A nose for news: some journalists have it, some don’t. In the old days, in the age of journalism Don Bentley lamented, it was an essential prerequisite to being a reporter. In modern times, news sense, what made a “story’’ and what didn’t, had become somewhat dulled and blunted, probably because news itself had lost its power. It was now submerged in a sea of frivolity and celebrity, the trite and inconsequential vying for what was really important.
But that was Don Bentley speaking, on the nights he spoke of what had been, when the sub-editors on the night shift gathered for their evening break at the back of the Chronicle newsroom. His view was subjective, of course, and perhaps people really did want to hear about celebrity divorces and celebrities having babies, as if this didn’t happen to anyone else.
The journalists of old, Don Bentley would say, really were news hounds. It was as though they had been selectively bred with a nose that could sniff a story at 100 metres, like a duck-hunter’s setter sniffing wildfowl in the reedbeds. In truth, the art of gathering news had to be learned. An editor would ask potential recruits if they had an innate curiously, wanted to know what made people and things tick. The answer had to be yes. The aspiring reporters would then be given a trial in the newsroom to see if they could find some stories of their own, and not just follow events set out in the newsroom diary like council meetings and the regular sitting of the magistrates’ court.
It was a hard test, and if the candidate was successful, an even harder apprenticeship in journalism followed. It wasn’t enough just to be able to identify what might make news and what might not. News had to be put down in words, starting off with what journalists called the intro, or introduction to a story, which had to grab the readers’ attention, without giving away too many facts that might impede the flow of the story and confuse the reader.
News, however, could be addictive, even dangerous. It enabled the keen reporter to get his or her name in the newspaper and opened the way for ego to take over. Every reporter remembered their first byline, however small the type-size or the publication. It was a sensation, an excitement that could not be put into words like a well-honed, well-crafted news story but after this heady rush, this tingling thrill, it was important to keep news, and ego, under control.
There was another hazard to news and its gathering that could trap the reporter. The journalist should remain detached and remember that their role, except in exceptional circumstances, was to break news and not to make it.
Bentley had a story to tell to illustrate his point, about a young reporter 40 years previously who let news go to his head.
The reporter had joined Bentley’s Woking News and Mail and immediately made an impact with his news gathering skills. In his keenness, however, he started to tread on toes, namely those of the newspaper’s ace reporter, John Gerard.
When the new recruit, Andre Henderson, had joined the News and Mail he had been expected to also join Gerard’s news gathering team, taking orders from Gerard of course, but he showed no intention of giving Gerard the respect that Gerard thought he deserved.
Each new recruit did the police rounds at first, along with writing wedding and obituary reports, but any important stories had to be passed on to the senior crime reporter Gerard and the young police roundsmen was left with the crumbs like house break-ins and minor traffic offences. Henderson, however, started to come up with accidents and crimes at the time they happened, and not as reported by the duty sergeant the next day. Henderson had cultivated in a short space of time not just police officers on the beat, and duty sergeants in the local police stations, but the plainclothes officers.
Gerard, with Bentley as his sidekick, had over time built a network of contacts in the emergency services who were quick to tip them off about events that might make stories for their newspaper, and more importantly might make stories that earned lineage from the major newspapers in London.
Gerard may have been on first-name terms with just about every constable and fireman in north-west Surrey but the members of the plainclothes branch of the police had always proved elusive. Investigating the major crimes they dealt with, the detectives preferred to talk directly with Fleet Street reporters, and not concern themselves with mere cub reporters in suburban Woking. If contact with the local press was required, like publicity to find evidence or witnesses in a specific crime, this was usually handled directly by the Surrey Police public affairs department.
Henderson clearly had other ideas about the relationship between the senior police and journalists and he said so. Gerard said the word “precocious’’ sprang to mind.
Gerard and Bentley had tried rubbing shoulders with the detectives socially in the past, although meeting them on a social level was difficult, mainly because they tended to drink in the more expensive bars of Woking and the county own of Guildford. Gerard and Bentley’s meagre earnings did not stretch to whisky and soda and bourbon and coke. While they sipped pints with mere constables, Henderson was buying rounds in an establishment with a designated snooker room, and playing the detectives in games of snooker and billiards.
The shortcomings of Gerard and Bentley’s contacts had not been revealed until Henderson’s arrival. Gerard and sidekick Bentley always managed to make it to the scene of a major crime or accident, if a little late, but now Henderson was getting there before them. Henderson had bought an old car with his lucrative lineage earnings so far, while Gerard and Bentley were still on pushbikes, or cadging lifts from friends in the pub. Gerard also surmised that Henderson was listening to the police radio. He had somehow stumbled on its secret wavelength and this was the source of his red-hot information. Gerard bought an old radio himself from a second-hand shop and had twiddled the dials late at night in the News and Mail office to try to find the frequency, but to no avail.
While Henderson was out and about in his car, Gerard and Bentley were now forced to pick up the crumbs the next morning if their sources had not contacted them in time.
In the case of fires, which were especially lucrative in the picture trade, Gerard and Bentley had particular logistical problems. The Woking fire station, which served a large portion of north-west Surrey, was on the same street as the Woking News and Mail office and if fire engines were travelling east there was no problem for the reporters. The engine driver would merely slow outside the New and Mail office and shout out the address of the fire.
Fire engines going west, however, left the town by a different route and Gerard and Bentley, hearing the ringing of the fire engine bells, would have to dash off on their bikes, following a trail of water spilled by the engines as they rounded corners. On rainy days, with the roads washed with water, this proved impossible and Bentley and Gerard would sit sullenly in the Red House pub hoping for a tip-off, knowing all the time that Henderson was probably at the fire and interviewing witnesses.
Fires, though, were not Henderson’s speciality. Surrey at the time was afflicted with a drug epidemic, unleashed in the mid years of the Swinging Sixties. Drugs before this had largely been the preserve of high-flyers in London, either taken by revellers in night clubs or indulged in during parties at home. The drug of choice for the working man in Britain, and their children, had largely remained alcohol but the freedoms that the Swinging Sixties also brought drug use in the shape of marijuana joints and chemicals to be experimented with. The police, in turn, devoted resources to the drug issue. Drug arrests, and especially drug busts of dealers, become the staple diet of Surrey’s courts.
Henderson was on the ball with crimes of all descriptions but he could be guaranteed to be found with his notebook and camera at the scene of crimes linked to drugs. There were side stories involving Henderson himself. He was threatened by what he described as drug barons and gave details of the drug supply routes from London to Surrey towns, sometimes going under cover to purchase supplies.
These “stings’’ made headlines for Henderson and, although the other reporters were extremely envious of his growing fame, they assumed it was just a matter of time before the dealers would learn to recognise him and these “scoops’’ would come to an end, with possibly an unfortunate end for Henderson himself. Henderson’s success might have generated envy but there was also a grudging respect and admiration for his exploits. At the same time the rival reporters were genuinely concerned for Henderson’s safety.
It was not the drug barons who were to be Henderson’s undoing, however. Events surrounding Henderson took an unexpected turn during a court case that was the result of a police bust of two youths in a Guildford pub. Drugs squad detectives had found the youths had large quantities of pills in their coat pockets. Giving evidence in defence in court, one of the youths alleged that Henderson had planted the drugs on him, and he gave a plausible description of how his jacket had been hanging up in a corner of the bar, and how the police had made a bee-line for it as soon as they entered the pub.
The magistrate dismissed the case against both defendants and, although no direct reference was made to Henderson, the allegations linking the reporter to the crime were reported in the local newspapers. Henderson professed his innocence but suddenly his sources of news dried up. And where once he could be found playing billiards with Surrey detectives in their favourite bars, Henderson now played alone.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 32 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category href=“http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/C77/” title=“Don Knowler”>Don Knowler