Monday, 14 June 2010

THE LAST POST: AN EDUCATION IN LIFE

Before arriving at university, I thought education was all about work. Working so you could work even more when you actually work. How wrong I was. Choosing to read Journalism Studies in Sheffield was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, because not only was it an enjoyable course, but I’ve also had a fantastic three years of life. They say your best days are at university and - although it took me a while to get out of the 'workworkwork' mentality of GCSEs and A-Levels, into the 'funfunfun' mentality of a degree - there are insufficient comparitives and superlatives to describe how amazing it's been. But I'll try to find some...

My BA Journalism Studies course has been a wonderful education. I chose The University of Sheffield simply because it was the best place to read journalism at undergraduate level and I haven’t been disappointed. I’ve been given the opportunity to develop skills in so many areas, including newspaper reporting, subbing, television & radio production, magazine writing, shorthand, website & print design and media law. So I've had quite a bit to do!

I’ve also met some fantastic coursemates, some of whom have already been offered jobs in local and national newspapers and PR. I was pretty enthusiastic about working in journalism when I started my course in 2007. But my lecturers have helped ensure I cannot wait to work full-time now, by being so passionate about their subjects and helping me nurture my skills and understanding of the media. For example, the media studies element of the course has been a sociological side of things that I'd never previously considered that much before I left school.

I had the chance to study in London after receiving offers from Goldsmiths and City University, but am so pleased on reflection that I turned them both down in favour of Sheffield. Something I never realised before coming north was how much of a divide still exists in this country. I even did a piece in my final-year broadcast portfolio on ‘northerness’ and what that concept means to people in Yorkshire. I never really thought of regional identity as being that important when I lived at home in Essex, but all of a sudden I became a ‘southerner’ in the north!

Aside from the north-south divide, which is obviously not only felt in South Yorkshire, Sheffield has been a great city to live in as a student. It has two universities and a number of colleges with young people from across the world, making it a vibrant and buzzing place whenever you go out. There is so much going on during term-time and a huge number of restaurants & entertainment outlets competing for student business, that prices are cheap and it’s easy to have a good night out for a tenner.

A fascinating aspect of Sheffield is its diversity over such a small area. You have the leafy, upmarket regions of Broomhill and Fulwood (Deputy PM Nick Clegg’s constituency of Hallam), and then poorer areas like Pitsmoor and Burngreave where postcode gang warfare between S3 and S4 is rife, with a number of murders over the last few years. This all contributes to making it a very eye-opening place to live as a student, whatever background you're from. With the university being a city (rather than campus) college, you really feel part of life here. I’d have just been in a comfortable south-east bubble if I’d never moved to Yorkshire, so I’m very glad I did.

The political world of Sheffield is rather removed from what I was used to in the blue corner of Southend West. There is not a single Tory MP or even a councillor on Sheffield City Council, in an area dominated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Let's just say the Conservative Future society at the University isn’t massive. It’s no surprise that a former manufacturing stronghold - and the most working-class city in the country - is generally left-wing. Add in all the students voting Lib Dem, and you can see why Clegg loves it up here.

University is a great time for finding out more about who you are as a person and developing your opinions on a wide variety of subjects. I’ve found my own faith as a Christian has been greatly strengthened by a fantastic church, St Thomas’ Church Philadelphia, which is very proactive in its community work both in South Yorkshire and abroad, whilst it continues to grow in reach. And I’ve been able to try out new activities I’d have never even thought about if I had missed out on attending university. I’ve re-ignited a passion I had as a young teenager for dance and got involved in a new type - swing dance - which has been great fun to learn. Add that into activities like salsa and samba drumming, and you can see why I've loved my time here.

Sheffield is well-known for its music and this excited me when I arrived. I’ve got to see so many bands over the last three years here, from Arctic Monkeys [pictured] to Groove Armada, Carmen Ghia to Coldplay and Chase & Status to Kasabian. There is a top music scene in the Steel City and I’ve found so many great smaller artists by going to random gigs and events. One thing that’s really stuck out has been drum ‘n’ bass, as there’s a massive scene locally for a music genre that isn’t very well-represented yet nationwide. I might have been brought up on classical and jazz music, and since then developed a taste for dance and indie, but there’s something unique and fresh about DnB that you just don’t find in other music. And if it wasn’t for Sheffield, I’d have probably never found out about it.

So that’s it, three years of being a student finished. It’s been full of great memories, friends and general learning. Although I wouldn’t like to live here for the rest of my life, Sheffield has been a wonderful city to be in as a student and I’m very glad I decided to come here. I’m sad to be leaving but it’ll be good to get back to the seaside in Leigh-on-Sea for a bit and take a break over the summer. The last three years have been pretty crazy, so I feel like I deserve a rest now!


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I'm sorry to announce this will be my last regular Monday evening blog post. I've really enjoyed blogging during my time at The University of Sheffield and getting so much feedback from readers. Many thanks to you for generating the 8,000 hits I've had from 94 countries on my 98 posts in the last 15 months. I'm now going to properly embrace Twitter and post my views on life at http://twitter.com/markdavidduell, so please follow me as I move into my post-university life! Thanks for your support :)
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PICTURES: University of Sheffield; University of Sheffield SASI; Wikimedia; BBC

Monday, 7 June 2010

WORLD IN MOTION: THE MAIN EVENT

The flags are out, optimism is sky-high and the Carlsberg is in the fridge. But before you get too excited, let me just say: England are not going to win the World Cup.

If you compare our team to the likes of Spain, Brazil and Argentina, it’s not great. Remember that we’re up against the likes of Torres, Kaka and Messi [pictured] here. And whilst possessing Rooney, Gerrard and Terry in your side is certainly not an embarrassment, Fabio Capello’s men are simply too one-dimensional to succeed. We’ve seen that enough during recent friendlies. But the World Cup is not just about England. It’s a wonderful occasion when the best international footballers come to compete on the biggest stage. And I, for one, can’t wait.

So if England don’t win, who will? I believe this could be a World Cup where workmanlike performances grind out results. There are going to be many teams not used to playing in such humidity and high temperatures that may suffer, which is why preparations are crucial. But this is unlikely to affect top sides such as Brazil and Argentina - or even Spain or Portugal - so the factor that this plays might be minimised. However, sometimes progression in the World Cup is not about playing entertaining football. It’s about getting results and knowing how to close down your opponents.

This is why my two outside bets this year are Germany and Italy. You can still get pretty good odds on both from William Hill (14/1 and 16/1), which is primarily because they have already been written off by most of the media.

Italy are, of course, the current holders - and although no team has retained the trophy for consecutive competitions since Brazil in 1958 and 1962; the only other side to do so was Italy themselves in 1934 and 1938. The reason I’m backing the Italians is that they are so strong defensively, have the capability to become very tough to break down and can grab difficult wins when necessary. Players like Cannavaro, Buffon [pictured] and Zambrotta are a defensive wall that will shut up shop to allow the likes of De Rossi and Pirlo to get forward and cause problems. It might not be pretty and it might be 1-0 defensive football, but that’s what the Italians specialise in, and is why they won the tournament in 2006.

Germany are an industrious and reliable team. You always know what to expect from them in a penalty shootout. Their group - like Italy’s - is pretty straightforward, although Serbia, Ghana and Australia could all cause a few problems. Their coach, Joachim Low, was assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann in 2006, and has a team that will not be pushed over. It includes the likes of Podolski, Schweinsteiger and last tournament's top scorer Klose [pictured], who must be taken seriously and shut down by opponents. But I just think Italy are such a strong all-round side that they will concede fewer goals and have a better ability to stop opponents scoring.

There are a few other possibilities worth looking out for and maybe having a flutter on. Japan, who have only appeared at the World Cup three times before and only made it past the group stage when on home soil in 2002, are 5/4 with Ladbrokes to finish bottom of their group (against Holland, Denmark and Cameroon). How about Holland to finish top of the same group on 4/6 (Skybet) - and maybe combining those odds for a better payout. Looking at top scorers, Arsenal’s Dutch striker Robin van Persie looks well-priced at 16/1 (Paddy Power) to be the tournament’s top scorer, and England’s penalty-taker Frank Lampard is 6/1 (Coral) to score the most goals for the Three Lions.

Two surprise packages to look out for could be Serbia and South Korea - both sides with a relatively average past in the World Cup and few star players - but workmanlike and capable of causing a few surprises. You can get good prices on both to cause an upset in their groups - with South Korea 10/1 (Skybet) to beat Argentina and Serbia 3/1 (Boylesports) to defeat Germany. Both of these results might be unlikely, but upsets do happen - and you can at least get a good price on both of these sides finishing second in their groups. How about a semi-final between South Korea and North Korea? OK, I’m getting carried away now...

I can’t possibly describe how excited I am about the World Cup. My life as a student is set to expire this weekend and what better way to celebrate moving into a new stage of life than watching the whole tournament? The anticipation really has been building up since Euro 2008, with fans around the world wondering whether Spain can clinch the world title too - or will Brazil’s flair and creativity outdo the likes of Xavi and Fabregas? Holland have never won the World Cup, so maybe it will be their year. Or perhaps we’ll get a complete shock, like when Greece were victorious in Euro 2004. One thing’s for sure - and I’m sorry to say it, but I’m only being honest - England won’t be lifting the trophy come July 11th.

PICTURES: BBC Sport

Monday, 31 May 2010

EUROVISION: TIME TO SIGN OFF?

They tried their best. Electric violins from Moldova, another out-of-tune UK entry and a song about apricots by Armenia. But once again the Eurovision Song Contest 2010 represented everything that is wrong and embarrassing about Europe to us in Great Britain. And once again it proved that very few of our neighbours like us - with the UK finishing bottom for the third time in eight years. Josh Dubovie [pictured] was not really any better than Andy Abraham (2008) and Jemini (2003), and what is even worse is that he got past a number of competitors in a contest to make it that far.

Eurovision is something of a joke in this country now, as everybody knows the voting is political and rarely based on the song. This year’s winner from Germany - Satellite, by Lena - is already quite well-known in Europe and that helped its success, but it’s not a particularly good tune. It sounds generic and, like most entries, is about two decades out of date. The irony about this is that the UK has one of the best music industries in the world, and it fills the radio schedules of many stations abroad - but when it comes down to it, however good the entry is, we just won’t win.

The pre-scripted jokes and awful outfits were a source of fun for Terry Wogan over the years, and Graham Norton is doing a reasonable job as hosting it nowadays, by poking similar humour at the contestants and presenters. But the whole style of Eurovision is so cheesy and clich├ęd that you wonder whether we should just quit now to save the embarrassment of finishing behind countries that most people couldn’t pinpoint on a map and certainly didn’t even exist when the competition first started.

The Conservatives in government can’t really enjoy the whole ‘embracing European-ness’ idea either, with the Eurozone in such dire straits at the moment thanks to our friends in Greece. Whether being in the European Union has been beneficial for our country or not - and that’s a whole different topic - nights like Eurovision just sum up why we don’t get on very well with our continental neighbours. I believe the money spent on it by the BBC each year could be better invested elsewhere. How about relaunching Top of the Pops?

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Sandwiched in between Aslan’s Kebabs and Popeye’s on Sheffield's West Street, Bargain Beers is not a great place to be on a Saturday night. Unless you happen to be a drunkard looking for your fix of dry cider - in which case it’s paradise. But it doesn’t just share a similar name to that of Bargain Booze, a chain now operating 630 stores across Britain, and given a glowing review in yesterday's The Sunday Times. It also shares the alcohol pricing philosophy that by charging consistently low prices, you will build up customer loyalty and generate stable sales.

These discount stores - which offer nothing but alcohol and a few nibbles - battle with supermarkets for the £14billion market of alcohol sold in the UK outside the pub trade, and are very successful in doing so. It seems that you can build up customer loyalty by undercutting supermarkets on average price - even if they do beat you with special deals on multipacks from time to time. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) will this week recommend government ministers to launch a minimum price on alcohol per unit. This could see the price of cheap wine especially soar - and this will hit the supermarkets and cheap off-licences.

The problem with the argument of putting up the price of alcohol is that it will not deter people from drinking if they really want to. When you go into a pub, the price of a pint will usually be somewhere between £2 and £3, and it’s unlikely you would change your opinion of whether to buy it or not. Similarly, if you’re having a house party and want to get a certain amount of beer or spirits, you’ll buy them whatever the price (within reason). And for alcoholics, this is the case even more so. I doubt that the price elasticity for alcohol is what Nice understand it to be, but they are the economic experts, so we’ll see what happens.

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As regular blog readers may guess, I do like football a bit. I managed to get to 49 matches this season, including midweek trips to Shrewsbury, Tranmere and Scunthorpe. And that’s supporting Southend (200 miles from Sheffield) and Newcastle (150 miles away). So it’s absolutely no surprise to me that a Heineken survey last week showed British men spend more time watching, playing, reading and talking about football than anywhere else in the world. The figure is 11 hours 12 minutes a week, which I reckon I could easily surpass in one day.

With the World Cup only 11 days away now, it’ll be a great excuse to watch even more of the beautiful game than usual, and I can’t wait for it to get going. The two-week break between the official end of the domestic season yesterday and the start of the tournament in South Africa will hopefully pass pretty quickly, and then the pubs, bars and betting shops will be full with noisy Englishmen. Wonderful. It’s a tribute to our nation that we get behind our team so much and are the most football-mad country in the world. It’s a great time for the country to come together in praise of 11 men kicking an inflated pig’s bladder more than 5,000 miles away from home.

PICTURES: Digital Spy; Bargain Booze; Reuters/Mail

Monday, 24 May 2010

THE BEST TYPE OF JOURNALISM

Journalists are often asked whether they would enjoy ruining somebody's life with an article. The honest answer for most would be 'no', but some things have to be said in order to bring public figures to account, and we've seen that again this week [Sarah Ferguson, pictured]. The great investigative journalists of our time like Nick Davies (The Guardian) and Mazher Mahmood (News of the World) have brought to account so many companies and individuals, who would have got away with malpractice and hypocrisy for many more years had they not been caught.

Last week, we saw the Football Association's Chairman, Lord Triesman, lose his job after claiming Spain and Russia would try to bribe referees in the World Cup, in a private conversation reported by the Mail on Sunday. Now we've got Sarah Ferguson getting a right royal spanking for putting access to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew, up for sale to a News of the World reporter (incidently, it was Mr Mahmood).

I often hear the tabloid press lambasted as being nothing more than profit-driven gossip junkies who love ruining celebrity's lives. But this clearly isn't true. They have such amazing contacts and budgets for investigative journalism, that without them our society would be much worse off. And it's not just the tabloid press. Our broadsheet papers like The Sunday Times continue to invest in quality journalism that holds politicians to account (just look at their Patricia Hewitt piece).

You would have thought that politicians, celebrities and royalty would have realised by now that any conversations or exchanges they have with anybody can be recorded. Max Mosley's reputation was certainly damaged by the bondage session he took part in, even if he sued the News of the World for claiming it was 'Nazi'-related. There is an argument that this was private - and that Lord Triesman's conversation was private - so neither should be let out into the public domain. And there is a difference here between Mosley's sex life and Triesman's comments directly relating to his job, but both men are public figures who should know better.

Without investment in quality investigative journalism, we would know a lot less about the failings of important people in our society. So keep supporting it by buying those newspapers!

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"If Ben put his head in the oven, would you do that too?," Sue asked Karen. "Don't be silly," Karen said. "There wouldn't be enough room for my head if Ben's head was in the oven, unless you chopped it off, and then I'd be dead, so I wouldn't be able to close the door."

Karen from Outnumbered is one of the funniest television characters I've ever witnessed in my life. This might sound over-the-top as Ramona Marquez is only a child, but as an actress she's up there with the best. The third series of Outnumbered has recently been showing on BBC1, and her improvised delivery is something else.

It's difficult to know how much is scripted by a behind-the-scenes team and how much she comes up with herself, but the Britain's Got Talent sketch earlier this series was simply brilliant - especially when she 'sat on Ant and Dec' by mistake. I've seen Hugh Dennis (her father in the series) perform comedy live and think he's pretty funny, but it's refreshing to see such a young actress with an incredible sense of humour and perfect delivery.

So well done, Ramona (by the way, doesn't she looks more English than Spanish?). It'll be interesting to see whether she goes onto comedy as an adult, or if she finds it hard to shake free of that 'cute' stereotype that has exemplified her performance in Outnumbered. But I'll enjoy watching it while it lasts.

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England have two warm-up friendlies this week to get them ready for the World Cup. It's Mexico tonight and Japan on Sunday, in time for the naming of the squad next Tuesday (1 June). Manager Fabio Capello must use these games wisely to ensure: a) nobody gets injured; b) he has a clear idea of the 23 men to take to South Africa; and c) confidence remains high after an excellent qualifying campaign.

There are serious concerns that the pitch at Wembley still isn't up to scratch, and this was certainly evident during the Championship Play-Off Final on Saturday, when players were dropping like flies. Blackpool's Gary Taylor-Fletcher went home on crutches after the game, and he'd tried out three different pairs of boots before one got caught in the ground and he went over on it.

It is key that England don't get any injuries to key players. I'd rather we lost 5-0 to Mexico and Japan than lost a big name footballer now, as June and July in South Africa is obviously more important, and nobody really cares about results in friendlies - even though it would be nice to win. So, a message to Capello: please make the right decisions on who to take to South Africa. And a message to the FA: sort out that pitch now!

PICTURES: BBC

Monday, 17 May 2010

OUR VERY OWN COMEDY DOUBLE-ACT

Watching Nick Clegg and David Cameron give their first press conference as leaders of our country last week was somewhat reminiscent of the Morecambe and Wise Show. They just seemed so relaxed about it all and even had time for a little laugh with reporters, which suggests to me that the next few years are going to be great fun. Compare that to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who, as The Guardian pointed out today, were never able to pull off such an informal and friendly co-appearance despite being in the same political party for decades.

The mention of ‘Cameron’s favourite political joke’ from Five News reporter Andy Bell will be replayed over and over for years to come. It’s a perfect start to a future news report on ‘where did it all go wrong after it started so well’; but hopefully it won’t go wrong and we can have good fun with our new leaders. Maybe they will come up with a new coalition logo - perhaps a blend of blue and yellow to create green - as a sign that they want to make this work? Maybe not.

There were some great moments during the election like Gordon Brown v Gillian Duffy, Alastair Campbell v Adam Boulton and Joan Collins v Andrew Neil. But in many ways it failed to deliver. We thought the TV debates had been successful in stirring up a huge increase in seats for the Liberal Democrats, but that never materialised. We thought turnout would rise dramatically, but it was only up 2 per cent on average. And only a few months ago we thought we would get a Conservative overall majority, but that was to prove unfounded too.

A Clegg-Cameron coalition should be good for this country. It will certainly mean fewer rash policy decisions are made as the two parties will always be debating everything together, and this can only be good for plurality in our political system. The Tories and Lib Dems may well reinvent a ‘centre’ politics, where they come to compromises on some of their more right or left ideas, and that could be very interesting.

We have two people now leading our country that were born after England last won the World Cup in 1966, so the hope is that their youthful and innovative approaches to politics will work together for the good of this nation.

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The camera pans over Canary Wharf and the City. The Financial Times is being read in a private helicopter. Some businesspeople in smart suits are walking across a bridge carrying suitcases on wheels. But... hold on... aren’t they a bit, um, small?

The best thing about getting the General Election out of the way is that The Apprentice is back, thank goodness, and we will all once again have something to do for an hour at 9pm on Wednesdays. However, all is not as it seems - this new version of the main show, entitled Junior Apprentice, features teenagers. But don’t worry, as their egos are all just as big as the real contestants. If not bigger.

The first episode made me cringe, to say the least. There were girls crying for no reason whatsoever, boys who were so boastful they were an embarrassment to themselves and Lord Sugar [pictured - no longer as 'Suralan'] cracking jokes about Facebook.

But, with all of that, it was still quite enjoyable to see cocky Jordan De Courcy fired after the first-round for making a loss in a cheese selling competition. Credit to the 16-year-old for already owning his own business, but he’s clearly got a lot to learn. I also enjoyed Tim Ankers complaining that he couldn’t package crackers and cheddar because there was too much wind. And he works as a farmer.

This is clearly going to be lots of fun, but it made me feel slightly like I was watching The Inbetweeners. It’s difficult to sit in front of the television because what’s unfolding makes you want to cringe so much, but it’s actually quite good entertainment.

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The FA Cup Final on Saturday between Chelsea and Portsmouth was a feast of football, compared to the 2007 debacle which Mark Lawrenson referred to as ‘a good advert for the cricket season’. It was played how a cup final should be played, full of commitment and desire to win. The gulf between the sides was massive, but it could have been a wholly different story had Kevin-Prince Boateng converted a penalty shortly before Didier Drogba netted the decisive goal.

I think everyone feels quite sorry for Portsmouth at the moment. It would almost have been better to see them lose 5-0 than 1-0, as at least then they would be comfortably defeated rather than having a sniff of glory. It’s been a sorry state of affairs on the south coast all season, and manager Avram Grant doesn’t deserve it. He’s favourite to take over at West Ham United next season, and I hope he does a good job there if appointed. Portsmouth are likely to lose most of their squad this summer, and must ensure they don’t get relegated again next year. Stability is vital.




PICTURES: Daily Mail/Financial Times; The Sun; Daily Telegraph

Monday, 10 May 2010

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER: BUT WHAT NEXT?

Between the hours of 9am on Wednesday and 2am on Saturday last week, I accumulated just seven hours' sleep. But it was worth it, as I followed and reported on a fascinating General Election. Now the most undemocratic part of the whole business is taking place as the three main parties decide how a coalition will be formed to govern the United Kingdom. Will it be a ‘Con-Dem-Nation’ (great headline) as the Daily Mirror announced? Or are we set for a Lib-Lam tie-up? From a policies and electoral reform point of view, it would seem sensible for Nick Clegg to side with a new Labour leader, now Gordon Brown has stepped down. But a common policy programme is possible with David Cameron that would get an emergency budget in place and overall be more popular with the electorate.

There have been many debates raised over the last few days about whether our electoral system is fair. Suffice to say, it is fair in individual constituencies where the person with the most votes will represent their area in Parliament. But then you look at the percentages of votes and see that if we had Proportional Representation the Lib Dems would have 99 seats (Alternative Vote), 123 (Alternative Vote Plus) or 163 (Single Transferable Vote). No surprises that they favour the latter.

The main argument against PR is that it doesn’t lead to strong governments as there is no clear majority. But, of course, that is exactly the situation we now find ourselves in after election day delivered a hung parliament. Electoral reform is certainly needed, however, as a situation where a 6 per cent point difference in votes leads to 201 more seats for Labour against the Lib Dems certainly does not sound not very democratic.

It was almost unbelievable when the exit polls were released, that the Liberal Democrats were forecast to suffer a net loss of seats. Shadow chancellor Vince Cable laughed it off and I thought they must have got it wrong too at 10pm on Thursday. But as the night continued, the exit poll was proved to be almost spot on. In fact, it was being generous as they got even less.

One of the big winners were the Green Party, with Caroline Lucas gaining a seat in Brighton. She is a very clever woman with radical ideas who I’m sure will add something to the House of Commons. We also saw some excellent gains for the Conservatives in my home county of Essex, such as Castle Point and Basildon South & Thurrock East. In fact, Essex is now exclusively Tory apart from Colchester, which is Lib Dem.

I’m currently producing a radio feature on ‘northerness’ for my degree, and one of the factors used when you define a 'northerner' is that of voting patterns. It’s clear to see looking at the electoral map of England that there are serious differences in voting, which is of course very much traditional. But it’s interesting that the Tories simply have no chance in some areas, however well they’re doing, as many northern working-class areas just feel Labour will always do more for them.

As a general rule, you have the south-east and midlands dominated by the Conservatives, south-west by the Lib Dems, and then the picture is a lot more mixed in the north, with Labour having a much bigger presence. It’s important to note that in England the Tories seem to cover a much larger land area than any of the other parties put together, but this of course counts for nothing, as it doesn’t necessarily represent a much larger population voting for them.

Well that’s all interesting stuff. I think I’ll go to bed tonight and wake up next week to find out who’s in charge.

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Back in the day, the policemen who drew the short straw to cover Milwall, Leeds United or Cardiff City games shuddered in their black boots. And to some extent they still would today. But over the last few weeks we’ve seen three new sets of fans come through the ranks of hooliganism to give their teams a bad name. Violence and crowd trouble caused by Sheffield Wednesday, Luton Town and Grimsby Town supporters over the last 10 days has been simply unacceptable.

It doesn’t matter if your team has got relegated or failed in their promotion bid - this is no excuse for getting onto the pitch and putting players in danger. If you play professional football - or, indeed, play at any level - you should not have to worry about your own safety. At the end of Burton v Grimsby, the referee and some players actually ran off the pitch at the final whistle because they seemed so scared of what could happen. And it got nasty.

I have seen Southend United get promoted twice (once live, once on TV) and relegated twice (both live) - yet on only one of those four occasions has there been a proper pitch invasion. And on that one occasion - against Bristol City in May 2006 - I decided to stay in the stand. Not only because it was a criminal offence to get onto the pitch, but also that I wanted to stay with my grandpa up there and get a good view of what was going on. Yes, invasions looks really funny on the cameras, but if you’re in the middle of a melee it’s probably quite frightening, even if the fans are good-tempered.

The only way to solve this problem seems to be to put up fences again, and nobody wants that. There often simply aren’t enough stewards or police to stop fans getting on, and I suggest the Football League commissions a report before the end of next season to see what can be done. As if it’s a criminal offence but thousands of people still get onto the turf, what can you do? It would be a pretty busy Magistrates’ Court on a Monday morning.

PICTURES: Daily Mirror and Daily Mail/Getty

Monday, 3 May 2010

YOURS OR THE MEDIA'S ELECTION?

It's going to be a fascinating week. The media has put in years of build up to this Thursday, when the talking will stop and the action will happen. We'll find out who'll be running the country from the end of this week. Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are going head-to-head in the tightest general election for a generation and nobody yet wants to call the result. But one element of this election which is of special interest is how the various newspapers have - as in previous years - taken different sides and tried to get you to vote for a certain party. In the blue corner for the Tories, we have The Times, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun. The Guardian is following the Liberal Democrats, the Daily Mirror is backing Labour, and a hung parliament is supported by The Independent. I'm not sure who the Daily Star and Daily Sport are backing, but it probably won't have too much to do with policies on education, transport and defence spending.

So how much of an impact does a newspaper's political voice have on its readers? Some - if not all - newspaper owners are probably in the business not to make money but to gain influence through their position. An excellent piece by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian today looked at political support from papers since 1945, and how whereas some papers like The Sun and The Times have wavered, others like the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail have pretty much held firm on one side of the fence. He points out that The Sun is read "by the greatest number of floating voters", because many of them live in marginal seats. This shows how valuable Murdoch's support is to Cameron, and why The Sun shifting parties last year had so much significance. Voting intentions of newspapers' readers are often very much what you'd expect, which shows how much influence they have.

This year, with six of the nine national daily titles that take politics seriously, you would expect a landslide Conservative win. But in February 1973, the Daily Mirror was the only paper backing Labour and they were still elected. So this shows although newspapers have some influence, they cannot decide elections. The infamous 'It's The Sun wot won it' headline from 1992 was supposed to show how powerful the paper was, and it does indeed have a great deal of influence, but many people obviously don't vote according to what they read. The Independent likes to remain impartial, as that is a principle on which it was founded, but could this be a reason why it has the lowest circulation of any major UK daily? People like their prejudices and opinions reconfirmed by what they consume in the media - just look at Fox News in America. But it's simply a great thing about the British free press that we have such a wide variety of newspapers that back different partes. This election would have been a whole lot more boring if everyone had followed Cameron.

* * *

Persecuted Christians have hit the headlines again, after the Mail on Sunday reported yesterday that a street preacher was charged with a public order offence for saying he thought homosexuality is a sin. It's a perfect Mail story as it's one of these things that 'certainly wouldn't have happened years ago in my day when people were more tolerant'. They know their target audience. But, choice of story aside, I think the debate to be had here is whether anybody should be allowed to say that homosexuality is wrong. Dale Mcalpine was not advocating some sort of new law where gay people should be punished for their sexuality, but just explaining to a PCSO that he thought it was a sin. The argument is not whether the Bible says being gay is wrong, but whether he should be prevented from having his opinion. I don't think preaching against homosexuality is the best thing to talk about on a street corner - as the Church should be doing more to incorporate gay people, and its message should be focussed on the Bible, not whether being gay is right or wrong.

But some might argue you could compare this to Mr Mcalpine shouting out that adultery or lusting is advised against by the Bible. He was not judging anyone in particular, just saying what he thought. It seems a coincidence that the Cumbria PCSO on patrol was a 'lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender liaison officer', but that should not affect police handling of cases. It sets a dangerous precedent when you can stop certain people from proclaiming their beliefs on a street corner, under a public order act intended for football hooligans. If he was saying gay people should be killed, then that would should obviously be policed differently. But by saying it is wrong, he is simply expressing an opinion, to which he is entitled, whether you agree with him or not. I have lots of respect for anybody who will stand on a street and preach what they believe - whether that is for gay rights or promoting Christianity - and think the police should make clearer what should and shouldn't be allowed. And if a court rules that you're not allowed to say what Mr Mcalpine did, then that will be a shame for freedom of speech.

* * *

Right, onto some football. The relegation battle in the Championship reached its climax on Sunday as Crystal Palace sent Sheffield Wednesday down after a battling 2-2 draw at Hillsborough, and it was great drama on the BBC. Everything came down to this one game, and it was such a wonderful spectacle for neutrals that it made me wonder. How about starting up relegation play-offs in the Football League, like we already do for promotion? The play-offs in the top-half give mid-table teams something to aim for every season, and this year have given sides like Cardiff City and Leicester City a real chance of making the top-flight. I have been involved with them twice with Southend United, and have to say they were incredibly nerve-racking and emotionally destroying but simply unforgettable if you made it up. So how about at the bottom?

We had Grimsby v Barnet in League Two on Saturday, which was effectively a relegation play-off too, but again this was only caused by the fixtures computer. The issue with play-offs is that they often don't represent a team's form over the course of a season - as it's based on only a few games - and some may argue that this therefore wouldn't be fair on a team that got relegated just because it was going through a bad patch. But it would certainly make it more exciting, and give sides a last-chance reprieve to stay in their division. Another model might be getting the third-bottom team in League Two to play the losing finalists in the Conference play-offs, to decide who is more worthy of Football League status. Either way, I think it would be a great way of livening up the end-of-season, and I can't think of a better way of staying-up than beating a team in a final day crunch match.

PICTURES: Sky News / Daily Mail / The Guardian

Monday, 26 April 2010

FOREIGN OFFICE v POPE BENEDICT XVI

It was the sort of gag you might hear a comedian crack. ‘What should the Pope do when he comes to visit?’ / ‘Launch his own condom range, bless a gay marriage or open an abortion clinic.’ It might have got an embarrassed laugh from a theatre audience, but there were not too many grins at the Foreign Office yesterday, when a leaked memo appeared to mock the Catholic Church ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to this country in September.

Fortunately the Vatican aren’t taking it too badly and have said Benedict will still make the first papal visit to the UK since John Paul II in 1982. It’s pretty fortunate that the memo, which came from a "brainstorm" session, did not contain any lurid references to the child abuse scandal raging through the Church at the moment. You only wonder what would happen if similar jokes were made about another state leader or religion that would not take it so well. We all remember the tension and fallout from Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed.

The Sunday Telegraph must be credited for getting hold of the document, as it shows an underlying public sentiment towards Catholicism that is concerning, especially when its leader is visiting in only a few months. The Bishop of Chester, Peter Forster, made an excellent point that it represents a “familiarity breeding contempt in some circles of society about our Christian heritage”. We live in an open society where everyone should be able to practice whatever religion they wish without being persecuted or ridiculed.

The concern here is that the leaked memo is strongly representative of public opinion. I visited the Vatican last month when on holiday in Rome, and it struck me that the Pope seems quite a distant figure in the UK as he rarely visits, despite often being featured in the media. I get the feeling that some people have lost trust in his ability to lead the Church, so it will do him and Catholicism good to visit this September.

* * *

It’s difficult to know what’s happening at the moment, but at least it makes the run-in interesting. Everyone is calling different election results. Will we get a hung parliament? Will we get a Tory majority? Even a Labour majority? Opinion polls concern me as they give a proportional representation of the vote, and you wonder how many people answer them honestly. But they do give the papers something to talk about every day, by giving an idea of who is in the lead. The significance of the polls cannot be taken too seriously, as I don’t feel they properly represent regional variation, and 3.5million voters are apparently still to make up their mind (that statistic, of course, was also calculated from a poll!).

It will be the first general election in which I will be allowed to vote, although I remember the last three pretty well in 1997, 2001 and 2005. They were pretty clear cut for Labour, and the Conservative bounce over the last few years suggested it would be straightforward this time around again. But the Tories have always said they would need a 6.9 per cent swing to gain 117 seats for an overall majority - bigger than the swing when Margaret Thatcher came to power. The polls suggest that’s off reach at the moment, and that we’re heading for a hung parliament, but can we trust the polls?

A great website, UK Polling Report, is even better if you like your statistics. It analyses and tracks all of the polls, trying to make sense of them in context of what is happening in the political field. If I was a political leader (which is not what I’m intending to do with my life!) then I would try not to pay much attention to the polls. I remember speaking to a Tory MP last year who said he was concerned that his party was getting too complacent with their lead. This showed they might have sat back slightly when they started to gain an overall majority. If the Conservatives don’t win, could it actually be because of the polls?

* * *

I can’t say we didn’t expect it. Southend United were relegated back to Football League Two on Saturday after a 2-2 draw at Oldham Athletic. The Shrimpers have been out of the basement division for five seasons, but the fun has stopped abruptly this season after a chaotic year on and off the pitch. Players have not been paid, goalscorers have been sold, the assistant manager was sacked, gates have been falling and performances have been shocking. The Blues haven’t been scoring and we’ve been shipping goals by the dozen. Manager Steve Tilson [pictured] has tried his best, but financial mismanagement has been the major downfall of the team.

I’ve seen some 25 matches this season - an achievement I’m proud of seeing as I live 200 miles away from Roots Hall in Sheffield at the moment - but watching the lads so much has only confirmed to me how much we deserved to go down. One win in the last 20 matches is horrendous form. When Southend were relegated from the Championship in 2007 - a season I remember well for its ups and downs - we at least gave it a good fight and picked up some decent wins along the way. That season we just weren’t good enough at that level. This season we’re simply not good enough at all.

It’s only our fourth relegation in two decades, so we can’t be too sad. But the major concern for next season is getting in players that want to play for the football club. ‘Fancy coming to a relegated club where we don’t pay you on time, have no money to spend on players and have won only one game in 2010?’ I wouldn’t. I only hope some decent wingers and goalscorers take pity on us and come to help out. The key to this season going wrong was Lee Barnard leaving, as he scored so many vital goals. We were pretty average even when he was around, but if you can’t score goals, you won’t stay up. I won’t be too disappointed with consolidation next season... but I'll stand by the lads. It's an addictive bug. Season ticket for League Two, please!

PICTURES: News Advance; Cartoon Stock; Sky Sports

Thursday, 22 April 2010

PLEASE CAN WE GO HOME NOW?

Brian and Lorraine Howden were meant to enjoy their dream holiday in New York. But thanks to the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, getting back home has turned into a nightmare.

Like many other people stranded in countries outside of the European Union they have had to pay out extra hotel bills with no discounts, along with medication and doctor consultations at full cost.

They have also had to use credit cards that could go over their limit at any time and know there are bills at home that may not be paid on time, so incurring penalties.

The Howdens, from Hampshire, had booked for 10 days and were due to fly back last Saturday with American Airlines. But when they tried to rebook when their flight was cancelled, the earliest trip they could only get Thursday. Many travellers have still to get flights.

Brian [pictured], who is Marketing Manager at Fareham College, is concerned at the lack of help from the government and airlines for travellers who were stranded in non-EU countries.

He said: “Many people are in severe distress with very little help. The issue for travellers is whether there is going to be any help. Most Brits aren't getting any support at all and having to rely on credit cards if they can.

“There's no single point of information, no hope of financial support or leniency from banks or credit cards etc. If airlines like banks get massive financial support, people will be angry if nothing is done to help them.”

The Brits in their hotel are spending breakfast and time in the lobby sharing tales of financial problems during their extended holiday.

“Many have had to pay out extra hotel bills at full rate and some have had to make alternative arrangements to travel paying premium fares,” he said.

“We like masses of people have had to pay out for medication and doctor consultations at full cost with mostly no call on insurance.

“Credit cards are helping people pay bills but many will max out. Travellers will fail to pay bills coming in whilst away, find credit refused if they are over limit and incur bank charges.”

The eruption of the Icelandic volcano and the resultant ash cloud that has spread across Europe has been causing travel chaos over the last week as British airspace has ground to a halt.

Airports have been deserted and British passengers like the Howdens are stranded across the world. Children can’t get back to school and adults can’t get back to work. Most of all, they just want to return home.

“We are stranded here,” Brian said. “Lots of people may not get paid as this is 'unauthorized leave' and employers are not required to pay. There will also be people on contract work who won't be paid.”

Medication has been a big problem for British travellers, who only brought what they needed from home. Now it’s costing them a fortune abroad.

Brian said: “We were both running out of medications so had to see a doctor, which was £70 each. Then Lorraine's medication cost £115 for four items and mine cost £118 for just one item. That's just over £370.

“Insurance is unlikely to cover very much of this as they and the airline say it is ‘Act of God’ so nothing covers it.”

But the situation is starting to improve as the ash clears and more planes take to the skies. Despite all of the problems the Howdens are facing in the USA, Brian still thinks highly of their holiday destination.

“Despite the uncertain situation flying home and my lack of medication that works, we are blessed with this awesome long holiday in the most fabulous New York City,” he said.

“We're trying to focus on seeing this as a gift and enjoying every moment, whilst putting the extra cost at back of our minds.

“I have been to 15 European cities and 13 in UK and nothing comes close to New York. It will be great to get home and see the people who matter to us so much, but I will still be sad to leave Manhattan.”

UPDATE: The Howdens finally arrived home at London Heathrow Airport on Friday morning.

EXCLUSIVE BY MARK DUELL

Monday, 19 April 2010

SURELY HE WON'T ACTUALLY NICK IT?

He had his chance and he took it. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg put in an impressive performance during the first leaders’ election debate last Thursday on ITV1 that has left media commentators falling over themselves to compliment him. In a similar vein to Tottenham Hotspur’s victories over Arsenal and Chelsea, an outsider has blown the title race wide open. The Mail on Sunday reported yesterday that the Lib Dems were ahead in the polls for the first time in 104 years, with 32% (Con 31% and Lab 28%). Whilst this obviously doesn’t mean they’ll automatically get in as a majority government, due to the first-past-the-post election system, it is still indicative of a major swing in the election.

The leaders’ debates have been hugely hyped, and whilst they possibly weren’t the most exciting pieces of television you will ever see, they have done a world of good to the man everyone used to make fun of for never having a chance of getting into power. Yes, his chance is still slim, but there are two more debates to go and more viewers than ever before will now be closely examining him as realistic prime minister material. I spoke to former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown last year, and he said the Lib Dems have a good chance of getting into power in May. I didn’t believe him and thought it was just more of the usual ‘this is the era of three-party politics’ talk from the party, but I wouldn’t be so sure he’s wrong now.

I have also had the opportunity to interview Nick Clegg, when he was speaking at the University of Sheffield last year, and found him a very interesting and well-presented person. But I think when most people consider their vote, they should think more about the local candidates and what they will do for the local area (Southend West for me), than the party leaders - although this is also important. David Amess MP currently holds this seat as a Conservative and I think he’s done a pretty good job during his last term. The Lib Dems in my home area are a fringe party that nobody pays much attention to, but if Clegg can use the next two debates to propel himself in the ratings so spectacularly as he has done over the last few days, there could be some strange results come May 6th. Hold on tight!

* * *

Even the Wright Brothers couldn’t have calculated for this. I think my family was pretty fortunate flying home from Rome just days before Eyjafjallajoekull (try saying that after a few pints) caused the airways system to grind to a halt, through a big layer of dust in the atmosphere. Hopefully planes will get back into the air over the next few days and everything will return to normal.

But it makes you wonder - what would we do without plane travel? What if the dust just sits there forever and planes can never fly again? It’s certainly good news for train and ferry companies anyway. Although it will probably mean more add-on fees for Ryanair flights as they try to recuperate their losses. £10 for a lifejacket maybe? Or £5 if you book it in advance online?

* * *

I was at Hillsborough yesterday for the Steel City derby between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday. The crowd was a gigantic 35,485 and it was a superb atmosphere during the 1-1 draw - as it has been at every Sheffield derby I’ve been to in the past. I reminded me of the importance of football to communities, and how it has such a knack of both dividing and bringing together large amounts of people. The Owls really do hate the ‘pigs’, as they affectionately call United fans, and vice versa. This was demonstrated by some rival supporters’ groups in Hillsborough Park threatening each other, who were eventually dispersed by riot police and mounted officers. The scenes were like something out of Green Street, although it was good fun to watch from a distance!

I’ve been to a few derby matches this season such as Liverpool v Everton and Southend v Colchester, and there’s nothing better. I love the fact that it’s more than a football match - it’s pride in your local area, and that counts for a lot when teams are based close together. Derbies always have more passion, and it’s great to see the first big tackle go in, safe in the knowledge that the players want to win as much as the fans. They can be great days for everyone involved with a club, but also soul-destroying if you get hammered. This seems to have been a habit of Southend’s against Colchester in the last two seasons, so at least the honours have remained more even in recent Sheffield games. And, of course, next season the Magpies will get the chance to pay a visit to the Mackems. Newcastle v Sunderland - where it really does mean more than life or death. Can’t wait.

PICTURES: Combe Down Liberal Democrats, Metro/Reuters, The Guardian

Monday, 12 April 2010

A GREAT DEBATE OR BAD IDEA?

Election fever is capturing the nation. Well, it's capturing those who are thinking about voting at least. Thursday 6 May will see citizens go to the polls for the most tightly-contested election for a generation. But there’s another interesting twist to it this time. Thanks to pressure from three broadcasters, my good friend Prime Minister Gordon Brown has accepted the challenge of live televised leader debates. Nick Clegg and David Cameron will appear alongside Brown on ITV, Sky News and the BBC over the next few weeks, and it should make fascinating viewing.

However, there are concerns it will be dull, with a 76-point agreement document outlining how each debate will be edited and broadcast, leaving little room for spontaneity. Politicians are generally not the most exciting people you will ever meet, but viewers and broadcasters alike are hoping that sparks will fly and arguments will get nasty. That would make good television, and help reward ITV, Sky and the BBC for all the efforts they have put into making this happen. Sky even threatened to organise a debate and leave an empty chair for any leader who would not turn up.

Three televised debates are not going to swing the election. But the point of them is that they have never been done before in Britain, even though it is commonplace in many other countries, and should capture some decent audiences. I met someone at a graduate job interview earlier this year who said they were doing a dissertation on the subject of leader debates, which shows there is lots to say about it. My only hope is that it doesn’t turn out to be a boring pre-planned conversation between politicians who do not clash swords on anything controversial. How about we give them a few challenges like Total Wipeout or Gladiators [pictured]? Now that would be fun...

* * *

I don’t watch soap operas like Coronation Street, Eastenders or Home & Away. I’ve had equal - if not better - entertainment from following Newcastle United over the last 14 years. And sometimes I just have a few moments where I have to enjoy it and remind myself why I became an honorary Geordie after Euro 96. The promotion of the Toon Army back to the Premier League last week was a fantastic achievement for Chris Hughton [pictured] and all the Magpies players. After all of the stress and disappointment of last season’s relegation, it has almost made up for it by doing so well this term. It's another part of the topsy-turvy story at St James' Park. Or should that be the sportsdirect.com @ St James' Park Stadium?

But the real work starts here. Owner Mike Ashley must ensure the same mistakes are not made again, and Newcastle restore their status as a decent Premier League side. We don’t need to spend silly money on new players this summer. January was a good example of how to do it - buy simple straightforward players who will do a good job for reasonable wages and won’t cost a fortune to buy. Mike Williamson and Wayne Routledge, for example, who have come in and done a great job. Even when Newcastle were going through a dodgy patch in January and February, they were still picking up points that have ultimately got them promoted.

I don’t want the club to be the laughing stock of the Premier League again. We’re in a great position now to go back up and remind people why Newcastle ‘The Entertainers’ United used to be everyone’s second team. Why not again?

PICTURES: The Independent, The Guardian, The Northern Echo

Monday, 5 April 2010

THE DAY I MET GORDON BROWN

"Of all the people I know,” one of my friends said, “it had to be you. And it had to be on the front page of the paper that everyone reads.”

She obviously wasn’t as shocked as me when I was woken up by a text at 07:54 from another friend, saying: “Seen your face this morning on front page of the Metro.” At this point I promptly got up, ran downstairs to ask my mum - who was just about to drive my brother to school - to pick up a dozen copies from Leigh-on-Sea train station. I then phoned my dad, who was on the train to London, and told him to look again at the front-page of his paper to see if I was on it. There was a slight pause, after which he said: “Yes, you are”. I asked him to pick up as many copies as he could as well. I also looked it up on the online edition: http://bit.ly/b5lzGE. I had a feeling this was going to be a good day.

It has been quite an exciting week really, what with working at The Sunday Times, appearing on ITV News and Channel 4 News ten days ago, BBC Radio Four last Friday and Metro on Wednesday. Lots of people have asked me to explain how I ended up on the front-page of a national newspaper sharing a joke with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, so I thought I’d share the story with you on my blog.

It all started when I saw a competition advertised in the Metro on Friday 26 March where you had to email in your details for the chance to be in a Question and Answer session with 40 people and Gordon Brown the following Tuesday. I knew I was free that day and didn’t think too many people would enter, so went for it. On the Sunday afternoon, I received an email saying: “You have been picked to meet the Prime Minister at a central London location on Tuesday. The event will last from 4pm till 6pm. You will be send [sic] the location of the event on Tuesday morning.” Sounded like the script of a Bond film.

I then got a call and email on Tuesday at midday, saying: “Meeting is at 10 Downing St. Please arrive 4-4.15pm.” Now this was pretty exciting in itself. I’d only ever been to 10 Downing Street once before when I was working at Five News (part of Sky News) in September 2008, and didn’t actually go past the front door - I was in the press area outside. Anyway, I set off for Westminster not really knowing what to expect, and had two questions prepared for Mr Brown - one on whether public money should be spent on supporting local media; and another on the importance of visual marketing in election campaigns.

When I arrived, I was early and it was pouring with rain. I had to wait outside the door for a while under my umbrella until it was time to go in, and then we were escorted through the lobby area, leaving our mobile phones and coats behind. We were then taken upstairs into a reception room where drinks and refreshments were served, and I got to meet the other lucky winners. There were a few students there like me and we got chatting about what to expect, and trying to identify the paintings of the various historical figures around the room. I didn't do that well.

Just before 5pm, we were escorted into another room where chairs were already laid out, and told by Metro’s political editor John Higginson that the Prime Minister would be arriving in five minutes. As we waited, there was a sort of quiet tension that seemed to filter across the room, and then in the distance I heard that familiar Scottish voice. In walked Gordon Brown, and he went right around the whole room to shake the hand of everybody there. As he came round to shake my hand, I could hear the Metro photographer, Gretel Ensignia, flashing her camera wildly, so made sure I put on a nice big smile! More about my appearance in the paper later, but lots of people have asked me just what the Prime Minister said that made me laugh so much. Here is the transcript of the chat he was having with the girl behind me (in the bottom right-hand corner of the front-page photograph above):

PM: “It’s good to see you - it’s very nice to meet you. What do you think of this place then?”
Girl: “It’s lovely - it’s not like my house!”
PM: “There’s three parts to it - one is the rooms for official functions like this, secondly there’s a flat to stay in and thirdly there’s about 200 people working here, so it’s the three things in one. When you’re outside the front-door it looks quite small, but when you’re inside there‘s a lot of people working in the basement. You might see my kids running in to save me during this interview!”

What a joker. I had said to the other people present that the main thing I was interested in getting from the day was seeing what the Prime Minister was actually like. There is only so much you can tell from his appearances on television and radio, but he presented himself to us as a very charming man and interested about the individual person. There are those who will say he should do this as he is a politician after all, but he came across as very genuine to me. Regardless of political views, the Prime Minister is the most important person in this country (maybe after Simon Cowell), and it was a fantastic experience to meet him in person. I won’t go into much of what he said during the Q&A session, as you can read more about it in the Metro (http://bit.ly/b5lzGE). Talking of which...

I have appeared in national newspapers a few times in the past. One was in 2005, when The Times ran a page three feature on Marble Arch, and I was standing underneath it with my family when a photograph was taken (here is the article, but no picture I’m afraid: http://bit.ly/asMfQ6) and I also had a letter in The Guardian in 2008 (http://bit.ly/a2gFrG). I’ve also produced and researched pieces for The People, Daily Mail and The Sunday Times.

But none of these were anything near getting myself on the front-page of Metro newspaper - read by around 3.5million people every day! It was great on Wednesday to hear from so many people I haven’t spoken to in ages, who happened to see it on their way to work and contacted me about the picture. Over 100 people did so in total, so Thursday felt somewhat like my birthday! Some of my favourite comments included:

- “I always said you'd be hanging with the celebs - I just didn't know it would be so soon!"
- "My bleary-eyed commute was made much more confusing by you staring back at me."
- "Had you just told him the one about the man on the bus with the glass eye?"
- "You know you have done it when you are on the front page of Metro!"
- "I love how you are admiring him and gazing into his eyes!"


Everyone has their moment of fame and it was quite something to see myself on the front-page of a national newspaper. It was also good to visit 10 Downing Street and meet the Prime Minister. But what was really great about the whole thing was how I received so many messages from friends and relatives who found it just about as hilarious and surprising as I did!

Monday, 29 March 2010

THE SUNDAY TIMES WORK EXPERIENCE

A huge portrait of Rupert Murdoch greets staff as they travel up the escalator and go past the water feature into News International's headquarters. You know who's boss in Wapping. Then, as they walk further inside, there's an old printing press and various famous front-pages of The Times, The Sun and News of the World - reminiscent of Fleet Street's glorious past. But no time for sentiment here. There's a newspaper to produce.

I picked a pretty good week to be working at The Sunday Times. It had just published an investigation that led to the suspension of three MPs for lobbying claims, a paywall pricing structure was announced to save online journalism and it was the only Sunday quality paper to avoid a year-on-year double digit circulation decline in the latest ABC figures. Of course, it could be seen as a very bad week, with circulation falling 7.58% to 1.12m and pre-tax losses on both Times titles rising to £87.7m.

But the paywall announcement meant all the television cameras were in the office on Friday, which was rather exciting, as someone from ITN was filming right next to my desk! You can see here how I made one report on Channel 4 News on Friday. I'm just left of the Editor, John Witherow, working hard on 00:50-01:03 & 02:29-02:43 at: http://bit.ly/bT8VNN. I was also on ITV News, two left of Mr Witherow at 00:48-00:58, here: http://bit.ly/cWyvAr. Only there for five days and two appearances on national television. Well, I never.

It felt exciting to be at Wapping [pictured] - a place I've read so much about in journalism books - and I knew I was going to learn a lot from some of the best investigative journalists in the country. I met reporters who I've had lectures about at university, which was rather surreal.

I found myself surrounded by constant discussions between editorial staff and journalists, debating the news agenda and whether a story was good enough. Being in such a talented newsroom meant I picked up lots of skills and ideas just by listening to how other reporters communicated with people on the phone and weighed up ideas with each other.

I'm currently doing a final-year module in investigative reporting at university before I finish this June, so being at The Sunday Times was pretty useful to my studies from a theoretical as well as practical level. I ran basic errands for reporters, as you always do on work experience, such as traveling across London to pick up a book, burning discs of material and sending emails on behalf of others.

But I was also given other tasks such as producing backgrounder briefs on people using online databases, working with various press offices to establish facts, transcribing interviews then analysing them for interesting angles, collating statistics, sorting correspondence and trying to back up certain stories by phoning sources. All the sorts of jobs that a researcher would normally do, and something that's part and parcel of being a journalist too. As I've learnt over the last five years or so - it's not all Redford and Hoffman in 'All the President's Men' - but it can still be just as enjoyable.

There was one specific element of my placement that I maybe wasn't expecing, but actually quite enjoyed. My first day (Tuesday) was quite a slow day - as you might expect for a Sunday newspaper - so I was basically asked by the newsdesk to look for stories. Just look for stories. I must say I was a little daunted starting from scratch at Britain's biggest-selling quality newspaper, but got to work and quite enjoyed the challenge. I eventually picked up a few leads from often-untapped sources such as university newspapers, Freedom of Information request websites and the hyperlocal press.

This meant I was able to suggest a number of ideas to specialist journalists who were able to pick them up and investigate. You often read in job descriptions that media organisations need people who can bring in 'off-diary' stories, and that's something I've been learning about throughout university and on placements. It's knowing the right people and knowing where to look. Churning out press releases and rewriting local newspaper stories is certainly not a common attribute of The Sunday Times. They want better than that.

The amount of time reporters have to generate stories means they can go into more detail and produce better journalism. It made me think that if you work on a local paper and must produce five stories every day, what time is left for investigative journalism? Even being sent out to a court case means you'll only get one story in print - and that might fall through - but what is better: gambling one reporter on a potentially excellent court case or getting them to rewrite half a dozen press releases? I'd go for the former. Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked.

Placements at The Sunday Times are hard to come by. I've been told that by many people, so organised mine 14 months in advance last January and was looking forward to it for a while. Beforehand, I often found it strange how such a large team could be responsible for just one paper every week - especially if you compare it to staffing on a local publication.

But by observing the depth of research required on every story and seeing the lengths reporters go to, I realised how much effort goes into the final product. It was great to spend a week with some of the best investigative journalists in the country and see the final product of their work on Sunday. A good team effort.

Monday, 22 March 2010

HERE COME THE (POLITICAL) WAGs!

Politics is much more exciting when you get the WAGs involved. Over the last week we’ve had the emergence of Samantha Cameron and Sarah Brown as key parts of the Tory and Labour election campaigns. Meanwhile, Miriam Clegg has been distancing herself from the idea of being a ‘political wife’. Samantha has got herself a lovely nickname - SamCam (rather reminiscent of The X Factor’s SuBo) and the Mail on Sunday printed some ‘somewhat daring’ pictures of her dressed in sheepskin and cuddling two kittens. They were certainly enough to make the males of Parliament take in a deep breath. Ahem.

It’s been a busy day at the Cameron household, what with the management of their reaction to the photos and Samantha announcing the arrival of a new baby. Congrats on that, by the way. But David said he was ‘very surprised’ the photos were published and was hoping, along with his wife, that would stay in the archives. However, he didn’t seem angry about this and treated it in a seemingly playful manner, which was surely the right way to go about it. SamCam could prove to be the Carla Bruni of British politics in the way she has livened things up in the last few weeks. The Daily Mail described her as having ‘enviable long legs’. Could politicians really be judged on the attractiveness of their wives? Well, it’s probably a more interesting debate than the reform of the House of Lords.

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I’m used to reading stories about Christians alleging persecution due to their beliefs, so it’s interesting that the tables were turned this weekend. Gay couple Michael Black and John Brampton [pictured] say they were not allowed to stay in a Berkshire B&B due to their homosexuality. Owners Susanne and Francis Wilkinson say it is against their policy to accommodate same sex couples, adding “we are not prepared to have that sort of activity under our roof”. I remember when Basil Fawlty told off a heterosexual couple for getting raunchy in the bedroom. How times have changed.

The issue of homosexuality is heavily debated within the Church, no more so than with gay bishops. Despite being a Christian myself, I feel what the Wilkinson couple did was wrong. Yes, they are right to stand up for their beliefs and that should be commended, but they imposed them on somebody else to the extent where the men were judged as being sinners. If being gay is Biblically wrong (and some people doubt that) then should the Wilkinsons allow thieves, robbers and adulterers into their B&B? That's Biblically wrong too. They have embarrassed two gay men who were doing nothing illegal, and it says nothing for the inclusion of homosexuals into the Church.

I think it’s important we do not judge anyone - whether we think they are doing is right or wrong - as the Bible says everyone is seen as equal under God’s eyes. I don't wish to condemn the Wilkinsons, as I think it's great that they want to stand up for their beliefs, but I think they should have let the couple stay in their hotel. The issue is not whether being gay is Biblically right or wrong. The issue is that Christians have not been very good at incorporating gay people into the Church and it's time to change that.

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Right then. With a few months to go until the Football League season finishes, I think it’s about time I made some predictions on what will happen. All four leagues have had excellent competition this season, and it’s tight at the top as well as the bottom. So, here’s what I think:

PREMIER LEAGUE
Winners: Manchester United // Champions League: Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City // Relegated: Hull, Burnley, Portsmouth

CHAMPIONSHIP
Winners: Newcastle United* [Jonas Gutierrez, pictured] // Promoted: West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City // Relegated: Scunthorpe United, Plymouth Argyle, Peterborough United

LEAGUE ONE
Winners: Norwich City // Promoted: Leeds United and Millwall // Relegated: Hartlepool United, Wycombe Wanderers, Stockport County, Southend United**

LEAGUE TWO
Winners: Rochdale // Promoted: AFC Bournemouth, Notts County, Northampton Town // Relegated: Grimsby Town, Darlington

Please let me know whether you agree with these predictions! Or have I got it terribly wrong? Either way, we’ll find out come May. By the way, I’ll go for Chelsea v Portsmouth in The FA Cup and Barcelona v Manchester United in the Champions League. Chelsea and Barca to win.

* I predicted the Toon finish 16th at the start of the season, but Chris Hughton has done a grand job and got everybody playing for the shirt again. It’s been great fun to be top of the league for the first time in ages!

** It pains me to say it, but I know relegation is coming for Southend. A combination of no money to spend on players (or their wages), catastrophic financial management over the years and simply not being good enough for the league since Lee Barnard left. I only hope I still have a club left to support after the HMRC winding-up hearing on April 14...

PICTURES: Daily Mirror/PA; The Guardian; Journal Live

Monday, 15 March 2010

TOO YOUNG TO BE IN COURT?

The age of criminal responsibility. When is a child old enough to understand that they are doing something wrong and should be prosecuted for it? The debate has resurfaced this week after children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson called for the age to be raised as she believes under-12's cannot understand the full consequences of their actions - something that has clearly angered the mother of murdered toddler James Bulger, Denise Fergus. I agree with Fergus to the extent that what Atkinson said was wrong, but it is wrong to say she should be sacked for her comments.

We find ourselves in a similar situation as when chief drugs adviser Professor David Nutt was fired for his comments against current cannabis policy. Someone in office has said something controversial and they are being pilloried for it. By all means have the debate, but we live in a free speech society where people should be allowed to make their opinions known. Tory frontbencher Ken Clarke said she should “not resign for expressing an opinion on a perfectly serious quite difficult subject”. Well said that man.

But aside from whether Atkinson should resign or be sacked, when do children become old enough to stand trial? During my court reporting at university, I often see children who can hardly see over the dock at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court and Sheffield Youth Court. I remember one case where a little boy who looked particularly mischievous started playing with his mobile phone in court to wind up the usher. Maybe they see it as a game at that age. But then again, many older people facing trial also see it as a game, and that doesn’t prevent them being taken to court. I think back to when I was 10 years old, and I certainly understood the difference between right and wrong at that age. It’s likely that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson did too.

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You may have missed the news over the weekend. There was a mass invasion of Georgia by Russia, planes bombed the capital Tbilisi and President Mikheil Saakashvili was assassinated. Surprisingly it didn’t make the front-pages this morning and there aren’t many pictures available. In fact, that’s absolutely unsurprising. Because it was a fake. The Georgian channel Imedi thought it would be funny to play out a very realistic 30-minute report on a Russian invasion as a little joke to its viewers.

Unfortunately not all of them saw the funny side, and there were reports of protests outside the TV station, people suffering from heart attacks, mobile phone networks crashing and cinemas emptying as children were called home by parents. It could be seen as a) a massive success in viewer figures for Imedi; b) an excellently-executed piece of propoganda by a political party; or c) absolutely hilarious. Now, whilst the real war between Russia and Georgia only finished two years ago, it probably wasn’t seen as being that funny by the majority of viewers.

But jokes have been made on this subject before. In the words of Hugh Dennis from Mock the Week, who gave this example for ‘questions that were rejected from this year’s exams’: “Vladimir has 10,000 tanks and you have three. Why would you start a war?” Making jokes about wars and producing fake reports on invasions may be quite comical to some - especially directors at the Imedi television company, perhaps - however, there are some subjects that maybe shouldn’t be touched. I’m sure someone at the Kremlin had a little chuckle about it though...

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It goes without saying that whoever you support, David Beckham is a footballing legend. 115 games for England over 13 years is a remarkable achievement, which makes it all the more sad that an injury to his left Achilles tendon looks like it’s ruled him out of playing in a fourth World Cup. Beckham, 34, is currently on loan at AC Milan from Los Angeles Galaxy and was expected to be in the England squad this summer, but now there is even speculation his career could be over. That seems somewhat farfetched, but we won’t know until he has been given the full medical diagnosis.

Beckham is one of those players who has suffered lots of stick from certain fans, but the reception he got at Old Trafford playing for Milan last Wednesday shows how well-loved he was too. I still think he has the best ball distribution of any player in the world - and whilst he might have lost a bit of his fitness and pace in recent years, you cannot put a price on such an intelligent football brain as his. England have cover on the right-wing from the likes of James Milner, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips - and it’s unlikely Beckham would have started a game in South Africa - but his presence around the team counts for a lot, and it’s a great shame that he won’t be playing.

Monday, 8 March 2010

BULGER: SHOULD WE KNOW MORE?

The death of James Bulger provided us with one of the most disturbing court cases of all time. And now it's come back into the media spotlight once again. The case of the two Edlington boys in January had eerie parallels to Bulger [pictured, Daily Mail], but fortunately nobody died that time. However, now we hear Jon Venables - one of the two-year-old’s killers - has gone back to jail. Few people know why, although there are various rumours such as him breaching his order to stay away from Merseyside by clubbing, working as a bouncer or watching Everton FC. Some papers say he has been charged with holding images of child abuse. The tabloids are having a field day trying to work out what's occured. But the real issue here is: should we be told by Justice Secretary Jack Straw what's happened?

The family clearly ought to know and should not have been kept in the dark this long. Straw, to his credit, will sort this out by going to see them. The debate now is how much the public should be told. If he goes to trial for any of these crimes, Venables is unlikely to get a fair hearing at the moment. He will certainly need another new identity, which could end up costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds. But this case has such huge public interest that people will want to know. Straw says he's currently not going to say any more. He is most probably scared of the "lock-him-up-and-throw-away-the-key" lynch mob, as well as prejudicing any further court cases, which is fair enough. But I think we should know what Venables has done so we can learn from the mistakes made by officials during his rehabilatation. One thing is for sure - this debate is not going to die down anytime soon.

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Well done to the Lalani family for their business success story. It seems that 99p Stores have found an excellent model to get through the recession - cheap "fizzy drink and loo roll", as The Independent puts it. It’s doing well by buying up empty Woolworths stores and undercutting big supermarkets with cheaper prices(under £1, of course) - projecting sales of £1bn over the next six years. Their 129 stores must have an excellent stock of one pence coins in the cash registers too.

The business model is an interesting one - and there aren’t many shops that can claim to undercut Poundland, but Nadir Lalani and his sons [Hussein is pictured, credit William Reed Media] have made an excellent effort. They’re creating jobs in poorer areas of the country, people are buying essential items for cheaper and the Lalanis are getting customers into high-streets so everywhere benefits. Many customers say they visit 99p Stores before doing their weekly shop at a supermarket, to pick up any products sold at a lower price, and can save lots of money doing so. Good work, Mr Lalani.

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These are desperate times at Roots Hall. Today the assistant manager Paul Brush [pictured], who has been with the club for seven years - and led them with boss Steve Tilson to two cup finals, a league title and two play-off appearances - has been sacked. Southend United meanwhile are in the bottom four of League One and facing relegation to the bottom tier. Oh dear. I went to watch the Shrimpers at Hartlepool on Saturday and we really did look like relegation material. It was a freezing cold day in County Durham and the Blues were rolled over by an equally poor side. It only rubbed it in that Roy O’Donovan grabbed a hat-trick against us - more goals than he managed in his entire Southend career earlier this season.

So where do we go from here? Chairman Ron Martin has taken a lot of flak from the fans recently after reports that the players had not been paid for two months in a row. The club seems to have no money to spend on players and is trimming the wage bill. Tilson and Brush have been a great partnership for fast-approaching a decade now, and I won’t be surprised if Tilly walks now Brush has been pushed. The priority is now to keep this club in League One. That starts this Saturday against relegation rivals, Exeter. Every player needs to give his all in every game now, as I don’t want to be watching League Two football next season. Ron Martin claims it would be “fatal” if we got relegated. So please stay up, lads.