When I was a health reporter several hundred years ago, I enjoyed getting one over on our local radio station.
I particularly enjoyed having a conversation relayed back to me from my news editor, after a drink he had had with his opposite number at that station.
“He wants to know how you keep getting all these exclusive health stories,” my boss reported. “And why his reporters aren’t getting them.”
Admittedly, our newspaper did have a few more boots on the ground than the BBC at that time.
But the answer was fairly simple.
It was contacts. And it was digging deep into the dark and often dull corners of NHS bureaucracy.
Agendas, minutes and financial reports aren’t the sexiest reading in the world.
But picking out the diamonds in the mire is one of the more satisfying journalistic endeavours.
Particularly, as happened at another paper I worked on, when your request for a comment about an especially shiny diamond is met by a silence and a swear word from the senior hospital manager on the other end of the phone.
My memories of sifting through piles of health organisation paperwork were reignited as I prepared to explain the workings of the NHS to journalism students last week.
I took as a case study the role of then Express and Star reporter Shaun Lintern, who played a significant role in exposing the Stafford Hospital scandal.
He stayed awake into the wee small hours reading NHS board papers – and he regards it as time well spent.
“[The papers] won’t have a story – but they might have a clue to the story. Then you can talk to someone.”
He has spoken with passion and insight both about the role of the local media generally and about his huge satisfaction in getting justice for the victims of that scandal.
“I came into this industry to make a difference and one of the ways to do that is to stand up for people who have no voice, and some of these families felt that they were getting nowhere with the hospital and I was able to help them. That really was my motivation.”
The chance to really shine a light in dark places and hold power to account may only come a few times in many journalists’ careers.
But it’s that idea of giving a voice to the voiceless that is at the heart of genuine journalistic job satisfaction.
It is with Andrew Norfolk at The Times as he continues to expose the horrors of the Rotherham grooming scandal, and it is with the journalism film of the moment, the now-Oscar-winning Spotlight.
While, as with so much in life, luck and being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference, there is still no substitute for determination and dedication.
That needs the most precious gift an editor can give his or her staff: time.
But it also needs individual journalists to raise their sights and – as Shaun Lintern says – to take responsibility.
“Whatever the problems journalists face, whether it be bullying editors, short-staffed newsrooms or scandalous low pay, it is no excuse for us to abandon our own integrity. Journalists have to take responsibility for what they produce; machine-gunning FOI requests to all your local councils and labelling it an exclusive investigation is not the stuff of Watergate. Neither is ringing a press office and asking only “for a comment” rather than asking an actual question. Preferring to cut, copy and paste a press release rather than taking the time to read the report it is actually based on isn’t journalism either.”