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Dyson in Belfast: Journalists, violence and phone-hacking

The main session of the NCTJ’s Journalism Skills Conference on Thursday morning all sounded very grand: ‘Architects of peace: The media in Northern Ireland’.

Mark Simpson, the BBC’s Ireland correspondent, thought so too, and so immediately eased the tone when he stood at the rostrum to make his contribution.

“I’m very uncomfortable with the title of this session,” said Simpson, who had instead entitled his talk more candidly: ‘Mayhem, mocha and mobiles’.

Mayhem: Because that’s what it was like reporting from Northern Ireland during the worst of the troubles, with a murder to report almost every single day.

Simpson remembered one year when there were 91 violent fatalities: “That’s one every three or four days, but then add to that the shootings, injuries, bomb alerts and you can imagine what we were writing about every day.”

When first on the Belfast Newsletter, Simpson recalled a night as duty late reporter, with just him and the news editor trying to find a splash.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Simpson said, “but we were literally waiting for something to happen, because it always did.”

But as the night passed, the hacks were getting more and more nervous as nothing turned up and the front page still had a huge hole in it.

Then an ominous noise emanated from outside, followed by a slow but steadily rising crescendo of sirens.

Said news editor to Simpson: “They’re playing our tune, laddie.”

Mocha: This was a serious point by Simpson, comparing modern day journalism with modern day coffee shops.

“You used to go and buy a coffee – and I mean a coffee, maybe with milk or sugar. Now you have to choose between cappuccino, Americano, mocha, latte or expresso.”

In the same way, Simpson pointed out, journalists can’t just write a basic report like they used to, but are instead distracted by the challenges of tweets, blogs, backgrounders, internet breakers and video camera reports, let alone getting to write the main piece.

Mobiles: At this point, Simpson violently threw two BBC mobile phones in the bin, signifying his frustration at young journalists who are more bothered with Wi-fi connections than good, old-fashioned networking.

He concluded: “If you can do anything to prevent my violent temper, teach your students to put their mobile down, to talk to contacts and to get stories.”


Talking of the troubles, there was a fascinating open-top bus tour for delegates en route to Belfast City Airport for flights home yesterday afternoon.

Up Shankhill Road, down Falls Road, taking in murals, IRA remembrance gardens and the former bakery where Bill Clinton once ‘accidentally’ bumped into Martin McGuinness, a shop later dubbed ‘Monica Lewinsky’s Baps’ by locals, according to our guide Aidan.

Then the bus stopped at the Peace Wall still dividing unionist and nationalist neighbourhoods where thousands of tourists now pen their messages on official graffiti spaces.

Aidan invited the bus load of hardened editors, hacks and lecturers to add their monikers, and I imagined that only one or two would do so.

Wrong. Every single delegate filed off the bus and queued patiently to add their thoughts.

And yes, if you look closely, you can now see the name ‘Jo Butcher’ next to a beautifully drawn heart shape.

Ah, bless Joanne Butcher, the NCTJ’s chief executive!


A diary from a media conference just couldn’t be completed without a mention of phone-hacking…

“That’s another email from someone thinking I’ve been in custody,” quipped Roz McKenzie, the former News of the World staffer who now runs a course at Lambeth college.

She was referring, of course, to Bethany Usher, another former Screws hack and now Teesside University lecturer who was arrested and bailed by officers from Scotland Yard’s Operation Weeting investigation on Wednesday.

Ah, I thought, running my finger down the delegates’ list to find Angela Rainey, a fellow senior lecturer at Teesside University.

Not that she was of much use when I finally caught up with her to ask for her thoughts on the Usher arrest.

She did admit to blushes when she’d accidentally walked in on the NCTJ’s committee meeting on Wednesday morning only to hear them all talking about the breaking news.

“I wanted the world to open up and swallow me,” said Rainey, who I’ve now dubbed the winner of ‘The Tight-Lipped Delegate of the Conference’ award for her polite but firm refusal to say anything else.

  • Editor’s note: Bethany Usher has since issued a statement denying any involvement in phone-hacking.

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  • December 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    The double-decker bus tour was fascinating, but rather chilly. Steve Dyson attempted to keep out the cold – on an open-top vehicle – by shutting the window, which had the rest of us in fits of giggles!

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