WHEN I was a jobbing journalist I was on the end of quite a few death threats.
It came with the territory. People often don’t like what you write, even when it is ‘fair, accurate and contemperaneous’, the old buzz words for scribes.
People don’t like being held to account, from criminals to politicians, business leaders to celebrities.
But the chirping of some Labour members against the press at a conference called by Jeremy Corbyn stinks. It echoes the ‘enemies of the people’ lined eschewed by Donald Trump.
A supporter shouting ‘what a disgrace’ when she didn’t agree with questions put to Corbyn by Channel 5’s Andy Bell is symptomatic of that problem. And JC’s response ‘let Andy ask his question, he’s a nice fellow, he’s alright…’ doesn’t quite cut it for me. We don’t need reporters to ‘be nice’ to politicians or anyone, just to be ‘fair, accurate and contemperaneous’.
It wasn’t a bad question, either. Corbyn wants to be caretaker prime minister to sort out the huge mess of a no-deal Brexit and is on record as saying he would ‘do anything’ to prevent it. With a question mark on whether he’s the right person for the job because he may, or may not, garner the support of Parliament, why shouldn’t we ask if he would be prepared to step aside to allow someone with more support to ensure a no-deal Brexit is thwarted?
Journalism, good journalism, is about trying to get to the root of the truth. Believe me, that was easier in the 1980s when I started. There is such obfuscation, spin and downright lies being told today, while data laws have made it more difficult to get simple facts.
And when that fails? Downright aggression. Trump is rewriting the playbook and it’s being adopted over here in the UK.
But journos have a job to do. Why shouldn’t someone question Corbyn? To some of his supporters he may well be a messiah, but what if he’s wrong? I found it odd that as we tumble towards Brexit, the Tories had, in Theresa May, a leader ideologically opposed to leaving the European Union but doing her best to deliver the split, while Labour had a leader in Corbyn, who had long been anti-EU and now found himself under pressure to fight to stay.
The same goes for Boris Johnson, the man who has switched ideological allegiance more times than Elton John has retired from show business. However, he has his own playbook – to ignore the facts, spin his version and somehow charm people into letting him get away with it.
Margaret Thatcher, who like her policies or not, was brutally honest, would have been lynched for similar antics.
Nobody should have to face a docile press that simply agrees with them, publishes what they say without challenge. It is in nobody’s interest.
Of course, that relies on a press that isn’t part of the spin, the obfuscation and downright lies. Too often the mainstream media is, either through design or the slow death of good reporting that is a by product of the regionals slashing tens of thousands of jobs in the last decade or so.
I turned down a job on the nationals when they said I would be told what to write and how to write it. I’d done alright up to that stage being honest and simply letting the facts speak for themselves.
Let’s be clear, I was never a great writer. I was lucky enough to work alongside some brilliant scribes at two of the papers I worked on, the Coventry Evening Telegraph and Stoke Sentinel, and would struggle to keep pace. They all had one thing in common, a great work ethic and honesty, a desire to find the truth, to get to the heart of issues of interest to the communities they served.
In covering local politics, the councillors and MPs I interviewed never knew my political allegiances, because it never came into it. I gave each and every party a fair crack of the whip, asked the difficult questions but never to advance my own political leanings.
It didn’t stop one councillor threatening to beat my head to a pulp for a story I wrote about him being involved in an assault. I was at my rugby club at the time, was told he was there and that I should go. I said no and pretty much all the players, officials and supporters that knew what was going on rallied round.
They knew I was simply doing my job. They also knew far more than I was ever allowed to print, given the libel laws that exist and the knife edge between writing what you knew you could prove in court and hearsay.
Not that I was scared. I told some people who called saying they would kill me where to find me. I’m still here.
But when I left papers, I got nice letters of thanks from different party leaders, from business bosses and police chiefs. One letter acknowledged I didn’t always ‘write what we would have wanted’ but that I did it fairly, giving them a chance to have their say. All said I worked hard to build relationships, and most importantly to me, trust.
A former colleague, Bob Cole, died last month and it was his funeral yesterday. One of his great mates among the snappers at the CET was there, retired some years, but still taking photographs. This time of the horse-drawn hearse taking his pal to some better place. A poignant moment.
When I started at Telegraph towers, it seemed that Coley and Derrick Warren were a double act. Fun characters, lovely gentlemen and artists with a camera in their hand.
After Princess Diana’s death in 1997, Derrick was told he was a ‘fucking paparazzi’ by some idiot. Back then, Derrick would be among the ranks of great news photographers, taking iconic shots of events for the front page or snapping children at their carol concert.
And he did everything right; honestly, fairly and with good humour.
Back then, as now, we’d take pictures of people before the courts. They used to object, obviously. I remember tackling one bloke at the front desk as he hopped over the gate chasing another CET photographer.
And we knocked doors of suspected criminals, too. People with a reputation for thuggishness and we’d go and put various claims to them. That took some courage at times, I can tell you. We weren’t welcome. People don’t like being held to account.
Today, I grieve for the attitude towards journalists. Perhaps I’ve not known a time when people are so ignorant towards truth, who decide their truth is the only one and anyone who disagrees is a threat. We’re living in ugly times.
Journalism, proper, honest journalism, that quest for truth, can save us.