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02 December 2011

Daring to Be Different

I'm not going to dignify the Clarkson 'story' with any direct comment.

Mouthy presenter, outrageous remarks, sense of humour failure, jumping on bandwagon, out of context, apology, DVD to flog, crass union types, more jumping on bandwagon, blah blah blah. All been said.

But it does beg the question, given the number of times 'non-stories' surface and develop out of all proportion, as to how often editors feel themselves under pressure to go with a tale when all instincts, reason, common sense and (not least) the facts scream to ignore it.

I am forcefully reminded of the Bradford Riots of 1995. I was still a (relatively) young reporter at The Pulse in Bradford.

The departure of the previous editor had left me with the title of 'News Co-ordinator', the suits having decided that not having a replacement editor would save them a company car. But in effect I was running a small but perfectly formed news team in one of the most exciting patches in the country.

So when trouble broke out in Manningham it was my Fiat Uno, not the station's, that I drove past the police cordon into Oak Lane and parked near the junction of Lilycroft Road. That was the start of a long night and a long three or four days of reporting for The Pulse and IRN as the story unfolded.

This background is relevant to what came next.

On about day three the Programme Controller summoned me to his office. He was surrounded by a stack of tabloids, and even one or two editions of regional papers that should have known better. The theme common to all of them was the screaming headline 'Band of Gold Riots'.

The national press had, collectively, decided that the rioting in Bradford was linked to Kay Mellor's hit TV series 'Band of Gold' which was set, notionally, in Bradford's Lumb Lane, a seedy red light district which rapidly became a tourist attraction; coach parties in Bradford for a visit to the National Museum of Photography and a curry would detour down 'the Lane' in order to gawp at the sad, totally unerotic sight of sex workers touting for business on street corners.

The fact most of the filming for the series was done in the North West, chosen because Bradford wasn't derelict enough for the telly-luvvies or as convenient for the Granada canteen, needn't concern us here.

There had been sporadic outbreaks of petty vandalism. Car windows broken, mainly, as Muslim youths vented their frustration against the increased numbers of kerb crawlers who had tempted some prostitutes to ply their trade outside mosques - so when there was serious trouble in Bradford the 'obvious, innit?' reflex took over and the redtops decided 'Band of Gold' was at the heart of the trouble.

It wasn't.

The real story had to do with youths playing football in a busy street, a heavy-handed police response from coppers wearing their shiny new side-handled batons, a chase, a baby being dropped and an angry response from mums and dads concerned that their sons had been nicked. The early stages of the riot were more like a Sunday stroll in the park, bizarrely transposed to 0200. Then it got nasty. I'll write about it properly one day.

Back in the Controller's office I was given a hard time. 'Why aren't we interviewing Kay Mellor? Everyone's interviewing Kay Mellor - we need to fall into line'

I quietly but firmly explained that 'Band of Gold' had nothing to do with the story. I stuck to that line, and eventually I was let out. One by one at different times over the next few hours my colleagues were given the same treatment. I'm proud that we all stuck to our line and gave a consistent message. Mellor was irrelevant to the story.

It's not easy to take a stand against the zeitgeist.

It's even harder today when a Twitterstorm erupts and the same clip of Clarkson is endlessly replayed on rolling TV news channels desperate for something - anything - that doesn't have the word 'Euro' in the copy.  And preferably with a face someone will recognise rather than a German banker.

Which is why, I suspect, many journalists and editors went against their better judgement and 'went with' Clarkson's rant at the top when they shouldn't have. They did so because they were relieved to have a tale they can actually tell (even The Economist is struggling with the fiscal crisis).

But mainly they did it because they were scared if they didn't, and everyone else did, they'd be left exposed, as I was, facing an inquisition into why they ignored it.

Journalists like to think of themselves as lone wolves, prowling in the night. In reality we're more often a flock of sheep, happiest when moving across the landscape in a tight knot. No-one wants to be exposed. If my bulletins ever led with a story no-one else had at 0700, rather than congratulate the team for a scoop or a brave decision I'd often fret until the tale was picked up and everyone else fell into line. In truth, we're happiest when everyone is saying more or less the same thing.

Which is sad, and something we need to reflect on next time some 'celeb' nonentity stupidly or cunningly says something controversial or silly to show themselves up or boost their image.

In the old days editors had a spike on which crap copy was impaled. 'Elf'n'safety means they are no more ... but if they're ever brought back I can think of several good and novel uses for one - starting with Jeremy Clarkson. Ooh.

Joke? Outrageous? One can of course complain below if offended. And tell all your mates to read this blog.

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