Belfast Telegraph

Of words that wound and dodgy expense accounts

By Paul Connolly

Leafing through the pages of the paper last week, it's very easy to forget how small a place Northern Ireland is.

Sure, we can be incredibly insular. For 30 years, Northern Ireland was a big international story and I guess we got bit used to all the attention.

Vicious and nasty as our Troubles were, they're no match for the mass killings and near-genocide which passes for terrorism in much of the world these days.

But, even though the main wave of political violence here has ebbed, Northern Ireland is still a very newsy place. The UK's population is now 64.1 million souls and our 1.81 million represents some 2.8% of the total.

But we do make a lot of noise and accumulate more than our fair share of headlines. And it's not just Troubles-related stuff.

There were great local debates to be had last week about fracking, animal cruelty, offshore wind farms and the funding of the arts, to name but a few. And Spotlight's insightful investigation of MLAs' expenses proves, yet again, the key role of the media in a place that has no official Opposition.

The Gregory Campbell and Gerry Adams' controversies presented editors with a local dilemma. And I don't just mean the now-famous use of the B-word by Mr Adams.

It's one of those sectarian rows that can be maddeningly embarrassing if you hail from Northern Ireland and find yourselves having to explain it to a visitor. "Curry my yoghurt", "toilet paper", "break these b*******".

The glee with which some still love to stick it to the other side after all these years should give editors time to pause and think. Yes, of course, they have to be reported. But is there enough context there, is there enough hard probing of the use of language and its tribal impact?

It's just a thought; there are no easy answers, just a continual need to analyse and contextualise.

Not, of course, that the Augean stables of the media don't require a good clear-out from time to time.

Scholars will know the cleaning of the king's cattle shed was the Fifth Labour of Hercules. Old Herc sorted it by diverting two rivers to wash out the filth.

Well, it looks like similar tidal waves are exposing the last vestiges of anarchic malpractice at the London tabloids, as various civil and criminal cases progress through the courts.

To me, they are a great reminder of three things: firstly, how the showbiz culture has debased red-tops, what a fun, if insecure, place national newspapers often were to work and also how chaotically run big newspapers can sometimes be.

This being Fleet Street, there are plenty of lighter moments and some of the merriment centres on reporters' expenses.

Regional journalists used to love being entertained by fantastical tales of Fleet Street expenses. All of which will come to an end now, of course.

Before they disappear, let me leave you with one for posterity. It concerned a reporter who had been in Northern Ireland in the early 70s and submitted on his return a tattered pile of "receipts". An eager new accountant spotted a deficit of £65 and demanded the paperwork.

The reporter said his car had got stuck in Bandit Country at midnight and he'd paid an exorbitant fee to hire a tractor.

In the field, the farmer had then demanded an extra payment for rope to pull the car out. Helpless and in peril, he had no choice.

Attached to the reporter's new expenses submission was a creaseless receipt:

Hire of tractor: £60

Money for old rope: £5

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com @BelTelReaderEd

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