The eight-letter word no journalist should ever forget…
There are few journalists who can boast the longevity of 40 years in the business and have stories from their notebooks that have shocked the world.
But Bob Westerdale, the Sports Editor of The Star, Sheffield, is a breed apart in this regard.
Here he reflects on his life and times as a journalist and in his own inimitable style, shares his wisdom.
While I remain a magnificent physical specimen, 40 years of journalism has impacted on the grey matter between my ears.
As my wife would affirm, I have the attention span of a gnat and the memory of a goldfish.
An endless sea of stories, pictures and pages have washed away many Westerdale brain cells.
The digital age threatens to speed up that decline, with those relentless waves of data.
Some things you don’t forget, though.
Being punched in the face, by Alex “Hurricane” Higgins (1949–2010) on two separate occasions is indelibly ingrained.
So a request, out of the blue, to pen a feature on four decades in the job is challenging, for sure.
But I’ll give it a go.
What was it like in the halcyon days of newspapers, you ask?
When the Daily Express ruled what was left of the British empire and scribblers recited copy from a phone booth to a veteran copy-typist clerk who had forgotten more about news and sport than you’d ever known?
Images spring to mind of 1980s regulation-issue raincoats and moustaches. The men, too.
Both items are a great loss to our trade, bring them back, I say.
But allow me on my serious soapbox for a minute: for there is one other major element which has struggled to survive the passage of time and the temptation to rely on copy and pasting tit-bits from technology.
Contacts. That’s C-O-N-T-A-C-T-S.
The bread and butter of our working life.
People who will tell you things, things that they wouldn’t tell anybody else in the media.
Material that would never see the light of day without that unique partnership between them and you.
There’s still no bigger buzz for me than getting that story, that picture, that video, because somebody had tipped you the wink.
Somebody who trusts you and vice versa.
More of this later.
For the record, I am a Mancunian who started off at the Stockport Express.
It was the best gig I could get, as the Manchester Evening News would not grant me an interview for the already-occupied role as Manchester United reporter…a job I had applied for at the tender age of 11.
Maybe that early rejection shouldn’t have put me off and I should have tried again but I was miffed and eventually headed off to my local weekly instead, in 1975.
The Stockport Express remains the best paper I’ve ever worked on, in the sense that it was closer to its community than any other subsequent title.
The Express didn’t bother going after readers in the posh bits of Stockport (yes, there are some posh bits of Stockport) they just headed into the tougher areas. The Dodge City of south Manchester.
There, you’d had no difficulty in finding C-O-N-T-A-C-T-S.
After two years probation, I was NCTJ qualified and joined the Lancashire Evening Post, then a United Newspapers’ entity.
The LEP and Preston was a formative experience in my life.
The paper was basking in the glory of bringing down the Lancashire Chief Constable, Stanley Parr in 1977.
The editor of the day Barry Askew (1936–2012) earned such a reputation that he was head-hunted by the News of the World in 1981.
The Queen, it is said, didn’t like this upstart from some ghastly northern town.
Preston might have seemed a back-water in those days, to the uninitiated. But the LEP uncovered some amazing tales during the time I was lucky enough to be there.
I’d been in situ a year when I was the first reporter to work on the “Handless corpse case” — a gruesome find at a water-filled quarry near Chorley which sparked a worldwide murder hunt and drugs conspiracy.
The murder of 14-year-old Alan Livesey followed. His mother was convicted, but BBC ‘Rough Justice’ spent a fortune trying to prove she was innocent. I disagreed, in print, and made a lot of enemies amongst the London media darlings.
Then there was an IRA conspiracy to blow up a pub used by soldiers in Weeton.
I managed to snaffle the entire legal catalogue of prosecution documents and used that to produce the court case background of a lifetime.
I was also lucky enough to establish links between a number of sex attacks in Lancashire and north Manchester.
The police were furious at the unwanted publicity and suspended a Regional Crime Squad detective they accused of leaking material to me. My credibility, as well as his, were on the line.
You know who your friends are, at times like that.
Then there was the story I remain most proud of, to this day.
That of Noel Fellowes, the former policeman who went to jail for a killing he did not commit. He spent years behind bars for manslaughter.
One day, I discovered police had re-opened the case after he was released. I traced his address to Bracknell, Berkshire.
But there was a problem.
I knew my own clapped-out Ford Sierra would never make a Preston-Bracknell run.
So I pinched an LEP delivery van.
I tracked down Noel, we ran the exclusive “I am innocent” story and I returned not to a fanfare of celebratory trumpets but a rollicking from a transport manager who used up a month’s supply of swear words for nicking his motor.
Noel was eventually vindicated at the Court of Appeal and we wrote a book together.
At some point around this time, I fell out with the then-Editor.
I can’t remember why, I’d probably demanded a new regulation raincoat or wanted my moustache waxed on exes.
Hewn out of the same rock at Askew, Star editor Mike Corner gave me shelter as crime and investigative reporter at Sheffield.
A lot of quality hacks had gone before me on York Street and I had to make an impact.
Only one way: make some C-O-N-T-A-C-T-S and make them fast.
South Yorkshire Police had done their homework on me and knew who I was, and even my family composition, and grilled me on the first day I presented myself at Snig Hill HQ.
It was all very strange.
But SYP was a force that had been at war with the coal miners of the county and had developed into a military-style constabulary. More a police force than a police service.
I had been in post just long enough to develop some good C-O-N-T-A-C-T-S when the Hillsborough disaster happened.
These were dark days.
To this day, I wish I’d not witnessed the things I did.
I won awards for pursuing “The Truth” — the polar opposite of The Sun.
I’d been working alongside SYP long enough to be first to piece together the chain of events which created the catastrophe. Over the years our account has stood the test of time.
But I was lucky. Of course I’d heard harrowing whispers of fans urinating and pick-pocketing on the dead.
And if those whispers had come to me from credible C-O-N-T-A-C-T-S I might even have written that same Sun story myself.
But I stuck to finding out “The Truth” and fortunately didn’t stand on any editorial landmines.
With the SYP press office bugged by Special Branch (they were hoping in vain to find any potential leaks) work on that Star crime beat was a poisonous one, to say the least.
But in the witch-hunt of police officers and media which followed Hillsborough, The Star emerged largely, if not completely, unscathed.
Before being appointed Star news editor I had one last news-reporting hurrah.
I worked on the terrorist-style nail-bombing of a Millhouses woman, flying to America (yes, I know) to research background on her assailant.
I won all sorts of awards for that, more than the Noel Fellowes case or the death of 96 souls at Hillsborough.
Which tells you one thing: never get too carried away with awards.
A decade or so ago, Martin Smith (a writer I could never hold a candle to) stepped down from the Star Sports Editor role through ill health and I was asked to pilot the ship in his absence.
It was supposed to be temporary, but two things happened.
Martin got better and wanted to try other things and I suddenly started to enjoy the lush, long grass of sport.
I might not have been good enough for the MEN sports desk, aged 11, but I was liking my new home at 50.
There was the calm order of the fixture list, yet the chronic disorder of breaking events. I warmed to both.
Ice hockey had already come for me, got me hooked and kept me.
I followed Sheffield Steelers all round the continent, including a memorable trip to the frozen outpost of Omsk, Siberia (yes, I know.)
I reported on on-ice riots (Nottingham) off-ice riots (Norway) and watched the Sheffield sporting landscape change as 9,000 fans got behind an annual turnover of new Canadian heroes.
Boxing came for me, got me hooked and kept me.
I covered Clinton Woods’ world championship fall-from-grace in Tampa, Florida (yes, I know.)
I have twice been threatened with violence for videoing injured boxers in distressing states after being KO’d in the ring — one such incident occurring a few short days ago.
And so it continues.
It’s an ever-changing landscape on one hand, but on the other, the main principles remain true and intact.
Make C-O-N-T-A-C-T-S. Earn their trust. Find those stories. Move on and be hungry for more.
I’m not ready for the knackers yard yet.
But when I am, I’ll know one thing.
It’s been a blast. And I’ll have my C-O-N-T-A-C-T-S to thank for that.
PEARLS OF WISDOM
- Use a press office as a last resort.
- Speak up in conferences or editorial meetings: let those above and below know where you stand. Right or wrong, it’ll broaden their mind and yours.
- Do what your Editor tells you. He or she might be wrong, but he or she is the Ed.
- Grapple hard to conquer new and sometimes counter-intuitive technology — but remember it should serve you, not the other way round.
- Newspapers are not dead yet. Do your bit to keep them alive.
- The Washington Post, The Sunday Times, The New York Times, The Daily Mail, The Times of India The Sydney Morning Herald are world leaders. But they are only staffed by journalists. Journalists like you
- If you can, trumpet the value of good photographs on your platforms. They really do tell a thousand words.
- The job is the second most important thing in your life. Family comes first.
WESTERS’ HISTORICAL AWARD TO JP’S THREE BEST WRITERS
1: Martin Smith
2: Paul Davis
3: Brian Ellis.