I have always been suspicious of the media. Let me explain why.
It was May. I was the Principal of the neighbouring comprehensive school and I was sitting in the McDonalds in Tavistock at 10.30am. I had ordered a coffee. It came, with a tiny meringue. I was waiting to meet the manager. I wanted to persuade her not to serve children from our school at lunchtime. Why, you may ask.
As Head of Filton High School in Bristol, a Big Mac outlet had opened within half a mile of our school on a dangerous main road. One lunchtime, two of our students had a narrow escape when a lorry had skidded and mounted the kerb close the restaurant, narrowly missing our pupils. I had pleaded with them not to serve our children during the day. When I moved to Tavistock, I reacted with horror when I learned that the corporate Big Mac ogre would be on our patch again. In fact, one of the reasons McDonalds moved there was because there were two schools – Tavistock College and a primary school, close by. We were unimportant little lives – all two thousand of us – miniature Lilliputians against the corporate giant. Three months before, I had written a short piece for the Tavistock Times in which I strongly condemned the development of the restaurant – more for it’s location than anything else. It made the front page!
That day in Tavistock, I finished my ‘snack’ before being told the manager was too busy to see me. The safety of children clearly didn’t rank too highly in her scheme of things. I walked back to the College and sat fuming at my desk. How could they think our children’s well-being wasn’t important?!
The phone rang. It was a reporter from the Tavistock Times. A member of the public had spotted me apparently ‘enjoying a meal’ in the very McDonalds that I had condemned so roundly in the local paper, and ‘wasn’t that rather hypocritical?’. The reporter was not going to let my feeble-sounding explanation that I was ‘there to see the manager for the good of our students, and anyway, I was only having a blooming coffee’ get in the way of a good story on a slow news day. I seethed and pictured a disgruntled old lady primly drinking tea before grassing me up to the local rag. Needless to say, I made the front page again.
Things happen in schools from the sublime to the odd and the downright tragic. I can recall that one of our female students was abducted – and feared murdered – by a man she had met on one of the dreaded ‘internet chatrooms’. I was asked to make a statement on the phone by a journalist and found myself unable to speak; my hand trembled as I held the handset. From that day onwards, I vowed never to speak to the media again, and if I did, only by using carefully worded statements and I would decline all direct interviews.
When the crass and stupid war with Iraq broke out, the National Union of Students told children – also stupidly – they should walk out of their lessons to attend demonstrations. That day, from all over the county, there were news stories of children marching out of school, tramping through towns and villages, shouting slogans; I doubt if many of them knew where Iraq was. We were worried that hordes of children would start streaming across the busy A386. We hastily organised student debates and our brilliant History team rushed out a factsheet about the wonderful and ancient civilisation, that was Iraq.
A BBC team turned up without warning on our school site and started quizzing children, asking them if they ‘were going to walk out’. When I found the journalists, they pointed their camera and shoved a microphone towards me. I declined to comment and handed them a printed statement. They returned to their van only to find that our site team had clamped it. We released it later. I smiled quietly to myself about that.
Two months later, I had to make another statement. One of our former pupils – a boy whose family I had worked closely with – was killed serving with the Parachute Regiment in Iraq. I tapped out some words; they felt hollow and futile. I knew our staff and children were all bleeding inside.
On one occasion – I will not say where it was – we needed a teacher of Media Studies quickly, to cover a sudden vacancy. We had one application. It was from an experienced press reporter. I recognised the name. He had reported from the world’s trouble spots, crouching behind walls as machine gun fire rattled, or soaring in a helicopter above a burning war zone. It would mean on the job training, but that was no problem. I was excited. What a find!
He lived near me, so I went to visit him on the way home. I wandered through a narrow back lane in a Devon town before finding his house. His partner sat me on a chintz chair, and I studied the photographs from around the world that adorned the white walls. He appeared, much shorter than I imagined, and he gazed at me through those same spectacles I had seen him wear on TV. His eyes were colourless and watery. He wavered and sat down heavily. He gasped. He was completely drunk.
Now, we need our media as we have never needed them before, and they are under attack from all sides and across the world for the fearless work they do – some have faced murder and imprisonment from despotic regimes. There is a world of difference between the local cub reporters and the major news media correspondents, and the amazing work done – often at great risk – by such luminaries as John Simpson and the heroic Marie Colvin. Journalists – it seems to me – have all been bitten by the ‘truth’ bug, and the commitment of the very finest of them to exposing those truths is like an opiate. They are to be deeply admired. It can be wearing. It can leave scars, physical and emotional. Being asked why I was drinking coffee in the den of a corporate giant now seems a fair question.
And I guess my difficulty in speaking to reporters l has been about actually composing words that speak the truth; and sometimes, an inability to articulate it in the moment. I need time to be accurate, to be truthful. Something the journalist rarely has.
But the fiction writer has plenty of time. Here I am, nurturing my WIP. Now, the thought of any media attention is craved by Indie writers. It is the very stuff of dreams…. Part 2 next month!
"Brilliant descriptions of characters and places enrich a twisty plot that kept me guessing right to the end. John Simes is a master story teller."James Stevenson, Author