Two years ago, I had just been named Young Reviewer of the Year for a local newspaper after a year of reviewing CDs, plays, concerts and art shows. It had been the best year of my life. Some weeks I was out up to five times a week, being treated to some of the most famous shows in the world as well as some remarkable grassroots productions.
Although I was not paid, I did get free tickets to the events I was reviewing and enjoyed seeing my work in print. After I won the award, and the very laptop I’m typing on at the moment, I made it my mission to become a full-time hack. In addition to working my ordinary job as a civil servant, I was also undertaking a Masters in Creative Writing and continued to review for the newspaper when asked to do so. I also did a week’s unpaid work experience at the newspaper, working in the features department where I wrote features on the dangers of sunbeds, a local house on the market and an interview with a newly published author.
In late November, I was called by the Entertainment Editor of the paper who informed me there was a funded place on a forthcoming journalism course and, subject to my performance in upcoming aptitude tests and an interview, the newspaper would consider funding me to take the course which would result in me being given a full-time post at the newspaper.
I was over the moon, I felt all of my hard work had finally paid off and I could leave my humdrum job and begin the glamorous life as a Carrie Bradshaw-esque journo I was born to live.
I sailed through the tests, picking up the highest score of all the people who participated. I felt the interview hadn’t gone very well, I recall ringing my mum and crying, thinking I’d messed everything up. When I got a call from the editor a week later, telling me they were pleased to welcome me onto the team, I was absolutely thrilled. I was invited to the Christmas party to meet some of my colleagues. I went, only briefly, as I had an early morning flight to catch the following day but everyone seemed friendly and they seemed to be genuinely excited for me to join the team.
In mid-January I said goodbye to my much-loved colleagues in the civil service and started on a Press Association training programme. I remember the feeling of selling my soul I felt as the head of the course stood at the front of the class and told us proudly how James Murdoch was on the board of directors. Having done Media Studies since the age of 14, I have felt that Rupert Murdoch – and his offspring – are not to be revered or trusted.
The training was intense and you were expected to live and breathe nothing but shorthand, media law and government training. We had frequent tests and even more frequent bollockings. Fair enough, some of the other trainees weren’t my cup of tea but you can’t get on with everyone. As the days progressed, I began to worry, I felt I was falling behind with my shorthand and not performing well in any aspect of the course. I brought this up with my tutors but they said I needed to be more self-confident and have more belief in myself. They said I was one of the strongest candidates and this buoyed me for a little while.
However, when more of the practical side of journalism was discussed, I felt myself quiver at the thought of doing a ‘death knock’. When I thought of having to knock on a criminal’s door and run away after the photographer had got his snap, I was terrified. When we were told to get the story through any means, I started to really worry. I approached one of my tutors about the fact that I was no longer sleeping, she told me to “get through it by whatever means necessary”. She told me if I had to self-medicate or drink a bottle of wine tonight, that’s what I had to do.
However, at the beginning of the fourth week I caught the flu. I was sent home from the course and I lay in bed assessing my life and what had been said to me by the tutor the previous week. I rang my old boss and asked for my job back, it was a no go. But I chose to quit the course – I wanted a clear conscience and a good night’s sleep. There was no way I could go into journalism and remain myself.
I know a lot of people were shocked by my decision to quit, particularly as I had no job lined up to go to.
In recent weeks, the whole world has come to learn of the underhand techniques used by aptly-named hacks to get stories and I feel my choice to walk away has been vindicated. I could never employ any of the methods, legal or otherwise, for the sake of a story. How would you feel if it was a member of your family, or you, having their phone hacked? The exposure of such techniques makes me realise that I was right in following my heart and leaving the course.