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Scoop that put us on top of the world

Weekly newspapers scoop the nationals all the time, of course. And just occasionally, they do it on a story of international significance. It happened to Taunton Times chief reporter Mark Ford. This is his story.

Let’s be honest, on a weekly paper the chance to steal a march on thenationals on a big national story doesn’t come along too often.

Weekly pressings, early evening deadlines and the bright light magnetism of the nationals makes it a real David and Goliath affair. Which is why it is so sweet when you manage to pull it off.

In early March, a team of four Royal Marines from 40 Commando Unit nearTaunton set off to become the first British team to walk unsupported to the North Pole.

Leaving in a blaze of publicity with a centre spread from The Sun, one of the major expedition sponsors, this was real Boy’s Own stuff – a 500-mile walk in air temperatures as low as minus 103C (at which point the eyeballs can freeze), paddling across stretches of icy water, and the constant fear(unfortunately, for dramatic effect, unfounded) of attack by marauding polar bears. And all this while walking against a conveyor belt of ice flowing in the opposite direction.

Given the isolated circumstances just about the only way to harvest information on their progress was through the Marines press office. Despite the understandably stilted flow of information, within six weeks theTeam Polar 2000 expedition had suffered enough mishaps to make for some interesting running stories.

They set fire to their tent, one fell into the sea and two had to be airlifted off the ice with frostbite and severe exhaustion.

But the remaining two soldiered on in what looked set to be a courageous but ill-fated mission.

Then a story appeared in the Sunday Times declaring that, in a fit of apparent cabin fever, the men were going to dump all their unnecessary equipment (sleeping bags, extra fuel, spare skis and presumably their common sense and instincts of self-preservation) and make a dash to cover the last 60 miles to the Pole.

This was immediately shot down by the MOD but it was clear that things were hotting up out on the ice.

A calculation of walking speed had the men due to reach the pole over the weekend of May 13-14 – not perfect but giving us plenty of time to at least beat our local rivals to the punch, or so it seemed until events happily conspired to make things decidedly uncomfortable.

On Friday evening, they encountered a vast expanse of open water which they had to walk round, throwing the whole thing out of schedule. An ETA of Sunday night became Monday afternoon, which became Tuesday morning, at which point, in a completely surreal twist, a cryptic e-mail arrived from BaseCamp saying an ancient Russian plane full of Norwegian and American tourists had dropped out of the sky close to where the walkers were meant to be.

With the usual deadline of around 5pm rapidly approaching and only sketchy details of what was happening, this was no longer particularly funny. Would they have to go and check out the mysterious plane? Would they make the final half a dozen miles to the Pole without coming face-to-face with another hole in the ice, pipping them at the post?

More importantly, would they let us know before we either made fools of ourselves or had to fudge things for safety’s sake?

Since Monday, the mood of the press office had been downbeat. The men would be airlifted out on Wednesday morning whether they had made it or not before an ugly weather system arrived which would have made getting themoff the ice impossible for days.

Tuesday, 6pm. Man or mouse time, the paper had to go. It seemed they would almost certainly make it, bar the outrageous bad luck which had been befalling them on a weekly basis since the start.

So we went for it, both barrels: “completed their miraculous walk to theNorth Pole”.

When I left the office the men were still walking but the paper had been sent to the presses. After watching the evening news, with no sign of our plucky Marines, I lay sleepless in my bed, extrapolating the worst-case scenario. After being shamed in the UK Press Gazette, I was hounded from the industry and forced to move abroad under an assumed identify. There, I slid into an alcoholic haze contemplating the benefits of a responsibility-free career in bee-keeping and lamenting what could have been had those Marines got their arses in gear.

Happily for us, they did make it, just after midnight apparently – and we beat every paper in the country to it. Even the Sun didn’t have proper coverage until the day after.

The icing on the cake came at the official news conference the following morning at the Commando base camp. While those folk from the glitzy world of TV were setting up an embarrassing stagedcelebratory announcement, a tactical air-drop of copies of the Taunton Times had found their way into the hands of the assembled masses.

So, while, the cameras rolled and the troops feigned surprise and excitement at the good news, half of them were sat with a clearly visible copy of the Taunton Times, happily screaming “Pole Stars” from the front page.

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