Today I want to talk about some of the things journalists are asked to when they approach organisations for an interview – particularly when that interview might be difficult.
This might be a business which is facing some kind of legal action, industrial tribunal or a local authority involved in an investigation, a school involved in a court case. It could involve a news interview, a sit-down interview for a longer programme or a fly-on-the-wall or ‘reality’ type programme.
Most businesses will feel uplifted by such a request and would tend to look at reasons ‘to do’ it, sometimes without asking the correct questions about the project.
Many organisations, or public service bodies, would often look for the reasons ‘not to do’ something, considering in much detail the possible risks or pitfalls.
Excuses to avoid being interviewed are often not pretty
Both approaches need modifying – a business could do damage to itself by not considering the messaging, however a public body could miss out on a valuable opportunity by not engaging.
So what are the top three excuses might a journalist be given for not giving an interview?
The first and most common when there is some kind of legal action is ‘it’s subjudice’ ie. it could prejudice a court case to do it. This can be a very good reason but journalists are also subject to the same laws around contempt of court so they do know what this means. Don’t use this as an excuse – journalists see through it. Be clear about the law for a journalist – subjudice in a criminal case starts technically when a person is arrested though in practice it’s when a person is charged. When that point is reached, the Magistrates Courts Act comes into effect to which all are subject. In a civil case, however, proceedings are active (subjudice comes into play) when a date for a hearing is set. This might be very late in the day, many months after the issue has arisen. Don’t try to baffle a journalist using this excuse.
The second request is ‘we’re interested but we want editorial control’. I’ve heard that many, many times. Understand this – YOU WILL NEVER GET IT. We have a free press in this country, that’s what makes PR so powerful. You cannot have editorial control over what a journalist does when they are writing for a third party publication as a contributor. Editorial control means I write, record or film an interview, let you see it, allow you to change anything you don’t like, and then it goes out. Not only is that time consuming – is that really what you want? Do you want to see a programme about, for example, MPs expenses where the MPs have ‘editorial control’?
If you’ve ever employed a PR consultant or company – they should clearly state that coverage isn’t guaranteed – and that’s because it is independent and therefore more credible.
A third and final one is – ‘it isn’t our fault, it’s their’s’ – this is often used when partnerships between organisations falls down. For example, a local authority and a building company hoping to build homes on a new site, it fails and the work is not done as originally intended. The local authority blames the housebuilder. The housebuilder blames the recession. Remember this, if your organisation is associated with a project – even if it’s not your fault that it failed – the perception will be that you are involved. Blaming another organisation won’t work. You will have to contribute to demonstrate what’s gone wrong – or people will assume you’ve done something wrong/don’t care/have something to hide.
When you have done something wrong – admit it, say sorry and outline what you’ve done to sort it out.
Just felt the need today to blog about the whole discussion over sexual harassment in the light of the latest debate surrounding a particular politician.
I’ve faced up to sexual harassment – but did I do it the right way or not?
I listened to a discussion on a weekly political show, on a weekend discussion programme where the issue was discussed in some detail. It’s a mixture of women, men, power, control and sexual desire. A variation on the whole theme of the ‘casting couch’, ‘men in power’ etc etc.
It made me reflect on more than 20 years working in various areas of the media and the times I’d encountered such practices. Which have been few, I should hasten to add. There is no part of the media where I’ve thought ‘can’t work there too many men with wandering hands’.
However there have been a small number of occasions where the behaviour of some men, and women, have surprised me. I won’t say shocked as it takes a lot to shock me.
Please bear in mind, I’m not talking about inappropriate flings or relationships here – I’m talking about moments or revelations which happen and which completely blindside you.
I should set a context – I’m a naturally tactile person, many journalists are, I’ve noticed. I will often touch someone while talking to them, it’s part of my natural body language I suppose. I can be flirtatious but I have a line which cannot be crossed. That is where healthy contact and banter becomes something overtly sexual, makes me feel uncomfortable or seedy. But I’m good at making it clear when that line has been crossed.
I can think of several occasions both professionally and personally where my outgoing personality has led others to think I’m romantically interested in them. I have had to have several difficult conversations about the feelings not being returned, reminders about the fact that I’m married and I take that seriously, and, in some cases, friendships and connections have remained intact. I had these conversations when I was single and when married.
Occasionally however, none of the above apply and here are three incidents I’d like to share.
What do you do when, as a very young green journalist, an older journalist who is always friendly suddenly thinks it’s okay to touch you inappropriately? In this case, it was a man in his 50s, probably, who thought it was okay to stroke the back of my neck. Not abusive but creepy to me.
When it happened the first time, I let it go. The next time, I told him not to touch me again. I have no memory of his response. I think he beat a hasty retreat.
I did tell my boss at the time but I was postively encouraged to take it no further. After all, nothing had really happened. I was told that the person would be ‘told’ about it. Must’ve worked, it didn’t happen again. I just hope it didn’t happen to anyone else.
Another time was personal. A man known to me, retired and someone I saw relatively often, pinned me against a doorframe in his house and tried to snog me. A whole tongue down the throat affair while his wife was in another room. I was a teenager.
It was completely vile and even now, I can recall the feeling of disgust.
Again I told the man, who was in a senior position within his community, to ‘never touch me again or I’ll tell your wife’. Seemed to work.
But I’ve always wondered if he ever did it to anyone else….I also spoke up about it at home but I think it took a long time for my parents to believe it had happened. I know for sure, that my natural revulsion and pushing him away, may have stopped things being much worse.
The other incident I recall was far more recent – within the last five years. I was working alongside someone I’d known for a long time but had not worked directly with and we were in a small room together, we had to be for the job we were doing at the time.
A discussion was taking place which had got around to families and relationships. Nothing unusual in that. Then he asked me a question which really threw me – he asked ‘if I liked three-in-a-bed relationships?’
I looked at him and I think my reply was something bland like ‘I’m a one-man woman me’ and tried to forget it.
The context didn’t set up a question like that and I immediately knew this could all go horribly wrong. I also felt I didn’t want to work with him again straightaway. I did, however, finish that task and nothing happened. I never worked with him again.
I didn’t ever complain about this inappropriate moment. But I find myself asking the same question yet again – did it happen to anyone else and was it even worse?
My conclusion is that most women will have experiences like these both privately and personally. I feel I dealt with them to the best of my ability at the time. I have no idea if I was right or wrong. I can only say that I trusted my judgment of how it made me feel and acted accordingly.
I always find this time of year frustrating when exam results come out for young people – results on which the future depends – or so it seems for those affected. For young people of 16 or 18, getting the ‘right’ results can feel like it’s the only important thing in the world.
And that makes me so angry. It’s also all the media coverage of journalists in schools and colleges with students poised to open their results envelopes. And oh surprise! It’s all As and A*s and Bs, no failures, no really low marks…..
Do I blame the media for this? Not entirely.
Everyone should have the opportunity to shine.....
I do blame the industry for continually telling the same story in the same way. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to follow a young person who didn’t do so well and help them find a new way forward? How useful would that be?
But, of course, any journalist knows that it’s not that easy. What school or college wants to put forward a student who is not at the top of the class? Who wants to line up potential failures for exposure? And which young person is willing to be publicly shown as not having done very well?
The truth is that many, many young people don’t get As and A*s or even Bs or Cs. Yet the overriding impression is that more people are getting these grades so the examinations must be getting easier.
Examinations are now very different to the outdated O level and CSE system. In those days, you had one opportunity to shine and it occurred during a two or three hour window in a high pressure examination, based on what you could remember.
If, like me, you didn’t function well under that kind of pressure as a teenager – the thought that now my own children can gain marks for the long piece of coursework they’ve slaved over and lavished passion upon is uplifting. To me, it’s a much fairer system allowing youngsters who don’t thrive under examination pressure to have their chance to shine. And that’s generally how degrees and higher education and vocational qualifications work.
I do agree with high pressure examinations being part of a marking system – as life is full of high pressure situations, including a professional life. But that’s not all that is important. Coursework has its place and should be considered, especially in very vocational courses.
Also I think we should hear far more about what to do if you don’t do as well as you hoped. I worked very hard for my O levels and did reasonably well – but now when I go for a job no one cares if I’ve got O levels let alone what the grades were….but then I’m old….
As for A levels, I did pass but that was about all. And that was hugely disappointing – I was expected to be an A/B grade student. I turned out not to be. I would have been the student who, being filmed, was beaming as they opened that envelope and then in floods of tears for not having achieved what was expected.
So what did I do while clasping my C,D,E grades in my hands – knowing I’d failed to gain a place at university studying Medieval English, which was my passion at the time. Did I re-take my examinations to get better grades? Did I give up on higher education and try to find a job?
In my case, I took advice from the school and applied at ‘lower’ level establishments, went through a secondary interview process for courses which were not full. I went to Bath College of Higher Education (now Bath Spa University) to study on a new BA Hons course in Combined Studies of English Literature & History. And I had a brilliant time there, met some great friends and worked alongside some wonderful lecturers. I must name check here Dr Mara Kalnins – who was very special to me as we shared a love for the work of author D H Lawrence.
While waiting to start my course, an article came out in the local paper listing the achievements of the students who’d done well and where they would be going to study. My name was last and it simply said ‘Fiona Bune is going to Bath’. The suggestion, to me, was that readers would assume I was going to the University of Bath. I’d rather they’d put nothing because it made me feel like an also-ran, an after thought. Years later, I became the reporter on that weekly newspaper managing and writing such stories – what an irony.
So this blog is a message to all of those young people who didn’t get the As and A*s and who are feeling that somehow they’ve failed. You have not failed. You simply are now required to re-assess and think about what you want to do next – then ask for help to get there. How you handle this situation will say far more about who you are – than any amount of A grades. And that’s what a future employer will remember…..
Riots - have you seen mob mentality up close and personal?
I’m listening to Question Time talking about riots as I’m writing this.
Here in Swindon, for three evenings in a row there has been rumour and counter-rumour about trouble in the town centre. To my knowledge, nothing’s happened.
Shops closed early, the police officer numbers were out in force. There was just a feeling of fear, of flames being fanned. Even my kids picked up on it. It’s been ridiculous, it almost feels like we are tempting fate by creating fear of something that’s just not there – thankfully.
Clearly other places have had terrible scenes and there has been much loss. My heart goes out to the families of the three men killed for trying to defend their street in the Manchester area.
But who or what can we blame? Is there anyone to blame? Is it our social ills?
And now there’s something else to blame now – social media.
I’ve just listened to someone say that the speed of social media made the police’s jobs impossible. What? Social media is for everyone and is used by millions, including police officers. Social media is simply a tool that anyone can use and the police need to get to grips with it along with everyone else.
Let’s get real here.
People were behind this trouble – not the police, not social media, not the business people and individuals who were under threat, or who had businesses wrecked.
Individuals decided to break the law and others piled in and took opportunities to thieve and be destructive. The same happened with the student demonstrations. The same happened in the demos in the 1980s etc, etc.
A young black man died – was shot by police. We don’t know the circumstances for sure. But what part of the riots will make his family feel better? What part of the riots will cure the problems in which he may have been involved?
The police have come in for considerable flack and that will continue. I know many police officers and not one of them is incompetent, or ridiculous, or violent or lacking in dedication to my knowledge. All of them are men or women with families and the same hopes and fears as all of us.
Even with the best clothing, shields, helmets, truncheons etc facing a screaming mob is absolutely terrifying. This is something I do know about – because it’s happened to me.
Years ago, in a small Somerset town, I was out with the police as a newspaper journalist when we attended a disturbance outside a pub where there had been lots of trouble.
When we arrived, there were a group of about 50 people, many had been drinking heavily, and they were wound up. When the police arrived, I was told to stay in the car. The noise was so loud, bottles were thrown at the car. Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice.
Some of these people I’d been to school with – I saw the mob mentality in action, some knew me and it made no difference. At one point a group grabbed the car and started rocking it up and down with me in the back. I’ve rarely been so terrified.
The whole thing probably only lasted moments, but it was all in slow motion – I can’t remember how we got out of it. I suppose they were dispersed.
I’ve often been told that individuals are reasonable but mobs are without reason – and I think that must be part of it. That night, in a sleepy backwater town, I saw the mob in action very briefly.
And it’s that memory that stays with me when I see what’s happened. I don’t know the answers but I do know what it feels like to face violence without reason.
Some good news stories just stand out for a journalist – think unusual, heart-rending, human interest and ‘slow time of year’.
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.
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.