The Football Final and a paper round… how I fell in love with newspapers

A Sentinel front page from July 1988.

A Sentinel front page from July 1988.

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with newspapers. I would have been about 10 years old and it was The Sentinel that hooked me.

My mum and dad had the paper delivered and I would nick the Football Final and sit alone in the back room reading the brief match reports and scanning the league tables.

I remember thinking at the time that it was incredible that within an hour and a half of the final whistle a page full of information had been printed on the back of our local paper and delivered to our door.

At the age of 15 I began my paper round – delivering The Sentinel and national newspapers to homes in Sneyd Green and Smallthorne.

My ‘run’ was very hilly and was the longest of any of the paper boys and girls working out of the newsagents on Mornington Road.

The year was 1987 and I would get up at 5.30am on a school day and a similar time at weekends and have to be at the paper shop by 4.30pm each day after school.

I earned the princely sum of £5.50 per week but consoled myself with the fact that I lost a stone in weight in three months lugging that great heavy bag around.

I remember weekends being toughest because my bag was heavier – filled with numerous lifestyle supplements and magazines which the nationals produced to add value to their reader offer.

Being a paper boy helped me to develop a healthy interest in current affairs – from the trials and tribulations of ‘gender-bender’ Boy George to the kidnapping of Terry Waite and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

I would browse the nationals before delivering them – something my boss Joe frowned upon because he feared complaints from customers irked by papers with creased pages.

I slowly learned the differences between each of the tabloids, began to spot the spin and the political bias, and marvelled at how the same story could be told two or three different ways.

It was while at Sixth Form College, Fenton, a couple of years after I gave up my paper round, that I applied for a job with a local press agency – determined to carve a career in journalism.

It’s no secret that sales of newspapers, both national and local, have been declining since their peak in the 1950s – never more so than following the advent of the internet.

Two of the national newspapers I delivered as a paper boy – The News of the World and Today – are no longer with us.

The former was shut down in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal while the other, which had only launched in 1986, closed nine years later due to financial pressures.

I am proud to say that having delivered both I worked for and had articles published in both during my time as a ‘stringer’ for a local press agency. Back in the mid to late Eighties newspaper circulation figures were still astonishingly high.

In 1987 the News of the World was selling an average of 5,360,000 copies a week while the Sunday Mirror was selling almost three million.

The Sun was selling almost four million copies daily and the Daily Telegraph 1.15 million copies.

The circulation of all these titles, and all regional newspapers has plummeted dramatically over the last 20 years as technology has advanced and the way in which people access information has changed – prompting many observers to predict the death of newspapers.

Far fewer people take a newspaper to work and far more work at a computer or have a phone which gives them instant access to all the news, sport and features that they want.

However, in the week that politicians carved a highly unsatisfactory deal between themselves and anti-Press activists, I’d like to think there’s life in the old dogs yet.

Blogs and the broadcast media are all well and good but, in the final analysis: No-one does in-depth like newspapers; No-one chronicles history like newspapers; No organisations do investigations like newspapers. No other media organisations have the resources to do what newspapers like The Sentinel do here in North Staffordshire.

That’s our USP and that’s why, in my opinion, even in this age of ever-changing technology newspapers still have a vital role to play.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

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Lessons to be learned from topless royal pictures

As a former agency hack, a wry smile creases my face when I hear the editors of British national newspapers speaking of their disgust and dismay at a French magazine’s decision to run with topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Call me a cynic, but their stance couldn’t have anything to do with the imminent publication of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, could it?

The reaction reminds me of the BBC’s attempts to distance itself from those awful print journalists in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and the demise of the News of the World.

It is hypocrisy of the highest order, in my book. As is the decision by Richard Desmond to try to close down the Irish Daily Star newspaper after its editor chose to publish the same images.

Another case of jobs and a news title being sacrificed, amid feigned outrage, to protect commercial interests.

Turn the clock back a few years, before the paranoia, and I dare say all the UK tabloids would have paid good money for said images of Kate Middleton.

What’s more, the British public would have bought the papers in their millions and poor Kate’s picture would have been adorning the walls of more than a few workshops and garages.

Let’s face it: for two decades or more, topless or scantily-clad women have been the staple currency of tabloid newsrooms – and members of the royal family haven’t been immune.

I was a cub reporter back in August 1992 when the Daily Mirror published topless images of the Duchess of York having her toes sucked by American businessman John Bryan while on holiday in a remote villa in the south of France.

Each to his or her own, I guess.
True, the episode did little for Fergie’s marriage to the Duke of York, but she recovered her reputation sufficiently to be flogging Wedgwood to the Yanks a few years later.

No matter how embarrassed or angry Prince William and the Duchess are right now, the truth is that this incident will blow over.

Their reputations are intact. Indeed, the French mag’s indiscretion seems to have simply served to endear the newlyweds even more to many people as they are, quite clearly, the victims.

There are understandable, continuous comparisons between the heir-to-the-throne’s wife and his late mother – Diana, Princess of Wales. There always will be.

The way in which the tabloid press dogged Diana throughout her marriage to prince Charles, and the involvement of the paparazzi in the tragic accident which led to her death, obviously means that Prince William’s relationship with the media will always be strained.

But we shouldn’t forget that the late Princess of Wales used and manipulated the media as and when it suited her, and so all is not as black and white as some would have us believe.

Let’s be clear: the photographer was wrong to take the pictures of William and Kate and the French magazine was wrong to publish them.

It is wrong now as it was wrong 20 years ago with Fergie.

What has happened in Aix-en-Provence was a gross invasion of privacy in a country which, ironically, is held up as a shining example because it has some of the world’s toughest privacy laws.

By the same token, the British press was right to refuse to publish the images of the topless Duchess.

You see, it’s one thing to justify printing images of a naked Prince Harry fooling about in a hotel room when they have already been seen by millions of people on the internet.

It is quite something else to expose the future Queen to such scrutiny when the images of her were taken by stealth in a private moment where she could have reasonably expected a degree of personal freedom.

There are several lessons to be learned here. Firstly, members of the royal family should not disrobe in public – and what I mean by that is basically: “Don’t take your kit off outside”. No matter where you are.

It may not seem fair and it may not be right, but the Duke and Duchess are – next to Brand Beckham – arguably THE most popular celebrities in Christendom and thus will spend the rest of their lives under the scrutiny of camera lenses – some of which will have a very long reach.

The second lesson to learn from this is that draconian privacy laws simply don’t work – as evidenced here. Those penning the final pages of the Leveson Inquiry report and recommendations would do well to take this onboard.

I’m all for the British national press cleaning up its act.

Indeed, I think it has and will further because the phone-hacking scandal is a genuine watershed moment.

However, we must be careful not to turn the pursuit of better standards into a witch hunt because a toothless, neutered press really would be neither use nor ornament.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Don’t tar us all with the same brush, please

I received a text from a friend the other day. I’ve saved it. It reads: “Who would be a journalist eh? I suggest you tell people you are a traffic warden! Ha ha”.
I suppose it could have been worse. He could have written ‘banker’. Or, heaven-forbid, ‘politician’.
For a week or more ‘journalist’ has been a dirty word courtesy of the blanket coverage of the phone-hacking scandal that ultimately engulfed a national institution.
It’s been pay-back time.
Every celebrity, high-profile public figure or MP who has ever been put under the microscope by the national press has relished this opportunity to give the News of the World (NotW) – and the press in general – a good kicking.
We haven’t been able to move for smug social commentators dropping pearls of wisdom amid the clamour for tighter controls on newspapers.
The press has been demonised to such an extent that television and radio presenters have been falling over themselves to be seen as a different species to those evil print journalists with whom they will be enjoying a pint next week.
Worse still, as they lap up the latest gossip about such-and-such sleeping with you-know who, people everywhere are appalled and outraged at the depths to which some hacks will sink for a story.
The hipocrisy is breath-taking.
Make no bones about it, what was painted as the mercy-killing of the biggest-selling newspaper in the English-speaking world was driven by purely financial considerations.
With a brand sullied and a share price endangered, ditching the NOTW was a not entirely unexpected attempt to kill the phone-hacking story by cutting off its head.
After 168 years and 8,674 issues, I would suggest the old girl – and its current staff who had nothing to do with the scandal – deserved a better end.
While it is true to say that no right-thinking person would approve of the kind of practices alleged in the latest phone-hacking revelations, the ensuing furore has, to my mind, been over-the-top.
To attempt, as some have done, to tar every print journalist with the same brush as the small NotW phone-hacking brigade is a bit like trying to implicate a cashier at your local bank in the global economic crisis.
I don’t doubt that in the coming weeks and months there will be more shocks and opprobrium as the police investigation and a public enquiry attempt to clean-up the sharper end of journalism in the UK.
I also wouldn’t dispute the need for some sort of review into the operating procedures of the media as a whole – as opposed to just newspapers.
However, I would suggest we are in danger here of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
I’m all for punishing wrong-doers and those who fall beneath the standards expected by decent people.
But I would say that a free press – one with the power to investigate, to challenge and to champion its readers – is the cornerstone of our democracy.
It is a vital element of the checks and balances to which key individuals and organisations should be subjected.
Yes, it might suit some public figures and institutions for the national press to be neutered but I, for one, would mourn the day that happened.
In my younger days I ran with ‘the pack’ for five years when working as a freelance agency reporter and I can honestly say I never broke the law.
Back then I relied very heavily on my own moral compass in order to decide what I felt comfortable doing and what I didn’t.
From experience, what I would say is that it is the nature of the beast that some journalists invariably sail close to the wind because they are dealing with sensitive information – often involving tip-offs and leaks.
Whether or not, ultimately, such information is in the public interest is a matter for debate but there is no doubt that newspaper journalists provide a crucial public service.
There is, of course, a world of difference between the national press and regional newspapers such as The Sentinel.
We don’t pay for stories, we don’t hack phones and we aren’t interested in the kind of tittle-tattle which sells red-top national papers.
By the same token, I would say that some of the best investigative journalism is done by regional newspapers who hold local councils, hospitals and the like to account and champion their readers day-in, day-out.
I am proud to work for one of them.

Why, amid the furore, I’m still proud to be a journalist

The outrage from all quarters at the latest phone-hacking allegations levelled at the News of the World is as predictable as it is understandable.

People simply can’t fathom how anyone could stoop so low as to intrude into the privacy of families dealing with tragic loss.

Phone-hacking by journalists is indefensible and, if these allegations prove to be true – and I think they will – then I hope that those responsible are prosecuted.

This sort of thing has, however, been going on for years and so I’m a little surprised that anyone is surprised.

Do you remember the infamous Charles and Camilla tape scandal of 1992? Or the the “Squidgygate” tapes involving the late Princess Diana and James Gilbey?

The fact is that some red-top tabloids have, for decades, been involved in some pretty nefarious activities in order to get the big story – usually involving celebrities or ordinary members of the public thrust into the public eye by tragedy.

People who buy these newspapers are deluding themselves if they think otherwise.

Don’t be surprised if, over the coming weeks, more skeletons are revealed. Perhaps members of the royal family had their phones hacked, or more celebrities. Nothing would surprise me.

It is fair to say that, in recent years, the pressure on national newsrooms has ratched up – in part due to the celebrity-obsessed culture we live in and in part due to the challenges posed by 24-hour broadcast media.

However, while this watershed moment should certainly be used to clean up the practices of a small number of journalists, there is a danger here that we throw the baby out with the bath water.
Like it or not, the free British Press is feared – and for good reason.

It is also true that some national newspapers do quality investigative journalism – such as the Daily Telegraph’s expose of the MPs’ expenses scandal.

Indeed, it is little wonder that so many MPs are falling over themselves to abuse the national press and calling for it to be reformed, given that a great body of them were embarrassed as a result of a cracking, relentless campaign to highlight their greed.

Journalists sometimes have to step outside their comfort zone to get a story – that is the nature of the beast.

Sometimes they deal with tip-offs and leaked information and our country is all the better for it.

God forbid we ever see the day when every newspaper is full of press releases and propaganda.

If you want some reassurance then look no further than the regional press.

There is a very clear distinction between the way in which some of the more sensationalist national newspapers operate and the activities of the regional press.

Despite years of cutbacks, the challenges posed by the digital age and very little in the way of forward-planning by industry chiefs, regional newspapers continue to provide an invaluable public service.

We don’t pay for stories, we don’t hack people’s phones and, crucially, we care about our ‘patch’.

Campaigning, challenging local organisations, championing its readers and highlighting great human interest stories is the bread and butter of a good regional newspaper and I’m proud to work for one of the best.

We shouldn’t let a few rotten apples spoil the barrel because the vast majority of trained journalists do a decent job because they see it as a true vocation.