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There are consumer advice columns and there are consumer advice columns – but there is only one which week-in, week-out gets in the faces of the nation’s shysters and conmen.
In an age when journalists don’t get out of the office like they used to, the Daily Mirror’s Andrew Penman and Nick Sommerlad find themselves most days sitting outside the homes of the villains they write about, often at 6am, waiting for them to wake up so they can doorstep them and hopefully snatch a picture.
Penman has been doing these front-ups for most of the past 13 years – first with the Sorted column, then as half of Penman and Greenwood Investigate, and for the past four years as the senior partner on Penman and Sommerlad Investigate.
They’ve seen numerous crooks sent to jail, helped change the law with a campaign to help waiters and bar staff keep their tips and, in March, they picked up the Cudlipp Award for outstanding tabloid journalism at the British Press Awards – after being repeatedly nominated in the past.
The pair say they are deluged with issues raised by readers and that it is hard work keeping on top of it all. After all, while they try to help everyone when they can the first priority has to be getting the weekly column out.
But they evidently hugely enjoy what they do, with Sommerlad playing straight-man to the more boisterous Penman.
‘I think Lady Cudlipp [who presented the Cudlipp Award] had just wanted us to F-off and stop entering it,’Penman jokes.
‘Err, I don’t think Lady Cudlipp would use language like,’interjects Sommerlad.
Writing a column which confronts conmen and outright criminals has its dangers, and a bit of gallows humour must be essential.
Says Penman: ‘There’s been some unpleasant stuff. I remember once I switched my mobile phone on after returning from attending a family funeral and there was a message asking ‘did I enjoy the funeral and was I looking forward to my own?'”
Sommerlad was doorstepping an Ebay fraudster in Stoke when the conman spotted thee photographer sitting in a car across the road and attacked the vehicle with a baseball bat. ‘He didn’t get any pictures and just disappeared, leaving me standing there,’relates Sommerlad. ‘It would have made a cracking page. I ran in the opposite direction.”
On another occasion the subject of one of their investigations tried to plant a phoney story with The Sun claiming that they were involved in child pornography.
The idea for the original Sorted column came following a pub-lunch discussion between Penman and fellow Mirror journalists Gary Jones and Don Mackay in 1997. ‘We were talking about the job and thinking that one thing the paper didn’t have was something akin to what Paul Foot [the great investigative journalist] did but was more directly relevant to peoples’ lives,’says Penman. He pitched it to the editor Piers Morgan who gave him two weeks off-diary to get it going.
Penman worked with Jones to produce a weekly column that investigated loan sharks, double-glazing salesmen and time-share bandits. Anyone, in fact, who was trying to rip off Mirror readers.
After six years Sorted was effectively axed by Morgan when he turned it into Sorted in the City, investigating dodgy dealing in the business world, but when Richard Wallace became editor in 2004 he reinstated the weekly consumer investigations slot as Penman and Greenwood Investigate. Sommerlad took over from Mike Greenwood in 2006.
Penman says: ‘An important part of the Mirror’s identity is sticking up for and caring for its readers.’He adds: ‘Possibly what we do that is most different from other reader-complaint type columns is that we fi nd the people who are conning the reader, take their picture and stick it in the paper.’
As its former name Sorted suggests, the column also seeks to, where possible, get readers back the money they have been conned out of. Says Sommerlad: ‘A lot of these fraudsters get away with it for a long time before police and trading standards have the time and resources to look into it.
‘A lot of the conmen we write about have never been arrested or accused of illegality. For our readers sometimes we are the only place they can go.”
He adds: ‘What I enjoy is the pure investigative element of it, the freedom that we have and the connection with the readers. Andrew talks about getting a five-figure sum back for a businessman that he met down the pub, but for a lot of people a very much smaller sum can have just as much significance.
‘Something we get calls about on an almost daily basis are loan-arranging companies that offer to find finance for someone in exchange for an up-front fee of £50-£100. It then turns that the loan they come back with is at a ridiculous rate of interest, so it’s unsuitable.
‘£50 is a lot of money for some people. The fi rm only has a right to keep £5 of it, but they make it as hard as possible to get the rest back. That’s where we step in. We can put in a call get the money back for the reader in a matter of days. That’s immensely satisfying.”
While the majority of story tips come from the paper’s readers and internet users who find them through search engines, Penman says that he also gets tip-offs from those involved in upholding the law.
‘Some of the stories come from people in offi cial organisations who realise something grossly immoral is going on but don’t have the power, evidence or possibly resources to take official action. They realise the only thing they can do is publicise what is going on.
‘If a copper comes across a scam and realises they are never going to have the resources to investigate it properly, or it might be something which is immoral but not illegal, then perhaps the next best way forward is to get the people behind it exposed in a national newspaper.”
Although the pair’s targets frequently employ the services of London’s top media law firms and attempt to sue them, Penman says he has never been successfully sued in 13 years: ‘We have evidence for what we write.”
Sommerlad notes that their ability to not be intimidated by the likes of law firms Carter Ruck and Schillings is one thing which gives their column an edge over ‘citizen journalists”.
Penman thinks he is still being sued in Spain by an accountant he exposed for offering to sort out the legal and tax affairs of expat Britons and then pocketing their money. ‘The Spanish legal system doesn’t appear to have changed much since Franco,’he says. ‘As far as I know the case is ongoing. The man objected to the words ‘shyster, fraudster, conman, villain and fat’.”
So Penman’s received at least one death threat, been called a paedophile, and the next time he goes on holiday to Majorca he could find himself in the dock. What is it that’s kept him doing the job?
‘It’s good fun. It’s worth getting up in the morning to do this job, it’s even worth getting up at 5am to get to a doorstep at 6am.
‘You hear readers’ stories of being ripped off, you get angry on their behalf, and you want to confront the people who have done it.’