Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Lies and the newsroom - a journalist confesses

The time: c. 1991
The place: the City office of a national newspaper, empty at a weekday lunchtime save for one financial journalist, me.
The phone rings and I'm reluctant to answer. I can see the caller is our newspaper’s tyrannical news editor. But the honour of the department demands that it is always seen to be staffed during the day (and on call at night).

GC: Yes, Mike?
News editor: Can you do us 8 pars on the treble-chance-ski story?
GC: Pardon
News editor: The treble-chance-ski. (already growing irate) Don’t you guys (i.e. me) watch the wires? Littlewoods is setting up in Russia. Great story. 8 pars as soon as you like.
GC: On it right away, Mike.

The news desk in those days was number blind. Any news story with a business link was farmed out to a financial journalist to write. The request should have been easy enough to fulfil. But a quick call to the Littlewoods press office established it was the stores side of the group which was opening a pilot outlet in Moscow, a decision which was completely separate from its football pools operation in the UK.

GC: Bad news, Mike. It’s got nothing to do with football pools – it’s the stores business.
News editor: Foot in the door, foot in the door. (he was now shouting) Knickers today, treble chance tomorrow. 8 pars.
GC: OK, Mike, 8 pars.

Clearly he had a headline in mind and wasn’t going to be dissuaded by the truth. I was in a spot. Financial journalists don’t knowingly write lies and expect to last long in their jobs. But on the other hand I couldn’t see the harm in pacifying a bullying news editor – and doing so without damage to the public good. This would be a one-off and so it proved.
I wrote my 8 pars – and warmed to the subject of Russian football pools. I decided lucky winners would prefer to be rewarded with Western luxury goods rather than roubles. Steps would have to be taken to prevent match fixing and the security of the Russian postal service would have be tightened. And I filed the story.
My City editor on his return praised my initiative grateful he had been spared another ear-bashing by the news editor.
The treble-chance-ski article ran in only one edition and at half its original length and without a byline. Happily Littlewoods never got back to me but that’s not quite the end of the story. The next day my phone rang.

Young woman: Your news desk said you wrote the story about Littlewoods football pools going into Russia.
GC (cautiously): Yes, why?
Young woman: Well, it’s a great story and I’m a researcher on the such-and-such television show and we want to do a follow-up. The only thing is Littlewoods don’t know anything about it. Is there anybody in Russia you know who could help?
GC: Hmm. Let me put it this way. That story would prove an elusive exclusive if you tried to follow it up.
Young woman: You mean it’s made up?
GC: I wouldn’t put it like that but you might think so.
Young woman: And I thought my job sucked.

Reader, I never heard from her again.

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