Visits to police and fire stations . . . down a coal-mine . . . council
meetings . . . newspaper placements . . . Parliament . . . guest
lecturers . . . women’s equality . . .
Not all Richmond training was delivered by the staff. Occasional guest lecturers, mostly senior newspaper figures, flavoured the programme. So did outside visits - to courts and council meetings, theatres and cinemas, police stations and fire-brigade headquarters. And there were memorable adventures in deep coal mines that are now no more. Such trips, however, are a total waste of everybody’s time if they are not properly thought out. As an indication that students are balancing classroom time with experience of ‘real life’, they look good on a syllabus. But little is learned, for example, by a dozen students traipsing around in a town hall and straining to hear various officials describe their work and its value to the community.
Editors sometimes expressed indignation when they heard that students were normally taken to a court only once during a college course. They would urge us to arrange more court visits, clearly believing that they were of enormous value. But a couple of hours of tedious evidence somewhere in the middle of a two-day hearing means nothing at all to a bunch of visitors who missed the opening of the case and will never hear the end of it. Only sheer chance dictates what is going on in court when a lecturer and his gaggle of students go tip-toeing into the gallery - where, incidentally, unlike the real-life hacks in the Press bench, they can in any case scarcely make out what is being said. Television drama has persuaded the masses that court proceedings are invariably (a) entertaining and (b) audible. It’s not so. So what do students do? When the novelty wears off - after about five minutes - they start to fidget. They start to yawn. They start to whisper to one another. They pass notes along the row. The hapless lecturer, sure that an usher will kick them out at any minute, decides he is never going to caught like this again.
I remember as I write, however, a most unfortunate exception to all this. By chance, we shuffled into our gallery seats in the middle of a case involving serious sexual assault by four young men on a teenage girl - and the students recognised the girl as a fellow student, though she was not on a journalism course. They sat wide-eyed on the edge of their seats as the details emerged. I was fearful that somebody would, in turn, recognise us - if the unfortunate girl had spotted a long line of Richmond College students she would have thought that someone had organised a coach trip just to revel in her misery. Worried in case there was face-to-face recognition as we left court, I signalled that we should creep away as inconspicuously as possible before the session ended. For once, I had a job to get them all out. Such, I am afraid, is human nature.
I had no reservations about police and fire-service visits. Pre-entry students learned much that would be useful to them when they started work and always came away with high regard for these uniformed men and women who were clearly on top of their jobs. They were particularly impressed at fire-service headquarters when - as happened several times - the alarm suddenly drowned out conversation and the officer who was delivering an off-the-cuff lecture had to shout ‘Sorry’ and race away on a call. They were further impressed, as the giant doors slid open and firemen leapt aboard the engines, to see someone flick a switch that would cause all the traffic lights on the way to the blaze to change to green.
The no-nonsense South Yorkshire firemen were entertaining as well as informative. ‘Do you rescue cats that are stuck up trees?’ asked one kind-hearted and sensitive young lady. ‘No, love, we don’t,’ came the reply. ‘I’ll tell you why they don’t come down - it’s because there’s a crowd of people at the bottom looking up at ‘em and pointing. They get down on their own. Have any of you ever seen the skeleton of a cat up a tree? No? Well, there y’are then.’
A novice reporter is often apprehensive at the scene of a blaze, puzzled by who’s who among the firefighters and uncertain as to how to get reliable information, so these visits were always of real value. They had double merit, in fact, as those in the various emergency services learned much about the journalist’s thinking. This was particularly true of the police, who are continually answering the familiar cry of ‘Anything happening?’ and (except for those who are deliberately obstructive) like to come up with a decent response. ‘I’ve got the measure of you lot now,’ a police press-officer told us chirpily. ‘When the Sheffield Star bloke rang yesterday, I was one ahead of him - I told him that a magician’s car had been broken into and his magic wand had disappeared. Good, eh?’
Youthful frolics being what they are, students and police officers are often on opposite sides of a fragile fence, each viewing the other with distrust, hostility even. So it was no bad thing that our youngsters could get to know some of these tough-talking coppers who sorted out midnight city-centre bust-ups or flashed by in howling patrol cars. As at the fire station, they were usually impressed. Those who could afford to run a car were particularly taken by the giant screen that mapped South Yorkshire’s busy chunk of the M1 motorway, on which a flashing lamp told the duty crew that someone had picked up the handset of one of the emergency roadside telephones before any word had been uttered. ‘Sometimes the caller can’t speak English,’ an officer explained, ‘but we know they are in some sort of trouble. We can see which phone it is, so we can get a car on its way to them before they even start to explain.’ There was usually some entertaining action during our visit. Once there was a woman on the line, describing how she’d had to abandon her car which was now half-on and half-off the hard shoulder. ‘Someone’s going to hit it,’ she cried. ‘I’m sure someone’s going to hit it. Oh dear - too late, someone has hit it.’ A police car was already speeding to the scene, and the students enjoyed the second-hand drama.
The coal-mine visit will probably remain for longest in most students’ memories. As any miner (or, nowadays, any ex-miner) will confirm, journalists who report on pit emergencies nearly always paint an inaccurate picture. As one miner put it: ‘If they haven’t been down t’pit they dunna understand and they’re bound to get it all bloody wrong.’ Located as we were in one of the country’s leading coalfields, we felt we ought to show our students the reality of life for these stalwart toilers underground. The mere idea troubled a few of our more timid youngsters and I used to try to explain beforehand what the trip would involve, recognising that it would have been foolish to drag along anyone who was seriously claustrophobic.
Once, having delivered the spiel about the forthcoming experience, complete with blackboard diagrams of cages in mine-shafts and miles of subterranean tunnels, I dismissed a class of pre-entry students and set off for lunch. Realising that I had forgotten my briefcase, I returned to the apparently-empty classroom and was startled to hear a scraping sound and see one of the tables moving slightly. Stooping, I spotted a red-faced student on all fours making his laborious way between the steel table-legs. He emerged, flustered. ‘I was just seeing what it would be like at the coal-face,’ he explained. It was pretty good preparation, as it turned out - two days later the students found themselves crouched in that very pose, hundreds of feet beneath the ground. But this was no quiet classroom. It was, as one student later described it, like a scene from hell. A spike-toothed cutting wheel screamed and clattered past, only a few feet away; shiny dust sparkled in the air; jagged black slabs as big as TV sets fell from the roof along the newly-ripped line of the coal-face; a dozen students cowered between the steel pit-props that supported the shiny black ceiling a few inches above them; and the miners - visible only as white eyes and red lips - bellowed unintelligible messages over the unspeakable uproar. As the cutter fell silent, the newly-gained coal rumbled away on a conveyor belt towards the distant exit shaft. And the students met a solitary figure whose job it was to step forward into virgin territory and plant the explosive charges that would begin the next assault on this layer of black gold beneath South Yorkshire. They looked with awe at this bluff, black-faced fellow with explosives at his command. ‘Unbelievable,’ muttered one lad.
The ride back to the bottom of the shaft provided unexpectedly erotic pleasure in the form of a rubber ‘man-riding belt’ on which everyone stretched out to be gently transported along eerie tunnels. ‘Great - can we have another go?’ was the cry. During the rhythmic, undulating journey the girl students cheerily suffered the sort of merry banter that I can hardly repeat here. Back on the surface there were hot showers and refreshments. (In the obvious absence of women’s showers, the girls were privileged to use the ablutions reserved for managers and deputies.) Cans of beer, plates of sandwiches and a giant pot of tea awaited at what we were pleased to call a press conference - a chance for the students to fire questions at a senior colliery official. It was normally someone who had been underground with us, unrecognisable now in suit and collar and tie. Questions flowed freely and the students took notes from which to write 350 words back in the classroom. Yes, there was no doubt about it - the pit visit was a winner at every level, so to speak.
Visits to local-authority meetings had to be thoughtfully planned if they were to be of any use, and they were harder to organise than one-off pit trips. Hours of note-taking at rickety ‘press tables’ in town and parish halls has largely been replaced today by phone calls after the event and a heavy reliance on hand-outs, but attendance at less-than-entertaining council meetings used to be an important part of any young reporter’s life. How could young reporters best be trained for this inescapable chore, we asked ourselves. As with the courts, group attendance at meetings of high-level public bodies was worse than useless - the acoustics were usually dreadful, for one thing, and most of what could be heard was incomprehensible to the visitor.
The good old parish council provided the answer. We were surrounded by villages and small towns in which there were regular assemblies of this humble bottom tier of local government, so we drew up elaborate arrangements for individual pre-entry students to attend specific meetings every month, thus enabling them to get to know the councillors’ names and become familiar with the issues that were being debated. Ideally they were alone, but availability of suitable meetings sometimes dictated that they went in pairs. My colleague Peter Collins had some useful contacts - his father was chairman of Derbyshire County Council for a time - and between us we cooked up a shrewd plan to ensure that the students actually attended their allocated meetings. We warned them that we would be making unannounced visits to random meetings ourselves, and that they would never know when they were being observed. Brilliant! Looking back, I must confess that we didn’t go to many such meetings, but we certainly attended a few and the plan seemed to work well. On one occasion I was sitting out of sight (I am almost sure it was at Eckington Parish Council) when two of our students, deep in whispered conversation, missed most of the newsy snippets they should have picked up. I had great pleasure, next day, in quizzing them on the details in class. The rest of the group found it hugely enjoyable.
In the case of council meetings that we had not ourselves attended, we obviously had no way of knowing what had been missed or judging the accuracy of what had been written. The answer was to write our own brief scripts, chunks of typical local-authority debate into which we could sprinkle quotable gems and subtleties that needed a careful ear. Read aloud by the tutor, these exercises included two or three tricky inquests too. (Thirty years later I can still vividly recall every detail of the child being rushed too late into hospital and the pot-holer falling from a rope ladder.) We could now demand hundred-per-cent accuracy - ‘I’m sure that’s what he said’ was no longer a workable excuse.
There was widespread belief that journalism courses should necessarily include ‘placements’ in newspaper offices. Such visits are desirable in theory, and ‘work experience in actual newsrooms’ is yet another of those items that look good on a college prospectus. But placements - which at the least worthy level can be merely an excuse for getting rid of students for a day - needed to be continually monitored and evaluated. At Richmond College we contacted perhaps a dozen editors and arranged for students in the later stages of training to spend Fridays in their various offices. To broaden the learning as much as possible, we later sat the trainees involved at the front of the lecture-room to speak of their experience and answer the questions that inevitably flowed. Occasionally this worked well. But too often the trainee had spent the day looking through old copies of the paper, or re-writing bottom-of-the-heap correspondents’ copy or even wandering around aimlessly and trying to get into conversation with reporters who didn’t want to be interrupted. From time to time, a trainee would have shadowed a senior reporter, learning a little about how the job was done, but even then the perception was that he or she had simply been sent out of the office all day in the absence of any better idea. I called at a ‘placement’ office one day, on another errand, and was dismayed to find two of our trainees sitting doing a crossword.
There were better days, of course. One vivid lesson, I remember, was provided by a young man who was thrilled to be handed a genuine story to tackle - someone had rung in about a neighbours’ feud during which a pet dog had mysteriously disappeared. Our fellow laboured over the tale for hours, recounting how poor little Alice was grieving for her pet, and eventually handed it proudly to the news editor. One swift glance at the copy - ‘How old is this Alice?’ asked the news editor. Our chap didn’t know. He tried the phone again. No reply. ‘She could be five or she could be in her twenties,’ snorted the news editor. ‘No bloody good like this.’ He spiked the copy ostentatiously. ‘I wasted a complete day,’ our student told his classmates. But he hadn’t wasted it. He’d learned the importance of ages in news stories. And so had the rest of the class.
We tried to inject a little pleasure into some of the working visits - no problem on outings to the brewery, a convenient and popular venue in the city centre. Two or three hours in the debating chamber of Derbyshire County Council, on the other hand, was hardly a merry jamboree so, having hired a coach for the day, we took the opportunity of taking the group to the Heights of Abraham at nearby Matlock Bath, where cable-cars hauled them up to the caves, kiosks and spectacular vantage points that have attracted tourists since Victorian days. The fact that I actually lived in Matlock Bath and knew the people at the Heights made this trip easier to arrange - but it also made it a good deal more embarrassing for me when one of the students, bubbling with high spirits after three hours in a council chamber, dropped his trousers during the ascent and exposed his unsightly backside to the people in the following cable-car. Word of his antics was flashed ahead on an attendant’s walkie-talkie and a tongue-lashing awaited him as he stepped from the glass bubble at the summit. I have no idea where the offender ended up in the great world of journalism. He could be in a prominent position somewhere by now. Come to think of it, he was in a prominent position that day.
The visit to Parliament was a headache of a different sort. It’s a long way from Sheffield, for one thing, and much can go awry when twenty-odd students and a couple of lecturers go on an outing that starts soon after dawn and ends late at night. Tight control can be exerted - must be exerted in fact - over a party of schoolchildren. But these were the days of an age-20 top limit on pre-entry students, which meant that we were shepherding a lively assortment of 18-20s across the capital, hoping to get them safely penned into the public gallery of the Commons without mishap. Planning had to start well in advance, as each student needed to contact his or her local MP and apply for permission to attend the House as a guest. There was always someone, at the last minute, who had not yet received the vital letter, or who had lost it, or who had forgotten to apply for it. We had one or two friendly MPs up our sleeves for times like these and it was usually sorted out at the eleventh hour.
We used to have a students’ vote on whether to use train or coach to get to London. A local coach was cheaper and offered the advantage that it kept the party securely corralled - twenty students on a train can spread themselves through eight or nine coaches and rounding them up at St Pancras station frays the nerves before the outing has even got under way. But those students who lived near London preferred to go home the day before, promising to turn up at the right place and at the right time. Some hope of that! Those who lived in the midlands would sometimes opt for personal travel arrangements. The whole thing was a logistical nightmare, but we persevered because we felt that journalism students in Britain should at least see the Commons in action, preferably at prime minister’s question time. For them, the press gallery was as interesting as the floor of the House - they could spot the familiar faces of political commentators they had seen many times on television. ‘It’s just like a big parish council really,’ one student observed as, back in college, we discussed the day’s highlights. How accurate is this observation? Discuss.
These, then, became the set-piece outings, slotted well in advance into the programme so that students knew that during each term there would be a jolly jaunt of some kind to break the lecture routine. Other one-off expeditions that just might have turned into regulars were abandoned for various reasons. One bright scheme involved attending the press-only screenings of new films in Sheffield - students would enjoy the VIP treatment and, at the same time, be able to try their hand at reviewing, we reasoned. I think we tried it twice, but the timing created problems and the idea faded gently into the sunset. Virtuously seeking to introduce a cultural element into the course, I once took a group of students to a concert of chamber music performed by an amateur orchestra. I knew within ten minutes that I had made a mistake . . . and the concert lasted about two hours. We didn’t do that again.
Fridays are a notoriously difficult time for engaging the interest of college students - most of whom are already twitching to get off home for the weekend within half an hour of having their breakfast - and for a time we partly solved the problem by arranging morning sessions at the printing college about four miles away. These were the days of ‘hot metal’, and our students found it an entertaining change of routine to fiddle about with cold grey slugs of linotype and become acquainted with quoins, formes, flongs and the rest of the gear that is now just newspaper history. But attendances dwindled as the novelty wore off, and even the grey-smocked printer who could draw a gasp from the crowd on Day One by dipping his finger into silvery molten metal eventually lost his magic.
There were also, as I have said, guest lecturers. I faintly resented the tacit notion - which no doubt persists to this day - that full-time lecturers were no longer ‘proper journalists’, but it is true that students tended to sit up and take notice when we introduced a visitor as a working editor, news editor, feature writer and so on. (I remember one editor who tried to make us all feel insignificant when he came to training meetings by announcing, as he left: ‘ Well, you gentlemen will have to excuse me - I have a paper to get out.’)
Guest speakers displayed entertainingly different attitudes. Some, clearly seeing themselves in professorial light, became studiedly languid for the occasion, slow of speech, quizzical of eye, three fingers artistically spread on the desk before them. But Mike Corner, then the no-nonsense editor of the Sheffield Morning Telegraph, played the part in his trademark style, firing questions that he knew would flummox the youngsters and then jeering at them for appearing bewildered. For an encore, he would have them all write a short news story and then, having quickly read the resulting copy, describe their efforts as utter crap and tell them he wouldn’t employ a single one of them. The important thing was that he would tell them why they were all useless. As sensitive, caring lecturers, we picked up the pieces later.
BBC television reporter Michael Sullivan, a friend of mine since we worked together on the Manchester City News in the fifties, made the occasional visit to college at my invitation when he was ‘up north’ on a story. His session always packed the lecture theatre - non-journalism lecturers and students from various other courses would sneak in at the back to hear his tales of news-gathering exploits in Northern Ireland, Africa, America and other far-flung bits of the globe. As a TV man, he was an exception to our ‘only newspaper reporting’ rule, but he had learned his craft in print journalism and remained an enthusiast for the well-written word. He also provided an exciting glimpse of the possible future for the trainees crowded together in the dimly-lit auditorium. This Sullivan chap below them on the brightly-lit stage had interviewed world leaders, narrowly missed death in Belfast, stood on the slopes of Mount Etna to witness its violent eruption . . . and went to bed with his toothbrush and passport close at hand in case he was whisked off across the globe by a call from the BBC. He also - I had to prompt him to mention this - wrote Pitman shorthand at about 120 words a minute. Wow!
Colin Wright, however, another old friend of mine from Manchester, deliberately set out to be less than inspiring when he told students how it felt to be a sub on the Daily Mail. ‘Bit like being a butcher, really,’ he said laconically. ‘I trim a bit here, cut a bit there, and the day goes by like that. I’ve no idea what the paper looks like unless I buy one later.’ The late-in-the-day hours didn’t suit everybody, he said, adding ‘Our next-door neighbour thinks I’m unemployed.’ One student asked: ‘As a sub on a national paper, what can you expect by way of remuneration?’ ‘What’s the pay, you mean?’ said good old Colin. Despite this deliberately low-key performance, Colin was a master of the pun and hilarious one-liners. When we worked together he once puzzled an unmissably-Welsh colleague by asking him to put his overcoat on. ‘Why?’ said Taffy. ‘Please - just put it on,’ urged Colin. Mystified, Taffy started to do so. ‘Ha!,’ shouted Colin in triumph - ‘you’re a Welsh dresser.’
The visit in 1974 of Peter Holland, then deputy night news editor of the Daily Express, was for me a peculiar combination of deja vu, the tables being turned and the boot being on the other foot, if I may mix my metaphors for a moment. For when I was a sub on the Newark Advertiser in the early 60s, Peter joined us as a junior reporter and it was left to me to teach him the basics. He made it from Newark to Fleet Street in only seven years. (He had a flying start, mind you - after school he had drifted into a girls’ secretarial class by some mix-up and emerged with the sort of dazzling shorthand speed that most reporters never reach.)
From time to time we gatecrashed sessions organised by non-journalist staff, turning them into assignments from which our students could produce, say, 300-word pieces. When Dr Jo Tattersall came to speak to secretarial students about contraception, her lecture - with a coyness that suited the times - was billed as ‘Family Planning’. We packed about 30 full-time journalism trainees in at the back of the room, and everyone watched in silence as Dr Tattersall - an expert, nay enthusiast, where ‘family planning’ was concerned - unpacked astonishing contraceptive devices fashioned donkey’s years ago out of bits of tree-bark, leaves, animal skins and goodness knows what else. One unreliable-looking piece of equipment appeared to have been knitted out of grass. The doctor spread her priceless collection for twenty or thirty feet along the bench, and at about the halfway point they actually started to resemble the coils and sheaths of today. The secretarial students remained pretty quiet and a few of the girls seemed to squirm uneasily in their seats - unsurprisingly, I thought, in view of some of the startlingly bulky objects on display. Then - ‘What’s that one on the end?’ asked a journalism student. The doctor pointed to one of the rubbery devices. ‘This?’ she asked. ‘No - the one at the end.’ The doctor was puzzled. ‘This?’ she asked. ‘No,’ said our lad. ‘The one right at the end, the black one, the curved one with a round thing on the side.’ The doctor sighed. ‘That is the water tap,’ she said, as witheringly as she could against the ice-breaking gales of laughter that erupted from her hitherto silent audience. ‘It was a serious question,’ our lad protested later. I’m still not sure about that. But it appeared in most of the intros when we collected the copy later.
Showbiz celebrities visiting Sheffield’s theatres and nightclubs sometimes provided the opportunity to inject worthwhile light relief into the full-year course. Large groups of students were impractical on these occasions - no real interview was possible with a couple of dozen students in the room - so we hit on the idea of drawing lots for one person to meet the star and report back to their classmates as to how it went. When Jimmy Savile came to town, we equipped one girl with one of our snazzy new portable tape-recorders - big, clumsy things by today’s standards - and arranged for her to interview the spiky-haired disc-jockey and later play the conversation back to the rest of her group. Debbie (surname Ambrose) expected to do the interview in a room at the City Hall, but Savile used to tour in his own motor-caravan and insisted that she joined him in there after the show. Debbie was slightly worried when he also insisted that the interview would be conducted in the dark, explaining that if his lights were on they would be interrupted by fans knocking at the door and on the windows. But all went well, and Debbie enjoyed her first showbiz assignment.
When Cliff Richard came to town we didn’t draw lots to decide who interviewed him because the group included two girls who were fanatical admirers and begged to be allowed to go. That was a mistake. Such was their awe that neither of them could speak when Cliff sat down opposite them backstage and said ‘OK - fire away.’ But he grinned and managed to coax them into whispering the questions they had prepared in the back of their shorthand notebooks.
I was contacted at around this time by someone from the National Union of Journalists who wondered if representatives of their women’s working party might be given the opportunity of addressing our students. Women were badly treated by the press, she said - page-three girls in the Sun were the most obvious example of exploitation, and newspapers too often described females in the news, especially if they were blondes, as ‘attractive’ or ‘eye-catching’ or, worse still, ‘busty’. I expressed some sympathy with this and cheerfully agreed to welcome an NUJ deputation to the college and let them loose on all our students at once - pre-entry, normal block-release and the all-graduate groups.
Came the day, and the lecture theatre was packed. A panel of four - three women and a man, as I recall - took the stage and a civilised debate ensued. To be honest, I had not given much serious thought to the matter before this time, and I remember being impressed by the logic of the speaker who asked why women always had to be identified as married or not (by the two words Miss and Mrs) whereas a man was always Mr and his marital status was never an issue. General use of the word ‘Ms’ was the answer, said the speaker. The keyword was equality. In the male-dominated world of newspapers, she said, women were too often seen simply as sex-objects, there for men’s pleasure and gratification.
I am treading on thin ice as I write this final paragraph, so I shall be punctiliously factual. Two of the three women on the stage had close-cropped hair. One of them wore a man’s jacket and a collar and tie. The third woman, at the right-hand end of the line, wore a dress and had long dark hair. During the applause that greeted the end of the session, I turned to one of our graduates and said something along the lines of ‘Food for thought, eh?’ He grinned. ‘I fancy that one on the right!’ he said.