Croydon, a grey day outside the public library. Myself and about 50 other journalists of various kinds were waiting for the arrival of the Prime Minister, one Mr Tony Blair, and I was shaking with nerves.
Not because I was star-struck. I’ve met my fair share of celebrities and famous names over the years, including Tony’s predecessor John Major and Tony himself, once before, when he’d come to tour the offices of the news organisation for which I worked.
But this meeting was different because, for once, I was having to prove myself as a reporter to the bosses on the newsdesk back in the office, and I was terrified of getting something wrong.
There are plenty of reasons for my feelings of terror. I was never a good student, being fundamentally lazy for much of my life and prone to try and scrape through exams with the moderate pass and be happy with that, rather than aim to be the best I could be. The same thinking still applied years after school, when I was “learning” “journalism” and trying to find a job in the business. Ever since fluking my way into paid employment, I had been terrified of having to cover important events where it’s vital to Get Things Right.
Thing is, in journalism, your mistakes are on display to the whole world, or at least your readers and your editors. The latter are more frightening, and can sack you if you get something wrong. The readers are less frightening but somehow much more powerful – they can take you to court, causing you to be fined or even imprisoned if the mistake is awful enough. I’m a tremulous person by nature; fear of getting things wrong, and the consequences thereof, affects almost everything I write.
So as I stood with the other journalists outside the library in Croydon, I was aware of something that chilled me: I didn’t know what the story would be.
I was there to hear Mr Blair speak. He might say anything. But as I stood there trying to remember the shorthand for “politics”, it occurred to me that whatever he said, I wouldn’t know if it was new or old, important or trivial. I was the only person from my news organisation at that place, that time, and I had no sense of news.
This scared me a great deal. I wasn’t that surprised, though. I’d been specialising in writing about the internet for years beforehand. I’d buried myself in browser wars and dotcom booms and cool software and even games I knew nothing about, because it was all safe to report on and there was very little danger of making serious mistakes that would annoy people. Sure, I made hundreds of mistakes, but at the time being a journalist whose role was to write about the internet was something quite new. Many of the sub-editors and newsdesk staff higher up the chain than me would read my stories and almost fall asleep with boredom; they didn’t consider this geek stuff to be “news” at all, and they certainly didn’t spot many of the stupid errors I made because they had no experience of the technologies I was talking about.
(The newsroom computers ran OS/2, for heaven’s sake. They had a old version of Netscape installed, but most reporters never used it.)
So there I stood in central Croydon, waiting for Mr Blair’s official car and trying desperately to remember what political stories had been doing the rounds in recent days. I should have known. After all, I sat right next to two very experienced political reporters and had the opportunity to read everything they wrote via the office computer system. But I never did that, preferring to spend hours hunched over the little laptop I’d been given to use alongside the OS/2 desktop, browsing Haddock’s directory and posting silly responses to mailing lists. I knew nothing about the real news of the day, the political headlines. Here I was, about to hear Tony Blair speak, and I didn’t know what I wanted him to say.
Which was of course the worst possible situation to be in.
When Blair arrived, my hands were shaking so hard I could barely take any shorthand notes. All of us hacks crowded round him on the pavement, and I found myself shoved to the back of the pack, behind a camera crew from a national TV news programme. Blair spoke for a couple of minutes and I desperately leaned forward, trying to catch every word and panicking as my woeful shorthand fell further and further behind what he was saying. I looked up at Mr Blair, only a few feet in front of me, silently pleading with him to slow down and repeat the last few lines.
But it was over. Blair swept away, followed by his hangers-on, leaving the hacks already whipping out their brick-sized mobile phones to call back to the office.
The TV cameraman, however, turned on me with a snarl.
“Couldn’t you fucking keep still?” he roared, and for the tiniest second all heads flicked round to look at me. The traffic, which had been held up by the police while Blair’s car arrived, started to move again.
“I – I was taking notes –” I clucked, feeling my cheeks turn red.
“Well next time you wanna take some fucking notes in front of the Prime fucking Minister, don’t stand up my arse,” the cameraman said, turning away to follow the fast-disappearing Prime Ministerial backside in question into the library building.
I stood, still shaking, burning up with embarrassment and anger. Then I looked at my shorthand and the panic returned. Every other reporter around me was on the phone, dictating a story to their copytakers back at the office. Unless I filed some copy soon, my editors would be calling me and demanding angrily why the competition were carrying the story and we weren’t. My shorthand looked like a work of modern art, and was equally baffling. I knew that I had to call my office and file something.
I didn’t have the faintest idea what story to file. I dialled the number.