What I really think of journalists
One of the best things about the last few months has been the opportunity to do new things. This week, however, I have been doing some things which have taken me right back to the beginning of my career as a journalist.
My former patch: Mevagissey. Today, reporters are lucky to escape the office
As part of my role at Hall for Cornwall, I have been out and about interviewing people for an article about some of the equipment which has been loaned to different organisations while the building is closed for its £20 million redevelopment. At the same time I have been writing some case studies for a charity which supports people who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse. I interviewed people while I was at the Council, but these interviews felt different and reminded me of why I had loved my time as a working journalist.
Having left university with an English degree in the 1980s, I was offered the opportunity to train as a journalist with the Cornish Guardian. Initially based at the paper’s head office in Bodmin, I was then transferred to the St Austell office where I completed my training and later worked as a senior reporter.
Photo: Imperial War Museum
This was a good time to be a local reporter: long before the internet and digital media, the life of a trainee reporter meant going out and talking to people face to face. From attending courts and council meetings and visiting schools and local businesses, to covering carnivals, agricultural shows and pantomimes, you spent very little time sitting in the office.
I was lucky to have a boss who believed in dropping his trainees in at the deep end. Within my first few weeks I had been sent to Belfast to speak to Cornish soldiers who were serving there at the time, and had the opportunity to interview actor John Nettles at the height of his Bergerac fame. John was a local boy, having spent his childhood in St Austell, and was very generous in the way he dealt with the questions posed by a tongue-tied trainee reporter.
All reporters had their own patch which they visited every week to talk to local people and winkle out interesting stories. My patch was Mevagissey which certainly provided some memorable things to write about. These included a debate by the local council on giving contraceptive pills to seagulls to help lower the numbers in the town (with one person asking, apparently seriously, how they could ensure that each bird swallowed a pill every day), and a row between the local vicar and some of his parishioners over his decision to replace the church bells with a tape recording of the sound. This issue split the local community and eventually led to the matter being referred to a consistory court. Both stories created great interest locally and were also picked up by the national press.
This week, I also visited the Crown Court and took part in a debate in the Council Chamber at County Hall as part of my volunteering role with the Citizenship 4 Life programme. Covering magistrates’ courts and sometimes the Crown Court was a regular task for a local reporter in the 80s, and sitting in Court 1 certainly brought back memories of desperately trying to remember my shorthand so I could keep up with the judge’s summing up (and then struggling to decipher what I had written).
While I had certainly spent many hours listening to debates at County Hall, this was the first time I had actually sat in the Council Chamber and took part in the discussion. The debate was about whether reality TV programmes like The Apprentice or Love Island do more harm than good, particularly for young people. The standard of debate from the young mentees was very impressive, with strong points made on both sides. While some argued that the programmes were entertainment and people were not forced to watch them, the majority felt that the programmes portrayed a false sense of reality, leading to body shaming and feelings of inadequacy if you did not match the beautiful, successful people on screen.
Nostalgia is not always a good thing, but this week reminded me of how much I have missed my life on the paper. Being a journalist gives you the chance to find out what is going on and to challenge people and organisations who are not playing fair. You also get to talk to people at the best, and sometimes at the worst, times of their lives – and, hopefully, make a difference.
While local papers still employ journalists, the role is very different today. Most reporters spend their time in the office, using Facebook and Twitter to find out what is happening rather than going out and about. My happiest memories were of visiting my patch and being greeted by local people who were very proud of their town and wanted to tell me what was going on, but sadly, that part of the role isn’t as prevalent anymore.
Being my own boss means that I can now choose what I want to do. Some of my current projects have given me the chance to sharpen my pencil, brush off my long-forgotten shorthand skills and go out and talk to people. It has been fun, and a welcome reminder that the journalist skills are still there.