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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Hack up a Tree
by Tom Sweeney
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Some years ago I binned a job application from a guy who wanted to be a sub-editor. Under previous experience on his CV he wrote 'circus trapeze artist'. If only he had written 'clown' he could have become a reporter. A trawl through my collection of bloopers that never made it into papers I worked on provides damning evidence that many reporters are lazy-arsed illiterates who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a notebook.
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Consider the following, from one of those ridiculous interviews in which a Z-list celeb lists his or her favourite book/film/underarm deodorant: 'My favourite actor is Steve McQuade. He was brilliant in Happy Hopalong.' It took me 20 minutes to decipher that as: 'My favourite actor is Steve McQueen. He was brilliant in Papillon.' Reporters don't listen. Here's another. 'A man suspected of carrying out the botched arson attack is being treated in hospital for serious burns. Detectives are waiting to grill him.' Reporters don't think. I like this one. 'Angry farmers in County Louth say they are not to blame for the foot and mouth outbreak and are fed up being treated like social piranhas.' And this. 'Dublin Zoo is celebrating the birth of its first every baby tapir, which is a cross between a pig and a rhinoceros.'
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To be fair, sub-editors slip up too. I worked on a paper where the presses had to be stopped because someone took their eye off the spellcheck and Dublin GAA star Jason Sherlock became Jason Cherokee. Then there was the hurler who was identified in a picture caption as Pat Mortuary. It should have been Moriarty, but maybe he changed his name by dead poll. My favourite, though, was when the river that runs through Belfast became the Lasagne. Sometimes it's a case of simply not seeing the wood for the trees, as in this headline I spotted last year in a Belfast daily: 'American soldiers shoot dead Iraqis in Basra.' Couldn't they find any live ones to shoot?
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Reporters and sub-editors enjoy a hate-hate relationship. Reporters hate subs because they chop and change their stories. Subs hate reporters because, by necessity, they have to chop and change their stories after first translating them into English. With the notable exception of Greg Harkin of The People and a handful of other talented individuals, reporters who become editors without first becoming subs are a joke. Not only do they bring with them a lifetime of shoddy work practices, they also quickly develop a manic paranoia fuelled by having to maintain circulation, failing which they'll be out on their backside. That paranoia usually manifests itself in their changing from buffoons into bullies who spend their time taking puerile pot-shots at rival papers.
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You've seen the sort of thing: 'Your super, sizzling sleazesheet scooped its sleepy rivals once again yesterday with another world exclusive, this time about the Portavogie pensioner who won a whopping £10 in Saturday night's Lotto draw!' 'Exclusive' is a label that's thrown about willy-nilly. When actress Mary McEvoy announced she was leaving RTE's rural soap Glenroe, the producers decided her character, Biddy Byrne, should die in a car crash. One tabloid down south got hold of some pictures of the crash being filmed and splashed them all over the front page with a huge 'WORLD EXCLUSIVE' banner. Kate Adie must have been kicking herself for missing that one. Weekly newspaper reporters have good reason to grumble when they see their own big stories lifted by the tabloids and reprinted, often word for word and several days later, with a big 'EXCLUSIVE' label.
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It's an appalling practice but it's the norm, and complaints will invariably be met with the reminder that: 'It's dog eat dog in this business.' Sadly, in the world of tabloid journalism, ethics is a place in England. The internet is a godsend for lazy reporters as it provides a rich and regularly plundered source of already-published stories that can be recycled and shamelessly presented as original.
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Showbiz writers are the worst offenders. What an easy life that lot enjoy, being wined and dined by record companies and film producers and flying first-class here, there and everywhere on jolly junkets. That's the job every starry-eyed young reporter aspires to (the loonies dream of becoming war correspondents) because of the freebies CDs, DVDs, tickets to the cinema, theatre and concerts and invitations to mingle with the stars at post-gig VIP parties. Then there's the lavish hampers, cases of wine and bottles of champagne that arrive at Christmas from grateful PR people. All this simply for rewriting fawning press releases and rattling off so-called exclusives full of makey-uppy quotes from 'a friend of the star' or 'a showbiz insider' and padded out with umpteen paragraphs lifted from entertainment websites. And you should see the expenses they collect! Mind you, filling in their claim forms with enough buckshee receipts attached to choke a horse is the only chance they get to practise creative writing.
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As well as being cheats and freeloaders, reporters are liars believe me, I was one, but I eventually saw the light. Or rather, the blue flashing light of a Guardia Civil jeep. I was up a tree in Majorca at the time, staking out a British pop star's villa, when the housekeeper called the cops. Getting up the tree had been easy, but trying to get down was a different story until the gardener turned his hose on me.The fall must have knocked some sense into me, because I vowed there and then to hang up my notebook after first giving the police a false name and address.
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Lies and half-lies come naturally in the pursuit and composition of a story. Reporters half lie when they assure an interviewee that everything they tell them is off the record, then they complete the deceit by printing every last word and attributing them to 'a source'.
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They also have a stock of ready excuses for extricating themselves from sticky situations. In the days of typewriters, a reporter I worked with in Glasgow failed to deliver his story. He told the editor: 'I spent hours typing it up last night in the conservatory, but when I got up this morning the sun had bleached all the words off the paper.' He was sacked.
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That editor had previously told off the same reporter for taking too long in getting to the point in an article about a drowning and ordered him to rewrite the intro. Ten minutes later he came back with this: 'Dead! And decomposed! That's what the body found in the Clyde yesterday was when they pulled it out of the water.'
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As you've probably guessed, working in newspapers is a hoot, and I would without hesitation recommend it as a career choice to any literate young person whose first love is the printed word. It's a profession in which a press card allows its holder privileged access to people, places and situations from which the public are excluded, but with that privilege comes the onus of responsibly and objectively reporting the facts.
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Reporters and sub-editors work extremely hard against a ticking clock, so it's only to be expected that mistakes occur in a high-pressure environment where the editor is the boss but the deadline is God. When a blooper slips through the safety net there are no pointing fingers, no recriminations, no witch hunt to find out who was to blame; only this question: 'How can we prevent it happening again?'
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My former Daily Mirror colleague Joe Gorrod a brilliant reporter of the old school summed up perfectly our occasional failings when he told of the day he turned up for a briefing without the proper security clearance. Pulling out his NUJ card, he showed it to the doorman and said: 'Forgive us our press passes.'
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Tom Sweeney is the author of the comic stage play, 'A Source Said', which gleefully exposes the underhand methods employed by reporters.
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