THE first thing a young reporter stepping out on a journalistic career has to determine is what constitutes news, and what doesn’t. News might be the basic commodity of daily journalism but it is not easily defined. What might be news to one person might appear idle gossip to others or, worse, a piece of information so inconsequential that it is not worth talking or writing about at all.
Many a cub reporter, starting out on the winding and tortuous road to a career in news, stumbles and trips over at least one, if not all, their first attempts at spotting what is newsworthy, and mastering the art of putting news into words.
It happened to an over-keen and enthusiastic Don Bentley in his first month in journalism, after he had mistakenly thought he had come to grips with the elusive, indefinable subject that had become the reason for his being when he first entered the newsroom of the Woking News and Mail. In those first few weeks the noun ``news’’ had been superseded by a far more powerful and exciting word, ``scoop’‘, and to this day, 40 years on, Don Bentley shudders at the embarrassment of it all.
In their first few weeks or months in journalism eager news hounds are tested on their news sense - on their ``nose for news’’ as experienced journalists describe it.
The ``test’’ is not a formal, official thing. It takes the form of a kind of initiation ceremony, proving a first lesson for cadet reporters in the school of hard knocks, and a little amusement for journalists who have served their time. Young journalists, especially, are apt to play tricks on each other to test their news-gathering expertise, much like lion cubs gambol and fight and play to test and improve their hunting and survival skills. News gathering is a hunt of sorts, and the quest to find news can be a test of human survival, if not in a physical sense, a psychological one.
The first test for Don Bentley came one morning when he opened a letter addressed to him at the News and Mail office. The letter was from an anonymous source revealing details of a drug ring operating on the public housing estate on the outskirts of Woking where Bentley lived with his parents. A story exposing the drug trade and the villains who came up from London to ply their trade was for Bentley a story made in journalistic heaven and he could see his name up in, if not lights, on the top of a front-page lead story in the News and Mail.
The letter Bentley had received in the post that morning instructed him to be at a cafe not too far from the newspaper office later that day. He must be wearing a blue baseball cap so the contact could identify him, take him to a quiet table in the cafe and spill the beans. Most of all, Bentley must keep the meeting a secret.
Bentley slipped out of the office to shop for a baseball cap of the required colour and spent his bicycle allowance purchasing one in an army surplus store, a Royal Navy cap which he thought would later come in handy on his village rounds on winter days.
He returned to the office to attend to his wedding and obituary duties and then slipped out of the office again at noon, the appointed time for the meeting.
``Where you off to Bentley?’’ a colleague, John Gerard, inquired as Bentley made for the door.
``Oh, nowhere,’’ Bentley lied. ``Just got to deliver some obituary forms to the undertakers.’`
Bentley made his way to the cafe, ordered a coffee and sat at a quiet table away from the window. He didn’t want to be seen with his ``mole’‘. Bentley had his blue cap on, and he studied each patron entering the cafe, wondering what his contact might look like. He obviously did not know him because he would not have been required to wear the baseball cap for identification.
To Bentley’s horror he saw John Gerard approaching the cafe and he pulled his cap over his eyes and hunched over the table in the hope that Gerard would not spot him. Horror upon horrors, Gerard entered the cafe and bought himself a takeaway coffee from the counter.
``Hi, Bentley,’’ he shouted as he left, and Bentley gestured, relieved that Gerad had not come over to the table and sat down.
Next another staff member, Len Sutton, entered the cafe and bought himself a coffee. He had a broad smile on his face. In all of five minutes about five or six members of the News and Mail staff had entered the cafe and bought takeaway coffee and Bentley wondered why it had become so popular all of a sudden because it was a fair walk from the office and the News and Mail staff usually bought their coffee and sandwiches from an establishment just two doors away.
Bentley took a sip of his coffee to see if it had qualities superior to the cafe nearer the office. It tasted like normal milky coffee out of a tin to Bentley, but then again he accepted he was not a great coffee expert. His parents were tea drinkers and coffee had been a new experience for him since joining the News and Mail. If you wanted to be a journalist, he was told, you had to drink coffee. The same went for smoking.
Bentley sat in the cafe for a full hour, ordering two more cups of coffee and then a sandwich, and all the while gazing along the street, looking for his mole. At one o’clock, when the cafe filled with people seeking lunch, the proprietor looked towards Bentley, indicating without saying a word that it was time for him to leave or at least make another purchase. Bentley got the message and retreated to the office, wondering what had become of his valuable contact, the one that had taken the time to write him him an anonymous letter. It was all very exciting, none the less.
When he entered the office, he detected a strange atmosphere, one of mirth and laughter behind hands held to the mouth.
``Had a pot of tea, Bentley,’’ Gerard shouted out, putting an emphasis on the pot.
``Had coke with your sandwich?’’ someone else shouted, and then the whole office erupted with laughter.
Bentley realised he had been had.
It took a few days for the ribbing to stop and life went back to normal for Bentley, but he still had dreams of getting his first scoop and in this regard one of his colleagues offered to help him.
Bentley had been setting out his ambition to crack ``the big one’‘, to put him on the map as a journalist, during a conversation with Peter Harding, one of the senior members of the News and Mail team. Harding in turn revealed he had ambitions to enter the world of public relations. At the same time Harding said that he had a story, a potential scoop, but he did not have the time to follow it up. Also, because of his desire to eventually open his own pubic relations firm in the town, he had no desire to offend the establishment, especially the legal and medical community to which this potential scoop related.
Bentley could not believe his luck when Harding invited him to take over the story. Harding took Bentley over to the same cafe where the bogus drug story had been perpetrated, telling the young reporter it was a good place to be out of earshot of the others in the office. This was a story for Bentley’s ears only, said Harding, because Bentley deserved a break after the trick John Gerard had played on him.
Bentley ordered a coffee for the both of them and as soon as he had sat down Harding outlined the story that was too hot for Harding to handle.
“Well, this might sound unbelievable, but there has been a terrible mistake made at the Woking Hospital and someone has got to pay,” Harding started. “It’s an outrage but my hands are tied in exposing it myself because I know the people involved. Just don’t ask me who they are but I’ll give you a contact, a solicitor.”
Bentley reached for the notebook that was in his pocket and Harding immediately gestured to him to put it away.
“No notebooks here,” he said in a whisper. “It might draw attention.”
Their meeting was building into something very exciting and mysterious, and Bentley could feel butterflies fluttering in his stomach. He had not felt such a sensation since reading a book on how to be a journalist which contained an exciting item about a young reporter breaking the news of a murder.
“Now, there was this woman who went into the hospital to have her leg amputated, diabetes or something,” said Harding, looking about him and still talking in a whisper.
Bentley leaned forward, straining to hear.
``Well, this woman is supposed to have her left leg off but the surgeon chooses the wrong one, he takes her right leg off. Terrible blunder.’‘
``Christ!’’ said Bentley, recoiling in horror.
``Shush,`` said Harding. ``Not so loud. People might be listening.’‘
Bentley felt a little foolish that his emotions had got the better of him, a reporter was supposed to be cool and detached after all.
``Took the wrong leg off. Now imagine how the family feels? The original leg has still to come off.’‘
Bentley sat in silence now, open mouthed. He had not touched his coffee.
``Well, they’ve got a solicitor, of course. He’s on the case. Was looking into it yesterday and due to come up with an answer for the family, as to if they can sue, sometime today.
“Now, I can’t do a thing. Know the hospital people, know the family, know the solicitor. That’s the problem with trying to build a public relations career, you get compromised as a newsman, if you know what I mean, Don.’‘
Bentley said he knew all about journalism and public relations, and the difference. It had been set out in the book he had got from the library on how to be a journalist.
``Now, Don, this is a big one. This is Fleet Street material. It’s too big for the Woking News and Mail and you will have to take it to London, at least first. Know what I mean?”
Indeed Bentley did. His young, eager imagination had already pictured a front-page splash in the Daily Express with his name on it.
``But you’ve got to firm it up. Once the solicitor confirms it, you are on your way,’’ said Harding. ``Now here’s the guy’s name and number. Get back to the office, find a quiet corner, and give him a ring. And don’t tell anyone. Keep this all to yourself. You don’t want Gerard stealing the story. He’ll be on to it in a flash. You know what he is like.’‘
Harding had already written a name and telephone number on a small piece of paper. It was folded so that it had to be opened to read the writing.
On the walk back to the News and Mail office Bentley had to stop himself from breaking into a run, so eager was he to get to a phone. His heart was pumping, his mouth dry, and he had already run through a list of the people he would have to phone after talking to the solicitor. The hospital, perhaps the medical council, the family. The solicitor, no doubt, would give him the name of the patient involved and that of her family.
Harding slid away out of sight as soon as they reached the newsroom and Bentely was relieved to see that he would not have a find a quiet corner, as Harding suggested. The office was empty of staff, except for the editor and his deputy beavering away in the glass-panneled office they inhabited.
Bentley glanced about him, to make sure no one was about to enter the office and he then glanced at the piece of paper with the name and number written on it.
When he dialled a receptionist answererd, giving the name of the firm and asking who the caller wanted to speak to.
``Mr Humphries, please,’’ Bentley said confidently.
``And who shall I say is calling?’‘
Bentley hesitated for a moment. Should he say Don Bentley from the News and Mail or just Bentley.
``Who’s calling,’’ the voiced said, impatiently.
``Oh, it’s Don Bentley from the News and Mail.’‘
Humphries answered and Bentley found himself lost for words for a second, the excitement was getting the better of him. He had meant to rehearse the questions beforehand but he had been too eager to use the telephone while the office was empty.
``Oh, I have a matter, a story, that you might help me with.’‘
``Go on,’’ said Humphries, ``take your time.’‘
It was almost as though Humphries knew what Bentley was calling about, but then Bentley reasoned perhaps that was the way solicitors operated, they gave callers a chance to state their case.
Bentley, slowly and deliberately, spelled out the reason for the call, the case of the woman having to have both legs amputated in a terrible medical blunder.
``I’m told on good authority you are acting for the unfortunate patient, and I just want to confirm this for a story,’’ Bentley continued.
There was a long pause at the end of the line.
“Well ... Mr Bentley isn’t it? .... well, you are right in regard to this unfortunate woman. Yes, I’ve been instructed to look at it, as I have done.’‘
Bentley’s heart was pounding again, harder this time and it felt as though it was going to burst through his rib cage. He’d never felt such a sensation. A scoop and it was being confirmed. The solicitor’s words had trailed off, and Bentley wanted to cry out, ``Well go on’‘, but he maintained his silence.
``Well, Mr Bentley, yes as I have said, this is all true. I’ve looked at it, studied precedent but unfortunately the hospital, and indeed the surgeon, have indemnity, a bit complex to go into now. But I have advised my client that, as regards suing, she has not got a leg to stand on.’‘
As the solicitor spelled out the last few words, Bentley could hear an explosion of laughter coming from outside the office, from a small room that held the telephone connections where once a telephonist had sat.
The reporters had gathered in the room, along with Peter Harding, to listen in to the call to Harding’s solicitor friend, and Bentley realised he had been had for a second time.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 16 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 Don Knowler