I’ve been wined and dined again. I was invited to celebrate a friend’s graduation – and my train tickets and lunch were paid for. This is exceptional freeloading, perhaps, but I think I learned freeloading as young hack and can now take a deep breath, hide my embarrassment and, well, tuck in.
We weren’t sponging, or colluding, when we freeloaded. We earned so little that we’d turn up en masse at the opening of a church fete if there was food. In fact, we all attended monthly full council meetings – claiming we were doing so to ensure coverage of our individual patches – knowing we would be fed afterwards. It became a social event.
I’m certain half the time reporters cried at their desks it was only because they were too weak with hunger to argue with the editor: he had the belly of someone who ate well, the flushed face of someone who drank a lot and a staff who hoped he’d get gout.
Indeed, any contact who would buy lunch or dinner was always worth pursuing and MPs were the richest people we knew. Parties held by MPs and councillors were another valuable freebie – free food and booze. In a way we had already paid for them with our taxes, so we attended many. I tried whiskey for the first time in the Mayor’s Parlour. I’ll share with you, another time, the story of trying an illegal substance while attending Ascot with a national newspaper.
Admittedly, the relationships between journalists and local councillors change over meat pie and mash, especially when said journalist doesn’t have anything in for tea. I’m not asking for your pity here, just pointing out the reality of low-pay for journalists; whether they’re ambitious, corrupt, riddled with affluenza or looking for a Local Hero. If dinner in a pub secures a few column inches for an MP or local councillor after some publicity then it is a deal that is made pretty quickly.
To be fair, we freeloaded from community events too: those with buffets had more chance of publicity and a spread of photos of smiling local kids. The editor wanted pictures of kids believing their mums, dads and grandparents would all buy a copy so tripling the circulation but we wanted as-much-as-we-could-eat buffets.
So when a local church, of some minor denomination, welcomed a pastor from the US, while feeding him good, local food I was happy to go along. Thing is, it clashed with a community meeting I had to attend about an incinerator that could be damaging the health of local children. I knew those children didn’t have to choose between a buffet and a burner but I made the sacrifice and wrote about them. I was, though, thrilled to find those campaigning against the incinerator had the sense to put on a few butties too.
Later I got a call from a member of the congregation about the pastor’s visit, furious that I hadn’t attended as promised. I explained my predicament but had not realised quite what I was missing.
“Had you bothered to come you would’ve seen a congregation mesmerised. They were transfixed. Hypnotised! This was no man of God. It was like a show on Blackpool Pier.”
I didn’t worry about her anger, even if it was potentially misguided and misguiding: this and an incinerator story in one week meant I had a back-up splash if the editor kicked off.
So I wrote what she told me. I checked out the US link, found that chickens had pooped on pews over there during services and made a quick call to the UK pastor for a comment – but I didn’t visit the church. I didn’t leave my desk to write the story because, as far as I was concerned, I had no time.
Ok, I had two splashes but I still had to traipse the streets of the town for a vox pop, I had to write nibs from the police and fire services, write the main feature story, the page five picture story, and all other news items for my patch – work which amounted to a full edition each week. I worked evenings and weekends to find anything I could – and to ensure, whenever possible, that I had two splashes in case the editor was in a bad mood and spiked my first.
Indeed, he did hate the incinerator story.
“I’m bored of incinerator stories,” he said, on his weekly deadline call. “We’ve got a bloody incinerator story in every bloody edition.”
Now I wanted to point out that that this meant there was a problem with incinerators in the patch and that a combined campaign against them, potentially reaching angry readers who would be thrilled by our support and so buy our papers, would be a great idea. I didn’t. I waited half an hour after he slammed the phone down and sent him the chickens in the aisles story.
“It’s brilliant!” he shouted, and I wondered if people at HQ resented hearing him so happy on deadline day. “You’ve done it again! This has colour, humour, it’s bizarre. We’ll splash with this and that incinerator crap can go on page seven.”
I wasn’t thrilled by his praise anymore. I had simply learned how to play the game and write for him, ignoring the interests of the readers.
I was anxious that I hadn’t checked the story – particularly after my Local Hero encounter – but no one noticed. I waited for days but no one complained. I began to wonder if anyone was reading my work.
Amount of money I have: £33.65. I would have more had BT not taken my Direct Debit payment twice
Human beings I have spoken to: 7
What I would buy: Oatcakes to go with a gift I received of Cornish green bean chutney
Jobs applied for: 8