But the lure of the newsroom and reporting called again.
Or perhaps the politics of the government circuit in the 80s wasn’t for me. Or maybe we just wanted to escape from the south-east with our property boom money before negative equity hit.
Whatever, I returned to journalism. I got an interview in a town from my home county. Things went well at the interview, they must have done, the editor gave me a fiver to spend on a fish and chip lunch. Last of the big spenders in journalism.
In theory, it doesn’t matter when you apply for a journalist’s job if you come from the local town/city. You could come from anywhere if you have the right skills and attitude. In practice it does. It helps to know your north bay from your south bay (without a compass) and it helps to have the right sort of accent to get information out of people. So I landed the job. On a distinctly lower salary than my London press office job.
There was one good perk that accompanied this job. On opening nights of the local theatre, if there weren’t enough seats sold – we were offered free tickets to swell out the numbers. I usually said yes. It was seriously short notice, usually 5.30 for an hour or so later.
Dashed home, yelled out, ‘Come on, theatre, we’re off out,’ and we usually grabbed a bite en route. We saw some superb plays at the Theatre in the Round. Michael Gambon in Othello springs immediately to mind. We even paid for some plays – The Revengers’ Comedies for example. We saw it over two nights and it was brilliant. Interestingly on its move to London (Ayckbourn liked to premiere his plays in his home town), the audiences didn’t like the two night format. Fickle crowd.
Apart from the theatre, as one BBC journalist had said to me in London, ‘there’s nothing new in journalism under the sun.’ And there wasn’t.
I looked around the newsroom and wondered, turning 30, what happened to old reporters? And I decided not to become one so the job hunt started again.
The refreshing coastal breezes of a small town no longer attracted and I looked at jobs down south again. But before I got an interview for any of those, one cropped up even further north.
On the day of the interview I wandered down to the railway station, only to discover the train was seriously delayed. I wandered back home, rang the personnel department, told them I couldn’t make the appointed time and asked if there was any point even bothering to turn up. Keen me, huh?
I got the job. I had become a manager. A Public Relations Manager in fact.
Now, readers of the last post may remember my comment about journalists wanting to turn a press office into a newsroom. The deputy head of our grandiose department was a former journalist and this was her first press office job – and she wanted to turn it into a newsroom.
I was the only other journalist in the department and as usual it was full of a mish-mash of people who had drifted into it. I was also the only other one with previous press office experience. Office politics to die for. Needless to state, I didn’t realise that to begin with and happily started work thinking everything in the garden was rosy.
Just before my starting date, I had been to the funeral of my step-father-in-law if one can have one of those. It was in the depths of south Wales, so was a two-day thing. On return, there was a message on the answerphone asking if I could attend an awayday for my new job. I thought that was pretty nice, and the departmental head had hoped I could meet everyone and join the team away from the office. Not to be.
So my first day was a Monday. And – we had the dreaded Monday morning meeting. For some reason in the civil service press office, we had the equivalent on a Wednesday. I quite liked these meetings although no-one else seemed to. I didn’t realise it was a competition. Everyone droned on about what not very much they were doing and I effortlessly rattled off loads of stuff, thereby incurring lots of jealousy.
We were still deeply in Tory-land. Even though Thatcher had resigned, everything had to be accounted for. My team paid its own way through contracts for public relations with different health authorities and hospitals. When I wasn’t doing hands-on PR, I was out negotiating contracts to bring money into the department. Farcical really given that it was all public sector money, but that was the rule of the day.
Naturally, there was the Night of the Long Knives. There were big cuts within my organisation as public sector managers were sacrificed to show how useless and unecessary they were and how effective the government was at saving the tax-payer’s money.
I was one of them and so were my team members. We were described as ‘non-core’ staff. I negotiated jobs for them and one for me. When I applied for my new job, I also negotiated a pay increase. I’d started to learn a little bit about office politics. It didn’t matter that if I didn’t accept this job I wouldn’t have one to go to, I needed to pretend I wasn’t remotely desperate and – ask for more money.
This job was somewhere between being the most frustrating and the best job of my life.
I was thrown into the first provincial hospital closure in the UK, under Tory government, in a strongly Labour-held city. The MPs were against us, the council was against us, the Community Health Council was against us. The medics were against us.
Politics being what they are however, despite local opposition, we received approval from the Secretary of State. I guess for those of us who lived, dreamed, wrote, thought, public consultation on hospital closure 24 hours a day, working life dropped a gear after that.
No more midnight deliveries to my snooty board members of draft copies of the consultation document for them to read. No more days spent locked in an office with the Chief Exec and the directors while we re-wrote the document yet again. No more public meetings with people angrily accusing us of stripping local assets.
At one informal board meeting, a board member came up with a bright idea.
‘Why don’t we get a journalist to write our document for us?’
There was an extremely long pause and then one of the directors said, ‘We have one.’
Up-themselves non-executive directors, who have no idea about the staff who work for them. Arseholes.
Life continued after public consultation however, albeit rather less excitingly. Some of us thrive on reactive work, and the pro-active stuff is rather more ploddy.
But still, in terms of journalism, I had become reporter, sub-editor, editor and MD really. I had a budget to print, could commission graphic designers, or design my own publications, I got people to write for me, and I published newspapers, leaflets, and annual reports.
Remember the newspaper editor who asked what I wanted to become? I had managed all the journalist jobs in one, as a public sector PR manager.
It wasn’t enough though. Neither the money nor the status satisfied me. And so I moved into cancer services management.
With which, I conclude this mini-series, thanks to everyone who has followed it. I hope you have been interested to read about what happens behind the scenes in journalism, press office work, and realise that it is so not the glamorous job it is portrayed.
I think I learned an incredible amount in my jobs and seriously consider the basic journalist training I received was excellent. It’s been a summary, I’ve left loads out. Maybe later, I may add a few one-offs as stand-alone anecdotes.