I woke to screams of “journalists are guilty of deception” from the internet. I was tempted to go back to bed again but thought, who isn’t? Why wouldn’t we be? Ok, so my tabloid hackery of phoning hotels to find minor celebrities who have snuck in with prostitutes, while pretending to be a family member, is deception. But there have been occasions when it’s necessary for other reasons.
I once interviewed the son of a man who had murdered his girlfriend. That is, the dad had murdered the son’s girlfriend. He asked me to pretend not to be a reporter to his mum. My arrival at the house was awkward. First I fell up the step, into the front door, which made someone run to the door for fear they were being attacked by vigilantes.
It was a middle-aged woman who looked fed up and in no mood to deal with the window cleaner, never mind a journalist. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I’m here to see -”
“Son, it’s for you.”
With that the door slammed in my face and I waited until the son arrived to open it again a few minutes later.
“Forgive mam, she’s upset, you know, she doesn’t want people noseying and interfering. We’ll tell her you’re from my college.”
“Do you think that’s wise? She’ll see it in the magazine.”
“She doesn’t read it. I don’t know anyone who does.”
I ignored the cruel attack on my professionalism and stepped inside. This man was being paid a few hundred pounds by the magazine to talk and clearly wanted the money not notoriety. Indeed, he was poor. His tracksuit had seen better days and he had the look of someone who chose lager over food when money was tight. The house was in virtual darkness, the curtains closed to stop those nosey types peering in. His mum was sitting in the corner, a tabloid paper open in front of her, a fag burning in the ashtray beside her. She looked broken but still like she’d smack me if she knew who I was.
“This is me mate from college, mam.”
She looked over the paper, gave me the once over and said, “Well. You be careful.”
We conducted the interview in his bedroom where he wouldn’t be disturbed, both perched on his single bed, whispering. I wondered if it was the closest either of us had had to a date in a while. He told me about what his dad had done in grim detail, more than I needed. I was more and more convinced his mum had a point about keeping people at a distance and him being careful but wrote it all down.
I was working for a national magazine who really wanted the story and a press agency who wouldn’t let me return empty-handed: but I was being deceitful to the mum, convinced I was protecting the son. I was still on low pay and now working “as and when required”, jumping out of bed to chase Lottery winners in the early hours. A heady mix of poverty, ambition and desperation fuelled me.
In fact, I wonder if listening to someone’s story and feigning interest is considered deception. I’ve done that on many occasions. You listen to someone sharing intimate details of their three-in-bed gone wrong and see if you don’t have to hide your discomfort. Or someone sharing the details of their wedding day when all you care about is the fight at the reception that landed them in court.
Also, I’ve overheard conversations between councillors about such things as planning applications they do or don’t approve of and later confronted them with the fruits of my ear-wigging. This has led to some interesting splashes and some irritated councillors.
What I’m saying is, I think we risk missing the point when demanding honesty from journalists at all times. Journalists have to be deceitful sometimes. We have to be to get to the truth. Deception can be a justified means to an end. Admittedly, there are more glamorous and justified reasons to be deceitful than convincing a lad to tell you about his murdering dad for the entertainment of weekly magazine readers, but is it a “dark art”?
To put it simply, it’s strikes me as dangerously hypocritical to have a Mystery Shopper moan about the service provided by someone on low pay then say a journalist must wear a T-Shirt with HACK on it and carry a banner displaying the masthead of their paper.
Besides, I’m hoping my skills of deception will now keep the wolf from the door. The debt collectors are going to meet various personalities when approaching me. I might also listen, feigning fear as they make threats they cannot back up, and then write a letter to my MP.
My deception will be a means to an end … and a bit of a laugh in an otherwise uneventful day.
New daily habits: 1. Watching the quiz show Pointless. 2. Obsessing about what I’m going to have for lunch and dinner. 3. Checking the post for a letter from Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith (I’ll tell you about it when it arrives).
Number of people I have spoken to in person: 0
Number of people I have spoken to on the phone: 3 (including an angry creditor)
Number of people I have had IM chats with: 7