Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Cock-ups, not conspiracies, are bane of the Press

Roger de Courcey and Nookie
Roger de Courcey and Nookie

Many years ago, a young trainee journalist was sent to the house of a well-known vicar in his patch, who had been the subject of a substantial burglary.

The callow youth did all the things he had been trained to do. The right questions had all been asked and afterwards the vicar invited him into the sitting room for a cup of tea.

As they were talking, the reporter noticed a picture of Ken Dodd on the mantelpiece and, curious that he might discover another angle for his story, asked the vicar how he had come to know the '70s stand-up legend, famous for his frizzed hair and buck teeth, not to mention his tickle stick.

The air in the room went cold as the vicar, fixing him with a cold stare, answered: "That is a picture of my wife."

A very famous Scottish tabloid newspaper editor told me this story and swore it was true. It makes me laugh out loud every time I recall it.

The brain-freezing embarrassment that poor young hack must have felt. I thought about it when I read some of the stories last week about why the Northern Ireland Executive had failed to adopt the very sensible Defamation Bill after it was passed at Westminster.

Much of the language from politicians seems to suggest journalists spend their lives deliberately getting things wrong to make other people's lives a misery. Truth is, most of the mistakes in our business are mostly cock-up, not conspiracy.

Here's a few more. When I was a news editor on a local newspaper, I asked a trainee to conduct a telephone interview with an artist named Roger de Grey, who lived in our patch and had just been appointed president of the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London. Keep in mind this was before the internet, so prior research was a painstaking process.

Some time later, I heard the reporter apologising profusely over the phone and I could hear angry tones at the other end.

When I asked why, the journalist told me that Mr de Grey had taken umbrage that our newspaper kept asking him what he was going to do with the bear now he had got this new position.

It took me 20 minutes of probing to understand what had happened. The hapless hack had thought he was interviewing Roger De Courcey, the then semi-famous ventriloquist act who had a sweary, Cockney bear called Nookie as his act.

Imagine what the brilliant water colourist, about to take up the most high-profile role in the fine arts, thought about being mixed up with TV's New Faces talent competition winner.

And, for that matter, boggle the mind at a reporter who thought it possible a man who spent his life with his hand up a stuffed bear would be running an establishment that has Constable, Turner, Stubbs and Landseer among its past members.

Here's another. I was the editor of a newspaper that managed to run a Spot The Ball competition that left the ball in the picture. It was a graphic artist's job each week to remove the ball before the picture from a local football match was inserted in the paper.

He forgot one week. The legal wranglings involving people who were sure they had won the fridge-freezer that week went on for years.

But here's the strange thing. Three entries were wrong. I can only imagine they thought they were being lured into a fiendishly clever trap and put their cross on the other side of the picture with a knowing nod of their heads.

Want another? One of the newspapers in a group I used to belong to had to pulp an entire edition when a printer spotted a picture of the Queen opening the local agricultural show on a two-page spread. Trouble was the spread was emblazoned with a headline across the top connected to an adjacent story that read 'Windsor Cow Wins First Prize'. The animal had genuinely come from a farm near the town, but I don't think Her Majesty would have been amused.

Finally, to prove the cock-up-rather-than-conspiracy theory, here's a story I wrote when I, too, was a trainee. It brought me a call from a local English teacher who, in hysterics and to my continuing bemusement, told me he was using it in his grammar lessons. It concerned a mysterious 'silly season' case of flocks of birds falling from the sky in a small Kentish village.

'Bemused pensioner Daniel Smith watched a thrush keel over after collecting his pension in Darenth.' Spot the mistake? Took me ages, too.

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