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June, 2011

Road users who drive me mad!

This morning as I drove down a dual carriage way in Swindon – a cyclist, making his way out of town on the other side of the road, crossed the very wide green verge and then crossed in front of two lines of cars on my side of the road.

Luckily there were roadworks and all the cars were moving slowly so his U-turn was not that dangerous.

But it was annoying.


Annoying because within metres of this dual carriageway on both sides is a dedicated cycle path. There is no where on that stretch of road that could not be reached by this cycle path.


It was the second day in a row that I had to avoid a mad cyclist when a cycle path was a mere two seconds away.

Both of these road users were cyclists in all the gear – aero-dynamically shaped helmet, lycra body suits, lightweight shoes. Does this mean that they feel they are a cut above the cycle paths – which let’s face it are suitable for all of those on bikes?

I’m not against cyclists per se – as a family we do go out cycling but we do avoid traffic and roads as much as we can. This is easy to do in Swindon which has been designed with the cyclist and pedestrian in mind. Places are easy to get to via road, cycle and on foot.

It infuriates me when cyclists fanny about on the main roads when there’s a safer and better alternative nearby.



However there’s a breed a road-user that annoys me even more. It’s the mum (or dad) who parks as close to his/her child’s school as possible regardless of whether it’s safe or not. Often not.



This is a problem I encounter every day. I was brought up across the road from a infants school so I know about inconsiderate parking. But at my children’s school in Swindon, this lack of care has reached epic proportions. I’m not being santimonious – I drive my children to school but I always think about where I park – am I blocking someone in? Is this a safe place to park?

I’ve even had words with a resident who didn’t want me to park in her street, even though I was perfectly legal to do so and was not blocking anyone. She just didn’t want the likes of me (annoying parent dropping child at school) near her house. Well, she chose to live there, so get used to it.

However I do hate the  ‘mad mums’ syndrome. The aim is to choose the worst parking position possible and cause maximum havoc. The minimum standard is to park across a resident’s drive. The best strategy is to park on a corner of a road, blocking every other vehicle’s view or to park on the pavement next to the school and then doing a three-point turn from that position.

In spite of increasingly angry letters home from the headteacher, it’s a losing battle. In the last letter it was as close to a tantrum as you could get in a letter. I’m not surprised as children’s safety is at risk on a daily basis. Many (though not all) of these drivers are young (under 30) and often seem to think they have a right to park in the most dangerous way.

picture of a car, side view with one wheel showing

Just how much disruption can you cause when parking near a school?

So I’d welcome some creative suggestions as to how to shame these drivers into being safe – without breaking the law of course!

Judge issues warning about Twitter

It seems timely that my blog post about Twitter and court proceedings came up in the news today (June 7). The BBC was reporting this morning that a judge has warned people that if they Twitter inappropriately from his court room and information gets out that should not – he will take action under contempt of court.


This should be taken seriously by anyone tempted to Twitter in court. Contempt of court is a crime and can be punished by imprisonment, though this is rare. All journalists learn about contempt and, believe me, it can be hugely damaging to be involved in such action. Read my blog post about it. child putting finger in front of face as if to say ssshhhh

Sooner or later, someone, somewhere will be the human face of this potential problem……

Are you having a twitter? Even when in court?

There’s been much debate in media circles about the growing use of Twitter in court rooms.



Attending court, especially if it’s a high profile case, is interesting and bizarrely exciting. So it’s not surprising that people involved might want to send messages out there to talk about what’s going on.

When I give talks about working in the media, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is – what interesting court cases have you attended? Any murders? The answers are ‘loads’ and ‘yes’.



Clearly I’m a huge social media fan and I like Twitter and Facebook and talking online – but one does have to be careful.


Journalists in court will hear many, many things that they are legally not allowed to be made public – sometimes things which are so harrowing that they don’t want to make it public.
I know this was true in the Fred & Rosemary West case as a close friend of mine covered this story from beginning to end. Journalists came together to make a conscious decision not to report on some very distressing details even when they were allowed to do so.
Reporting legally from a court in the UK requires specialist knowledge and training in how courts work and what can and cannot be said.


In my experience, good journalists will have more detailed knowledge of this than the occasional barrister/solicitor. I have had a stand-up row with at least one barrister about my freedom to attend a hearing in a family court – I won.
Qualified journalists know this stuff and, if they are unsure about any part of a process, they know who to ask.
Being in contempt of court is no small matter. It can lead to imprisonment and could cause a case to collapse altogether.


But Twitter almost allows us to become ‘citizen journalists’ and even lawyers like to have a Tweet.


These days with far fewer journalists in employment, quite often there won’t be a reporter in court so anyone can technically ‘have a go’.

Now being a journalist is not rocket science, we don’t have special rights, we are simply representatives of the public.


But courts are a special case. Some people involved are protected eg. Rape victims, children, those under witness protection, victims of blackmail. These names are often read out in court and put on the charge sheet – but journalists cannot make them public. Would you know that?
Court orders are often put in place in a case (involving children for example) at a preliminary hearing, but if you go along to a court case in the public gallery for a full hearing later on, you might not know this.


Ignorance is no defence – but who would think of checking what court orders are in force if they are not journalists? Would you know where to look for a list of relevant court orders or who to ask?

And if a lawyer says ‘bear in mind there’s a Section 39 order in place for this defendant/witness’ , how many people know what that means? (must not name child, give address or school).
I’m not saying that use of Twitter in court rooms should be banned, I could never say that  – I’m just saying be very careful.
Judges are more and more aware of social media risks around court cases now. They will warn jurors not to discuss details of a case and include social media sites within their warning. But this will not extend to the public gallery, where people may come and go all of the time.
Some commentators on the media industry believe that the use of Twitter around court proceedings will lead to live TV coverage. In some ways such explicit exposure could be seen to be good in terms of punishment for a guilty defendant, in others it’s even more harrowing for vulnerable witnesses or for those who are later found to be innocent.


The key message is this – be careful, be balanced and use common sense. It’s not in anyone’s interest for a court case to collapse because of a Tweet or two. 

image of black bird with red face walking with something in beak

Having a twitter in court could cost you dear.....


The press are only interested in bad news……

This is a mantra I hear frequently when people talk about the traditional media and it always shows me how little we consider where news comes from.


News comes from human beings who are doing things – journalists have no magic wands, their job is not rocket science, it’s about dealing with and spreading information – and that’s all.


It’s so easy to blame things on the ‘press’ or increasingly on ‘social media’ as a convenient get-out clause without considering how news gets to us journalists.


The truth is bad news reaches the public domain very quickly in the UK and it’s easily accessible.

Often a bad news story will involve a public body at some point – public bodies are publicly accountable, spending our money and they have to be seen to be doing their job. So bad news comes via the police, the ambulance service, the local authority, industrial tribunals, courts, etc etc.


Bad news is also quite unusual and that can make it appealing. If you look at a newspaper, for example, how many of the lead stories are negative rather than positive?

Good news is much harder to sell because it’s so commonplace. There are good news stories all around us. Did someone smile at you today? Were babies born at the local hospital today? Was it someone’s birthday today? Do you expect all of these ‘good news’ stories to make headlines? The truth is a lot of good news is so common in any village, town or city that it’s mundane. You cannot full a newspaper with stories about people’s birthdays – who would read it?


So if you are building a brand, publicizing an event, you have to make it stand out from the crowd, make it easy for the journalist to use your story and trust the information. Like anything else it needs to be packaged correctly to have a chance of making it out there.


That involves not only the story but timing – if it’s a slow news day you might stand a better chance of publicity. Timing is as important as anything else. We can’t control what goes on in the world on any given day  but we can play the odds – it’s likely that a local newspaper will not have a big news story every day of the week. And with social media, get the news out there, several times if necessary.


cafe in Ireland with words 'come on in, the kettle's on the boil'

Why do the press seem to like 'bad news'?

Tip: There are no guarantees with PR – it’s about playing the odds, knowing the individuals, hitting the right note at the right time and acting quickly when opportunities arise.

Good news stories that stay with you – especially if you’re a bit soppy!

Some good news stories just stand out for a journalist – think unusual, heart-rending, human interest and ‘slow time of year’.

Coffee and networking

Coffee and networking

One I always remember, for me, showed the absolute key importance of contacts. In business speak, networking.

I was short of stories, as it was December, so I started calling my favourite contacts asking if they had anything for me. Most said no, but remember IT ONLY TAKES ONE TO SAY YES!


One was a man in Swindon who ran a credit union (brilliant organisations by the way). He said he didn’t have much but did have a woman who’d just borrowed £500 for Christmas as she was to meet her son for the first time in 50 years.

Unsurprisingly my ears pricked up and I asked if he would pass on my details. I then bit my nails for a day or two hoping that this woman would contact me.
She did.
I went round to meet this lady who told me her incredible story. She’d been married during the war and had a son. But her marriage had failed and her husband had taken her son to South Africa with him, without her permission. She knew her son was with her estranged husband but she had no idea what she could do about it. So she’d lived with it.
What she didn’t know was that her estranged husband had told the toddler that his mum was dead – killed towards the end of the war and he grew up believing that to be the truth.

It was only at the funeral of his father that he talked to visiting relatives who said ‘no, that’s not right, she lives in Swindon’.

When I popped up onto the scene, the son was coming to Swindon just before Christmas to meet his mother, a visit being paid for by a South African glossy magazine.

We ran the story, front page lead. It was just a heart-warming, good news story. Before I knew it, every national journalist was phoning me, lifting my copy and using it, buying our pictures. It’s known as the snowball effect.

All were trying to contact this woman – whose personal details I did not share with any third party without her permission.
The day of the reunion came. The photographer and I headed off to Heathrow at silly o’clock to be there where we met up with the woman waiting for her long-lost son. No one else would be stupid enough to be there at this time surely…
How wrong was I! There were about 100 other journalists, tv crews from the south west etc. Once they identified that I’d broken the story, they were over me like a rash. Could they have copies of my story etc etc. Quite enjoyed it, I have to say.
When the reunion took place, minders from the South African magazine rushed the son through trying to keep us awful UK journalists away.


But this was my story – or the Swindon end of it any way. So when the car came I pushed my way into the driver’s seat and got a comment out of the son – the only journo to do so.

Once the South African exclusive interview was done – I went around for a proper chat to find out more from this father and son. Just one of those stories which warmed the soul. I’ve often hoped since that this mother and son were able to make up for lost time.. Ahhhh.


Tip: you just don’t know when something small will catch the imagination of others, so when it does, be ready and capitalise upon it.

TV journalist mobbed by workers from online credit broker

I’m sure many of you will have heard of the sub-prime market in financial services…


It’s a rather fancy name for something which is very well-known to journalists especially those with an interest in consumer matters.
Companies operating in this part of the market lend to people who are often in debt, high risk and generally, in financial hardship.
We’ve all seen the growth of high street shops offering short-term loans for small amounts at huge rates of interest.
I’m not suggesting that these are operating against the law in any way. What you see is what you get.
However, this market is full of vulnerable people who are often desperate to find money to pay off  debts. So it’s a booming business for unscrupulous companies and loan sharks who prey on those who are in need.
The Office of Fair Trading is trying to clamp down on bad practice but it will, as usual, take an age. The OFT has recently been dealing with a ‘super-complaint’ from the Citizens Advice Bureau about this type of company.
One of the areas where the bad companies operate is online – offering to secure loan agreements for people who are high risk. They contact these people, often through cold calling, and can take an upfront free in return for ‘introducing’ them to a lender.


However, after taking the money, the customer can find that what was promised is not forthcoming. A loan is either not available or is available at a much higher interest rate. Getting that upfront fee back when you’ve got no loan, can be impossible. At best you might wait up to a year for a refund.

Many of us might think well it’s only £50 – but for someone who is in desperate need that £50 might be their last, might be their tiny bit of savings, might be their household budget for the month.
I encountered one of these companies based in South Wales and, worryingly, it was attached to yet another company which dealt with debt management.


So you might pay your £50 in the hope of a loan and then be contacted by a sister company offering to manage your debts. But guess what? That involves a fee too – often much higher. Let’s say the whole of a first month’s payment to creditors plus a cut of later payments.
Doing a story on this particular company – which had received previous bad publicity – I filmed exterior shots of its premises on an industrial estate.


While getting those shots, the bosses of this company came out, with all of the staff, at least 100 and surrounded us.

As luck would have it, a colleague was hidden from view behind a car and was able to stand by to get help if things got nasty.
It was an unexpected turn of events, we’d been turned down for formal interview and tour of premises. I got the impression that those behind the company wanted to intimidate us and for a moment it worked.
But given that we were not trespassing on their premises, we were on a public road and we kept the camera rolling – well it did make for good tv.
There was lots of shouting (you are picking on us, we could lose our jobs) but I did manage to mention those hundreds, perhaps thousands, of customers they’d been happy to take money from but who’d got nothing in return.
For balance, I also interviewed two or three members of staff about the work that they did – we help people, we have many satisfied customers, they said.
There were some uncomfortable facts about this company – it was being investigated by the OFT, its former boss had a chequered business past and had been banned as a company director for ten years over previous business dealings and it did use aggressive sales tactics. Several customers had told us about those tactics.
Would I do that story again, given that I know that the bosses were prepared to intimidate? Too right I would.


What would I have done if I’d been the boss of that particular company? Would I have got my staff to come out en masse and surround a tv crew when I’d previously turned down the opportunity of an interview? How did that make my company look? What did that say about my brand? Would I care?

Either way the publicity was hardly going to be positive. What would you have done?

Do you ever feel like the worst working mum ever?

picture of two sisters

how to do the best for your children and for your business...

Do you ever feel like I do?

As we get into June, this is one of the worst months in the year for the self-employed working mum. I get tired just thinking about it. With three kids, I’ve got three sports days, one induction evening at secondary school, end of year productions and the list goes on.

As a volunteer for a local pre-school, I also have to attend two day-long courses on safeguarding and screening of staff.
Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day or days in the week.

The thing about being self-employed is that it’s so hard to turn down work in case next month, it’s not there!

Take sports day for my four-year-old. I really want to go – but on the day it’s scheduled I’m taking a course for the pre school which my four-year-old attends. They say they’ll rearrange. Great – the suggested date is another day when I’m attending a course for the pre-school. How many times can they re-arrange for just one mum?
One of my kids is about to start secondary school – this will now involve catching buses, travelling some distance. It’s a big change – I know, as I remember it all too well myself.
There’s an evening meeting, 5pm at the school to discuss this big change in her life. Guess what, it’s the day I start making a documentary for a large broadcaster 75 miles away. It’s a 20-day contract to a deadline for transmission, so it cannot be flexible. So on my first day, I will have to leave very early in order to make this meeting, and even then I could be late. I feel like I’ll end up letting everyone down.
Schools have this habit of working to their shorter days, and not considering the needs of parents who don’t work those hours. I’m not saying for a minute that teachers don’t work hard – I trained as one so I know – but their days of delivering that work are short.
Childcare has always been great for me as I have a brilliant child minder but there are just some things where you want to be there – and where your child expects it.

I have so much respect for mums who are working and who are single. The only reason I don’t let my kids down more often is because I’ve got a partner who will do his share. But he also works hard and often cannot make things ‘fit’.

Some of you will say, well don’t work then – and I say, I have to for financial reasons and also I want to.

I took some considerable time off when I had my last child and at the end of that year, I turned into some kind of embittered, twisted creature who couldn’t bear the sight of any more housework, washing, school runs, trips out for coffee….argghhh! Some people just have to have something else in their lives and I’m one of them. But there are many, many times when I wish I wasn’t.

New TV brand in the making?

Wow. Did anyone watch the BBC programme on Monday May 30 called the Lost Cities of Egypt?

As an avid tv, film and book buff, you’ll get a lot of this type of writing from me. This programme is worth finding if you are interested in history and/or science.

Two years ago I heard a whisper of this programme as a result of the work I was doing at that time. I thought then that it sounded fabulous. But I then forgot about it. But when I saw it advertised I knew this was one to watch.
For those who didn’t see it – it followed the work of an archaeologist who was using satellites to get images of the earth from space to see what might be hidden underground.
She’s identified more than 1,000 possible new sites of pyramids/tombs in Egypt and the programme charted her attempts to get her work recognized and acted upon.

There were low points and high points – some very high points. At the end, an archaeologist in Egypt appeared to be at the point of unearthing a huge new burial site thanks to this scientist’s work. We could see what could be the top of two new pyramids.

The concept seems so obvious if you think about it for a moment – we use satellites for looking at our life on the earth’s surface all of the time. So it’s logical that technology would allow us to look under the ground, seeing from the air what cannot be seen close up.
I’m desperate for a follow-up in the future to see if what happened to that site. It was a programme that left me wanting to know more – always the sign of a good project.

Also think about it for a moment – the Lost Cities of Egypt could become the Lost Towns of Wales or the Lost Monuments of Stonehenge and so on. This could so easily become a brand using the satellite imagery as the basis of a number of programmes going forward.

Or will we see a brand like Time Team picking up on the new technology and applying it to the three-day digs.
I think the BBC has a limited time to make this their own brand – and I suspect the company is already working on the next programme.

My only tip for them would be – one presenter per programme otherwise it just feels too crowded and that can be very irritating.

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