Thursday, 28 March 2013

Double confession of dealings with Jimmy Savile

IT has become fashionable among journalists to recount their encounters with Jimmy Savile, the former DJ whose alleged sexual misbehaviour has dominated the media over recent months. I am not sure whether this represents some public display of guilt that he was allowed to get away with it with apparent impunity for so long. But whatever the motives here are my two pennyworth. It was after all my dad who put Jimmy Savile on the road to stardom. For many years this would be said with a degree of moderate pride. Not unreserved pride, as Savile was always seen as a bit of a creepy character. Over the decades there were those who thought his demeanour was obnoxious. For some, but not all, this odiousness was trumped by the herculean feats he performed for charity. Surely no-one who was evil would give so much time to supporting paraplegics in Stoke Mandeville or giving up free time to be a porter at Leeds hospitals? Now there is an explanation for his deeds that transcends creepy. But no one I ever met suspected that his motive may have been sexual predation. Certainly when my father was deputy programme controller of the infant TV station Tyne Tees Television at the very start of the 1960s, he could not have suspected. Peter Glover saw it as part of his mission to bring on other young directors. One was Malcolm Morris, who he put in charge of the project called Young at Heart aimed at the teenage market. He went on to direct the iconic This is Your Life for many years. His own autobiography This Was My Life recalls how my dad discovered Jimmy Savile. Yorkshireman, Savile was then plying his trade in the large dance halls of Glasgow. My dad brought him to Newcastle to launch his TV career. I met him at the studio and he had dyed his hair tartan and developed the outrageous cigar-smoking persona which came to dominate the English pop scene in its halcyon days. We were not left alone so I was under no threat, even though he demonstrated his larger than life character. I was, however, abused by Savile 20 years later. During my first freelance journalism career in the early 1980s I was getting plenty of shift-work on the Nationals, with the Daily Star giving me at least two evenings a week. It was a strange set up with the head office in those days in Manchester. The London office was in the back of a corridor in the Daily Express offices in Fleet Street. There was a four-man news desk who not only decided the agenda, they also told reporters exactly what they wanted out of a story, even before the facts were gathered. The introduction was provided in advance of the stories being researched. It was the reporter’s job to make the facts fit the imagined headline. It was coming up to Christmas 1983 when the assistant News Editor, Ken Bennett, had one of those ideas the popular nationals love. There was a severely disabled girl from the Home Counties who was housebound and a freelance had filed a story saying she had never had a Christmas card from outside the family, sad enough you might think. But Ken had spotted a another story claiming that Savile, by then one of the top Disc Jockeys and TV presenters in Britain, had never sent a Christmas Card. So one awful snowy night I was dispatched to a shop to buy a card and catch a bus to Shepherd’s Bush where the BBC was recording Jim’ll Fix It, a programme where Jimmy Savile made wishes come true for children. That seems an awful thought now. My task was to get him to sign the card and the Daily Star would send it to the poor girl in Surrey. Well easier said than done. I had to blag my way into the BBC and then wait for a break in recording, so I could button-hole Mr Savile. He kept me waiting in the corridor for about an hour and then, having finally let me in to his private dressing room, took the Mickey mercilessly at my choice of card. I thought he was going to refuse to sign it. I was tempted to remind him that it was my father that put him on the road to stardom, but in the end I decided that was unprofessional and persuaded him to sign the thing anyway, mainly by refusing to leave until he had. Then it was back to the Daily Star to report my triumph and file the story in time for deadline. Of course this whole episode took on a new perspective when Savile’s alleged predatory paedophilia was highlighted thirty years later. What had he been doing for the hour he kept me waiting outside his dressing room? Certainly it seems his aggressive mocking of me was typically symptomatic of his general bullying of journalists. Even worse, had I tempted him to get in touch with another poor potential victim by sending the Christmas card? I will never know the answers. Until the scandal which rocked the BBC in 2012, my experience of being abused by Savile was just a light-hearted human interest story. But it did give an interesting insight into the mind games he is said by many to play with journalists, police officers and others. These two episodes are selected extracts from my nearly-completed autobiography “Flirting with Fame”, as yet not available from any bookshops anywhere at all.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

License to kill free speech

IT is sad but now inevitable that Britain is destined to become one of the most repressed and secretive countries in the world. It is already plummeting down the United Nations chart of nations where freedom of the Press is respected. By the time the Government has finished implementing its version of the Leveson report, complete with licensed media, and the police have finished Operations Elveden and Weeting, then we will truly be languishing in the lower regions of the lowest division. It comes as no comfort to me that I have watched this state of affairs unfold over the decades I have been a working journalist. Too much of my time and energy has been wasted trying to prevent the inexorable progress of the press shacklers. There was a time when publicity was courted by politicians, police and any organisation on the side of good. There was a conspiracy of consensus between those who valued the glue that held society together. If people transgressed what was commonly seen as decent behaviour they could expect censor and exposure in the media. Slowly over the years, the cult of the individual has overturned this arrangement. Human rights legislation, the data protection act and the obsession by a House of Commons dominated by lawyers to introduce laws which line their profession’s pockets have led to current proposal that any publication which doesn’t sign up to the Government’s license risks being priced out of existence. There are so many ironies in this that it is hard to know where to start, or finish. Let’s stick to three. One, when I directly handled complaints at a major city daily newspaper, 95% of them were about statements made in court. Readers would berate the newspaper for reporting, accurately, what had been said by lawyers in mitigation for their clients. The most vociferous MP in his attacks on the media, Clive Soley, was of course a lawyer. So lying lawyers fed a lawyer’s campaign to vilify the media. Two, an obsession with privacy, stoked by the famous and influential, has come hand-in-glove with the explosion of social media, which in the words of the founder of Facebook, are leading to a world in which there is no such thing as privacy. Three, in a world in which everyone can be a publisher, through the likes of Facebook or Twitter, Lord Leveson’s report totally ignores the new media. So we are left with laws drafted and aimed specifically at the established print media and the journalists who work for them. For more than 300 years journalists in this country have had to follow laws and conventions that apply to the whole population. Now we enter a brave new world when this is no longer true. There are already a couple of dozen laws, civil and criminal, that can be used to prevent publication, including defamation, contempt, prejudice, data protection, secrets acts and child protection. Many of these are right and proper in a civilised society. Knowledge of them is essential for professional journalists and comprises most of their training needs. What the Government plans to do now is penalise those who actually understand restrictions of free speech, and give unfair advantage to the bloggers and other rabble-rousers who haven’t got a clue. Any perusal of social media would expose how dangerous this is, with racist, bigoted, prejudicial and downright offensive remarks on every site. None of the above is supposed to excuse the phone-hacking or bribery of police officers and others for information, if that is what happened. This is criminal behaviour, for which there are perfectly good laws which could have been applied to bring the perpetrators to book. To use a few cases where the police and politicians were too weak or corrupt to intervene to justify laws aimed specifically at muzzling or curtailing the Press is both bizarre and deeply troubling to anyone who believes in freedom of expression.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Why officialdom can sometimes be so wrong

I called in today to see farmer Edward Steele who has been fighting officialdom for years. He is the third generation to have leasehold of a 30-acre farm hidden from view in the folds of rural land between Burneside and Kendal, and nestling up to the banks of the River Sprint, a tributary of the Kent. It is more than 20 years since he decided the land could not support him and his family so started to put static caravans on the site as holiday lets. Instead he found that there was a huge demand from families wanting a rustic life-style but at a cost that could be afforded in the highly priced property markets of the Lake District. As demand grew, he put up more and more lodges and barn structures, attracting alternative life-style tenants. Some carried out small businesses in other barns. Mr Steele charged them roughly half of the commercial rents in nearby Kendal town. In addition he provided free wood-burners and fuel. Trees and hedges grew around these “eco-lodges” so that the former agricultural land became wooded glades where wild-life flourished. Children played in a country idyll, safely. Some were educated at home by their new age parents. Many of the tenants had histories of mental illness, as does Mr Steele, but the lifestyle meant they were able to support each other and stay out of the clutches of the health system. His landlords, a Catholic charity, took a proportion of the rental income and the local council, South Lakeland District Council, took rates and emptied the bins. So everyone was happy. But there was blight on their horizon. Mr Steele had acquired, by default, planning permission for four of the lodges, but not the rest. And the land was clearly allocated for farming on the district plan. So officialdom’s wheels ground slowly into action. Mr Steele had to apply for planning permission, which was refused. He appealed and lost again. He was told to restore the land for agriculture. That meant evicting the tenants, which he refused to do, as well as flattening hedgerows, trees and the lodges. He was prosecuted once and won on a technicality as the council charged him as the owner. So they started again by taking him to civil court for breach of the planning inspector’s ruling. This time a judge agreed the council’s was right in law, which is all that matters in the courts. He ordered Mr Steele to do as he had been told or face jail. The council has now gone to enormous expense of re-housing the tenants in urban properties they don’t want to be in. There will be an on-going cost to ratepayers from housing benefit. No doubt the health service will face future costs of dealing with mental illness. Goodness knows how much the court hearings and council officer time cost the public purse. A depressed Mr Steele spends every day at the controls of a massive digger destroying the wild-life haven he has spent two decades encouraging, uprooting trees and hedgerows and clearing the debris. All but the four original lodges are emptied and flattened. The whole area now looks like a World War One battle scene, and no, that is not hyperbole. In private moments the SLDC councilors say they have to comply with the law. Besides they don’t want shanty towns springing up all over the fringes of the Lake District. “We have to draw the line somewhere,” said one senior councillor. Mr Steele fears he will be evicted by the charity from the farmhouse his grandfather built 100 years ago and without the income from lodges he will be declared bankrupt, as the farm is even less viable than it was when he started on this journey. Why do I feel that this is a crying shame and proof that sometimes the law can be an ass?

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Communication breakdown

LIKE a lot of businesses these days, including NatWest bank, mine has become totally dependent on new technology. Using the world-wide web enables me to gather information, reconfigure it to suit my customers and then send it by e-mail, anywhere around the globe. So when a worker driving a bulldozer to dig a trench across a field opposite my house cut through the BT cable, my business came to an immediate halt. The Internet as well as business and home landlines ceased to work, as you would expect. That wasn’t BT’s fault. But what happened next gave an interesting insight into the thinking processes of Britain’s exclusive IT communications company. Unless you use a satellite supplier, your internet, and of course your telephone landline, come down BT Network’s cables. So I rang 151 on my mobile, as I remembered it as the BT Engineer’s number. I got Vodafone, my mobile provider. The Vodafone technician used the web to try to find a BT phone number for me, but could only come up with internet solutions, obviously no good as I had no internet. I eventually found a number in the phone book which I recognized as the old engineer’s number 151, but with a 0800 prefix. I rang it. I was told by an English sounding recorded message that my call would be recorded for training purposes. I was then told by a different, Scottish-sounding, recorded message that I would be charged 14p a minute for the call and invited to ring another number which might be cheaper. I declined and stuck with the 151. I was told by a third recorded message that they were busy and would I prefer to report my fault on-line. As I had no internet this was not possible. After listening for 20 times to the same advice, I was starting to get angry. An hour later the phone was answered by a human being with an Asian sub-continent accent on a very poor line. By then my mobile was low on charge, so he was having trouble hearing me too. We shouted at each other across the ether. Then I made a dreadful error. I tried to be helpful and told him about the bulldozer and the cable. He said in that case I had to ring a different number belonging to the strangely named Open Reach Network 3rd Party Damage Report Team. This I did reluctantly. Then I got another set of recorded voice messages about 0800 being expensive, would I like to ring another number, and that I couldn’t use this number to report faults or broadband service interruption. But that was the number my BT friend had told me to ring, so what was I supposed to do? I stuck with it. After more recorded messages about them being busy, I finally got though to another human being. She told me I had to ring BT engineers to report the fault! I screamed. I then tried to remain calm enough to explain events so far. She said it wasn’t her fault but she only dealt with health and safety issues. It was her job to make sure there was no danger to the public, but faults had to be reported to my provider. But my provider is BT, and BT owns Open Reach, I argued. But Open Reach is not allowed to give BT customers preference and Oftel insists they refer me back to BT engineers, she countered. She said I shouldn’t have told the engineers about the damage. What is more, she added helpfully, if Open Reach repaired the cable that didn’t mean the fault would be fixed. That was up to the BT engineers. I screamed again. Then I called BT Engineers again. This time I didn’t mention the damage. I was put onto an automatic system that told me they were checking the line and would I like to report it on-line. As I was talking to a recorded message, I couldn’t explain that they were wasting their time. I knew there was a fault and no, I couldn’t go on-line BECAUSE MY CABLE WAS SEVERED! Besides if I had told them that they would probably have told me to ring health and safety again. So I kept quiet and waited. Another quarter of an hour later, I was told there was a fault. You, dear reader, should now understand that this was not a surprise to me. They then said that I could be kept up to date by text messages, to which I agreed. So I got a text, then a phone call from Open Reach, telling me again that they were worried about health and safety. It would take a couple of hours for a man to come from Liverpool “to assess the damage” but the cable might not be repaired until tomorrow. And no, that didn’t mean the fault would be fixed. I then got three texts from Vodafone asking me to rate the level of service. I hope BT do the same. I then received a phone call from Open Reach in Liverpool, asking me to tell them if the damaged cable was a danger to the public. I didn’t think so, but if I told them that, they would put us off to later, so I said I wasn’t able to make that judgment for them. The Scouser was obviously not happy at my lack of co-operation. He said he would have to spend extra money getting someone out. In the circumstances, I didn’t dissuade him. I then got a text message from BT saying they would try to fix the fault by 5pm the following day. Oh, and by the way, the text told me to track progress on-line. Aaaaaaargh! Four hours after the original incident an Open Reach turned up, but not to repair the cable, never mind fix the fault, but to assess the danger. He put a triangular fence with red and white tape round the damaged cable and left it unrepaired. That was end of day one. Day two an Open Reach engineer turned up and fixed the cable and fault by 10 a.m. So in the end BT’s various companies did quite well in the circumstances. If they want advice on human communication, as opposed to IT, then I know where they can get it. That’s what my business does.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Upbeat police and media relations

LORD Leveson, the judge heading the inquiry into press standards, has said he hopes tighter rules on police and media relations will not stop beat bobbies tipping off local reporters. Well, put out the flags, bang the big drum and three cheers for his Lordship. But don’t assume that his words of wisdom will lead to a restoration of the sort of working relationship that used to benefit society. Lord Leveson said it was obviously important that neighbourhood police officers should be able to speak to local press about events, pass on good news stories, raise concerns, seek witnesses and other material that helps glue communities together. “It seems to me sensible that everything one can do to encourage that sort of contact is worthwhile,” he said. He seemed to find a sympathetic ear in The Home Secretary Theresa May who responded: “The important thing is for officers to know where the line is drawn between who they are able to speak to and what they are able to say in those conversations.” She added: “It shouldn’t have a chilling effect but I think what’s important is that we have a framework that doesn’t have a chilling effect and a framework that enables common sense to be operated in these relationships.” “I think it’s trying to apply common sense to the relationship the police should have with the media,” she added. Mrs May has received guidance from police chiefs which recommends that officers should not accept gifts, gratuities or hospitality except those of “trivial nature”. The Assocation of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has suggested allowing officers to receive only “light refreshments” during meetings with reporters, seemingly ruling out lavish lunches. Previously forces drew up their own guidelines, with wide divisions in what was deemed acceptable. The new guidance calls for more robust decision-making and recommends that forces should have a single register of gifts and hospitality governed by the head of professional standards. It calls for a “shift to blanket non-acceptability save for a certain circumstances and a common-sense approach to the provision of a light refreshments and trivial and inexpensive gifts of bona fide and genuine gratitude from victims and communities”. The guidance continues: “One extreme can properly be considered to be a breach of criminal law (the Bribery Act 2010) through to the low-level hospitality which could in no way be considered as a breach of integrity on any party involved.” Mrs May said: “I think that is a sensible approach that is being taken by Acpo in an attempt to find a greater consistency. “What’s important isn’t that they have a single force register but that everybody knows that there is a general belief that they shouldn’t be taking gifts, gratuities and hospitality, except where they are of a more trivial nature.” The real obstacle to a sensible approach, however, is the control freak tendency of senior police officers with their armies of press officers, public relations experts and marketing departments. If, instead, they trained officers to tell the media what is going on, leave editing material to the trained journalists and their legal advisers, encourage relationships built on trust and mutual support, with nothing more than an occasional cup of tea or pint of beer involved, then it would make for a more honest, open and helpful attitude. The ultimate beneficiaries would be the public, with fast dissemination of information leading to apprehension of villains, traffic updates and hazard warnings. If Leveson’s inquiry leads to this then it might have been worth a smidgeon of its time and cost, at least.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Reaching the parts

THIS week we were presented with the results of research of the sort that has us crying out loud: “I could have told you that.” Nevertheless I cheered when I read it. The startling result was that sales of national newspapers increase when editions carry more regional content. Hallelujah! It may be blindingly obvious, but it is a lesson that the National Press would do well to take to heart. Their circulations have plummeted by roughly a half over the last ten years, with everything from round-the-clock TV news to lifestyles to the Internet blamed. But a factor far less discussed is that the accountants have taken over the board-rooms. They look at the cost of running teams of staff reporters in the regions and deem them surfeit to requirements. Offices have been closed and reporters, many of them experienced journalists who learned their trade on regional titles, made redundant. The result is that the papers have become more London-centric and driven by agendas remote and irrelevant to the vast majority of readers. Newspapers have opted for the easy political fare and celebrity news, easier to garner in the capital, and ignored real stories about real people living in the parts of the country where newspapers are still read. If you doubt this analysis, then look at the comparative resilience of the Scottish media. North of the border they still produce newspapers that reject the London bias, and their sales have held up far better than their English counterparts. From Liverpool to Norwich and Newcastle to Southampton there will be readers crying out for better representation of stories from their regions. So The Sun is to be commended for finally realising the error of their ways and confirming they will re-open their Manchester offices. It has promoted Northern correspondent Guy Patrick to Northern News Editor to lead a seven-strong team, which includes deputy Northern news editor Richard Moriaty and Northern features editor Jane Atkinson, alongside four reporters: Andrew Chamberlain, Rachel Dale, Emma Foster and Lauren Veevers. It was discredited Sun editor Rebekah Brooks who closed the paper’s old Manchester office in 2004 with the loss of ten jobs. But she was only one of many. Even a newspaper with as strong a Manchester connection as The Guardian acted similarly. Northen Editors and correspondents have been biting the dust consistently over the last few years. Now along comes the research and guess what? It finds the more regional content The Sun has, the more copies it sells. Well blow me down with a feather. Next it will be research proving ursine defecation usually happens in the trees and the Catholic tendency of Popes. But let all of us with an interest in the future of newspapers in general, and their regional content in particular, rejoice.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A right royal suspect

THANKS to Prince Charles and a soggy day in the Lake District, I now know what it is like to be an Asian or Arab-looking young man in Great Britain today.
I was today corralled, questioned and, despite my best efforts, intimidated by three of Scotland Yard’s finest undercover special forces. No doubt they were armed.
I think I was guilty of being provocatively dressed, in that I was wearing a mackintosh and a ridiculous wide-brimmed Lake District rain hat, useful for keeping the wet stuff off my note-book as I went about my daily business gathering news.
Not being in the main-stream media these days, I no longer get gilded letters from Buckingham Palace or notifications from Press Association when there is a royal visit pending. Nor am I admitted to the enclave of local dignitaries who swarm to such occasions to savour the scent of glamour which still attaches to the Royal family.
But I do keep my ear to the ground and when I found out Prince Charles was visiting the Lake District, I decided to tag along, to watch the watchers and chat to those he had graced with his presence afterwards to see if he said anything of interest I could sell to the National or regional media.
His first port of call was Staveley Mill Yard, just outside Kendal, where he went to the local baker, furniture maker and Hawkshead brewery, the owner of which is a former BBC radio correspondent Alex Brodie.
So having got the lie of the land from Alex, I went down to the Mill Yard and watched the local school-children, villagers and business people wave their flags and put on the semblance of a Royal welcome.
I had a leisurely coffee in the excellent Wilf’s cafe, waiting for the razzmatazz to die down before moving in for my mop-up exercise.
It was proving to be pretty boring. Even Alex was struggling to find an angle for his press release.
So I headed back towards my car in the yard car park. It was then I became aware of being followed, then hailed by three burly men.
They looked like slightly seedy, past their best, rugby players, or bookmakers perhaps. I stopped, turned to face them and put on my most disarming smile.
For a fleeting second I wandered if I was going to be mugged. But instead one of them explained, in a Durham accent, that they were from the Royal Protections squad. Two of them produced Metropolitan police identity cards.
They explained that I had been behaving oddly, by which I assume they meant I hadn’t been standing in the rain waving a pathetic union flag at some strange man in a limousine.
They demanded to see my business card and credit card, wanted to know what I was doing and for whom. Could I prove I was who I said I was? They wanted to know my birth date.
They took my car registration number and the smallest of the three, a cockney, started taking copious notes. These turned out to be my description.
The third man, the red-haired silent one, whose idea of camouflage was to wear a rugby shirt with a badge saying Cumbria RU, got on his mobile phone to some central data-base to check me out.
I thought I was about to be frisked and told to bend over the bonnet of my car for a good seeing to, but disappointingly they seemed satisfied by my generally relaxed demeanour and explanations.
I told them I had been on the verge of leaving as there was no story for me to report until they turned up. It was a joke as the media would not really be interested in Royal protectors doing their jobs.
But the note-taker seemed bolstered by the idea. He puffed up his chest and said “you gonna write ‘baht us, then.” “Might do,” said I, not wanting to give ground in the intimidation games. He actually seemed pleased.
There are two ways of looking at this episode. You can see it as an example of the terrorism-obsessed forces of law and order picking on a law-abiding citizen with a view to intimidating him. Or you can relax easier in your bed knowing that the Royal family is being well protected.
They were polite. Their guns were hidden. I came to no harm.
I suspect other innocent people get a far less civilised inquisition, even in this country, particularly if they are from a group, some members of which are seen to be a threat.
But despite my natural confidence and experience of such matters, there will be a small part of me wondering if I will get a knock on the door in the next couple of days.