Monday, 21 December 2009

Nick Wallis contact information

You can reach me via twitter or facebook. If you want to discuss work, please call Chris North at North Media Talent on 07989 396 901 or email

Here are some testimonials.

Here's all the information you need about my BBC Surrey show, which you can listen to on the BBC iPlayer.

My full biography can be found here.


F*** you, Cowell

Far greater minds will hold forth much more effectively on the same subject, but that's never stopped me piping up before, so here goes...

When did you first hear about the attempt to make Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" Christmas Number 1?

I remember smiling at the thought.

As if. As if a poxy internet campaign to get a relatively obscure, ancient and sweary song to the top of the charts would beat the X Factor juggernaut.

Well, good luck to them, I shrugged, and thought no more about it. The next thing that caught my attention was a pompous little blog post by one of my broadcasting heroes Andrew Collins.

Missing the point quite spectactularly, he notes the RATM song is old, and downloading it, far from harming Simon Cowell, enriches the company he works for.

Finally, he objects to being told how he should protest about things, concluding "Fuck you, I won't buy what you tell me."

So what if the song is old? So what if RATM aren't exactly armed insurrectionists? So what if a music journalist sniffily chooses to affect a lofty disdain for what used to be the biggest pop event of the year?

I'm an indie stone-kicking snob at the best of times, and much as I can't stand the unremitting silage that Simon Cowell has inflicted on the charts, I'm no fan of RATM.

But NONE of that matters. What matters is that someone thought to themselves: "Wouldn't it be great if there were a way of breaking the smug X Factor hegemony? Wouldn't it be great if a really sweary, shouty song was number one at Christmas instead of all those horrendous MOR power ballads? What's a really good sweary, shouty song? Hmmm.... I know, I'll set up a Facebook page dedicated to getting Killing in the Name to number one."

And that was it. The whole process probably took less than 5 minutes. And, thanks to the power of social networking, the idea took off.

With nothing in the way of resources, against the phenomenal might of ITV and X Factor, Killing in the Name got to number 1.

Watching the campaign gather momentum over the space of a few days was interesting. Shortly after various types I follow on twitter had 1) dismissed it 2) stopped talking about it, I noticed a number of people outside the self-regarding snidey London media circle were enthusiastically promulgating the campaign with a view to doing one thing, and one thing only - giving Simon Cowell a bloody nose.

The game was on. And as it played out, the RATM campaign developed something Joe and the X Factor machine simply did not have - a narrative. Oh the irony.

X Factor's brilliance lies in the brutal emotional excavation of its participants. The show relentlessly drills into the humanity of each hopeful contestant and reduces them to excoriated, blubbering husks.

All in order to satiate our cravings for mawkish (and preferably visibly raw) trauma. And yet, when the challenge came, X Factor's ability to manipulate a story was found wanting.

Joe's a nice bloke, singing a terribly average song. He won the X Factor. He's going to be Christmas Number 1. He could be as big as Shane Ward or Alexandra Burke for a bit, then we can get excited about Britain's Got Talent. Yawn. Whereas with RATM, every day brought a new, shiny, sparkly development.

Amazon's selling it for 29p and it's still chart eligible!
Simon Cowell has dismissed it as "stupid"! 

RATM swore on the BBC!

RATM are ahead in the official midweek charts, but most X Factor singles are bought by kids and grannies on a Saturday, so Joe's going to have a late surge!

Will the snowy weather affect the kids and grannies shopping trips?! 

RATM have endorsed the campaign and will make a donation to a homeless charity on the back of the number of downloads sold!

The underdog has a genuine chance of pulling off a shock victory! Everyone is talking about it!

The sheer exhilaration of watching this campaign go from nothing, with what seemed like absolutely no chance, to one of the most life-affirming showbiz stories this decade is gently gratifying. It is confirmation of the excellent Caitlin Moran's maxim that pop music is simultaneously "the most important yet most ridiculous thing in the world".

Of course, unlike the twitter campaigns to protect our parliamentary democracy or challenge dinner-party bigots, getting RATM to No 1 doesn't really mean anything. But to be caught up in it, to buy that single for whatever excuse or reason you gave yourself was to briefly, ephemerally (and almost certainly conveniently) do the Right Thing, and you knew it.

It also proves that, thanks to social media, someone who comes along at exactly the right time with exactly the right idea, even if they have no money at all, can mobilise more than half a million people against cynical, anodyne, corporatised dross.

A book I'm reading at the moment quotes the American author Willa Cather as saying the purpose of art is to "imprison for a moment, the shining, elusive element which is life itself - life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose."

I wouldn't pretend for a second that downloading a shouty, sweary pop song as part of a mass protest against the grindingly boring prospect of yet another X Factor Christmas Number 1 is in any way art.

But the sentiment within Cather's statement, the delight in being able to witness an elegant, spontaneous and prescient idea turn into an odds-defying success through the sheer enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of people must be worth celebrating.

Well, that's what I think, anyway. Happy Christmas, y'all.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Live in the snow in Guildford

Well, we did it. And here's the proof... Okay to be honest, whilst we did set up outside in the dark, I did have a desk to broadcast from inside St Saviour's Church in Guildford. Every Friday the good people at St Saviour's provide a bacon roll for homeless people. This morning, as a Christmas treat, that was upgraded to a full English... Around 30 people turned up to eat, drink tea and coffee, and have a smoke on the steps of the church. The atmosphere was great, and the people we spoke to were very open about their situation. Craig, on the left in the photo above, is living in a shed at the bottom of the garden of an abandoned house with his girlfriend Dianne. Tinky, in the foreground of the photo above, lives at Vaughan House, a hostel on Chertsey Street in Guildford. I visited there earlier this week and heard the stories of people desperately trying to free themselves from the grip of alcohol addiction. We broadcast the results on the show this morning, along with other recordings I made at the YMCA and with the Street Angels. My thanks to the likes of Revd Andy Wheeler and Sally (below) from St Saviour's who made us all feel so very welcome. and my final, but heartfelt thanks to the idiot standing next to me below, Producer Karl, who worked tirelessly to get the show to air and, as you can see, keep me appraised of the time, all the time. I'm off now until 28 Dec, so this blog will be quiet for a bit. Have a great Christmas and be good!

Sunday, 29 November 2009


Hi - thanks for looking at this page. I now have a proper website with testimonials and more information about my availability for live event hosting.

Corporate interviewing for Brand Conversation 2014/5:

"We work with senior people in large businesses so it’s vital our team are professional, efficient, responsive, reliable and can manage clients' expectations while delivering the best service possible. Nick possesses all these qualities. He is great to work with and in particular his business interviewing abilities are highly skilled reflecting his friendly and intelligent personality, essential to relax interviewees and produce the best content." -- Russell Pockett, Production Director, Brand Conversation.

Hosting the Johnston Press South Business Awards at the London Gatwick Hilton 2015:

"We hold a number of events throughout the year, many of which are prestigious black tie events. We are all too aware of how important it is to have a speaker who is not only engaging, charismatic and professional but is also able to create an atmosphere and maintain it. We hired Nick Wallis for some of our regional business awards and he was all of the above. Not only did the audience love him but he knew exactly how to keep everything going, moving things along when needed, giving people time when needed, he was an absolute pleasure and professional to work with. I felt completely relaxed leaving Nick to run the stage and would not hesitate to use him again in future." -- Susie Marshall, Johnston Press South Events.

Roving reporter for the Sony Radio Academy Awards 2004 - 2009:

"Nick is a joy to work with and can self produce with just the shortest of briefings. We always know that he'll deliver just what we need - concise, witty, relevant reports and insightful interviews with just the right people. Nick is a real asset to the team and we're always glad to work with him." -- Georgina Hall, Sony Radio Academy Awards Secretariat.

Hosting Open Democracy Day at Reigate Town Hall, Oct 2009:

"It was with some trepidation I viewed our Democracy Day. Traditionally six schools send a group of 15-16 year olds for a Q+A session in the style of Question Time. The host must empathise with the pupils and be authoritative and focused with the panel. My fears were groundless as Nick Wallis took charge instantly. The mention of his work on Radio 1 had the students’ attention which he kept for whole session. The panel were given just enough time to make their points but allowed no deviation. We would certainly use him again if he is available – and I have learned a great way to warm up an audience!" -- Cllr Richard Mantle, Mayor of Reigate and Banstead.

Hosting Radio at the Edge 2008.

"Nick was an entertaining and effective host who spent time mastering the brief and understanding the topics under discussion. I would have no hesitation in recommending him as an MC and facilitator for any corporate event." -- Trevor Dann. Director, The Radio Academy.


Monday, 27 July 2009

Goodbye Five News

It isn't going anywhere, I am. It was my last shift yesterday so I thought I'd take some grainy, blurry shots of the place. Not everyone is aware that Five News is made at Sky News (above). The Sky compound is on a bleak industrial estate near Osterley, just off the A4. The Sky News building, whilst unlikely to be in the running for any architectural awards, is a thing of wonder. The Sky News studio takes up the bulk of the two floor building, and it is vast. There in the distance (above), is the tiny form of Chris Skudder, doing his weekend sports round up. Like many things you build up a familiarity with, it's easy to take such a work environment for granted, but really it is spectacularly odd, and grand, and Newsy. The Five News office is on the first floor and the Five News studio is much smaller than the almost operatic Sky set. The Five News weekend bulletins come from the mezzanine level within the Sky studio. And this (below) is what it looks like from the presenter's chair (the camera is just to the left of the shot - the big light above it was burning everything else out so I just took a pic of the monitors). I always wanted to work at Sky, just to see what it was like. Unfortunately living in North West London made it almost impossible to consider by public transport and pushbike.

When I moved to Walton on Thames and bought a scooter, Sky was just 11 miles up the road and suddenly nearer than my usual places of work - Newsbeat (W1) and 5 Live (TVC). When I got the opportunity to work for Five, I jumped at it.

I was granted a meeting with the then assistant editor on the recommendation of a colleague. What I thought would be a chat about the possibility of a few freelance shifts turned into quite an aggressive job interview. "Oh." I remember thinking. "That's that, then." But they called me up and offered me some production shifts and things slowly went from there.

I loved working at Five - the team were/are great, the sensibility fitted, the work ethic was incredible and the coffee bar does the best coffee I have ever tasted at a work canteen anywhere. And it was half an hour up the road. What's not to like?

I also learned an awful lot about television from the two editors I served under - Mark Calvert, who now appears to be running a television channel in Australia - and the current editor David Kermode, who has a very distinctive and coherent vision for what a news programme should do and say.

David is also famous for banning noddies - and if you want to see him sending this up in a leaving tape for an ex-colleague of his (who now happens to be my big boss at BBC South East) - it's here on youtube.


Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Oasis at Wembley Stadium - the interview

The gentleman above, with a soon-to-be-filled Wembley stadium as his backdrop, is Noel Gallagher, derivative rock star, genius behind the third biggest-selling uk album of all time, raconteur, wit and working class hero.

Briefly, my relationship with Oasis is this: Definitely Maybe comes out when I am 21 years old and a student in Liverpool. It soundtracks virtually everything I do for a good 12 months.

My first ever radio show - "The Weekend Spam"* on LJMU's student radio station Shout FM, had the long intro to "Rock n' Roll Star" as its opening music, because at the time, I didn't believe there was anything more likely to make anyone feel more alive in existence, anywhere.

What's the Story (Morning Glory) comes out and I'm an ex-fan. The music's lost its edge, Noel's not saying anything new, it's slipping comfortably towards the dadrock which reaches its nadir with The Verve's dinner party staple Urban Hymns (not that either of these are bad records - just that I would rather be listening to the Pixies, Jane's Addiction and Nick Cave).

At the point everyone seems destined to lose interest in Oasis, Wonderwall comes out as a single. It's picked up by commercial radio, and Just. Goes. Massive. From then on, Oasis aren't just a band, they're a phenomenon, and everyone knows what the story is...

The first time I saw them live was at Glastonbury in 2004 and they were mediocre. The next time was early 2005 at the Hammersmith Apollo and they were mediocre. The best part of the evening was after the concert when I saw Michael Eavis under the Hammersmith flyover.

I said to my friends: "That man standing on his own looking confused is almost certainly Michael Eavis. Let's try and found out who this year's Glastonbury headliners are." - or words to that effect.

Michael was sporting that unmistakeable beard, a lumberjack shirt, jeans and a pair of battered desert boots which had their laces undone. He looked unkempt and startled to be suddenly confronted with five people, all of whom started asking him questions about his evening: Michael - what on earth are you doing here? "I just wanted to see Oasis again - I thought they were very disappointing at Glastonbury and thought I'd give them another go." What did you think? "Nah, no, not very good. Not my thing." and so who is going to headline Glastonbury this year? "Now, you're not journalists are you?"

After a good chat (in which he didn't divulge who was headlining) he said: "Now, does anyone know the best way to get to Paddington - I've got to catch a train back to Castle Cary."

We stared at him as if he were joking - surely he was... but no, the (multi-millionaire?) founder of the Glastonbury festival, who had seemingly taken it upon himself to travel to London alone to see Oasis, in his 70th year, with no record company people to look after him - wanted directions to Paddington station. "Get a cab!" we said, almost in unison, and he started looking round for a cab, as if one might suddenly parachute off the flyover and land next to him with its light on, door open and driver saying through the window "Paddington, is it?".

A member of our group walked him to the nearest rank.

So, hop forward 4 years to last week when I got five days worth of showbiz shifts at London Tonight.

On Tuesday Max Velody, top producer, casually said "oh it's Noel Gallagher on Thursday at Wembley Stadium".

At that moment I was reminded why I got into showbiz reporting. Because it's fun. Noel Gallagher is the real deal. Whatever you think of him and his music, he has led a band which has lasted the distance over the past 16 years, and will, during the course of this short stadium tour, have easily surpassed the number of people they played to over three days at Knebworth, in 1996.

They are, live at least, more popular than ever. He is also very funny. Very few people can hold their own with Russell Brand - Noel does so with ease. If you ever heard the two of them together (Noel had a weekly guest slot on Russell's 6Music show and continued to appear on his Radio 2 show), you'll know what I mean.

A recent comment on an issue du jour from the stage in Coventry: "This Michael Jackson thing is dragging on a bit, isn't it? Who do they think he is, Jade Goody?"

I think that just about sums it up. Noel is also a willing pro. At every relevant gig on this tour he did the local TV media - outlets many stadium acts are far too quick to ignore - and because I was representing ITV London on the night the Oasis machine rolled into London, I got a few minutes of the great man's time.

We parked up in the bowels of Wembley stadium and were taken by a PR to Noel's dressing room. "Perfect" said the cameraman, eyeing the designer lamps, low-lighting and pretty orchids.

"No - let's do it in the stadium seats." I said. Why film an interview with a band at wembley stadium about a band playing wembley stadium in a room that could be anywhere?

The PR wanted us to do it in the dressing-room, as that's what she'd arranged, but I was adamant I wanted it in the stadium. It didn't help that my cameraman was loudly agreeing with the PR.

Eventually another PR came along and said she was sure Noel wouldn't mind walking up two floors.

On hearing this, and as the person with ultimate responsibility for the shoot, I overruled the cameraman, which left it 2 to 1 against the PR still holding out for the dressing room, with 1 abstention (thanks, mate).

The PR who thought the stadium would be a good idea led us to a lift and walked us out into the Royal Box. Perfect! Rock royalty in the royal box.

We were early, so we got to watch the band soundcheck for 45 minutes. No Liam. Liam doesn't soundcheck. Then the cameraman redeemed himself spectacularly. The crew after us were from BBC London and I knew the reporter, Jane Witherspoon, quite well. After we'd said hello, the cameraman suggested we pool resources and do a two camera shoot - allowing us to dispense with reverses and noddies - the two most humiliating and excruciating things about being a TV reporter.

I leapt at the idea and put it to Jane. She was cool and we set about working on how we were going to do it. In the end we decided my camera would shoot the principle and the BBC cameraman would be shooting the secondary (me/jane) and wides. After each interview we would start new tapes so we could both walk away with our own footage. The only problem was the BBC cameraman only had one tape, which was going to mean me dropping by BBC LDN reception to pick it up, until my cameraman, who had not only redeemed himself, but was now showing everyone up with his resourcefulness, explained the situation to the MTV crew who were interviewing Noel third, and sponged a tape off them.

The only stipulation I put down was that as we had arrived first, I got to be the one being filmed meeting Noel for real as he walked into the Royal Box.

Jane had to film their "meeting" shot after their interview. The interview itself was not earth-shattering. Noel can deliver some phenomenal copy, but most of it comes into a print reporter's tape recorder after a few drinks, or in a more relaxed chatty interview which has time to breathe, conducted by people he's met before. Getting good soundbites from Noel on radio is hard.

Hats duly tipped to: 1) Colin Paterson at 5 Live - whose interview with Noel on Jay-Z playing Glastonbury became big news and was played out to the crowd at Glastonbury at the beginning of Jay-Z's set - inadvertently becoming the highlight thereof.

2) Chris Moyles, who always gets the very best out of him. Getting good quotes in the incredibly sober, sterile, artificial environment of a pre-recorded 4-minute TV news interview is nigh on impossible, unless he is in the mood to say something. And on Thursday, he wasn't. Why would he want to give his best lines to me?

That's not to say he didn't give droll and interesting answers to my questions, just nothing earth-shattering. I called base and told them that we had taken a unilateral decision to bring forward the start date of Michael Grade's memorandum of understanding with regard to the sharing of newsgathering resources between ITN and the BBC at a local level.

I explained it would mean that the interview edit would be a million times better, but that the shot of Noel on ITN and BBC would be almost identical. I asked if that was likely to be a problem.

"No." said the editor. "Because we're on first."

Before we left, one of the PR ladies who we'd got increasingly chatty with during the soundcheck, asked if I'd like to go to the gig that evening. Hell, yes. The other PR then asked if Saturday were preferable.

Er, whatever, either... er... Saturday please. Blimey. You don't turn down a free ticket to see Oasis at Wembley Stadium. Not after having seen the inside of the new Wembley stadium for the first time. Not after interviewing the man who is about to fill it 3 times over. And so that was Thursday. Next entry, I would like to relate to you: Oasis at Wembley Stadium - Up There With One Of The Best Gigs Ever, with a full scientific explanation as to why.

* I would like to think that this was an early, prescient nod to the junk email phenomenon that has become the scourge of the internet, but I seem to remember we used it in its original sense as an unappetising, nutritionally-bereft, canned piece of stodge. Titterific.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Florence and the Machine, Harry Potter premiere, Fourth Plinth and a new job

It's all been a bit busy recently. On Monday the press release about me getting a new job went out, after the staff at BBC Surrey were told by the station manager. I'll blog about how exactly that came about in a few days, as it deserves its own entry, but dealing with the release seemed to be a whole world of fun in itself.

Obviously, I'm thrilled about getting the gig, and considerably taken aback by the number of people who have got in touch on Facebook and Twitter (and one old-fashioned but very welcome call on the phone!) to offer variations on a congratulations theme.

I've been sitting on the news for some time and had to take the decision in something of an advice vacuum, as there weren't many people I could tell. Anyway - that was Monday - same day as I was reporting on the launch of Antony Gormley's fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square. I've been meaning to blog for some time that I've got a place on the plinth myself, at the behest of London Tonight.

A few months back the planning desk asked the organisers if it would be possible to get a reporter up there. The organisers said "no, but you are more than welcome to enter the ballot". So an email went round to all the ITV regions from the London desk asking all reporters to apply, because the number of places available on the plinth are divvied up equally, geographically.

So if you live in Cumbria, statistically you've got a much better chance in the ballot that anyone who applies in the London region. I applied, and because I appear to be quite spawny at the moment, I got a place (and a good slot too - 5pm on Thu 30th July). This was very well receieved by the planning desk, and I was pleased that it was mission accomplished, but, to be honest with you, it's not really my thing.

This meant I wasn't really ready for the reaction, with everyone who knew about it excitedly asking "what are you going to do?", to which my answer was "a news report, probably".

This reached a culmination of ridiculousness on Monday when I mentioned my own slot on the plinth to Antony Gormley Himself (whose concept this whole thing is) just before I interviewed him. He suddenly became animated and said: "Really?! Congratulations! What are you going to do?" 

"Well, a news report, probably." I replied.

"Ah, of course." he said, like this would be something that would never occur to him.

The 30th July is my last day at London Tonight, and so it makes sense to have a drink with my soon-to-be-ex-colleagues afterwards, but for some reason my family want to come to London to witness me standing around like a lemon in Trafalgar Square.

I have managed to dissuade my father and wife from coming, but my mother is made of sterner stuff and remains determined to see her son mooching about on a piece of stone for an hour. I have tried to tell her it will be dull, and I will be working all day on making a TV piece leading up to it, and probably doing a live for London Tonight immediately afterwards, but she thinks this is worth travelling up to London for.

And now apparently my sister and her family are coming down from Oxfordshire too. Don't get me wrong, it's a phenomenal achievement to be chosen at random by a computer, but, as I said, not my sort of thing.

Still, I was very happy with the piece that went out on Monday, filmed inbetween dealing with the BBC press office on the final draft of the presser, and edited whilst trying to tell my bosses at ITV I was leaving.

Yesterday I met Florence off of Florence and the Machine for a second time before covering the Harry Potter premiere. It's exactly a day like this you don't need after deciding to leave the world of television.

I basically got paid to watch the new Harry Potter movie, go to the beautiful old Rivoli ballroom in Lewisham to hang out with a pop star and then straight to Leicester Square to meet Daniel Radcliffe for a red carpet live into the programme.

I have moaned about premieres in the past, and been picked up on it by the PRs, who are rightfully protective of their event, but this one was amazing.

The whole of Leicester Square had been taken over by more camera crews I've seen since the launch of Live 8, and the fans who gathered were just unbelievably loud. It was all set for an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular when the most extraordinary cloudburst threw everything it had at London.

We had thunder, lightening, hail and torrential, torrential rain. Despite all this, the PRs ferried all the stars around the sodden red carpet, sticking to the myriad live and pre-recorded commitments and delivering Daniel Radcliffe to me bang on time as we went live on the programme.

Concentration-wise these premieres are difficult enough for us to deal with, but for the stars it must be total madness, blinded by flashbulbs, deafened by screaming, tugged this way and that by PRs and then plonked in front of different crews from all over the world, all asking varying qualities of question for totally different audiences and expecting suave, witty, confident, urbanity from the poor actor they're pointing a camera at. Add the imminent threat of a lightening strike, and you're getting close to what happened yesterday.

I got Daniel as the cue was being read in the studio and so had 10 seconds to shake his hand, tell him I'd do a brief introduction then introduce him into shot. He took the time out to ask which outlet I represented and then took it on himself to be enthusiastic, articulate, thoughtful and friendly throughout the interview - namechecking London Tonight in one of his answers and making light of the appalling conditions.

Daniel Radcliffe is 19 years old. Frightening, isnt' it?


Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Honey bees and child abuse

Today's filming began on a 14th century country estate and ended on a 1970s council estate.

Phil and I drove from our hotel to Tregothnan near Truro, where the country's most expensive honey is produced. It's the first manuka honey to be made outside New Zealand and it costs £55 for a little jar.

The people at Tregothnan are very nice. Whilst we were waiting for our chaperone, we were allowed to take over part of the estate office and set up our edit "suite". Eventually we were led to the manuka bushes and hives. The manuka blossom was out (a stroke of luck as it only flowers for 6 weeks a year) and the bees were being transferred into a new 6 foot tall designer hive (below).

Unfortunately there was only one spare protective suit. Phil got it whilst he went in close on the hives. I kept a safe distance until it was my turn to interview the bee-keeper, a young, knowledgeable lad called Will. Having started getting what we needed the phone went.

"Finish filming and get to Plymouth now. A nursery teacher has been arrested for distributing indecent images of children" said the boss.

"Fine," I said, "but we haven't finished here - there's not enough in the can for a package."

"Okay, call you back in two." he said. Two minutes later: "You've got an hour, then get to Plymouth." said the boss.

An hour later we were charging towards Plymouth, liaising with Sky's Bristol-based reporter Katie Stallard. She was up on all the phone calls - demanding interviews from the police, council and chasing up a contact who might be one of the mums with children at the nursery.

She was also on to Ofsted, finding out if they were satisfied the staff at the nursery we went to had been properly CRB checked. When we arrived Phil leapt out and started filming. Crews and satellite trucks were starting to arrive. I was down for a live, but it soon became apparent we had enough for a package.

Parents of toddlers were hanging round the nursery (and the school attached to it) demanding to know what was going on, and they were very angry.

Katie arrived and we found ourselves with a sat truck, a live camera and 2 ENG (roving) crews. I was told to film a piece to camera, write a script and send track and rushes to base at 4pm whilst Katie did some newsgathering.

Then she would hog the transmission path for lives whilst I went and found out what I could. It all worked very smoothly. The strength of feeling from the parents made their voxes very powerful, the piece to camera was visually and verbally informative and had a line that I had got out of the police about exactly where they suspected the alleged crimes may have been committed which I think had eluded the other outlets.

I filed the script on a live line to base in one take. Whilst Katie was doing her live I used the truck's P2 flash drive recorder to view and choose the two best voxes and called my producer Laura as she sat in the edit suite putting the piece together in London.

As Five News was going out I got in a Sky cameraman's car as Katie was attached to more lives. We had been given the name and address of the suspect by a snapper, and we were also looking for the location of a community meeting which was supposedly going to be held by police to give worried parents more information.

Katie had heard it might start around 7pm and one parent had told me it might be at a church hall, but she hadn't heard which one, so I googled nearby church halls and we drove off in search of the right one. We drove round for a bit and then I got out of the van to have a chat with a young woman who told me she didn't know anything about a meeting but the police often held community briefings at a nearby church. We drove straight round and saw the vicar getting out of his car. I asked if he was holding the community meeting at his church.

"We might well be but you'll have to ask the police about it." he said.

I asked him what time it would start. He said he didn't know. I ran back to the van and said we had the venue. Just then the police turned up and we got a shot of the police and the vicar opening up the church.

The police, who'd refused to give us the venue location all day realised the game was up and I asked the most senior-looking copper if the meeting started at 7pm - he confirmed that it did. I called the Sky newsdesk immediately as this gave us a new line (confirmation of the residents' meeting, its time and location) for their 6pm live and a new location for both our 7pm lives.

The sky cameraman drove the pictures back to the sat truck and we then went off in search of the suspect's house, which was pretty easy with a road name, although one of the local newspaper journalists annoyed me by refusing to confirm to me the exact address of the suspect's house when we were virtually on her doorstep.

Oh how happy I was when she came running up to me 5 minutes later asking if I knew anything about a public meeting which her newsdesk had heard about after watching Sky. I said she had better contact the police.

We got some shots of the suspect's house, drove back to the church and started preparing for the live. Because the police had asked parents to bring photo id with them to the meeting, when the doors opened at 7pm it took them ages to get into the church.

As a result we had a great backdrop of a queue of angry and very concerned parents waiting to find out exactly what had happened to their children - much better than the other outlets who were still stuck down the hill outside the nursery.

I'm sorry if any of the above sounds glib or flippant - I am aware that any story about child abuse will be sickening and appalling for those caught up in it. I made it my business to respectfully approach all the parents - and was treated equally politely.

My live was at 7.10pm. Katie Stallard was top story on the the 7pm prog which tends to go for shorter lives. As we were sharing a satellite path, it meant as soon as she finished I had to grab her mike and audio comms whilst Sky switched us over to the Five gallery.

I had to give them audio level, then audio level on camera to check sync. By this time my piece was going out so I had about 30s to get the position right and double check whether or not I was picking up straight off my piece or being asked a question. It all worked fine.

As soon as we were done I got in Phil's car and he drove me to the station, before we parted he gave me his precious P2 card with the bees rushes on it. I bought a ticket, got a horrible sausage sandwich from the Spar and sat in a daze all the way back to Reading.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Working at the Sony Radio Academy Awards

Look! It's me and DCI Gene Hunt! It doesn't get better than that. That was the only time I abused my position last night. I was reporting from the floor of the Great Room at the Grosvenor House Hotel for the Sony webcast and as such got to tap the top talent on the shoulder and talk to them. Post-interview, Philip Glenister very graciously agreed to my idiot request for a photo too. The webcast is an effectively an OB and run as such. Radio 2's Richard Allinson and Capital's Margherita Taylor co-present it, Xfm's Marsha Shandur womans the messageboard and I leg it around downstairs. It's produced by the brilliant Alison Rusted and Fiona Cotterill who form Alfi Media and it's kept on air by a small army of technicians. Essentially it's an av feed of the ceremony itself (this year hosted for the first time by Chris Evans) with Eurovision-style commentary over the top by Richard and Margherita. Around this we build a good two hours worth of interviews, comment and messageboard reaction and, having dotted the eyes and crossed the tees, we head to the bar to be astounded by the insanely expensive drinks. This is the fourth year I've done it, and it is one of the best gigs of the night because you get a ringside seat to the action, you can get a flavour of what its like on the floor and thanks to the fact you're holding a microphone you can pretty much decide who the most interesting person in the room is and go and talk to them. This year I interviewed Chris Evans, Alex James, Philip Glenister, Radio 2 Controller Bob Shennan, Radio 3 Sony Gold winner Stephen Johnson, the Chief Executive of the Prison Radio Association, whose station Electric Radio Brixton won two golds, Simon Mayo, Mark Radcliffe, Olly and Helen (the presenters of the very funny nominated podcast Answer Me This), and, wearing his BBC World Service hat (not literally, though a BBC World Service hat would be be a good idea), the superb broadcast journalist Alan Little. Everyone was more than happy to do a turn for us. Alex James even stood up and hugged me when I interrupted his dinner, which was a surprise, as I was wondering if he'd even remember me. For me the highlight was meeting Mark Radcliffe. The guy is a legend and his late night Radio 1 show was so much a part of my youth. He gave a brilliant interview and to win two Sony golds, one as a producer of the Count Arthur Strong comedy show on Radio 4, and one as Music Broadcaster of the Year on Radio 2 emphasizes just how bloody good he is. The paps wanted to photograph Philip Glenister and Chris Evans (who as well as hosting also won two sonys) posing together, the hacks were taken by the story of Electric Radio Brixton winning two sonys, but for me (as a fanboy and radio anorak) Mark Radcliffe winning two golds in two completely different disciplines on the same evening (is this beginning to sound like a sports report?) was something very special. The other extraordinary and quite brilliant thing that happened was that my contemporary (actually the swine is much younger than me), fellow blogger and web hoster of the News Show (which will be revived the moment I can find a spare day) Matt Deegan won a Sony Gold for his radio station Fun Kids. I've blogged before about the gargantuan effort that goes into winning a top award (and a sony gold is unarguably the top accolade in the radio industry), but it bears repeating. First of all it, whatever it is, has to be just about the best thing in the industry and worth of winning an award. Then you have to go through the process of making your entry reflect "it", by being as good as it can be. This takes time, money and, often, days of research. Then you have to hope you've got the right judges in place. To get through this process and emerge with a gold in your hands is a brilliant achievement and it couldn't happen to a more deserving person. Well done Matt, you did yourself proud.

Monday, 11 May 2009


For anyone wishing to keep a check on my movements, I will be at the Sony Radio Academy Awards on Monday, reporting for the live webcast. My fourth time, I think. If you're going to be there, do come and say hello. On Tuesday I'll be at Leicester Square on the red carpet for a live with Ricky Gervais and possibly Ben Stiller for London Tonight. It's the premiere of Night At The Museum 2, which I am going to see tomorrow with the legendary Marsha Shandur off of Xfm, who will also be doing lots of texty twittery things on the above Sony Webcast.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Radio 1's Big Weekend. With kids.

Not "the" kids, who were there in their thousands, worshipping at the Radio 1 altar, but our kids, who don't yet know Radio 1 exists.

My wife Nic works at Radio 1, and therefore qualified for a pair of guest tickets, so we chose Saturday and brought our little ones, aged 4 (Amy) and 1 (Abi).

We aimed to take them last year for the Madonna one in Maidstone, but I was asked to do Nolan for 5 live that weekend, and Nic didn't feel she could take them both on her own. Wise.

We had limited ambition for the day. Get there at 12 noon, leave around 8pm-ish, see a few colleagues and ex-colleagues, and maybe, just maybe, catch a few bands. Hmm.

Getting there was fine. By the time we arrived at 12.45pm (having thoroughly enjoyed Vernon Kay's childish excitement at the possibilities the site webcams provided) the park-and-ride car park was full and we were into the overspill. This entailed a yomp with the buggy, buggy board, rucksack and shoulder-mounted-baby-carrier-cum-backpack (is there a proper name for these?) most of which we had brought out of retirement for the day.

The nice men and lady stewards and the nice men running the park-and-ride buses could not have been nicer, and all the other ticket-holders were suitably indulgent of and possibly amused at our family outing.

As Vernon pointed out (via the various texts he was getting from listeners looking at the webcams) the odd thing about the crowd at this event is that everyone is paired up, because that's how the tickets are given away. So people really do start the event wandering around in couples.

When the park-and-ride bus reached its drop off point there was another half hour walk to the site. We got there, got our wristbands and got in just in time for Daniel Merriweather. I took Amy in to the big tent and watching her taking it all in was moving. I pointed a few things out and she stayed very quiet, overwhelmed by the scale of things.

We left mid-way through Daniel's first song to get into the guest area and say hello to a few people. Abi was off as soon as her feet touched the floor and Amy started to get eggy, but there were plenty of parents and kids around. I had a brief chat with Nihal's wife whose little one is a month older than Abi, and then had to entertain Amy by taking her to the Live Lounge bar in the guest area where JLS were soundchecking.

This was more on a scale she could cope with and she was happy to watch JLS soundcheck Stand By Me (twice) and then perform it for real. I was happy she was happy.

At various stages of the afternoon I had brief chats with the legend that is Dylan White from Anglo plugging, my old boss Shabs, my old boss Rod McKenzie and a multitude of other people from Newsbeat, but it was not a time for sitting down with a flimsy cup of weak lager and catching up.

When we finally got everything together, dumped the buggy and headed out into the main arena for a look round, I was very impressed by the scale of the event and the sheer effort that goes into making sure every base is covered for every sort of listener.

The BBC and Radio 1 branding is omnipresent, but subtle, and the cross-BBC sub-brands (In New Music We Trust, Introducing, Switch, Three etc) were all there doing their thing and doing it very well.

Away from the 4 main stages (main, outdoor, In New Music We Trust, Introducing) there were tents and an open top bus for Switch (signed "No Olds!"), as well as all the usual concessions. There was also a local council arts initiative which had a load of juggling sticks, unicycles and hula hoops for people to pick up and try. Amy loved having a go at plate balancing. Then she went into the Switch area (which I thought was aimed at teenagers, but not just so) where she got to make her own sticker.

It was great to give the girls their first experience of dealing with the sensory assault of a festival. The echoey, loud music, the lights and screen and the mass of people. Abi thought the man dressed as a chicken was great and Amy took delight in the various inflatables she spotted (banana, dolphin etc).

The signing tent was popular, just as much for the DJs as the artists, and you really get a sense of the connection the listeners have with the DJs as much as the bands at this event.

By mid-afternoon Amy was getting listless and when she refused to eat some of her favourite food, we realised something was up. She had a temperature and we decided we were going to have to go home early.

Nic went to say some goodbyes and I stayed out in the main area on our picnic rug looking after Abi whilst Amy went to sleep.

Total "live" music experienced: Half a Daniel Merriweather song One JLS song, three times 2 halves of two Chris Moyles songs, plus Dom and Dave's effort. Zane Lowe doing his thing on the outdoor stage.

Then the fun started. We put Amy in the buggy and Abi on my shoulders to walk out of the venue at around 6pm. Having trekked the half hour back to the bus point (with a surprisingly large number of punters who had clearly decided they wanted to get home for tea), we were told the buses to the park-and-ride were departing from a different point "ten minutes walk" away.

The route of this "ten minute walk" was clearly signposted and stewarded, so we followed it. On the way we had started questioning the stewards who had assured us we were heading in the right direction, but also that there were no buses running to the park and ride at all at the moment because variously "the drivers are having a break", "the buses need refuelling", "we don't know, we just got told to send you this way".

One of them also said when we got to where we were meant to be going there were no direct buses to the park-and-ride. We'd have to get a bus into the town centre and then one out to the park-and-ride.

Senses of humour were beginning to fail at this point. Eventually we arrived at the back of a shopping centre and were directed to a bus stop by some more stewards. But there were no buses. A scheduled town bus turned up and began trying to charge people for tickets. People refused and started "politely explaining" the line they'd been spun whilst hacking their way through Swindon's suburbs for the past 40 minutes.

Driver knew nothing about it, and evidently didn't care. He radioed back to base. Base told him we'd been sent to the wrong spot by the stewards, despite the fact the last of the stewards was in sight of where we were.

The driver told us that he'd been told there were never going to be any buses to the park and ride from where we were, but if we went 5 minutes walk up the road to a specific underpass, they'd all be waiting for us there. No one knew where he was trying to send us and people were not happy. Amy was asleep throughout all this, thank goodness, but Abi had gone from gurgly and happy to weepy and screamy, which wasn't so nice.

Eventually someone from Swindon spoke to the driver and said that indeed the underpass in question was 5 minutes away and he would lead us there. I thought this could well be a wild goose chase, but nothing was going to happen were we were, so we set off in a group of about a hundred. After 10 more minutes of walking, having crossed two dangerous roads and lifted the buggy up a load of steps I was knackered and fuming.

Nic caught sight of a hotel and I noted the phone number on the side of a passing minicab. I called them minicab firm and got them to pick us up at the hotel. The taxi back to our car cost a tenner. We got the kids into their pyjamas in Membury services disabled toilet, bought some Calpol for Amy and listened to Dizzee Rascal's set on Trevor's show on the way home. It sounded brilliant. He also managed to specifically thank Radio 1's Big Weekend, which was impressively on-message, especially given Vernon managed to call it One Big Weekend twice on his show in the morning.

Radio 1 switched the event name from One Big Weekend to Radio 1's Big Weekend a few years back for obvious reasons, but One Big Weekend is such a resonant brand it's been hard to shift it in peoples' minds.

Dizzee's ability to rock a very large tent very very well was confirmed when we got back, put the kids to bed, poured a couple of drinks and settled down in front of the telly to listen to his set again with the added bonus of pictures. Apart from the unexpected endurance training, I enjoyed myself. Nic less so.

She had arranged during the week to see a few of her colleagues and whilst we managed to see one or two, most of them were working in various parts of the site. Co-ordinating a simple meet up with 2 kids in tow was tough. I hadn't arranged to meet anyone, so when I did bump into people it was a Brucey bonus, and spending some time with tha nippas is always time well spent, even though Amy was ill.

Amy was still under the weather today and didn't mention the event at all, but just before bed she was lying on her duvet looking at the plastic Hawaiian flower garland in her dressing up basket.

"Daddy...?" she said. "Yes?" "If we go to the Radio 1 Big Weekend again, next time I think I will take my flower necklace."

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Memorable career-related incidents so far

In no particular order:

1) Presenting a paper on media outreach to a conference of rocket scientists at the 2nd Appleton Space Conference at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory alongside (and at the behest of) Alex James from Blur.

2) Being asked to cover for Richard Bacon whilst he was off on honeymoon. Three weeks straight presenting on 5 live - everything I had been working towards for 10 years of my career. Shame it didn't lead to anything more regular.

3) Interviewing Nick Cave at the premiere of The Proposition. You should never meet your heroes, but he was everything I wanted him to be - self-possessed, wary, polite, funny and swaying in a charmingly deranged way.

4) Working as a runner on Ricky Gervais' show on Xfm before The Office was even thought of. Nine months of telling people the man was a comedy genius and then 3 years later, everyone suddenly agreeing.

5) Being paid to watch Radiohead and Morrissey at the V Festival in Chelmsford in 2006. Also blagging tickets to see the Pixies in Chelmsford in 2004. Still probably my favourite ever gig.

6) Being asked if I wanted to start reporting for London Tonight and subsequently, Five News, in the space of 4 months.

7) Being elected Chair of the Student Radio Association and persuading Matthew Bannister to launch the Radio 1 Student Radio Awards.

8) Being invited by The Queen to a "reception for the media and arts" at Windsor Castle in 1999 (presumably because I was Chair of the SRA, but I never found out how or why). I arrived on the train with George Martin and walked up to the castle two yards behind him too tongue-tied to speak.

This theme continued as I found myself in close proximity to Dawn French, Michael Caine, Joanna Lumley, Joan Collins, Shirley Bassey, Wendy Richards and Kenneth Branagh, among others.

Eventually rescued from staring at the wall by Thomas Prag - a radio industry exec who introduced me to other radio execs Trevor Dann and Richard Park. As they were being polite to me, we were interrupted by a nice middle-aged lady who chatted to us for bit about Radio 4 and then disappeared. Turns out it was Princess Alexandra.

As I was leaving I walked through the newly-restored St George's Chapel and turned around for one last look. Booker Prize winner Ben Okri clapped me on the shoulder and said "That's right - take it all in. What a night." before wandering off, chuckling to himself.

8) Being asked if I wanted a job in London by PR and music mogul Shabs Jobanputra. My first real, and best ever boss (except, of course, for my current ones) and an absolute visionary.

9) Hanging around with a Radio 1 microphone "backstage" at a North London venue whilst waiting for a Pete Doherty interview. After watching various people fiddling with small wraps of silver paper, Mr Doherty staggered out of the toilet and I was granted an audience. He told me he was leaving The Libertines for good, which was news to The Libertines. Hard to believe now that this was a big story at the time.

10) Watching Harry Hill and Al Murray's Pub Internationale gig at the Neptune theatre in Liverpool, interviewing them backstage for my student radio station and then taking them to meet their friends at the Casablancas night club, as I was the only person present who knew where it was. I interviewed Al Murray at the This Morning studios several years later and he still remembered how dodgy Casablancas was.

11) Pitching and producing a well-received London Tonight piece by Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre on the MMR vaccine.

12) In the first few days of working at Television Centre in 2001 Paul Weller politely held a door open for me. Never more in my life have I more felt like Wayne and Garth backstage at an Aerosmith gig.

13) Staging a guerilla gig with Mercury-nominated ace violinist Seth Lakeman at Glastonbury. We actually pulled together a decent-sized crowd and it seemed to generally enhance the Glastonbury experience for everyone present. And we got a decent TV news package out of it.

14) Approaching John Barnes at the height of his godlike powers (alright they were slightly on the wane) in a bar in Liverpool and persuading him to promise to drop by our student radio station and do an interview on an anti-racism campaign he was fronting. 2 days later, bless him, he turned up.

15) Watching a band called Coldplay perform second on the bill to 200 people above a pub in Oxford. To be fair the secret was already out by that stage, but it still felt like we were witnessing the start of something big.

16) Writing a sitcom called "Touched" with Bex Palmer. It took weeks. Feedback from BBC broadly supportive, changes suggested, none made. Sitcom now in attic.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Civilians and Muggles

It was apparently Liz Hurley who let the cat out of the bag when she revealed the contempt celebrities have for "ordinary" people by calling them "civilians". I couldn't find the direct quote on google, which suggests it might be like the apocryphal Peter Mandelson "avocado mousse" line. Nonetheless, she's never denied it.

The term is in current usage. Matt Damon dropped it into an MSNBC interview, and the veteran DJ and remixer Arthur Baker used it when I interviewed him at Creamfields in 2004 when talking about a hotel for DJs and performers he was hoping to open in Brixton that "wouldn't be for civilians".

There is now a better one doing the rounds on the panto/musical theatre/holiday park entertainment troupe circuit. The new term for civilian is Muggle.

Lifted, of course, straight from Harry Potter, it describes someone who isn't touched by the magic of showbiz, an ordinary person, a Muggle.

I found this out yesterday, in conversation with a comedian friend.

Me: "Are you still seeing that girl you really liked, the legal secretary?"
Him: "No, she dumped me."
Me: "You're kidding."
Him: "I know, dumped by a f****** Muggle."

That's what they call us, you, the paying public. I asked where he heard the term "Muggle" first.

Him: "The Aussie actress I did panto with. She'd finished with her boyfriend, so I asked her who she had her eye on next. She said 'No one, really. I might just go and f*** some random Muggle.'"



Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Ben Goldacre on ITV1's London Tonight

Broadcast on 9 Mar 2009 Written and presented by Dr Ben Goldacre Produced by Nick Wallis

Nick Wallis's blog on The Making Of this piece here. Comments welcome.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Bad Science the Movie on London Tonight

That was exhausting. I blogged about the back story to this here. Having done so I realised it might make a good piece for London Tonight.

After all, the broadcast was made on a London radio station and immunisation rates for the MMR vaccine in London have fallen from around 90% to around 50% in a few short years. It's therefore a public health issue, especially relevant to Londoners.

The day after I wrote the blog piece I pitched it to Stuart Thomas, the editor at London Tonight. This would be an authored television package, which in broadcast news-speak means an opinion piece presented by a non-reporter. Stuart liked the idea and commissioned it.

I emailed Ben Goldacre (seen here working hard in ITV's media lounge at Gray's Inn Road) and got a positive response. After a long chat on the phone we agreed a filming date (not easy when dealing with a full-time NHS doctor who has a very healthy journalism career already) and set about finding the elements.

The main people to try and get involved were Jeni Barnett and/or her employers LBC (the radio station who effectively sparked the story when they got their lawyers onto Ben) and Norman Lamb, the MP who felt the issue was important enough to put down an early day motion in the house of commons.

I got the planning desk to call Norman Lamb's office and was delighted to find he was available on the day we were filming. I also emailed Jonathan Richards, the big cheese at LBC to see if Jeni were available to be interviewed by Ben, or failing that, if Jonathan would speak to Ben.

Jonathan was courteous, but was not prepared to put anyone up for interview. I can see why he didn't (I think they just want this story to go away now), but it would have made fascinating viewing if he had.

Incidentally both Ben himself and Jeni's agent Robert told me that Jonathan had invited Ben onto Jeni's programme to discuss MMR, but Ben has so far refused. Again I think I can see why.

The context of any debate (ie the medium, the media) is just as important to the protagonists as the content. The internet has democratised the delivery of a point of view to the extent that a successful blogger can build a significant powerbase that allows them to get their message across without having to jump at every airtime opportunity that comes their way.

If you believe the media is biased then why wouldn't you do everything you can to control the medium through which you attempt to get your message? I  believe the personal is political, and therefore every action and utterance anyone ever makes has an inherent bias - the best we can do is to monitor and if necessary redress how people in the supposedly neutral media manifest their biases, especially the unconscious ones. It's an impossible task, as it's human behaviour. But that's yer paradox.

Jonathan said he would provide us with a statement via the LBC press office, which I was grateful for. Like all my dealings with LBC on this story the press officer I spoke to was as friendly and helpful as I could expect him to be.

Having worked out what we were and weren't going to get from the filming I set about drafting a script. After doing so I got involved in a near-stand up row with another reporter in the newsroom who revealed her dislike of Ben ("too superficial" I think she claimed, before I directed her to his blog, which she hadn't read) and trotted out similar lines to many of the things Jeni said in her broadcast, adding words to the effect that:

a) double-blind scientific testing cannot be trusted
b) every child is different and no one can prove that the MMR jab hasn't given children autism
c) how can a perfectly healthy child have the jab, suddenly regress horribly into autism and the two events not be related?

I was gobsmacked. Anyway the script went to Ben three days before filming. When I hadn't got anything back 48 hours later I was starting to get jumpy. Thankfully, on the night before we were due to meet, Ben sent back his thoughts.

Working off my original template his script was a) better than mine and b) editorially in the same ballpark, which was a considerable relief.

He also didn't lay down any pre-conditions for script-lines or filming, which was a godsend as it meant we could at least attempt to work together.

 Filming was exhausting. We started at 12.45pm on Thursday outside the Millbank media centre and finished some time past 7pm, working right through. Norman Lamb met us first and Ben arrived soon after in a taxi. We got the interview filmed with Norman and then went into some set up shots before saying goodbye. It was the first time Ben and Norman had met and there was some polite mutual respect going on.

I stayed in the background, checking Gemma had her shots whilst Ben and Norman chatted. Then we had to film the multiple pieces to camera (PTCs) that made up the bulk of the rest of the piece. For these we stuck closely to the script, filming in Soho and Leicester Square before making our way back to Gray's Inn Road to film the interior sequences.

Ben is a natural with a very expressive face and an ability to do most of his pieces to camera first time of asking. Not that they were in the can first time of asking as there was always something to discuss, re-do and improve, whether it was a technical change, script suggestion or an interruption beyond our control like background noise.

Whilst also trying to get the piece done I was trying to arrange filming for the following day on a completely different story in Hackney and trying to get the lawyer to tell me if anything about the latest version of the script needed radical surgery, as we only had Ben and his voice for the rest of the afternoon.

Thankfully the lawyer was happy and I could let Ben go knowing we were basically covered. Ben recorded some track and a bong (only after being reminded to do so by a colleague as we were just about to say goodbye) and we went our separate ways. To cut a long story short the piece got to air the following Monday, but not before a lot more lawyering, more communication between myself and LBC, myself and Jeni's agent and a final referral to a different ITN lawyer who insisisted on removing what I thought was a completely innocuous section regarding, er, radioactive paedophiles.

I knew this would upset Ben as he had been looking forward to saying radioactive paedophiles on television. I texted him to warn him and received the message:

"This is a massive fail." I know Ben, I know...

I got lots of props in the debrief for the story, and for my other piece (the one I was trying to organise) which led the programme, although by that stage I was too completely knackered and confused by working on two stories at once (especially as we neared TX) to point out that both pieces only got there because of a long list of people who helped out massively. Stuart, Faye, Becky, Tracey, Toby, Hannah, Nicolette, Gemma, Bill, Sophia, Nigel, Ken, Tobias, John, Glenn and of course the good doctor himself: thank you. I'll post the link to the relevant video as soon as I know where it is.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bad Science and LBC

Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre) is someone I first became aware of through his excellent Guardian column, which I used to read when I picked up a copy of the newspaper.

Ben's central belief (explained here more fully) is that newsrooms are effectively run by clueless humanities graduates who wouldn't know how to question the scientific veracity of the nutritional claims on the side of a cereal packet.

Ben decided to take a stand when he realised that uninformed media reporting was actively damaging public debate over important scientific issues.

This had three main effects:

1) The degrading of the reputation of scientists and the practice of science (and it is thanks to science your car works, your cancer is cured and you are reading this blog post. It's not because of religion, or crystals).

2) The growth industry of quacks, alternative healers and pseudo-scientists who spout stuff that sounds right, provide a few of their own case studies and suddenly find themselves on television making fortunes from credulous members of the public.

3) The real danger to individual lives a growing ignorance of science can foster, particularly when making decisions about things like medical care and immunisation.

Unfortunately, whilst science in its purest form can do incredible things, lead to astounding discoveries and regularly changes our lives for the better, it has too often been used as a business tool by those who only wish to see scientific progress if it grows markets and makes profits. When this works together for the benefit of humanity it is a truly wondrous thing.

When it is misappropriated to grow market share, it sucks (read this blog entry on pharmaceutical happy drugs (SSRIs) by a traumatised user). But the swing against the received wisdom of science in recent decades has been horrendous.

All sorts of extraordinary hippy shit has not only been given credence by its media exposure, but it started gaining a toe-hold amongst politicians and academics who gave it the credibility it craves. This week's Private Eye quotes course notes from a University of Westminster undergraduate module on vibrational medicine which reveals students are taught the following "[amethyst] emits high yin energy so transmuting lower energies and clearing and aligning energy disturbances at all levels of being".

The article is reprinted on the excellent Improbable Science website which is a prime example of scientists belatedly, and at last successfully, taking the fight to the quacks.

So Ben Goldacre decided to draw a line in the sand. Adopting the cunning guise of the very humanities graduates he aims to expose (despite being a practising NHS doctor and one time visiting researcher in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Milan), Ben comes across like an affable, articulate and determinedly bemused debunker of pseudo-science.

He writes well, he speaks engagingly and he has, I think, been at the forefront of the recent willingness in the media to think a lot harder about repeating claims that don't have any peer-reviewed scientific evidence to back them up.

Knowing this makes it easier to understand Ben's reaction to a recent broadcast by Jeni Barnett on the London commercial talk radio station LBC.

I first found out about it in the popbitch weekly email, and I have pasted the relevant section from that weekly email below:

LBC bloke throws toys out of pram

Guardian Bad Science columnist, Dr Ben Goldacre, recently blogged about an LBC show by Jeni Barnett. Unimpressed by what she was saying about MMR, Goldacre posted up the audio of the show so that his readers could judge it for themselves. LBC got the legal heavies on to him about it. The result? A small story became a huge to-do on the web, newspapers picked up on it and hundreds of blogs around the world took up the story, transcribed Barnett's interview, played the audio etc. One of the station's top execs then rang Goldacre to vent, telling him: "You were on my list of people to contact. I was thinking of giving you your own show... but you've RUINED THAT NOW." Needless to say, we're sure Dr Ben must be heart-broken.


To read Ben's perspective on LBC's legal action take a look at this. To read Ben's version of the above exchange click here and go to the bottom of the entry, but in reality it's an unimportant sideshow, so please don't do it until you've read the whole story.

In short, Ben has played a blinder. He is very much the little guy, the gifted amateur with little other than a) a solid reputation b) a total understanding of the facts c) lots of very bright, very tech-savvy, very influential and opinionated followers.

As things stand this is far from over. Dr Ben's latest entry suggests things might escalate. Questions are being asked in The House, you know.


Friday, 6 February 2009

Mucking about in the snow again

Long day. Actually too tedious to get into, other than the fact we got to get in the back of a cop car with the blues and twos flashing. Top speeds in the slush. In Welwyn Garden City. Now that's glamour.

  I had to get out of the car at one stage so Gemma the Top Camera Lady could get some shots from the back seat, so they dropped me off at a Porsche dealership.

I got out of the squad car in the car park in front of this two story glass and steel structure. The police car had blacked out windows so the staff inside couldn't see Gemma or the cops. So all they saw was a police car with sirens blaring coming to a halt in their car park and a man wearing a black longcoat get out of the back seat and come striding towards them.

"I need two of your fastest 911s," I said to the salesman. "It's a matter of national security."

I didn't really, but I felt like I ought to say something, so I explained what was going on.

"Oh," said the salesman, looking disappointed, "I thought you were a customer."

They offered me a coffee. I got the full Porsche dealership experience (Sky News, every single daily paper, a leather banquette and a flirtatious receptionist) without having to shell out for a Porsche.

£30,000 for a new entry level Boxter, if you're interested.

Anyway we got the job done and met up with veteran reporter (hee hee) Marcus Powell and the sat truck in the car park of the Red Lion, Ayot Green.

Marcus n' me
Marcus and his crew filed his report first and went to the pub, whilst I slaved over my script in the truck.

Afterwards I rewarded myself with a pint of ginger beer shandy. Then we had a snowball fight and went home.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Going round Tony Benn's house

Tony Benn is something of a legendary figure in British politics - I don't know how much of his Wikipedia entry is true, but his status as a National Treasure (words often preceded by the phrase "I don't agree with a single one of his policies, but...") is beyond doubt.

We filmed him for a comment on street protests and whether they're causing too much disruption in London. He lives on a main road in a well-to-do part of West London.

The laminated sign on the front door of his 4 story townhouse said, "Please use the downstairs entrance", so we trooped down some dilapidated stairs to be confronted with another laminated sign attached to the door-knocker: "The door is open, please come in".

We knocked and went in (bringing the sign with us), and there was the man himself. I've met Tony Benn before, when he came into the studio to discuss something or other on a BBC Radio 5 live show I was presenting, but to meet someone in the context of their own home (especially a living legend) changes the game entirely.

  Knowing of his privileged upbringing, I expected a tastefully furnished mansion populated by various family members, and staff, including a devoted housekeeper who would spend her time fussing over him and an earnest young man acting as his secretary/PR wallah.

But no, we were welcomed by a sprightly 84 year old, working in what frankly looked like conditions of genteel, and slightly eccentric poverty. The office he directed us into to set up the interview was cold and damp (which he apologised for).

Whilst he was busying himself elsewhere and the cameraman did his lighting, I had a good look round.

One wall of the office was wholly taken up by his own writings and recordings - file after file of the Benn diaries and audio CDs. Below them was a vinyl-tablecloth-covered desk holding two switched-off TVs which were connected to VHS recorders. In the corner of the room was a bookshelf holding a good chunk of leather-bound books, including a few of his own - the backdrop for the interview as "suggested" (ie directed) by him.

On the desk beneath the window was a functioning Amstrad email/phone thing. This appeared to be the most advanced technology in the room - there was no computer present. The shabby mantelpiece had a 25 year old framed commons sketch above it - Margaret Thatcher was at the despatch box and every MP's features had been caricatured.

Alarmingly, on its side, on the mantelpiece itself, was a whole, iced, and clearly ancient cake. It looked like it had been there years, and had various tapes and books packed around it - with what looked like a large decoration from the cake propped up on one of the books. It would be a disservice to the vitality of the place to draw comparisons with the living habits of Steptoe and Miss Havisham, but it is potentially going that way. Still, at the age of 84 you're hardly going to give two hoots are you? And I've been in considerably worse bachelor pads. Men just don't clean up much when left to their own devices.

By far the most impressive part of the whole package was Benn himself. Still intellectually fiery, argumentative and grippingly lucid he answered every question cleverly and persuasively. He wore a lapel microphone for us and another connected to an audio cassette machine. "I hope you don't mind." he said as he pressed record "I'm an archivist." I don't mind my interview being in the Benn archive one bit...

Delightfully uninterested in doing set up shots, he was more than happy to pose for a photo (see below) and we had a chat about my BlackBerry. I showed him my iPod touch, and said he'd probably get on better with an iPhone. He was worried about switching from Orange and having to change his number. I said I was pretty sure it was a painless process nowadays.

We chatted about progress - how when his father was born there were no cars at all, when he was born no television and women still didn't have the vote, when his son was born no computers, when I was born, no mobile phones and when his granddaughter was born - no internet. He was minister for technology in the 60s I think and has a genuine interest in that sort of thing, even if he doesn't quite buy into it himself.

  I have a theory that to continue doing something over a period of time, provided it's done for the right reasons, has a moral value to it, no matter the impact it makes on the world, and I think that is why we celebrate people like Tony Benn (you could put him in the same bracket as John Peel).

He's dedicated his life to politics, and has showed us, by example, the value of sticking to what you believe in.

Even the cameraman was impressed.


Saturday, 31 January 2009

Jumping out of a lifeboat into the Thames

So on Friday I get up and put on my jeans and trainers, because I am going to jump into the Thames in January and I don't want to do it wearing one of my suits.

I am jumping into the Thames to illustrate the dangers of its currents, and the story that led to the piece being commissioned is the average 30% hike in emergency calls to the RNLI's 4 Thames stations in the last 12 months.

A car picks me up at 9.30am and at 10.15am I am chatting to Alan, the manager of Chiswick boathouse, just behind Chiswick pier.

If you've never been there it's just off Corney Reach, which is just off Corney Road, which is just off the A316 at the Hogarth Roundabout, supposedly the busiest road junction in Europe.

Despite this Corney Reach is a haven of residential tranquility with the only noise coming from the boats on the river and the planes (still at a decent height) heading towards Heathrow.

The cameraman, the Legendary Bill Jones, is running a bit late so I bag the last remaining parking space with a reserved sign that Alan gave me and wait for someone from the RNLI to turn up. The first person to do so is Paul who has just finished a night shift, gone home and returned to help out at the RNLI station. He is a professional lifeboatman and I probably want his job when I get older. He makes me a cup of tea and we shoot the breeze for a bit.

Although ideally we'd be filming, this is a rare chance to find stuff out that will be very useful when writing the piece's script. Things that occur to you in the course of an unpressured conversation, and things that you're told can lead to unearthing that great factoid which can become a top line or telling statistic.

I get a call from the RNLI PR, Tim. Fri 30 Jan is a big day for the RNLI as they focus a lot of their community fundraising activity around it. The theme this year is SOS, and the conceit is that the various lifeboat teams around the country can use the initials to stand for any event they might be doing, so one team is holding a BBQ called Sizzle Our Sausages, one team have put their building's security team in stocks and invited the public to throw sponges at them, calling it Soak Our Security.

The Chiswick lifeboat team are having a Saunter Or Scamper from Teddington lock to Tower Bridge in full gear. They too are running late, as is the manager of the Chiswick lifeboat who is on his way in the car. Eventually Bill turns up and Paul makes him a cup of tea.

Then one of the crews of one of the boats (an E-class rib especially designed for use on the Thames) come in looking suitably weatherbeaten and soon there is a deluge of tea being brewed and drunk.

Everyone seems to be in a good mood. It's a cold but stunning day, Chiswick looks absolutely beautiful and these guys get paid to save people's lives on the river. It's therefore perhaps not surprising everyone is in a good mood.

Only one person I meet is a volunteer lifeboatman - the rest are paid, but the manager later tells me there are 51 volunteers attacked to the Chiswick boathouse and 11 full time staff - running 2 ribs. I've been asked to do an as live for the 1.50pm bulletin which will be biked back to Gray's Inn Road (aka GIR, the ITN HQ) by a Despatch Rider (DR).

As soon as the manager arrives we get down on one of the moored boats and do the as live. I am too cold to speak properly and keep f***ing it up. That's the annoying thing about an as live, especially one where there's no time pressure, because you can start again you often find you keep mucking it up.

We get through it eventually and Bill suggests we also do the Bong now so it can go back to base. The Bong always needs to be in early as it is graphicised and goes at the top of the programme as a way of selling the story to the viewer.

The team walking from Teddington arrive. It is a cold day, but they look hot and bothered. There is much moaning about blisters and the boathouse kettle gets a further bashing. It deserves a medal of its own. It's nearly always on the go.

I am starting to get jumpy at this stage as we haven't filmed anything (other than some "downtime" shots in the boathouse) for the piece and now the men are having a serious pitstop. A photographer arrives and starts coralling them into a pose (see photo above). I wait, looking at my watch.

Eventually they get going and I do a walking interview with one of the crew, and get lots of nice shots of men in full RNLI gear walking down a picturesque part of the Thames path. We leave them to it and head back to the boathouse to get on with our filming.

The DR, an old, seriously Glaswegian feller with an unnacountably trendy scooter, is lost. Corney Reach is a new development and doesn't exist on his A-Z, he doesn't have Sat Nav (I gave the desk the postcode) and whenever he calls me his accent is so thick I can only pick up the gist of what he's saying.

Eventually I guide him in and put the tape in his hand. The boathouse manager, Wayne, is Canadian and seems a bit aloof, but he puts two boats at our disposal and we go out onto the river. I am wearing a drysuit (see below) which has rubber seals at the wrists and neck and should keep any water out.

Underneath I'm wearing me keks, a t-shirt, sweatshirt and what the crew call a Noddy Suit - a full body fleece. I am Just About Warm Enough and slightly alarmed that they will not guarantee that the drysuit will keep me dry. They sometimes spring leaks. Great.

We do some river shots, boat to boat and all that, and a Piece to Camera (PTC). We interview Wayne and film some check calls to the Coastguard, engine revs etc. Then, at the end, I film a PTC where I get into the river. My boots, which are attached to the drysuit, are a size too big, and therefore contain lots of air, so they float up to the surface and tip me back. I lie, bobbing in the river, without springing a leak. My hands, which have neoprene divers gloves on, start to get very cold.

I do another PTC in the river. I get hauled out of the river after about 3 minutes. Because I lowered myself into the water off the back of the boat, my hair isn't even wet. We moor up and say goodbye to Wayne who has some duties to attend to elsewhere, and have a chat about the last sequence.

Me lowering myself into the river isn't great telly. Not having wet hair looks half-arsed. We're going to have to do it again, and this time I'm going to have to jump, and get fully submerged.

We do it again. I jump in - the camera gets the reaction it wants, which is that gasp of shock you get from being submurged in a river with a temperature just a few degrees above freezing. I swallow a little bit of water.

The boat goes back to the pontoon to drop off the cameraman, who is going to film me coming in, so I am totally abandoned, floating upstream (tide coming in) looking up at the clear blue sky and trying not to think about what I've just swallowed.

I look around at the river and the houses and consider that this is a very strange situation to be in.

In the last few months I've hovered above London in a helicopter, gone into some of its unopened deep Underground tunnels, and now here I am, lying on my back, on my own, floating up the middle of the Thames in a drysuit and RNLI lifejacket.

The boat eventually returns and the crew drag me aboard. There are many "well dones" from the cameraman and crew, as if I have achieved something.

I am slightly concerned when one grizzled crew member comments he was rather it was me than him. I am even more concerned when another crew member suggests I get back into the boathouse sharpish and wash my hands and face.

Back in the boathouse there is even more tea on the go and I am very grateful for it. I find some antiseptic washing-up liquid and give my hands and face a good wash. Bill and I put a few quid in the RNLI collection box, and we head off, having made good time with the filming.

Almost everyone we met could not have been more friendly or helpful and you really got the sense they knew how lucky they were to have they jobs they do. Unfortunately the drive back to GIR was a nightmare. It should have taken half an hour and actually took an hour due to bad traffic. Then I let my reporting colleague Marcus Powell use my editor for 15 minutes, when really I should have been in there. I didn't mind, but I knew it was going to be tight. And it was too tight.

We had to have our piece ready to hot roll (played out directly from the edit suite rather than off the server) at 6.05pm - unfortunately the top live failed and the presenters went into the cue for our piece at 6.02pm when it wasn't ready, so it looked like that had failed to make too.

They then went into the newsbelt, everything calmed down and we buzzed through to the the director telling them we were ready to roll. I went into the gallery to call the Supers or Astons (the live graphics which appear on the screen to tell you the name of the person speaking) live (usually the timings are put in technical information in the script).

There was no blame attached to us for the messy start to the programme - we were told we were second story to be ready at 6.05pm and we had agreed a hot roll at 5.50pm. It obviously would have been better if we did have the package saved into the system and ready to go - after all, lives can fail at any time, but then Marcus said his piece wouldn't have made if I hadn't given him the extra time with my editor, and we were ready when we were told to be.

The public doesn't know that, though, they just saw two false starts to the programme. Thankfully the piece itself was well received and it did look really good, thanks to the excellent camerawork and being blessed with the wonderful light that comes from that blue sky and hazy winter sun being reflected off the water. For my next assignment I am hopefully going out into the snow. I'll find out more tomorrow.