Why the Twix advert is a perfect metaphor for the debate on press regulation

I hate that Twix advert.

To be fair, I hate most TV adverts.

But that Twix one about the two factories is particularly inane and annoying.

And yet, it struck me the other day, it does a serve a purpose of sorts.

I doubt that the agency behind the cringeworthy commercial had this in mind, but it perfectly sums up the debate over post-Leveson press regulation.

On the one side are many of the national papers, represented by the Free Speech Network.

On the other lies the campaign group Hacked Off.

As the media commentator Roy Greenslade pointed out in an incisive piece in the Guardian, the two factions are fundamentally at odds, utterly irreconcilable.

Neither cuts a particularly attractive figure: the nationals with their over-the-top shroud-waving, and Hacked Off with its smug superiority.

And in the middle, pretty much untainted and very much exonerated by Leveson, sits the regional media.

I was going to say lies.

But that’s something we tend not to do.

The joy of working for a local newspaper is that we have to look the people we write about in the eye virtually every day.

We are judged in the court of community credibility all the time.

It’s a form of regulation far more effective than anything dreamed up by a public inquiry or royal commission.

But it’s one that the nationals will never feel subject to.

One mildly reassuring theme of the first year of Ipso’s work has been what appears to be a reduction in the harassment of ordinary, innocent members of the public.

But there has been no let-up in the assault of political untruths and statistic-twisting, and no real evidence that the country’s biggest media players have turned over a new and honourable leaf.

I haven’t warmed to Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, and I don’t entirely trust him not to dismantle the BBC.

But I welcome his move to shelve the part of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act that would force newspapers signed up to the unrecognised Ipso to pay the legal fees of complainants.

Rather than cry wolf over watchdogs, the national media would do better to show a bit of humility.

This isn’t about rolling over in the face of Soviet-style media repression. It’s about recognising that the reporting which led to Leveson was utterly and completely indefensible. And showing that things have changed.

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Battered and used: why I love a journalist’s contacts book

They’re battered, faded and impenetrable.

But to the best reporters I know, they’re their most important possessions.

In fact one joked that he’d be tempted to save his above his kids if his house was on fire.

I love it when I see dog-eared contacts books on journalists’ desks.

(I saw a spike somewhere recently as well, but my lips are sealed.)

I finally ditched an ancient blue hardback A4 tome a couple of years ago when it became clear that I no longer needed the numbers of prominent Swindon politicians of the early 1990s.

But for journalists who’ve been covering a patch for any length of time, these falling-to-bits treasures are constant get-out-of-jail cards.

A reporter on the biggest paper I work with asked me recently whether I thought contacts were important to a journalist.

Someone had told him that, in an age of social media and press officers, they were an anachronism.

I soon disabused my friend of this nonsense notion.

Like those other hard-backed documents, contacts books represent reporters’ passports – offering access to people, views, insights and tip-offs that bypass official channels and corporate priorities.

And the reason they’re so well-thumbed is that they have proved their use time and time again.

I’ve written before about how to make contacts and strengthen relationships and the quote with which I finished that piece is now fast becoming one of my favourite phrases.

“Spend time with people not getting stories, and they’ll bring stories to you.”

Everyone we ever speak to is a potential contact, someone to use real human conversation to develop.

What proper use of contacts does is put the people back into our writing.

It’s satisfying in this digital age to see new reporters jotting people’s names into brand new notebooks, with empty page after empty page waiting to be filled.

But my heart soars even more when I see one that’s full to the battered brim.

The chances are its owner has seen a bit of life too.

And he or she will be a better journalist for it.

I’m obsessed by my newsroom obsessions

I shocked my parents the other night.

I was staying with them ahead of a visit to the Herald in Plymouth, my home town paper.

“What time are you going in?” my mum asked.

“I want to get there for 8am, so I’ll be leaving around 7.30,” came my reply.

“You don’t need to get up,” I added, having seen the look of horror on her face over this allegedly ungodly hour.

No one was forcing me to get to the Herald’s nice new offices at a time when there were only three people in the building.

But I wanted to indulge one of my obsessions: the morning newsroom routine.

Seeing how various newsrooms greet the day is a fascinating exercise. Some come to life slowly, while others have a more structured programme of meetings and shift starts.

The pattern obviously depends on which day it is for weekly titles, although the web and a drive to balance out daily workloads are beginning to even out these differences.

There’s no one right way to do it.

But, as I have said before, I like to see some proper punctuation to the day: with a sense of belonging cemented at the watercooler, kitchen or newsdesk, and a sense of energy, positivity and purpose created by an editorial team leader with a clear idea of the day’s agenda.

I got to talk about, and gather more observations on, a few more of my obsessions. In fact, I did a training session with some newsdesk folk and used the word obsession with slightly worrying regularity.

So what are the others?

  • Team spirit: Characterised by tea-making and mickey-taking, team spirit is what will keep people in our fold for longer, creating the environment for the craik, camaraderie and care that we all need.
  • Desk geography: When I was a news editor, I used to have all my reporters around me, so we were able to have one conversation, so that I could eyeball them all and so that I could pick up on flagging energy levels or story problems. I believe you need to be physically close-knit for the magic of teamwork to happen.
  • Beautiful writing: I was talking to a features writer at the Herald about the need to read great journalism – to wallow in the words of writers such as Zoe Williams, Miranda Sawyer and Andrew Rawnsley. She said that she felt some top writing was unattainable: “It’s like hearing Smoke on the Water, and thinking ‘I’ll never play guitar like that’.” No, I said. We can all become better writers. I believe that. I’ve seen ugly duckling, clunky dead hand writing turned into swan-like, picture-painting joy, time and time again.
  • Autonomy: Or rather, to quote my new favourite bit of management jargon, supported autonomy. Having control of your day – which is likely to involve another obsession, decent advance planning – is the first step in the battle to keep stress at bay.
  • Talking: While we’re talking, and listening, there’s more than a fighting chance that people are feeling valued, that career aspirations are being taken seriously, and that the little niggles that can spiral into major issues are being tackled. Time set aside for conversations such as 121s should be the best-spent time of all.

So there you have it. My obsessions. I’m obsessed by them.

We need to talk (and plan)

When my wife asks me what sort of day I’ve had, I’m quite likely to be fairly vague in my answer.

“I’ve had some really useful chats today,” is by no means unusual.

Quite rightly, this had led to some scoffing at times.

“Is that all you do all day – talk?”

Well, yes and no.

That word talk covers a multitude of sins – from informal coaching through informative catch-ups to intense conversations that border on counselling.

If someone says ‘have you got a minute to talk?’, my default setting is to answer ‘yes’.

As I have said before, exit interviews provide plenty of evidence of the negative impact of poor, or non-existent, communication.

And I have been on a mission to persuade people of the merits of having what I have taken to calling ‘grown-up conversations’ with their colleagues and managers.

It’s a mission that seeks to disprove the sceptical, apathetic argument that nothing ever changes, or gets done, as a result of raising concerns.

One of my colleagues has been talking a lot recently about hygiene factors – the basic workplace building blocks that need to be sorted for true job satisfaction to be enabled. Caught up in this are those relatively minor but long-standing gripes and hassles that can be the final, energy-sapping straws.

And it is often the ‘one more thing’ factor that pushes us over the edge.

One of my wife’s work colleagues compares a full workload to a bulging suitcase: “It’s like the case is full, and there’s absolutely no way that if you put even just one more pair of shoes in, it’s going to close again.”

The drip, drip of extra unforeseen tasks is a major source of workplace stress.

One of my mantras is that planning can buy you the time to do the work you really love.

But if that planning is regularly torpedoed by other people’s agendas, that vital control over your working day can be lost.

And stress and resentment can follow.

One of the joys of journalism is that each day can be different, that we never entirely know what the day is going to bring.

And yet, there is another sort of unpredictability that we could do more to eliminate.

I often think that the content we write falls in to three categories: a third that is fully a surprise, a third relating to events we know about in advance and a final third being pieces that we initiate ourselves based on gut feelings, campaigning zeal, nosiness, contacts or community concern.

To put it another way, no journalist will ever mind working all night when a landmark burns down, the town floods, or some other tragedy strikes.

But they’re not going to experience the same sense of teamwork and satisfaction if they’re working late because we suddenly need more fill for the BMDs page.

We need to find ways of moving our advance planning to the Christmas gold standard all year round and of getting ahead of ourselves on days when the rota gods are kind.

Talking is time-consuming. Planning can be a pain.

But neglecting either in a newsroom is not an option.

The privilege of being allowed into people’s lives

There was a warning about flash photography.

There wasn’t one about the sheer power of the images and words.

I found myself welling up at the footage of the family of PC Dave Philips visiting the scene of his horrific death yesterday.

At times, it felt close to intrusion.

And yet his wife Jennifer, sister Hannah, and other family members had wanted to show the world their feelings: from raw grief through dignified anger to fierce pride.

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I watched PC Philips’ daughters facing the cameras a few hours after trying to explain the rhythm and dynamics of journalism to a drama student.

She is writing a sitcom about a struggling local paper and picked my brains about life at the typeface.

We covered a lot of ground, including the huge role that fun, mischief, banter and gallows humour plays in our offices.

But I also stressed some of the more serious aspects of the job.

I emphasised the privilege of journalism: the ringside seat we are offered at moments of history, the early warning we get of breaking news, the access to the corridors of power – and the way in which we are invited into people’s lives.

We see the best and the worst of humanity every day. Sometimes, as with the case of the death of PC Philips, all in the same story.

I told my student friend that journalists tend to be cynical.

But I also said that the greatest journalists tend to be romantics, too – keen to draw out the best in people where possible.

It sounds like PC Philips was one of the best.

For any journalist covering the tragedy of his death, it will have been a privilege to help his family to ensure that that is how he will be remembered.

Determination, empathy and tough love: the perfect newsroom combination

I’m lucky enough to be inspired by journalists every day.

I love their enthusiasm, their ideas, their gallows humour, their camaraderie and their sheer bloody-mindedness.

But there’s one reporter who has really, really inspired me in the last year.

I was spellbound at last year’s NCTJ annual conference by Times journalist Andrew Norfolk.

He was the reporter who broke the story of the Rotherham sex abuse ring, winning the title of Reporter of the Year for the years of work which went into his tireless investigation.

What I loved about him was that he was the living, breathing, 24-carat embodiment of the two qualities I value above all others in a journalist: determination and empathy.

So it was great to see him praising the training and coaching he received on his first paper, the then Scarborough Evening News.

He has warmed to his theme that the regional media provide the best grounding for reporters in a piece he has written for a UK Press Gazette supplement on training.

In it, he talks of the tough love he got from his ‘bullying bastard of a news editor’ – and how it made him get out of the office and find his own stories.

That ‘bullying bastard’ is now one of his best friends, he adds.

Which is a lovely thing to read.

The best news editors – like all the best editorial leaders, and all the best journalism trainers (with David English at Cardiff University setting the standard here) – should specialise in tough love.

The wife of one of my dearest journalist friends was once sent away more than a dozen times to improve on one of the first intros she ever wrote. Eventually she cracked it – and never looked back.

I once threw a fistful of story blacks onto a table in frustration at the cackhanded writing of my reporters – and he went on to become one of the best wordsmiths I ever have seen.

The most assertive conversations I have ever had have been with the reporters I valued the most.

Because the love part of that phrase is as important as the tough part.

Like I have always said, stretching and supporting your people in equal measure must always be the key.