Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Tricks Of The Journalists' Trade by Peter Bartram

Today's guest blog is by author and journalist Peter Bartram. He has written over 3000 articles for a wide range of newspapers and magazines.  Stop Press Murder is the second of a series of crime novels set during the "swingin sixties".

That brilliant Sunday Times journalist Nicholas Tomalin once said: "The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are, a plausible manner and a little literary ability and rat-like cunning."

When I first started work as a newspaper reporter in the 1960s, I soon found there was a lot of truth in what Tomalin said.

In recent years, we've read endlessly about the misdemeanours of journalists in the phone hacking scandals. But there was never a golden age when reporters behaved like angels.

Back in the 1960s we may not have had mobile phones to hack, but we had plenty other tricks up our sleeves. The aim was always to get the story before our rivals. And if that meant making it difficult for rival reporters to file their copy - well, they'd do it to us if they got the chance.

In the 1960s, mobile phones weren't even a gleam in Vodafone's eye - in fact, there wasn't even a Vodafone. But we needed plenty of telephone tricks to file our copy.

Often we'd be in situations where the only way to file copy was by using a public phone. And if there were several reporters on a story - and only one phone, the first one there gained a beat on the others.

One trick was to slip a helpful youngster a little pocket money to pretend to use the phone until you turned up.

In those days, all phones were operated by the Post Office. So another scam involved making official looking signs saying the phone was out of order.

In Brighton, where I spent time freelancing, it was useful to know hotel hall porters.
Get on their right side and they'd let you use the phones on their desks if the others were all engaged.

Taxis were another source of scam activity. In those days, reporters relied on taxis to get them to remote stories - and back to the office - more than they do now. I remember one colleague who was hard-pressed by rivals on a story.

All the reporters needed a taxi to get back to their respective offices. He reached the rank first and found three taxis plying for hire. He took one and just paid the other two to take off somewhere else so the rivals had to wait.

One of the perennial problems in newspapers is getting to talk to people who'd rather avoid you. I remember being commissioned by a national newspaper to get a quote from an important person.

The individual was at a dinner in a private room at a posh hotel and hired a couple of heavies to prevent any newsmen getting near him. In the end, I persuaded one of the waiters to take in a note with a single question on it. The note said that if he didn't answer the question, tomorrow's paper would report he had "no comment". He answered.

Unlike some of the phone hackers, we steered clear of breaking the law. At least, most of us did. But sometimes we skirted close to the edge of it if we insinuated we were someone else when trying to interview a hard-to-reach target on the phone.

Colin Crampton, the crime reporter in my mystery series, knows every trick in the book - and some. But he has a saving grace. When he pulls a scam it's in the service of a greater good - such as discovering a hidden truth or righting an injustice.

Few of us covered the kind of juicy murder mysteries that Colin investigates. But I like to think that, at heart, we had the same vision of the purpose of responsible journalism.

Stop Press Murder: a Crampton of the Chronicle Mystery is published by Roundfire Books.

There is a free Crampton taster novella - Murder in Capital Letters - available to download at

You can find more information about Peter Bartram and his books on his website

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