I was woken at 4am by the now familiar rhythmic tapping of my neighbour’s headboard against the wall. It reminds me of shared living, or perhaps it is what it’s like to have teenagers. I get up now to avoid the inevitable yelping a few minutes later and, as I type, I look out at the Pipistrelle bats flying around the garden. Chaplin, my cat, also irritated by what I suppose sounds like mice in the walls, sits by me. I think he would’ve made a good journalist: he’s charming, persistent and will please you for ages until he gets what he wants, then he is gone out of the window getting on with his life. He’s also a great flatmate.
I’ve worked – and lived with – a few reporters, but shared my first office with Barry who was on the brink of retirement. He’d been a reporter in the area for decades; if a local councillor farted Barry could describe the smell and tell you who noticed it first.
He was a great help when things got tough, often making me a brew as I cried after the editor had slammed the phone down on me again. I could tell, though, that he was frustrated by my willing descent into acting like a hack.
He watched intently as I took another angry call from the editor, this time about a television programme that had suggested my patch was as common as muck.
“Get out there and find out what people are saying!” Barry could hear his voice from across the room.
“I’ve been and not one resident is bothered. I’ve spoken to MPs, councillors and no one’s bother-
“Bollocks! I want someone who’s bothered. I want pictures of the characters in the programme and I want a quote from the writer. It’s going to be the splash.”
The editor was obsessed with photos of celebrities. He picked up on any tenuous link to a programme that gave him the chance to use a photo of someone from a soap opera: murders, break-ins and muggings could all have a soap connection if you gave it some thought.
I’d schlepped about the estate trying to find someone who had cared about this show the day before. I’d even cajoled a local councillor into outrage.
“You’re a good councillor and care about this area; doesn’t it bother you that this television programme describes the estate as common and, by association, its people, your voters?” I’d asked her in the local Labour club where she’d kindly bought me my lunch.
“No. It’s a telly programme that could be set anywhere and it’s just filmed here. I think it’s funny. Have you seen it?”
I hadn’t but I had contacted the TV channel to get photos and remembered to ask for a logo. The editor was also obsessed with logos: if a local scout troop didn’t have one he could use to illustrate a story about its latest fundraising event then he’d assume it was a cover for a paedophile ring.
I sat at my desk for a while wondering how I was going to get a splash out of a non-story, about a programme I hadn’t seen, using quotes I hadn’t got. Then it struck me. I’d make them up. I started typing.
Barry put a brew on my desk and asked, “Are you going back out there? Do you want me to see if I can find anyone who has family there who might hate it, you never know your luck?”
“It’s ok. I’ve got a plan,” I said, gulping my tea then continuing typing. “I’m going to make some quotes up: If I use one of the long streets and mum-of-two or granddad instead of names who’ll know?”
Now I was confused by this. Of course I’d know. Barry would know. But the readers wouldn’t know and, more importantly, neither would my editor.
I made up some quotes, making sure they sounded authentic, nothing too dramatic but a general feeling of being let down by the television channel and a determination never to watch it again. I called the programme-makers telling them of my readers’ outrage and they gave me a generic comment. The splash was in the bag.
I sent it to my editor and waited for his praise. I’d done it. He had the splash he’d demanded. OK, I had made up some quotes but it was hardly Stephen Glass. I wasn’t going to make a habit of it. Besides, I wasn’t misleading the readers so much as shutting up an angry editor. And he loved it.
“I knew you’d find someone. You have to be persistent in this game, tenacious. They’re good quotes too. Well done.” His voice was softer when he was satisfied with a story but I knew within seconds of ending our phone call he’d be yelling at a colleague and probably reducing her to tears.
Amount of money I have: £87.65
What I would buy: Train tickets to a job interview to avoid a 16-hour round-trip
Hours of news I have watched: 9