Don Bentley had still not given up on his first scoop, even if there had been some false starts and a little humiliation along the way.
After a few weeks he had managed to shrug off the embarrassment resulting from the tricks his colleagues had played on him, and the disappointment after leads that might have produced that first major story had not led anywhere.
But the eager reporter in search of his first scoop must keep his ears and eyes open, because he never knew when a scoop would turn up, and where.
Don Bentley was on his village rounds to the east of Woking, the part where rural Surrey merged with suburban London, when a local vicar mentioned in passing that a rare bird had been spotted on a patch of common land.
Now Don Bentley, from his days as a schoolboy wildlife enthusiast, immediately knew what the vicar was talking about, and knew the bird.
The vicar was a keen birdwatcher, as many vicars are, and he could not contain himself when he described the bird, a hobby, to Bentley. The Reverend Raymond Cresswell was so excited, in fact, that he forgot to mention what figure the fund for the new church roof had reached, or not reached, something he did every week when Bentley called looking for local news.
The vicar clearly knew his birds and knew the significance for semi-urban Surrey where a hobby had rarely been seen before.
The vicar went into great detail about the hobby’s natural history, that it migrated each year to Africa; a fact that had protected it in part from the ravages of pesticides liberally sprayed on the Surrey countryside which in past years had decimated the numbers of resident birds of prey.
The Reverend Cresswell did not have to tell Bentley all this, Bentley knew all about birds from his days birdwatching and collecting birds eggs on Horsell Common as boy, although he did not mention the egg collecting part to the Reverend Cresswell because this was an activity now frowned upon by the birdwatching fraternity.
``I believe a hobby is quite a sight,’’ Bentley said to the vicar, eager to let him know that he knew something about birds. ``Especially when they hunt swallows, darting and diving, but pity the poor swallows.’‘
The Reverend Cresswell thought for a minute, not about the revelation that Bentley knew something about birds, but about the swallows that fell victim to the hobby’s sharp beak and talons.
``It’s God’s will, of course, and sometimes we cannot question why. He has a plan and the wonder of nature, and what might appear to be its cruel hand, is merely a part of it.’‘
The sighting of a hobby was news indeed, even if it might only be of minor importance to the weekly dynamic of life in Woking and its surrounds, but it would warrant a few paragraphs from Bentley’s typewriter and let the editor know that his village rounds were not merely an excuse to get out of the office to drink coffee with assorted locals.
The hobby story might at first have appeared a mere snippet of news, but then the vicar added another piece of information that put it up several notches on the invisible scale of what constitutes newsworthiness. The Reverend Cresswell, without realising it, was about to turn a one-paragraph run-of-the-mill news item into that most precious of commodities in the news business, a scoop.
``The hobby appears to be looking to nest. It must have a mate, because I’ve seen courtship displays; I’ve seen it carrying twigs to build a home,’’ the vicar continued. ``It better be quick, there’s an electricity transmission line going through to serve a new development of houses.’‘
Bentley’s knowledge of birds and their place in the modern world might be a little out of date, after discovering pop music and girls when he entered his teens instead of pursuing nature study, but he knew the hobby was a protected species, and disturbing its breeding cycle would be against the law.
Since the discovery in the late 1950s that pesticides were decimating bird populations, stringent steps had been taken in Britain to protect birds of prey, threatened the most because they were at the end of the food chain. Pesticides such as DDT had been banned and raptor breeding sites protected. In summer, especially during the ``silly season’’ in the holiday months of July and August when news was in short supply, the national newspapers frequently carried stories about golden eagles, peregrine falcons, merlins and sparrowhawks holding up vital work on building and infrastructure projects on green field sites in wilder parts of the country. Bentley, however, had never seen a story about a hobby, perhaps the most aerodynamic and dramatic of all birds of prey, and certainly not read of such an event so close to London. Now here was a story, even a scoop.
Bentley, displaying his knowledge of birds from his schooldays, persuaded the Reverend Cresswell to take him to the site, even though the vicar was at first cagey about revealing its whereabouts. The vicar had said he was concerned about egg collectors robbing the nest, and Bentley was relieved that he had not mentioned his schoolboy egg-collecting pastime when they had first discussed the hobby. The vicar and Bentley spent an afternoon looking for the hobby without success, though they found a nest high in a Scots pine tree, a nest just like a crow’s, a scruffy structure made of loose twigs and sticks which the Reverend Cresswell assured Bentley belonged to the hobby.
``It looks a little like a crow’s nest, vicar,’’ said Bentley, who had some doubts, and he phrased the statement in such a way as to give the vicar a chance to perhaps correct himself if necessary, confirming it was a crow’s or rook’s nest after all.
``Yes, dear boy, it looks like a crow’s nest but birds of prey are known to use old crow’s nests, the hobbies have merely taken over some vacant property, and are carrying out a bit of refurbishment.’‘
Bentley was reassured, because the vicar clearly knew his birds.
What next? Bentley had to think about this long and hard. Did he run a story about hobbies nesting in Surrey - the first perhaps in modern times - or did he drum it up into an even bigger story.
He had watched ace reporter John Gerard at work in the office. A story was rarely just a story, a story could be what you wanted it to be with a little imagination. This is not to say it was about making up facts, more about manipulating them through other parties.
“How would Gerard go about writing this story, and take it further?” Bentley asked himself repeatedly. Was the story “Rare bird breeding near Woking”, or “Rare bird halts vital electricity supply”. Gerard would plump for the second version, of course he would, and so would Bentley.
Bentley leapt into action. First thing next morning he contacted the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to tell them about the hobby, its nest and the electricity lines destined to cross the site. Then Bentley quickly confirmed the fact that the transmission lines were going through. The News and Mail had carried a story about it, and Bentley - exercising his developing news gathering skills - had clipped advertisements on the public notices page giving a description of the project, and a map of the route. Sure enough it followed the boundary of the wooded common land, right where the nest was situated in the tall pine.
Next Bentley contacted the electricity company putting in the power line. No, they had not seen the hobbies but they had planned for every eventuality regarding wildlife. They had placed the power pylons along one side of the reserve where there could possibly be no rare birds or animals, or even butterflies that had caused them problems in the past. They had carried out a full environmental assessment and nothing was going to stop the powerlines going through that summer, because the builders had already been contracted to start work on the housing development as soon as the power was connected.
Bentley went back to the vicar, and the bird society, and suggested they make a formal request to the power company to delay work until after the breeding season. The plea made no difference. The power company had sent out environmental experts, paid for at great expense, and they had not recorded hobbies, or nests of rare birds, along the route of the power line. The power company was on solid ground and determined to go ahead. It had submitted the environmental report to the Woking Council, and then to an inspector from the Ministry of Local Government and been given the all clear for the transmission line’s construction. It was following the letter of the law.
“Pharisees,” said the vicar. “Vandals,” said the bird society. “Ecology, ” said Don Bentley. It was a new word he had learned, a word that had just entered the lexicon and he had used it to great effect in the office, to journalists who thought they knew every word connected with the reporting trade.
John Gerard had looked up “ecology” in a dictionary and not found it.
“There Bentley, there’s no such word. It’s something you’ve made up, twit,” Gerard had shouted out across the newsroom. Bentley found an ally in none other than the editor himself. He had heard the banter about “ecology” bouncing across the newsroom and had come out of his glass-panelled office.
“Ecology, it’s what they call a buzz word in the United States, ” said the editor, who had been to New York once and liked to remind his staff of the fact.
“Ecology, it’s all over America.”
“And that powerline’s going to destroy the ecology of Woking,” said Bentley, looking firmly at John Gerard.
Bentley thought he would be left along with his story, his potential scoop, but John Gerard started to show an uncharactistic interest in nature, and specifically birds.
Gerard was on the scent of a scoop himself, like a magpie attracted to blackbird’s eggs, the colour of sapphire, jewels in the hedgerows.
“You might want a little help with that story of yours, Bentley,” Gerard said after inviting the young reporter over to the Red House, and, in a rare event, buying the first round of drinks.
“It’s my story, John,” Bentley said defiantly, “I reckon it’s going to be my first scoop, and I don’t think I should have mentioned it to anybody until it was in the bag. But you’ve got to respect that.”
Bentley was now worried Gerard would steal the story for himself. Thankfully, it was linked to the Reverend Cresswell and Gerard was not welcome in his parish. The vicar had once refused to baptise a baby because its parents were not regular church-goers. Gerard, who once did the same village rounds as Bentley, had heard about it, and the story had made a page lead in the Daily Express, much to the vicar’s annoyance and eventually embarrassment. The Reverend Cresswell had been hauled before his bishop and told the church must move with the times, and the fees paid by people who got married in church, and buried, and had their children baptised - even if they did not go to church themselves - paid for new expensive copper roofs for parish churches.
The Reverend Cresswell agreed the bishop had a point, but he never forgave John Gerard for selling the story to the national press and putting his name in headlines.
“Tell you what, Bentley,” Gerard started, after buying a second rounds of drinks. “I’ll give you a hand, tell you how to get the most out of this story. You get the byline, this is a national story if we play our cards right, and we split the proceeds from the Daily Express. How’s that sound?”
Bentley agreed, a byline on a scoop, a byline that would anchor the launch of Bentley’s so-far wild-blown and buffeted career in journalism, was more important than money. Anyway, he would need Gerard’s expertise and contacts in the lineage trade to make money out of the story.
Gerard took over the management of the potential scoop from this point. As he described it, he was taking the story to a new level.
“This story is an egg, no an embryo. It’s got to incubate, then fledge and then fly.” Gerard paused for a second, surprised by the power of his words. Why couldn’t he turn such phrases, nail the perfect metaphor, when he was sitting at his typewriter? Bentley was impressed.
“What we got here, Bentley, what we got here is a rare, threatened bird, a concerned vicar, concerned birdwatchers, a heartless power company; what we need is a new element, what we need is the Member of Parliament.”
“You mean get the Honourable Member for Woking South involved,” said Bentley incredulously. The reporters always referred to their local MP as the Honourable, part in derision and part out of respect because the ageing member for Woking South had once been a cabinet minister.”
“Get him involved, ” Gerard continued, “It’s an election year.”
When Bentley phoned the MP’s office in Westminster later in the day he was using one word more than any other: ecology.
A staffer who took the call had also heard this magical buzzword. It had also entered the lexicon of politics. It was the sort of trendy word that could make an old politician rooted in the past look young. The MP came on the line. He said he was very supportive of the ecology, of wildlife and nature but he was also very supportive of powerlines and progress. He had to be because the electorate demanded it. He told Bentley he would give the matter further thought and get back to him next day.
Bentley, when he received the call from the MP after waiting patiently for him to call all morning, was pleased to hear what the MP had to say. As the MP explained, he had based his political career on progress but society must not forget the natural world; it still had a vital place. Bentley thought the MP’s comments sounded remarkably like his staffer’s position when they had chatted the previous day and Bentley, although he was new to the world of politics and new to journalism, gained the impression that the ageing Honourable Member for Woking South might not be entirely his own man.
“Progress might be important, ” continued the MP, “but I’m told the electorate is very fond of all these wildlife programmes they are showing on the BBC. We might live in Woking but we feel for the great apes.”
The MP for Woking South was in full flight.
“And wasn’t the sparrowhawk the most common bird in Surrey when I was a boy,” the MP continued. “Our gamekeeper had to shoot them, taking all our pheasant chicks but that was a different time, of course.”
Bentley had already run a story in the News and Mail about the nest, and the power company’s intransigence. The story had been sold on to the Daily Express by Gerard. It had not made headlines quite as big as Bentley had hoped, and did not carry his byline, but a bigger story was to come now that the MP was getting involved.
The Conservative MP’s desire to be re-elected with an increased majority , even if he was in a safe Conservative seat, and Bentley’s potential scoop seemed to be feeding on themselves, they were symbiotic, another word Bentley had learned in recent weeks when he had studied the relationship between the hobby and the swallow on their great migration from Africa.
As for the MP, now he was on the backbench his speeches rarely made the national press and here was an opportunity to hitch a flight on a story that had already taken off, in the Daily Express no less.
The success of the story depended on how far the MP was prepared to go to back the right of the hobbies to nest in peace, and if he was prepared to confront the power company, and his own Minister for Local Government if necessary. The MP’s staff had done some soundings in the constituency of Woking South and they were confident the electorate would side with the hobbies, or at least voters who watched wildlife programmes on the BBC. And with an election approaching, the MP wanted all the exposure he could get to increase his majority and perhaps be considered for ministerial office again.
Bentley could barely contain his excitement. He was having sleepless nights, lying in bed picturing the MP standing in the middle of a field with his hand raised, stopping the cranes carrying the girders for the power pylons. The vicar would be there, too, with his Bible, quoting from an appropriate passage about mammon. Bentley could see a half-page picture in the Daily Express with the rest of the page taken up with Bentley’s story, with his byline on top.
Within a few days a call came from the MP’s office, to say he was taking the hobby’s stand and he wanted to meet the vicar and the press at the site. Bentley had still not seen a hobby, either flying or on the nest, but the Reverend Cresswell had assured him hobbies were about, and Bentley was confident the reverend would not exaggerate the frequency of sightings or, in the interests of bird conservation, bend the truth , as he sometimes did when he drew his parishioners’ attention to the state of the church roof.
The MP arrived next day with three of his staff. The Reverend Cresswell had invited the bishop, who had announced proudly that he was also “into birds”, to stifled laughter from the some of the assembed group. The Daily Express had sent its own photographer and promised Bentley a byline with an “exclusive” tag to it, negotiated on the basis he would not give the story to any other source. The News and Mail would have to wait, the gathering on the common fell out of its weekly edition time, but the editor remained happy. The Honourable Member had invited him up to Westminster for lunch.
The party gathered at the edge of the common, and scanned the skies for a full hour for the sight of one or two hobbies coming and going to the nest, which was clearly visible at the top of the pine.
A jackdaw flew by, and a jay and another bird that defied identification because it was so high, but the Reverend Cresswell, keen to display his bird-watching skills in front of the bishop, considered it might be a sparrowhawk, with full, rounded wings.
“Don’t see those every day, not like the old days when they took our pheasants,” the MP added.
Then from woodland to the west of the common a dark shape emerged, flying fast and low against the early morning, bright sun. There was as hush as the bird swooped over the top of the pine, then banked on outstretched wings and dropped down to sit on the nest.
The Reverend Cresswell raised his binoculars, but remained silent.
“Looks like a crow to me,” said the Honourable Member for Woking South, straining his eyes. And the bishop agreed.
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 17 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