Tanya’s at the night shelter, Georgina’s with the murder squad and Faye is interviewing at the bar of the Welcome Inn, a diet coke at her elbow.
Down a backstreet Sophia is sniffing for rats, rodent rather than tabloid.
They’re jumping in cars and jumping out again, dashing here and rushing there, scribbling in their notepads, asking questions and taking snaps, then hurtling back with a desperate desire to shout, ‘Hold the front page!’.
When they’ve finished tapping out news hot enough to melt their keyboards, they look up and say: ‘What’s the next story, boss . . . ?’ And they’re off out the door again.
These are proper reporters, not your lying scum. These are the ones Lord Leveson needs to hear about as well.
If you listen to the Leveson Inquiry for long, you start to lose hope. Are we really all in the gutter?
I needed a break from the Royal Courts of Justice. So I wended my way out of the smoke, lungs choking on unfamiliar fresh country air, seeking a rainbow to illuminate the dark.
Hello Chelmsford! It was there I met Al’s Angels.
I love the smell of untried ideas, of unhatched stories, of unwritten copy, of unpolished headlines, of unprinted paper. So I loved the Essex Chronicle newsroom from the moment the editor-in-chief Alan Geere invited me to meet his young team.
You sense the pride with which they wear the badge, reporter. I only hope that their experience is being duplicated by youngsters across Britain. Lord Leveson, please pay attention, as I describe a breed of journalist different from the ones you are investigating.
Please, please, take them into account.
Bridge bombing scoop
Tanya Braun, 23, turns to me and says: ‘I’m going down to the night shelter. Do you want to come?”
We speed off in the car and soon her unassuming charm is drawing out information from a man showing her boxes of newly-donated Christmas presents destined for the homeless.
‘It’s been frantic,’she tells me afterwards, explaining how she’s just scooped the nationals and TV over some ‘bridge bombing’attacks on the motorway.’It was the police press conference,’she says.
‘Everyone was there but I wanted something different. I knelt down next to the women victims and said I’m from the local paper and want the local angle and next thing she’s telling me her personal story. Strong stuff. No one else got that.”
Back in the newsroom we sit with her colleagues – Georgina Cotton, 24, and Sophia Charamlambous, 22, and Faye McBride, 25. What stories have they been doing?
Georgina has just finished a murder trial.
She says: ‘A man got 30 years for stabbing a woman 50 times. I’ve interviewed the DCI in depth, to get the police officer’s personal story – ‘how we caught our killer’ – what it felt like when he arrived at the most gruesome murder scene he’d ever seen.”
Sophia has been door-knocking to ask people about the council’s new food waste bins. ‘Everyone’s worried about the rats and the cats getting in them,’she says. ‘It’s causing a lot more faff than it’s worth.”
As for Faye, she’s running a campaign for older people called ‘Surviving Winter”. But it’s not the only story she’s working on.
‘In what other job would you go from helping old people keep warm to a pub landlady drinking 20 pints a day who’s been hypnotised into thinking she’s had a gastric band so she doesn’t like beer anymore. That’s why, on a good day, this is the best job in the world.”
Is it the best job in the world? They look at me as if I am mad.
Tanya: ‘I love it. Every day is different. You come in thinking you know what your day will be and it completely changes. You meet so many people. You learn so many things. It’s an absolutely amazing job.”
Georgina: ‘Yes, it really is fantastic.”
What score out of 10?
They’re unanimous: 10 out of 10.
Faye: ‘Well, that’s on a good day. On a bad day, it can be the worst job . . . “
Georgina (laughs): ‘Then we’d give it two.”
They all laugh but you know they don’t mean it.
Leveson revelations are tarring all journalists with the same brush
What about the Leveson revelations?
Tanya: ‘We’re all getting tarred. I went into a charity shop to introduce myself and the woman said, ‘Oh, you’re not one of them . . .’ I said I’m the local reporter and we don’t do things like that but I had to leave.”
Georgina: ‘This morning I phoned a councillor and she just wouldn’t say a word. I got an email ending, ‘You’re not part of the Murdoch clan, are you?'”
Tanya: ‘Yes, they think we’re all like the News of the World.”
Would they phone-hack?
Faye, talking about the NoW: ‘Obviously you’re not going to condone hacking into a missing child’s phone but if the paper came out without an interesting story, you can understand why people are driven to those measures. It must be quite pressured to have to fill those pages.”
One of the girls then says: ‘So-and-so said to me, ‘if you were asked, would you do it?’ and I said, ‘At the level I’m at, I would do it, yeah.'”
I raise an eyebrow. She’s being honest, they all are.
She is talking hypothetically, as if she were working on a national and too weak to disobey.
They all nod, aware that as people just starting out, they are vulnerable and have to trust their bosses. The Chronicle helps put ethics into Essex in that it is well-run by an experienced old hand. A harsher world lies outside and their sympathies lie with young reporters who are being misled.
Tanya: ‘It’s awful, isn’t it, like Nazism or something, peer pressure.”
Faye: ‘You’re so driven to get a story on a national paper, so you do silly things under pressure. You can see how it happens.”
Georgina: ‘Here, it stops with Alan the editor. If they asked us to do something, and there were consequences, then they wouldn’t pretend they didn’t know what was going on.”
Pressure from police
We’re approaching deadline and now the office is buzzing. As we speak another reporter, Martin Green, is writing up an interview with the diocesan bishop.
And then deputy editor Paul Dent-Jones comes bustling in. He’s glowing. He thinks e’s got the splash, a victim of the A12 attacks missed by everyone else. There are pictures of the woman in hospital, bruised and bloodied. She’s okayed it. But they’re still stored on her husband’s phone and he wants to check with the police that they can release them.
A shirt-sleeved Geere is excited. In his head he can see the front page already.
Then . . . the police tell the victim’s husband to withhold the pictures because they are evidence and could jeopardise the case.
Paul rings the press office, saying: ‘Why are you doing this? The family want us to use them. We have 100,000 readers who will see this story and it may help catch the culprits.”
Deadlock. Now it’s down to Alan Geere. Could The Chron compromise a prosecution?
It’s hard to see how. He makes a decision. If they can, they’ll use them, whether the police like it or not. He’ll take the flak. Next morning, deadline day, it gets worse.
The police switch tactics and say they’ve taken their own pictures and are going to release them to everyone. It will wreck The Chron’s exclusive.
Geere mutters choice expletives. But the husband phones the police and tells them to let The Chron have the pictures first.
At last the cops start to see sense.
In the newsroom, everyone waits as the pictures are downloaded. Will they be worththe stress, arguments and effort? As they appear on screen, Geere and other staff gather round. They recoil. The poor woman’s face is almost unrecognisable. That’s the front page.
It’s not just the Dacres and Rusbridgers which make tough decisions
Thirty-five miles away the presses roll, ink falls onto paper and next morning, taking it for granted, people buy a newspaper full of genuine news, carrying the picture the police don’t want. Nothing fake. Just authentic material – informing, entertaining, campaigning – put together by the local scoop factory.
It’s not just the Dacres and Rusbridgers who have to make tricky decisions. Hundreds of journalists do the same every hour all over Britain.
I thought back to Leveson and compared The Chron with one national tabloid which is bound to draw his attention: the Daily Star Sunday. Their splash was the news that an X-Factor contestant’s father had been convicted of murder after a street fight and that this was later overturned on appeal and reduced to affray. It happened in 1986, five years before the birth of the X-Factor girl.
He didn’t even raise her.
Is that a story?
As for privacy, don’t let’s even start.
In design, the Daily Star Sunday is a News of the World mini-me.
For reassurance, I looked again at the Essex Chronicle and it struck me that this fine, decent, energetic local newspaper was a much worthier inheritor of the NoW’s 1950s’ slogan: All Human Life Is There.