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July, 2011

Summer holidays which cost loadsa money!!!!

Where would you draw the line in paying for kids' activities?

Parents are now dealing with the summer holiday season and with that comes the cost of having children off school.
I’m not talking about the speed at which food is hoovered up (I bought six big yoghurts and they were gone within a few hours) or the amount of extra washing. (Anyone with teenage girls will know how children dump perfectly clean clothes into a washing basket to change into the ‘appropriate’ outfit for that particular minute).

No, it’s the almost visible rubbing of hands for those businesses who rely on children and families for their income. It’s not just holidays that cost more during school holidays, it’s any type of entertainment.

It’s our modern need to continually give our kids ‘things to do, places to go, people to see’. Why is this?

When I was a kid, we went on a week’s holiday no more than 100 miles away and then I was at home day after day, week after week.


Entertainment was self-generated. Imagination was key, as were friendships.

The biggest outing was to the local corner shop with 10p to buy lots of sweets. My parents didn’t have the money for day-trips or extras which we now take for granted.
This was brought home to me this week when my son, who’s 4, desperately wanted to go to a soft play area which had moved premises to a larger site, closer to our house.
Okay, I thought, let’s go. We walked in behind a couple, probably grandparents, with two children, one in a pushchair. They were complaining about the fact that they had to pay for the baby because she was over six months.
So I looked at the price list, which frankly I hadn’t considered. At other similar sites in Swindon, you can pay per half hour, so you can control the cost and keep it within reason.


No more, the fees here were flat – so £5.95 for each of my daughters and £3.95 for my son, oh and 75p for me to take up a seat within the premises. Total cost, almost £17. That’s before buying any drinks or refreshments.

Disappointing my son, I just turned and said that it was too much money. Even if we’d gone in and I bought four drinks, we’d be looking at probably £25 for that entertainment.
As a business person, I understand that costs might need to go up but surely there needs to be some moderation. What about more flexible terms – per half hour costs for example? Or a loyalty card scheme?

As a customer, it seemed I was paying through the nose for a new venue and I employed the simplest tactic in the book – I walked out.

Even if refreshments prices had risen a little – at least that’s an expense that I choose to make. Also what extras are on offer to justify more money? Is there free internet access? An internet cafe facility?

It’s a cheek to charge parents 75p for simply taking up space within a space that was alarmingly empty anyway.

I’m afraid this business has priced itself out of the its own market. It’s only been open for a few weeks but who’s going to go there often with prices like that?

As a working mum, I know that at it’s previous location, groups of childminders would sometimes go there as a treat for their young charges. I can guarantee that they won’t go now – the cost would be far too high.


If you ever want to know what’s good value for money for entertaining children – ask your local childminders, they are experts in value for money.

Let’s hope that this small business does some serious market research around its own competitors and adjusts accordingly. Lower your prices or offer something extra and shout about it.

If it doesn’t, I give it a year at the outside.

Amy Winehouse – a mother’s view

Is a bottle of beer really a tribute to a dead addict?

Sometimes the media captures a moment in time of an element of society.

The pictures of the tributes to Amy Winehouse’s sad death this week show bottles of beer and cider placed carefully among the flowers and candles in Camden. It’s like her fans want to say ‘Cheers!’ to her as she enters the next life.

Am I alone in finding this offensive?

It’s well documented that Amy had her troubles with alcohol and drugs. But to celebrate with the very thing that caused so much of her ill health seems childish and remiss. Alcoholics eat little, as excessive drinking can cause problems long term with appetite and the ability to digest food. Amy was clearly thin, and looked ill.

Having a drink can be fun. But what I’m seeing on these images is a lack of sensitivity to her loved ones. This isn’t the end that they wanted. Plenty of people tried to help her but in the end it wasn’t enough.

I’ve seen many articles this week about the 27 club.

Other members such as Janis Joplin, Keith Richards, Kurt Cobain have caused their bodies to pack up because they haven’t known when to stop. They clearly needed help to deal with their emotional problems, yet it is their excesses that are lauded as a cool lifestyle. Live fast and die young? Behind that sentiment is so much sadness.

Amy was a highly talented song writer and singer. Isn’t that what should be celebrated?

Having a baby – BBC talk of the day

What was hospital care like when you had your little one?

Midwife care is the talk on the BBC today – which just throws up the whole issue of having a baby and the medical care that surrounds those nine months.

I’ve got three children and there’s six years between child 2 and 3 – and I found it amazing how much care had changed in those few years.



I have a medical condition which means that during the latter stages of pregnancy, I needed to be monitored constantly at the local hospital in Swindon so moved out of the GP’s care from about week 28.
Up to then I found the care to be fine, no worries at all and things went on well. In fact when I came under the care of the hospital, it just got to be a bit boring to continually be traipsing up and down to the hospital and spending three weeks trying to find a parking space. But again the care was wonderful.


Having my son was fine, the labour ward was caring and provided the one-to-one care I needed – in fact I’d go further. I had a big bleed after his birth and the team saved my life by acting instantly to sort me out. (no more babies for me then)

What was interesting was the after care this time.


I was put in a ward with one other mum, and we were told we’d been put there because we had multiple children so we could get on with it.


This was fine for most of the time but not at meal-times.
Meals were not brought around to your bed any more – you had to go into the corridor and queue up near a hot food dispenser to collect your meal.


This is fine if you can walk easily (often not the case if you’ve just had a baby) and if you are not breast-feeding.

On one occasion, as I was doing the latter, I asked the nurse to bring me my food. She agreed and turned up with my meal two hours later. It was completely inedible and that’s not funny when you’ve just had a baby. Luckily my lovely hubby, who spent every available minute with me, went out and bought me food.

Apart from that I saw no staff at all unless I went out and found them, we were left completely alone. In the end we developed a rota where we’d look after each other’s baby while the other went to the toilet, had a bath etc.

I also asked once if someone could come and remind me how to bath a new baby (it had been six years). That did happen but it took hours.


Bizarrely alongside this do-it-yourself care, the doctor who had deal with me after a traumatic bleed, came to see me each day of the four days I was in hospital to see how I was – I kept thinking that it must have been worse than I’d realised.

So for me, it wasn’t the mid-wife or the emergency care – it was the basic needs in the post-natal ward that were sadly lacking.
That was four years ago, I hope women in Swindon are receiving a more rounded care package now – especially if it’s your first baby when you just feel all at sea.

Irish travellers’ site near you – good or bad?

What would you do if Irish travellers moved in next to you....?

I’m watching a tv programme on the BBC about an Irish traveller site in Essex where residents and travellers have come to loggerheads over their encampment, much of which is illegal.


It’s clearly been going on for years and stirs up strong emotions.


I find the Irish travellers’ way of life fascinating – I don’t agree with all of it, especially their treatment of women, which for me is frankly backward. But if the women are happy with the way their lives are mapped out in that culture, well, fair enough.


I’ve encountered Irish travellers several times both privately and personally in Swindon and I’m still curious. I remember as a child in Somerset, groups of Irish travellers camping out in small coppices near our home in the traditional caravans, or wagons, with horses. I have no memory of there being any problems at all.As a journalist, I’ve encountered several impromptu encampments in Swindon and they are always, without fail, followed by complaints from residents, usually it’s claims of burglary, thieving and verbal abuse.

When I did a story about it once, a resident made lots of claims and the next day I went on to the site, with a local community police officer, to talk to the travellers.   They denied all claims and were extremely friendly. The women invited us in, we had a cup of tea and it was very chatty – I felt we really had the opportunity to tell stories from both side of the fence.


As I was leaving, several vans, trucks came across the field as the men arrived. Immediately the women went inside, shut the doors and left us with the blokes. They were very friendly and I didn’t feel intimidated at all, but felt it was a strange culture which was, and is, alien to me.

Nevertheless, their word was as valid as anyone else’s and I wrote a story rebutting residents’ claims.

The day after, the original resident I’d interviewed, called me and threatened me – he felt it was totally unreasonable that I should go and see them and ask for their side of the story. They didn’t pay taxes, they didn’t contribute, so they weren’t entitled to a right of reply or a say about anything. I’m pleased to say I (reasonably) told him that I disagreed – as did my boss at the time.


Some years later, when heavily pregnant, a group of Irish travellers moved onto wasteland at the back of the housing estate where I lived at the time. Day to day there was no problem. Nothing was stolen and we lived very close.


However there were some difficult moments. I was walking around with one child and her bike and a little boy tried to take it from her – no one came to keep him in order, he clearly thought he could have the bike and there was no parent around to make him behave.


Then one day when it was very hot, there was a huge whooshing noise – out of the back window, I saw a huge tower of water, 30ft high. On the ground, the travellers’ children were screaming and laughing. They had opened the drain and used water to fill up huge water containers and just left it. The problem was that the whole estate were on water meters so we pay for what we use – none of us wanted to pay for what someone else was using, or for what was wasted. Later that day the water company came and asphalted over the water pipe.


Sometimes we fear that which we don’t understand – as a journalist I should know that better than most. But I’m sure that with tolerance, you just have to scratch under the skin to see we’re very, very similar.

Round-up of news – no, it’s not about phone hacking!

So the hacking saga goes on with resignations and revelations galore – with all other news disappearing out of sight.
It’s a shame that everything hinges around this, even though it is important. It just feels like it completely obliterates other news.
Be aware you won’t get away from it tomorrow – Five Live is covering it all day as is BBC TV to name a few.


I’m interested but, let’s get some perspective. This story appears to be so London-centric – there’s a whole nation out there with things to say.

Here in Swindon, a young girl was buried, a girl who went off the rails through drug addiction, left her family home and years later her remains were found. A man is awaiting trial charged with her murder and that of another Swindon girl, Sian O’Callaghan. I doubt the phone-hacking means much to these two devastated families.
There’s also some good news about you know – in Wiltshire RAF Lyneham is going to be give a new lease of life. The little town of Lyneham was poised for devastation as that magnificent air base was due to close.


It’s a place with many great memories for me – I was lucky enough to be one of many journalists who covered the return of hostages Jacky Mann and Terry Waite to this airbase. I also went up in a Hercules once which circled over Bath, opening the doors so we could take fantastic pictures of the city from the air.


But I bear in mind that other areas on the UK have not been granted this type of reprieve and will see bases near them close. Often the effect of such closures is so overlooked – local economies can literally die overnight.


We’ve raised more than £20m as a nation for the crisis in Africa – astonishing given the economic climate but it shows that many people really do care.

But as for charities, a curious thing happened to me today.


I had a call from a lady representing a national charity, Sue Ryder, reminding me that I’d given a bag of clothes to their shop in Swindon. It was true, several months ago.


Why did I choose that shop? I gave the answer. A couple of other questions – the woman then entered this long spiel about what the charity does and would I consider giving £15 a month?


I said no, I didn’t like cold-calling, I would make my own choices about what charities to support and not to ring again.


I even said I was a journalist and didn’t appreciate being misled with the suggestion this was some sort of survey – when in fact it was a pushy sales call.
But this woman was not daunted, she said if I was strapped for cash, I could put off a donation for a couple of months and could give just £8 a month. I repeated my previous comments.


I told her I had been polite but was now going to end the call – whereupon she spoke really fast giving the name of the private company she worked for which would earn about £72,000 for doing these cold calls but the charity would raise hopefully around £190,000 from this sales push.



Times are tough for charities – but that one call alone put me off this charity – it plays on people’s sympathy and pins them down.

Don’t make me feel obliged, don’t cold call me and never continue the sales pitch

We've raised millions for needy in Africa so far....

when I’ve clearly said I’m not interested.

I do give, I will give and I have given but in my own time, at my own pace, when I feel I want to and can afford to.

A new charity shop has opened in Swindon raising money for children whose families need respite care. Guess where my next charity bag will be going?

Television journalists have to jump through hoops to tell simple stories

Thank goodness we can reveal wrongdoing...

As I listen to the latest on the phone-hacking scandal, the select committee, the investigation by a judge and so on – I reflect on the hoops us journalists who work in television have to go through to tell the simplest of stories.


I’m not complaining but when working in television, every word of a script is scrutinised.


Only today, I’ve started script-writing for a half-hour programme about a mental health condition. Some interviewees will be talking anonymously as they don’t want everyone to know about their problems.

Many people feel that they want to speak out – but the high profile nature of television is such that they fear ridicule, they fear exposure, they fear prejudice. So sometimes we agree to conceal identity, even if legally we don’t have to (such as with victims of sexual assault). Having done that we still have to jump through legal hoops.

For example, a person criticises his local health authority for what he perceives is a lack of treatment made available to him to deal with a mental health condition This man will not be named – and his local health authority will not be named. The only thing the viewer will know is that this is a man and he comes from an area within the UK. That’s it.


But I still have to put his criticisms to the relevant health authority, give that health authority a right of reply, even though I will probably not name that health authority. 

If that health authority gives us a statement I’ll have to consider, with a lawyer, what I should use in the script. If that health authority insisted on a filmed interview, we’d have to seriously consider that demand. It’s possible that we’d have to do it, even though that would throw a spanner  in the schedule.


As we hear stories about the seemingly out-of-control practices at a national newspaper some years ago (not now) and suspicions that other publications indulged – to the detriment of individuals – we in television spend hours ensuring a right of reply for organisations which are not going to be even named.

However as I watched new Cowboy Builders tonight, I’m thrilled that we can do programmes like this. We can expose people who wreck the lives of others, quite literally. I love seeing the passion of Dominic Littlewood in hunting down those who are cowboys in construction.


I know that he’s got people helping him with that. But I’ve worked with him in the past and I know that his anger is quite genuine. He really does care. I also know about the kind of scrutiny that will go on behind the scenes and the amount of hoops which had to be jumped through to even get him on the road after those cowboy builders.


Please don’t assume that we journalists are out there, writing what we like, using illegal methods to bring things into the public arena. It’s simply not true.




Phone-hacking is not the only news in the world

I cannot help but write about the phone-hacking scandal which continues to rumble on – it’s there in the background for most people but for journalists it’s still the main topic of conversation.


As I’ve intimated previously that’s because we’re feeling that we’re all being tarred with the same brush as the few who either broke the law, or who got others to do it for them, in pursuit of a big story and the subsequent big bucks.


Some have raised eyebrows that an editor cannot know what his/her journalists are doing? But it’s possible, especially if you are not asking too many questions and your budget is so big that

Journalists can tell good stories without breaking the law

invoices adding up to £100k don’t register.

For most of us in the regional world of journalism that doesn’t happen. Money is so tight that such a spend would stick out like a sore thumb.
Another issue that’s worthy of consideration is the suggestion that police officers in the Met (and possibly elsewhere) may have taken money from journalists.
It’s amazing how many people think that journalists carry around a chequebook from their employer to wave around at potential interviewees.
Such a practice may be common place for national journalists but I’ve not come across it in local settings or even national television.
The only things I’ve ever paid for are as follows: travelling expenses, child care costs, loss of earnings which can be proved, payment of a telephone bill for a low income family where we needed regular contact over number of months, occasional donation to charity for use of facilities, occasional location fees for businesses.


When working on an antiques programme a few years ago I used to pay cash to traders/stall holders to use their space for a period of filming if it was going to disrupt business for more than ten minutes.

I’ve been asked for money many, many times by possible interviewees and have said no. As journalists we’re not allowed to pay anyone with criminal convictions, and I’d never dream of giving cash to a police officer. I may be naive, even after 20 years, but I’ve always been suspicious of anyone who’s first thought is to ask for money.


There are still many, many good people out there who tell their personal stories in order to spread the word, heighten public awareness alongside my need to make a good tv programme. Indeed, people will often take days off work just to take part in filming and never ask for a penny.

Tomorrow I’m filming with a family where the father suffers from severe OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Mum is taking a day off work to be with us (something we did not request). This is a sign of how important this family feels it is to highlight the issues around this mental disorder.
However this phone-hacking saga develops in the next days and weeks – remember this, there are good people around with relevant stories to tell and share.

Phone hacking – a journalist’s view.

when is it right to conduct secret recording?

Phone hacking – it’s inevitable that I need to talk about this, being a journalist.


Have I ever hacked anyone’s phone? No.


Have I ever been aware of any other journalist doing so? No.


Would I do it? No, it’s illegal.


Would I even know how to do it? No.


Could I get someone to do it on my behalf ? Probably.


The whole News of the World mess is gradually revealing the lengths some will go to to get that so-called big story and earn the big bucks. This kind of journalism has never interested me. I can’t be bothered with the ‘who’s sleeping with you’ stories.


I should say that I have worked, and still do, work on local newspapers and publications.


No, I’ve never worked on a national newspaper. Is it a different animal to a local newspaper? In some respects, yes. Those who work on those newspapers certainly believe so.


Did the editor at the time know all of this was happening? Maybe.


Should she/he take the rap? Yes.


That’s the responsibility one takes when one takes that job on, enjoying the rather large salary at the same time.


Editors fall into two categories – one who is remote and who’s office may be floors away from the newsroom and one who is hands-on and who lives in the newsroom. Both behaviours have merits – being distant doesn’t necessarily mean they are not savvy about what’s going on.


Having worked in a newsroom, this is how it usually goes. At least once a day, there’ll be a news conference where the day’s or week’s stories will be discussed. Not all reporters will attend this meeting.


Usually the editor, news editor, deputy news editor and maybe a chief reporter. So if an editor says to his/her news editor ‘what’s on today/tomorrow?” that person will answer. An editor might then say ‘where did that story come from?’ and a news editor might answer ‘oh, from reliable sources’. What do you say then as an editor?


Do you trust your senior team? Or do you question them further? Where does trust begin and end in the workplace?



What I’m saying is that it’s possible that an editor didn’t know what was going on and didn’t spot the signs that something was fishy. However that’s not the point. The point is that this is where the buck stops. Blame who you like, as the editor you should take the hit.

If you’re wondering what rules newspaper journalists adhere to – well, look at our ‘We Love’ section and you’ll find out.


However in broadcast journalism it’s different – not only do these journalists have to obey the law, they also have to follow the Ofcom Code of Conduct and that absolutely prohibits phone hacking, or even any kind of secret recording which is known as ‘fishing’ – recording stuff just on the off-chance that you’ll come across a good story.

I’ve secretly recorded material, both sound and pictures, and I’ve never regretted doing it.

As a journalist who’s been involved in many investigative projects, it’s sometimes necessary.


However, in television, if you want to secretly record, say, a telephone conversation, you have to fulfil strict criteria to get permission to do so.


That process involves outlining a case which must be put before a lawyer and the most senior executive in the building at the time.


You should not randomly record any telephone conversation you want with the intention of putting it on air.


You need to persuade the lawyer and executive that there is a high chance that by doing so you’ll get information that you couldn’t get in any other way.

If you’ve got that permission and you go ahead with the secret recording, you then have to go through a further process to use that material. You have to show that the material obtained ‘adds’ something to the film/broadcast that you wouldn’t have got by being upfront.

I have got permission for the former and then not been able to use the material on air – it’s never seen the light of day. So the case was made to record, but what was recorded on the day, didn’t fulfil expectation and therefore couldn’t be used.

But I accept the checks and balances that restrict those of us who work in radio and television.

I know how damaging these things can be if you get it wrong, so you must do all that you can to get it right, tell the truth and expose wrongdoing – when in the public interest.

Sometimes that kind of journalism exposes real problems which need to be revealed – think Panorama and the home for vulnerable adults in South Gloucestershire. Think of the whole pthalidamide story years ago.

Good and important things can be exposed by excellent journalism.

It bears no relation to anything that’s being revealed at the moment about the practices by certain individuals associated with News of the World.

Repatriation of lost soldiers – Wootton Bassett effect

lily in foreground

Should the repatriations go through Oxfordshire streets?

Last week on Facebook, I received a notice on my wall from a police officer (friend of a friend) that when the repatriations of lost soldiers moves from RAF Lyneham to nearby RAF Brize Norton – a conscious decision had been made to avoid public displays of support.


Here in Wiltshire, we’ve grown very proud of the many people who live in, or who visit Wootton Bassett and who give up their time and energy to line the route that the hearses take and pay their respects to soldiers who’ve died in overseas conflicts.


It’s a scene that’s very familiar now, almost on occasion, becoming so common it could, by some, be seen to be mundane. Try going along just once though and you’ll know that it’s incredibly moving.

But this message claimed that the relevant government minister announced that there had been a deliberate decision to avoid built-up areas so that the kind of scenes at Wootton Bassett couldn’t be repeated. I thought this could not be true, even though he cited a time and place where this sentiment was uttered.

After all, what is wrong with this practice?


It was a spontaneous act by people and must offer some solace to bereaved families. Having been recently bereaved myself, it’s so important to know that your loved one matters – that your loss is acknowledged, and honoured, even if it’s just for a few short moments before normal life goes on for everyone else.

People do want the opportunity to honour fallen soldiers. It’s not about whether or not any particular conflict is right or wrong. It’s about appreciating their sacrifice. If you’re in any doubt about that, look at the astonishing success of Help For Heroes – a charity which has purposely avoided any political connections for that very reason.


But of course this couldn’t be true could it? Tonight, the local news ran a little bit of a debate in the House of Commons, where an MP Paul Flynn raised the issue, disgusted that people in Oxfordshire were being denied the opportunity to pay their respects like those who live in and around Wootton Bassett.


To my astonishment Wiltshire MP James Gray stood up and said that it might not be a good idea for Oxfordshire to be subject to the ‘Wootton Bassett’ effect! What? How so? Surely that’s up to the people of Oxfordshire, not up to politicians?

I appreciate that we just saw a snapshot of that debate so I did not hear what he may have said to qualify his comments.

It may well be that people in Oxfordshire would not line the streets as hearses go through, maybe they would,  but to deny them any opportunity to do so – is that right?

Does this practice of honouring the dead represent some kind of threat? Is it costing extra money? Is it taking too long for each event? What is the bigger picture here that this practice is being gently, but apparently carefully, put to bed?

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