once-a-year influenza kills 30,000 a year in this country.
So far swine flu has killed far less than it should. Even if it kills the predicted 65,000 that is still less than 0.1 per cent of the population.
Heart disease, is the UK's biggest killer. Based on 2005 data, there are some 227,000 heart attacks each year. More than 150,000 deaths. Do we close chippies or ban fat people from pizza restaurants. No. Are we surprised when unhealthy people die of a heart attack. No. Do we report every coronary episode. No.
So why are we all reporting on each pig flu case like it is the first time anyone caught a cold?
I don't often wear a tin foil hat, and most conspiracies are dismissed with contempt, but the stories being told around the country by every newspaper are fulfilling a great Governmental service.
Keep the state in fear and they won't ask any awkward questions about recessions, expenses, bad leadership etc.
Let's try to get this 'pandemic' into perspective.
Swine flu is a bad cold.
When the radio and television advertisements are suggesting the best cure is stay at home and take a Lemsip, you can rest assured it isn't as fatal as the newspapers are making out.

Flim flammery

One of the biggest crimes in journalism is spinning a shit story into a headline grabbing story, in my humble opinion.
An even greater crime is to spin an already good story, in an attempt to make it better.
The first thing I teach my chaps (and chapesses) is to be honest in what you are writing. If the story isn't what you first thought, see if there is anything worth salvaging for a filler or nib, then walk away.
If you feel the need to spin a story then surely it's not that good a story in the first place. A great story tells itself.
It's too easy to fib a little to make the busted flush into a lead or, with an extra level of deceit, a splash.
But these stories will create journalists, editors and the paper so many problems, both short term and long ,they are very rarely worth the initial lies to get them into the news list.
Short term you are open to, at worst claims of defamation or PCC complaints, at best a snotty call to the editor who is forced to write a clarification, correction or, god forbid, a bloody apology.
Long term, your paper and staff lose all credibility. The trust of your readers is a hard won thing and all too easy to lose.
Recently I went away for a week to come back to the mother of all splash headlines. It wasn't technically wrong but it did give the wrong impression of what the story was about.
We had a serious PR problem that week (caused by my boss, so no heads rolled). As soon as I saw the level of vitriol towards us for what we had done, I apologised in an editorial with a front page trail.
It was the right thing to do but it didn't have to happen. The story was good enough without the extra splash of sauce my boss had added.
My rules are be fair and accurate and balanced.
If the quote you get from the council/cops doesn't fit the story question your original source. It may be that they or the press office are fibbing. It's your job to determine who is the bullshit merchant.
Get evidence. Documents, letters, emails or confessions written in blood. Make sure they are real. With these it is easy to see who is telling the truth.
Don't lie to your boss. It's easy to give the right answers in order to get your story into the paper but I would rather stop any problems getting in there in the first place.
I am far harder on a reporter who is rumbled for porkies after we have gone to press than I would be if they admit it's bollocks earlier on.
I don't mind reporters telling me they don't know, because I know they can find out. I hate to hear the words 'I think', 'I assume' or 'I'm 90 per cent sure' before a sentence.
Assumptions and thoughts are great for philosophers, beatniks and hippies. But we deal in facts. Hard, cold and impossible to challenge.
I know it's tempting to think you will be the one who won't get rumbled, but eventually you will.
I remember the tale of the reporter in Scotland who didn't want to travel down to the Borders at night on a doorknocking job (about 100 miles away). So he told the desk a couple of hours after being dispatched that no-one was in. Easy.
Except for the fact a snapper also dispatched by the desk found the house firmly ablaze half an hour later.
Another guy I knew made up stories to get at the top of the news list. He would be king of the conference and bullshit his way through the week until miraculously his brilliant exclusive evaporated into thin air.
He was only rumbled when, on one particularly tense Christmas Eve, the boss really needed his 'top tale' as the rest of the news list crumbled before him.
Editor demanded to meet the reporters source to crowbar the story out of him and after about half an hour of strong debate, the bullshitting hack admitted his lies.
His Christmas present was a P45.
The best I save until last. One hack was so desperate to see his name on the front page of his local rag he would sneak into his office in the dead of night on the deadline eve and spike the other reporters tales.
I shit you not.
Because of the way things worked, his tales would be the only ones ready for the tight morning deadlines and the splash was his.
After a few weeks of this nonsense the news editor and the hard-working reporter who had the majority of their stories binned hid in the office and discovered him at it.
Be fair, be accurate, be balanced. The only complaint they can have is they don't like the story.
Then you truly can tell them to go and fuck themselves.

Monday, 20 July 2009

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger

This job is seriously stressful.
Deadlines, bosses, the pressure of having to do well, dealing with extraordinary situations, death knocks, over work, bad pay.
Everything adds up into a big bubble of chest tightening, stomach churning, jaw grinding, headache inducing, STRESS!
Stress can destroy you, if you let it. Some of the very best, strongest, hardcore hacks have crumbled under its relenting pressure.
Men have killed their wives through mental illness. Drink and drugs are connected with our industry like pastry in a pie company.
Nervous breakdowns and early death are a common trait. It's a business fraught with fuck ups, freaks and failures.
I have been there.
Sleeping tablets to get over insomnia; group therapy to combat panic attacks; betablockers for hypertension; alopecia; paranoia and anger issues.
All down to stress of the job.
To survive stress, you have to harness it.
As journalists, you have to learn to love it.
As a reporter, I used to feel physically sick when a tale my boss had earmarked for the splash bit the bullet.
I would dread conference when my news list was a collection of press releases, follow ups and lies.
Door knocks would often leave me in a state of utter terror at the unknown.
Who hasn't frozen while writing an intro, knowing full well it was needed five minutes ago; who can remember the times when you have a stand up row over the most minor thing as the pressure mounts ; or pretended to phone a particularly abrasive press officer/councillor with a sticky question then claiming they were out.
As a new boss I often awoke, slightly sweaty, at 4am on deadline day after a dream that my entire paper has come out with its pages blank. That particular nightmare comes, almost like clockwork, on a crap news week.
My other favourite is going to bed the night before deadline day and having a vivid minute-by-minute dream that it all went brilliantly, only to wake up at 6am with everything yet to come.
I have often wanted to scream out loud when stories fall flat on pages that subs need right now and sometimes, on very bad days, the thought of walking out and leaving it all to someone else
becomes so tempting I can taste it.
But I haven't cracked, choked or crumbled (yet) I use the stress to my advantage. Harness the energy it gives me to ask the questions or make the calls. Spend the day barking orders or fighting fires and relax when I get home - with a glass or two of wine.
Experience helps immensely, situations become more normal. Writing becomes easier and second guessing your boss and covering your arse becomes second nature.
But the stress will always be there.
Start learning to make it your friend, before it becomes your worst enemy.

Things I still love about journalism - part one

It's easy to bitch and moan so I thought I would write about some things that keep me doing this job after nearly twenty years.
Stories - You cannot do this job for two decades if you don't still get a head-crackling, shivery-back thrill about tales, big or small.
I don't care if it's national or local, when a reporter comes in with THAT story which you instantly adore there is no better feeling. Give me pics and I am in hog heaven. It doesn't even have to be a splash.
It could be a great funny three with roller-skating, coffin-dodgers or a super, council bashing page nine that exposes its hypocrisy. As long as it has the elements that make a goodie I am made up.
I am fortunate to work in newspapers that give me that feeling - on a lesser scale - once a week, on a major scale once a month.
God loves a dress up with a fact file.
Being right - Second only to bringing in those stories is getting them spot-on right when everyone else says you are wrong. We have all been there when your splash is getting torn apart by other media, councillors, press officers, whatever.
How sweet is that feeling when the report/inquest/tribunal/court case proves you 100 per cent correct.
Hold fast. Be strong. And make sure you ram it up their arses when you get a result.
One of my oldest splashes was described by a council press officer on the front page of our rivals as 'the greatest work of fiction since Gone With the Wind'.
A week later the council had to finally admit their bullshit when our splash was the lead item on their planning agenda. Boo yah bitches!
That's the power of having a planning officer leaking us the good shit.
Colleagues - I absolutely love other hacks - even the ones I slag off because they are on rival papers.
I love getting drunk and whining and moaning and fighting with them. The one-upmanship when you meet other reporters can be incredible. I love their vanity and insecurity; their naivety and brilliance.
But most of all their commitment and enthusiasm for the job. A bunch of good hacks can sniff out the part-timer (wannabe press officer) and they are quickly shunned from the herd.
I am still in contact with a massive number of the people I have worked with. It's that sort of club. Whether I see them once a year or text them for a favour after five years we still remember the times we had.
Some of my very best friends came from the first job I ever had. I was best man at one of their weddings. I lived with two of them. I take the piss out of another about their former social habits on a regular basis.
Success - Back in the day I won some awards. It was fun at the time. But so what.
I get a far bigger thrill in seeing my troops doing well. Whether it be one of my former juniors ploughing a massive furrow in the nationals, my top reporter winning a national award or even one ex-scallywag getting a better job in the same company as me. (Damn him).
I get a buzz. I hope that my influence, in some tiny way, has got them to the position they are now (mainly shouting - no touching, honest).
Community correspondents write utter shite - I have never been so pleased to see the utter twaddle our new army of community correspondents has produced.
Thank fuck for the untrained idiot. Most of it is total undecipherable wank. The best is already a blogger which stories we are already nicking.
The reason for my relief? Your management and mine wanted community correspondents to replace most of you with these free 'reporters'.
I laughed my arse off when the MD blew a gasket when he discovered they were 'writing about their fucking holidays'. He was fit to shit when he realised plan A was reduced to a huge heap of utter toss.
Being a boss - It really does make life easier. There is nothing worse than being a trainee/minion and having demands placed upon you when you really don't feel like it due to illness/hangover/relationship breakdown or a general can't-be-fucked-attitude. Basically you have no choice. Do it or incur the wrath of your editor.
But being a boss means the majority of tasks can be delegated to the overworked or ignored (due to deadline). I have a massive in-tray that gets palmed off on a regular basis or binned if I think the person will also forget.
Don't get me wrong, I rarely sit around the office doing fuck all for long. But as the old saying goes - 'Why have a dog and bark yourself'.
Post bag - This should really be number one because without the justification of a letter box filled with hand-written notes telling you whether you are right, wrong, or racist this job isn't worthwhile.
Feedback is brilliant, even if it is telling you that you are shit.
Out of all the papers I bring out, one has a bag of letters you would not believe. Each week we have at least 15 genuine letters from real, unique people. Not charities, or political parties or the local green-crayon-scrawling nutbags (we get those on top).
My council press officer often asks me how many I make up. None, is the answer.
When we have a big issue the letter writers double. I love it.
It's so much better to know you had a person write out a three page letter, stick it in an envelope, pay for a stamp and post it within a day of reading your paper, than it is to read: 'Councilhater146' post 'Typical Labour Nonsense. Only UKIp has the answer. If only we were out of europe' (sic) on your website.
Variety - It truly is the spice of life. This is the job which can never get boring. While you know what your day entails in terms of copy flow and the basic structure, you never know what people are going to do to themselves.
While experience enables our papers to cover almost anything you can never predict when news wil happen or what it will be.
After all, do you think the local papers in Dunblane, Lockerbie, Hungerford or Soham sat there and predicted their small towns were about to become synonymous with major tragedies.
News can happen anywhere or anytime.
It's what gets me out of bed in the morning (or the middle of the night on occasion.)