Monday, 29 March 2010


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: I was also on ITV News, two left of Mr Witherow at 00:48-00:58, here: 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


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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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:

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

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

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

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


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.

* * *

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...

* * *

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


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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Monday, 1 March 2010


Is it time to panic, David? All is not as we expected. Labour are fighting back. With Gordon Brown expected to name the election date shortly, the odds on a Tory majority are getting longer and David Cameron is getting worried. At a conference in Brighton yesterday, he conceded that the party has not yet done enough to convince voters to elect them. The polls show the Tory lead is now just two points ahead of Labour. Surely the electorate won’t let Rupert Murdoch down after The Sun so dramatically switched allegiance to Mr Cameron [pictured in the Daily Mail] last year? It could happen.

The main reason for the lull in an otherwise continuous advancement in support for the Tories over the last few years seems to be that people still don’t know what the party is about. So much of politics is about image and press relations nowadays that voters are missing out on how different parties will affect them at ground-level. It has been something of a running joke over the last few years that nobody knows Cameron’s policies and he just seems like a nice chap. However, the recent ‘I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS’ posters tried to combine the good image he has built up with some real policies.

So what will happen in the next general election? Labrokes are offering 4/7 on a Tory majority, 7/4 hung parliament or 10/1 Labour majority. Nick Clegg still holds an interesting role in helping a party into government, although it is questionable whether Cameron would agree to a Liberal Democrat coalition if it was offered. If the Tories want to get in, they must maintain the good image they have been building up over the last few years but now ensure this is matched with some real, hard-hitting policies. That is what will get them into parliament. At the moment it looks like 7/4 is a good price.

* * *

The future of the BBC is currently as uncertain as ever ahead of a general election. We have had a good indication that the Tories want to scrap the BBC Trust (its regulator), oppose top-slicing the licence fee and want to cut down the whole organisation. The Guardian today looked at the various cutbacks that could be made, including spending more on BBC2 drama and documentaries, improving local radio for older listeners, scrapping 6Music and the Asian Network and cutting down BBC Online and BBC Magazines.

There has been much discomfort from listeners over the proposed closure of 6Music. Pitched as an alternative station like XFM was when first launched, it hasn’t attracted the listeners they expected. Their target market of 20- to 40-year-olds is already well covered by Radio 1 and 1Xtra; stations which also fulfil the BBC public remit of providing live music to a younger adult audience. I therefore think it would be the right decision to close it.

But the closure of the Asian Network could be too politically sensitive for them to go through with it. Although it is not getting good enough listening figures, it is the only major part of the BBC that gives the corporation a direct link with many ethnic minority licence fee payers and should therefore stay. The third point on radio - about improving local stations for older listeners - sounds fair. The BBC needs to keep that older market who tend not to listen to their national radio output so much.

I have a friend who works at BBC Worldwide and asked her last month what she reckons on its future ownership and structure. “Who knows?”, she said. Nobody does know what will happen to it. The sale of a few titles from its magazines arm such as Radio Times or Olive sounds like an interesting idea, but surely when RT is doing so well at the moment they won’t drop it. The commercial part of the BBC has always been a divisive topic, but they must ensure that cuts or funding reallocations across the organisation are always done with the consumers’ interests at heart.

* * *

Boring. I’ve had enough of Wayne Bridge v John Terry. Sort it out, lads. If you really don’t like another footballer, some players believe the best way to settle it is just to punch them and get sent-off; like Jean-Francois Christophe did to Nicky Bailey during Southend v Charlton last Friday! I would never advocate violence, of course, but Amir Khan would have been proud of the Shrimpers midfielder for that one - right in the stomach. Isn’t refusing to shake hands just a little bit childish? Chelsea v Manchester City on Saturday was certainly the only time I’ve paid attention to the player presentation ceremony and it didn’t disappoint for drama.

I feel sorry for Terry. He obviously made a big mistake in sleeping with his team-mate’s ex-girlfriend, but apart from that he has been a great role model in the English game and a solid captain for Fabio Capello. It’s amazing how one mistake can ruin your career. Bridge is being unprofessional for not going to the World Cup, in my eyes. He is clearly unable to forgive and forget, and sees private and professional lives as convergent. It’s time to sort this out before it derails our chances of glory in South Africa this summer. Bridge is the best left-back we’ve got if Ashley Cole remains injured and his private life - or Terry's - should not enter into it.