Don’t let Leveson take our colour …

Soap guru Sharon Marshall might not be a big celebrity Leveson Inquiry witness, like Piers Morgan, Mungo and Alan Partridge, but I found her more compelling than most.

I was also frustrated, on her behalf, with the reaction of Lord Leveson to her writing. Her statement that she “combined […] the dramatisation of my history in the business as a whole to build up a more compelling and entertaining book” was frowned upon.

The Inquiry heard extracts of Marshall’s book, Tabloid Girl, which tells of her career as a tabloid hack. Lord Justice Leveson asked if the book was ”a true story”, which is what is stated on the cover. Marshall said the book was was filled with ”heightened reality” and ”a bit of topspin”.

“I was writing something somebody told me in the pub,” she told the Inquiry, adding that there was no “hard evidence”  and this was not her “writing a witness statement.”

“I intended it to be a good yarn,” she said but Leveson questioned if “topspin” meant “lying”. Marshall – quite rightly – said that she would call it ”colour”.

I’ve shared previously some of the things I got up to when chasing tabloid stories and would now like to defend the need for “colour”.

I’d like to start by reminding people that journalists are writers: yes, they research, they use facts, they should not be making things up but they do have to write entertainingly or no one will read their news and features. The best journalists write descriptively, the worst to a repetitive, pedestrian formula.

Features especially demand what Marshall describes as “colour”. While writing what are known as real-life stories I’ve conducted interviews that could last up to two hours asking about every minute detail of someone’s wedding, break-up, adoption or cat’s death. Every story – however bizarre, trivial or emotive – would mean a lengthy talk with the person involved, sometimes face-to-face, sometimes over the phone.

The reality is, though, you don’t know who it is you’re going to be talking to – how good their memory is, how articulate they are, if they will understand the process of providing as much information as possible for a feature of between 800 and 1000 words.

You need “colour”.

You can ask if the engagement ring came in a wooden box or a velvet box but they might not remember. You can ask them to describe the expression on their partner’s face at the later but they might not be able to. You can ask them to describe the feelings they had in the moment they wed but they might not be able to articulate it.

You need up to 1000 words of good, solid entertaining – gripping – copy with quotes and description. Like all good writers this description is needed as part of the development of the narrative, to put flesh on the characters’ bones and to make sure the piece is interesting to read: it’s journalism but it’s entertainment not investigation.

I once wrote about a gay man who had agreed to have his friend’s child and I conducted the interview with him. He was a nice man, articulate, open, willing to share the sad tale of how the baby he loved turned out not to be his after all. In the first person article I wrote:

“… one night she yelled from the bedroom, “come here. Come here! I ran in, panic-stricken, terrified something was wrong but she was lying on the bed smiling. “Put your hand on my stomach. Can you feel the baby kicking? she asked. I did and it was amazing.”

This is not an entirely true scenario. The moment of panic happened. The feeling the baby kick happened. They did not happen within minutes of each other. I added “colour” to stir emotion in the reader.

I once wrote about a woman whose daughter went missing when she was in the middle of her exams. I wrote:

“I crept along the hallway and saw light beneath my daughter’s bedroom door. I opened it and inside I saw her still hunched over her school books, studying hard.”

The woman did not describe this in a single sentence, she simply told me the latest her daughter had stayed up to study and the rest is “colour”.

I once opened a feature with:

“A cold chill blew in from under the door of the caravan. My wife snuggled up closer. I lay beside her gazing at a spot on the ceiling. I was trying to stay positive but since my business had gone bust it seemed our luck was on a downward spiral.”

The man I interviewed did not say this verbatim: he described his stress, the cold caravan, his money worries and how he lay awake fretting: the rest is “colour”.

No one was harmed in the adding of colour to these features.

Many journalists, once written the feature, will read them to contributing interviewees before publication, getting their approval and making changes. I’ve often been thanked for what I’ve written – I’ve even heard, “that is exactly how I told it” from people I’ve interviewed and known it really, really isn’t.

In many ways what we write is creative non-fiction. It’s what journalists have been doing for centuries to encourage readers to stay with their writing to the end, to feel something for the people described in the story – maybe even to react to the story by giving to charity; perhaps Leveson could be introduced to some of Dickens’ journalism.

Entertaining writing is important – not just to real-life journalism and to features –  and shouldn’t be frowned upon.

A byline on a first person real-life feature often reads “true story as told to …” perhaps it should say “with added colour”.

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6 thoughts on “Don’t let Leveson take our colour …

    • Then some of the best writers can be dismissed as liars. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is excellent creative non-fiction. Then there’s Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year or even Bill Bryson who writes fact in a creative way. Modern historians, such as Peter Ackroyd, frequently write books dependent on historic fact but written in a narrative form. In order to write real-life, first person features, complete with narrative structure, dialogue and characterization, a journalist has to use facts but deliver them in a creative way in order for it to be entertaining. We’ve been doing it for years: it’s not unusual and not a threat to the truth. It’s what makes it enjoyable to readers and why it sells women’s magazines in their millions.

      • and newspapers. Trouble comes when people expect what they read in a newspaper to be the truth. And I do believe people should expect and get the truth from a newspaper. And such writers you quote may be good liars indeed. But you know it is creative fact or faction. I just don’t agree that adding colour in the way you describe in a newspaper report is the same as reporting of fact. I don’t see the need for entertainment while reporting fact. But that is just me.

  1. Colour is available for all writers of fiction or semifiction, docudrama if you like. But why the need to put “true stories” alongside the title? Topspin? Or a googly to fool the public?
    I have no objection to these kind of writing in a newspaper as long as it is made clear it is (semi)fiction. The problem the public has now is that every article in every “newspaper” is looked at with suspicion as to what is truth and what is “topspin”.or heightened reality.
    Or are we going to end up calling the content in these newspapers “reality news” like certain TV shows are called reality television whereas in truth they are surreality shows?

    • I always found “true story as told to …” a little disingenuous. Perhaps, true story as intepreted by?
      I agree that news should be factual – but I also recognise that even history, the very facts we are taught in school, is someone’s intepretation of fact and is, ultimately. subjective.
      This is not to say news reports should be opinion, semi-autobiographical or invented. Features, though, written in a narative form have no choice but to be creative – especially when written from a first person perspective – simply because people don’t speak like that: the journalist has to take what was said in inteerview, retain the facts and write it as creative non-fiction. I think this is what Sharon Marshall did with her book and features – and Leveson was wrong to compare it to writing news.
      It is, as you say, a sad reality that newspapers do exaggerate – if you read my earlier posts, you’ll find I did this as a young ambitious hack – and the industry does allow, accept and encourage this at tabloid level.
      We need more respect for the truth of news while maintaining the fun of writing and reading features but also recognise that subjectivity is not the end of the world – but is a fact in itself.

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