Axe Grinder: 10 November 2006

Penman's tip for investigative journalism? Ring the ad team

CRIME reporters from Trinity Mirror's regional papers were recently invited to Canary Wharf HQ to listen to journalists from the group's national titles talk on the subject of investigating crooks.

One member of the audience tells me that the speakers included Andrew Penman, the Daily Mirror's intrepid sleuth, who earns a living by doorstepping low-life conmen. Penman's monologue focused on the difficulties of tracking down rogues who rip off punters via ads in newspapers. "These sorts of horrible people are very difficult to find," Penman told the audience of provincial reporters. "Recently, I was trying to track down a conman but it was the usual story — his postal address was just a mail drop, he had no telephone number linked to the ads, and he couldn't be traced through his websites."

Penman then asked his audience: "If you had been in my position, what would you have done next?" The hacks scratched their heads for a few minutes, but none of them could come up with an answer. Eventually, Penman explained how he located the crook: "I phoned our advertising department and asked them for a contact number for the chap who'd placed the ad."

Good Lord! How did Isabel get the splash?

THERE is nothing like having a trustworthy contact who will help you out in any circumstances, and Isabel Oakeshott of The Sunday Times certainly appears to have one of those. It would seem to be a Liberal Democrat peer called, er, Baron Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, who research finds to be Isabel's uncle. Not that she boasts publicly about the association. Only last month, Isabel wrote a splash story for The Sunday Times about the future of the Lords, in which an unnamed source, close to the committee drawing up new plans, was quoted at length. The Sunday Telegraph's Melissa Kite followed up the story, and, perhaps to make a point, quoted a named source, close to the committee, called Lord Oakeshott, who furnished quotes remarkably similar to those provided anonymously in The Sunday Times. Then, last week, Isabel managed to stand up one of her previous stories, dating from August and concerning the use of life coaches in Whitehall, and particularly the Department of Health. The original information was allegedly uncovered by the Liberal Democrats but was denied in Parliament by Lord Warner, a health minister, after the story appeared. However, last Sunday, Isabel could report that Lord Warner had now recanted. And how did he do this? In a personal letter to Baron Oakeshott, of course.

For exclusives, take a Closer look at NoW

"ANOTHER Closer Exclusive," booms Closer magazine, alongside snaps of Declan Donnelly (one half of Ant and Dec) with his new love, Sky Sports presenter Diana Stewart.

But hang on a sec.

This is precisely the same exclusive news which was revealed by the News of the World nine days earlier, on 22 October.

One of my friends at the Screws says: "Closer will no doubt argue that it is exclusive, because it is the first time that the pictures have appeared in a magazine, but who are they trying to kid? This story highlights the growing trend for celebrity-based magazines to rip off the tabloids wholescale without ever mentioning the original source."

Adds my friend: "The honourable exception to this rule is Heat, which often rags out the front page of the tabloid which broke the story they are following — a good example of this is the recent issue of Heat, which rags out our exclusive interview with Kerry Katona's mum (also from 22 October) to illustrate it's a follow-on. "The same issue of Closer also follows the story, with zero sourcing of the story they are ripping off."

Over Exposed: Hugo's kind reviewers

Hugo Rifkind — the MP's son who compiles the People gossip column in The Times — has garnered a loyal following of his own online.

Reader reviews on Amazon of his debut novel Over Exposure — "the flashiest, edgiest comedy of modern life in recent years" — include this glowing five-star testimonial from one J. Malvern: "Highly enjoyable whodunnit that will appeal to fans of Iain Banks and anyone seeking an insight into the hollow circus that is the London gossip scene."

That surely couldn't be Jack Malvern — arts reporter at The Times?

And a certain Pete Goodman reviews it thus: "Hugo Rifkind is a newcomer to the writing scene, but has arrived with a bang. Over Exposure is a smart, sassy and sordid book — completely unputdownable. I look forward to Hugo's next."

Goodman was so excited, he managed to read the book and write his review some four days before the tome had actually been published. Presumably he had an advance copy.

Not that it has helped Rifkind's success — a quick glance at the Amazon rankings shows that Over Exposure is at 120,441.

Leith's dead pets book: not hard to put down

MEANWHILE, the tome about dead pets, which has been written by Telegraph books editor, Sam Leith, staggers closer towards literary heaven. Daddy, Is Timmy in Heaven Now? is hovering at 198,437 in the Amazon rankings. As for the Amazon position of Kelvin MacKenzie's book, The John Prescott Kama Sutra? Don't even go there…

Chancellor can't get his numbers right

Sunday Life editor Jim Flanagan was relaxing in Glasgow over a pie and a pint during the Society of Editors conference when his phone rang. "It's Gordon," announced a familiar- sounding voice on the other end. Flanagan racked his brains. "I don't know anyone called Gordon," he told the caller, "who are you?"

"This is Gordon Brown."

"I see."

"And who are you?"

"I'm Jim Flanagan, the editor of Sunday Life."

"Well Mr Flanagan, it appears your mobile phone is one digit different from that of one of my close friends."

With that, and before Flanagan could land his paper a fluke scoop, the Chancellor of the Exchequer rang off.

Honeymooning Oliver misses gay gong show

CONGRATS to the Mail on Sunday's Jonathan Oliver for being awarded journalist of the year by the gay rights organisation, Stonewall. Oliver won the award for his scoop about how Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor had sacked his press officer, Stephen Noon, for being gay. In previous years, the award has gone to gay and lesbian journalists, but Oliver — who toils away in the gay (by which I mean happy) climate of Associated — was on honeymoon when the awards ceremony took place. Peter Dobbie — who is not one of the MoS staffers who calls gay people "poofs" — collected the award on behalf of Oliver.

Fireworks pic: An illuminating tale of déja-vu

CONVICTED rapist Owen Oyston has attempted to beef up his Northwest magazines by recruiting old timers from Lancashire Life, the title he sold to Archant.

Sadly for him, they've brought their old ideas with them.

His "new-look" Lancashire Magazine has a striking November cover shot of fireworks over Blackpool Tower. It was also striking back in November 1999 when the very same shot was first used as the cover by arch-rival Lancashire Life.

The picture carries the by-line Robert Fulwood. Back in 1999, it was credited to freelance Bill Wilkinson. By sheer coincidence, Bill lives in a part of Preston called Fulwood.

Flight promo goes down like a lead balloon

THAT most monk-like of commentators, David Aaronovitch, was in his pulpit again last week, demanding that the world take the Stern report on green politics seriously. Aaronovitch's report appeared in The Times. The same Times which, just a few hours later, was running a "Free flight to Europe for every reader" offer. Not exactly the greenest of messages.

Keen Gardiner now footloose and fancy-free

ASSOCIATED Press has rather carelessly just lost the services of its British political correspondent, Beth Gardiner. The respected Gardiner, long a fixture at Foreign Office briefings and at 10 Downing Street press conferences, has quit the American wire service to go freelance and intends to stay in London.

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