Showing posts with label Fleet Street. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fleet Street. Show all posts

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Hankering after my old job...

Tony Blair reckons he’s better equipped to be PM now than he was during his Downing Street years. He says he’s learned “an immense amount” and would love to have another go, even though it’s unlikely to ever happen.

I was never a Blair devotee, but his words – during an interview with Evening Standard editor Sarah Sands – made me think. 

In my 20s I worked as a news reporter in Fleet Street, haring around on the stories of the moment. I could be covering a grim murder trial at the Old Bailey one week (they often gave me nightmares) and sitting in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the Saudi desert with Prince Charles and Princess Diana the next. The deadlines were eye-wateringly tight, the bosses scary and the pressure intense, but life was never boring.

A quarter of a century on, I wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of being hired as a news reporter (in a profession that’s getting younger by the minute, I’m far too old).

But the ridiculous thing is that I’d actually be a far better reporter now than I was then. I’ve lived a hell of a lot more, had children, lost people I love – and understand so much more about everything (well, except for polymers, the offside rule and the ins and outs of the West Lothian question. Deadlines don’t scare me  and nor do tough news editors. When I’m working I focus 100 per cent on what I’m doing, rather than planning nights out with my pals or worrying about my love life. My children are almost grown-ups themselves so I don’t even have to fix childcare.

So, yes, like Tony Blair, I’d love to have a go at my old job. And yes, like him, I know it’s unlikely to ever happen.

PS. The picture shows a cutting from my reporting days. My writer friend Jane Gordon-Cumming found it in a pile of papers when she was moving house. We only met two years ago so she was stunned to find she had an article of mine dating back to the 1980s!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

My dream office - and jackets on the backs of chairs

Tyler Brûlé is a publishing phenomenon. A war reporter turned fashion editor, he launched the ultra-hip style magazine Wallpaper* in 1996 and the following year Times Inc bought it for a cool $1.7 million. He writes the Fast Lane column in the Financial Times and has also founded an upmarket monthly magazine called Monocle. His latest venture is based at chic headquarters in Marylebone, where everything is so stylish that if you ask for a coffee it comes in “a minimalist white cup on its own limed-oak board, with a single brown sugar cube and modernist zinc teaspoon.” Wow. I want an office like that.

Brûlé featured in a Guardian interview at the weekend and the thing that really stuck in my mind was his insistence on an immaculate office. “People need to attend to details,” he said. “I believe in a tidy ship. No jackets on the backs of chairs.”

Jackets on the backs of chairs. The offices I’ve worked have been full of them. If you walked through a news room in the 80s and 90s you’d see rows and rows of chairs with jackets slung over the back. Mainly because their owners wanted it to look like they’d just popped to the canteen to grab a quick coffee and would be back toiling away at their desks within a couple of minutes. The truth was that they’d actually slunk down the back stairs for a pint or two at the pub.

Newspapers are very different places now. The rambling Fleet Street rabbit warrens have given way to sleek modern towers, with airy, plant-filled atriums and state-of-the-art technology. I’m pretty sure, though, that there are still quite a few jackets tossed over the backs of chairs… 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Why aren't there more women reporters in Fleet Street?

I’ve never met a journalist who isn’t obsessed with their byline – for the uninitiated, that's the line between the headline and the story giving the name of the person who wrote the article. Maybe it’s because hacks are an insecure bunch, or maybe it’s because we’re preoccupied with seeing our names emblazoned in lights.

It’s certainly why an article by Kira Cochrane in today’s Guardian caught my eye. Back in June, Cochrane had the gnawing feeling that she hadn’t seen a female byline on newspaper front pages for weeks. So along with a colleague and two researchers, she decided to put her hunch to the test and started counting them.

The results were alarming – well, women journalists will think so, anyway. As Cochrane writes: “There wasn’t a single day, on a single newspaper, when the number of female bylines outstripped or equalled the number of male bylines.”

When the team averaged out its figures after a month, the results were as follows: Daily Mail - 68% male bylines, 32% female; The Guardian - 72% male, 28% female; The Times - 74% male, 26% female; Daily Telegraph - 78% male, 22% female; Daily Mirror - 79% male, 21% female; The Sun - 80% male, 20% female; The Independent, 84% male, 16% female.

It's pretty damning stuff, but the trouble is that Fleet Street doesn’t make life easy for women journalists. When I started out as a reporter on the Evening Standard, I was one of six women reporters in a news team of around 24. Twenty years later, only one of us works in Fleet Street, the Guardian’s brilliant Caroline Davies, while loads of the men are still there. And of the men who aren’t, the vast majority continued to work as reporters till they retired.

There’s no doubt that working as a news reporter isn’t compatible with having young children. When I worked for the Standard, I was rung in the middle of the night once or twice a week and told to get to Manchester or Calais or a crime scene round the corner from my Clapham flat – like, er, NOW. So if you’re the mother of young children but haven’t got a live-in nanny or a saintly husband, it’s just not workable. I’m sure it's why so many women leave Fleet Street in their thirties. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Once women reporters take career breaks to look after their children, very few ever return to their old staff jobs. A few turn to feature writing, columns or reviewing but most work as freelances, with no job security whatsoever.

It’s ironic really, because I reckon that I’m a better journalist now than when I was young and green. I know a hell of a lot more about life, not to mention interviewing and writing. So could my generation of women reporters make a difference in news rooms these days? You bet we could.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Working the night shift - and memories of Fleet Street

On Saturday and Sunday mornings I wake in the grey light of dawn, fretting that my student daughter has got home to her flat all right. She’s working weekends in a chic Shoreditch bar from seven pm till six am and I can’t help worrying. Actually, I didn’t even realise bars stayed open till six, but then again I don’t think I’ve been inside one since about 2002.

The upside of the job is that by the time she’s finished serving drinks, stacking glasses and clearing up, it’s daylight and she’s on her way home. The downside is that she misses half the weekend because she’s asleep.

Nurses, doctors, security guards, DJs (a big shout-out to Radio 2’s lovely Alex Lester – the only person capable of making listeners laugh at three am) all know what it’s like to work through the night. A friend of mine who worked for breakfast TV said her body clock got so mixed up that she found it difficult to eat. The answer, she found, was to live on cereal - the only food she could face eating at any time of the day or night.

Years ago I used to work night shifts as a young news reporter on the Evening Standard. For one week every three months I’d pitch up at midnight and toil till eight in the morning, manning the news desk phones, commissioning copy from foreign correspondents across the globe and sifting through the morning papers in search of stories to follow up for the first edition.

One of the worst tasks was having to ring some poor hapless reporter when a story broke unexpectedly at two am and telling them to get out of bed and drive to the other end of the country – er, like, NOW. It could be an apocryphal tale but a night reporter once answered the phone in the early hours to find a drunken hack at the other end. “I’m in a hotel overlooking a river - but I don’t know where I am,” he garbled. Slowly and patiently, the night reporter embarked on the tricky task of helping him work out where the hell he was. And more to the point, why.

The best part of doing nights was the moment the bright-eyed day staff arrived for their shifts and I could run down the office stairs, out of the door and jump straight on the bus back to Battersea. Those days are long gone now, but even today, just smelling stale coffee in a Thermos flask or strolling past the posh offices that were once home to Fleet Street’s finest, takes me back to those far-flung times.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The press pack

Working from home is a double-edged sword. I can start work when I want, wear what I please, chat to my son when he gets in from school and fix coffee with friends without a clock-watching news editor yelling at me for being late back.

All good, but I still hanker after office life – the gossip, the banter, the buzz. The best place I ever worked was the Evening Standard, where I spent five years as a hard news reporter. London’s evening paper was based in Fleet Street back then and it was a different world – a world dominated by clattering typewriters, larger than life characters and eye-wateringly tight deadlines.

The vast newsroom was so noisy that we had to yell at top volume to make ourselves heard above the din. My friend Diane used to sit underneath her desk to do phone interviews because it was the only place she could get a bit of peace and quiet.

Few of us had mobile phones so when we were sent out of the office on a job we had to find a phone box (tricky in the middle of Saddleworth Moor) and dictate our stories straight from our notebooks to the army of copy-takers. “Is there much more of this?” they’d ask crushingly while we were in full, creative flow.

Best of all was the fantastic team of reporters. I’ve never worked with better. Newsmen like the late great John McLeod could calmly turn out the most exquisitely-written copy in ten minutes flat before the first edition deadline at 9.30am. Despite the early starts, John, who made his name covering the Great Train Robbery of 1963, was definitely a night owl. He lived and breathed newspapers and could often be found catching forty winks in the office in the early hours of the morning. His shorthand was immaculate, his knowledge of court reporting second to none and yet he was the most generous man, always happy to help out the younger, less experienced journalists in the press pack.

The move to swanky riverside offices and the advent of new technology transformed newspapers beyond all recognition. But do you know, I wouldn’t have missed Fleet Street for anything.
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