Diary of a news reporter: Penguins and Parliament

| Feb. 15, 2010 |

Published by Student Direct: Mancunion

I arrived on a January morning to meet Keith, Reuters’ UK Chief Correspondent, at the company’s offices just off Fleet Street. He immediately suggested I head over to London Zoo for their annual stock take, an opportunity for the Zoological Society of London to invite the media down and show off keepers with pens and clipboards alongside their most interesting animals.

Stepping out of a cab near Regent’s Park, my heart froze in the numbing cold in which photographers and camera crews were huddled around the penguin enclosure, with some journalists trying desperately to make out a story. It was easy for the TV presenters, just point towards the animals with prop notebooks and tallies. The rest of us had a tougher job, putting together words to describe the news of nothing.

The press were led onto the meerkats and Galapagos tortoises. After interviewing their keeper Seb, and with the cold weather to blame for my sloppy shorthand, I grabbed a cab back to Fleet Street to write the story up. A keeper had told me on my way out that it was solely a media opportunity and in fact the keepers know what animals they have all year round, as you would hope.

I struggled with the story. There was nothing to say and I clearly wasn’t going at it from the best, personal, “It’s so cold and I’m out here counting animals,” angle. Steve—a fearsome editor who would, later in my time there, strike down my work with lightning wit and a blunt demeanour—explained why only the pictures would be used by Reuters.

Needing to get stories out on their wires as quick as possible, Reuters staff often watch events on television with the ability to publish literally at their fingertips. This lack of actually having to watch events live and in person became more pronounced as I sat in the Reuters office above the House of Commons with Matt and Tim watching the first Prime Minister’s Questions of 2010 on TV.

It went well for Gordon Brown. However, that was overshadowed at around 12.25pm by Sky News flicking over to its reporter saying that an email had been sent round to Labour MPs from Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt asking if they would be interested in a ballot to elect a replacement for Gordon Brown. We ran to the Commons where a group of journalists had assembled, talking of Labour whips having run out five minutes before PMQs ended, and now they knew why.

Tim and I ran back to the office. Keith had clearly been watching events from Fleet Street and put out the snaps and first few articles on the big story. Our task was to get expert analyses and watch events unfold at the Commons itself.

I left as things died down but grateful that I’d been witness to such a big story. Matt told me, as he guided me back to Portcullis House and the exit, that he was keen to make sure the story didn’t get blown out of proportion as people tended to get excited too quickly. John, the UK Bureau Chief, who was snowed in at home, asking me how my day was on the phone later called the events of the day “historic”.

It’s interesting that it is the likes of Matt and John who will dictate the importance of a story. Matt kept a cool head and was keen to, not necessarily play the events of the day down, but not to jump on them and give them undeserved airtime. Had he and his colleagues not, the story would have been blown up and maybe Gordon Brown would not be leading the Labour Party into the General Election.

The story was the day’s lead and earned me my first New York Times byline, reminding me that real news is much more worthwhile than freezing your balls off with penguins in order to promote London Zoo.