Thursday, 21 June 2012

Why I love journalism (despite the lack of recognition and money)

In 2005, I was offered an “internship” at Jornal O Dia, in Rio. It was a paid internship, for two years, at the end of which I would be offered a promotion if I proved myself to be good enough.

I call it “internship”, between quotation marks, because even though I was paid half the wages of a “reporter I” (the first title at “professional” level), I was expected to do the same amount of work. I would go to uni in the mornings, from 7.30am until 11.30am, and go straight to the newsroom in the afternoons.

It was called internship because of a pathetic law in Brazil that doesn’t allow newspapers to hire reporters unless they have a journalism degree. So that opened up an opportunity for newspapers to hire people in their early 20s, still at uni, for half the amount they would pay a reporter with a degree, and make them work full time and just as hard. All they had to do was call them interns.

It was a triple whammy for them: I was cheap, couldn’t join the union, and didn’t have life insurance – so if anything happened to me at work, my family wouldn’t get a penny from anyone. It was almost as if there was no sign of my existence, except for the outstanding amount of column inches I filled every day.

I worked at the showbiz desk. I hated the showbiz desk. But if I wanted to work at a newspaper, I had to suck up and do it. My set chores were to write the children’s theatre and dance sections of the weekend guide, and type up (you read it right) the whole cinema listings for the week on Tuesdays – an eight-hour task.

Every week, I tried my best to get features and stories in the daily showbiz supplement, Caderno D, and, more often than not, I succeeded. Still, not my favourite thing.

I usually worked as much overtime as I could fit in, so I would get paid more. Eventually, I saw myself working closely with the Saturday editor (fashion editor), Marcia Disitzer, the most amazing person ever. She invested in me – so much so she even left me in charge of editing her fashion column whenever she was away.

The best thing, however, were the mandatory weekend shifts. God, I loved those.

As I wrote here before, those were our crime shifts. We worked on a rota, and had to do one weekend every four weeks. I’d sometimes take on other people’s shifts if I needed the money or had nothing planned for the weekend (yeah, I know…).

Even though the everyday work at the showbiz desk taught me the basics of journalism – news writing, accuracy, law (we wrote a lot about celebrities), the ins-and-outs of a daily publication – it was at the news desk that I felt truly at home as a cub reporter.

I would normally do the 7am shifts on both Saturday and Sunday. I remember the 7am shifts weren’t really meant for beginners – you had to take over from the night shift, and make sure nothing went unnoticed, so you could pass it on to the news editor, who usually arrived at 7.30am, sometimes 8am.

If you were on the 7am shift, there was also the possibility you would get a call in the middle of the night, telling you a newspaper driver would pick you up at 5.30am because a high-profile drugs’ lord had been killed, and the news desk needed support. That happened to me once.

And you would be on your own, running the news-gathering in the newsroom while the teams (reporters and snappers) were away, and the news editor too busy getting reports from the scene.

O Dia’s newsroom had something called the “bug room” (not for phone-hacking or individual surveillance, just to be clear). It was a tiny corner room with big glass windows all round, from where I could see my news editor, who sat in a strategic position, sort of at the top of the news desk, right in the middle.

In that room, I had a phone, a computer, and two radio scanners used to scan the police frequency. Technically, it was illegal to do that – but everyone knew all newspapers had a similar room, police included. Any time they even hinted at trying to shut it down, the press would cry out censorship, and ask why they needed secrecy attending incidents around the city.

There was, and still is (though I hear police managed to get themselves unlistenable radio frequencies these days), a clear and absolute public interest in monitoring the activities of a knowingly corrupt and murderous police force, and I’ll forever defend the activities of Jornal O Dia and others in Rio.

So my job, for sometimes 14 hours per shift, was to make sure we knew everything that was going on in Rio and surrounding districts. I would have to phone a hundred and something police stations (civil police), to ask whether they had any crimes reported in their area, the other hundred and something military police battalions to ask if they had been called to any crime scenes or incidents, plus the other hundred and something fire brigades, to check if any incidents had happened overnight, in case the night shift hadn’t picked them up, or they’d happened after they called.

I would keep in touch with my colleagues from other newspapers – we all had the same sources for incidents that had just happened (unless someone had called in), so we shared what we had and consulted each other to decide whether it was safe to send a team to an incident.

Newspapers aren’t very popular with drug dealers in Rio, for obvious reasons, so we would always have to be careful about ambushes and traps, and not exposing our reporters to any unnecessary danger.

My main jobs were to know everything, send my news editor hourly updates, make sure our reporters didn’t get killed (sometimes we had to trust our instincts before sending teams out to incidents and that was terrifying), write all the straightforward news stories, and talk to oddballs on the phone. There were plenty of calls from good old Rio oddballs.

The news editor, Hilka Telles, was a scary middle-aged woman. Award-winning crime reporter with decades of experience, and tough as a rock. Everyone was frightened of her. I loved her. She would sit there with her big hair, chain smoking (the newspaper had enforced a smoking ban, but she was the only person allowed to smoke in the newsroom because of her 40-a-day habit), telling people with her fag hag voice what journalism was all about.

Hilka Telles on the phone as a young reporter at an 80s "bug room" in Rio.
This one was at Jornal do Brasil
Sometimes Hilka would relieve me from being in the “bug room” and send me out to incidents (never the hairy ones because I didn’t have life insurance, though I’ve been in the cross-fire a couple of times).

She used to call the showbiz desk “celeb whores” and our colorful hipster desks “whore dressers” – I could hardly contain a giggle whenever she said that. She was so right.

And I loved all that. For reasons I cannot explain, because I don’t want to identify them, I had many sources in the police force, even a couple in the elite squad, so I would often sneak into the other side of the newsroom, where the news desk was, and give her stories. Sometimes she would let me work on them, sometimes the showbiz editor would tell us both off, so I had to surrender the story to one of the crime reporters.

By the end of it all, nearly in 2007, I was offered a “reporter I” position. I hadn't finished my degree yet, but whenever they came across "outstanding" cub reporters, they used a loophole to hire them as reporters (legally they would be hired as "autonomous workers", in practice, they were reporters), so they promised me a position.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I had already decided to move to the UK, for personal reasons. I loved every crime shift I did at that newspaper, every story I wrote, every scary situation I was thrown in, but the nearly two years of exploitation had taken their toll. I wanted a bit of change, and some employment rights too. But I still miss it dearly.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Is my dictator better than yours?


South American dictatorships are a very delicate subject to me.

Not only because I’m Brazilian, but because my father’s family comes from a very long line of serving Army and Navy officers, and both my father and grandfather were active during the Brazilian military regime.

My granddad was a major and lieutenant-colonel (one below colonel) for the duration of it. He died in 1996, when I was 13, so I never asked him much about it. The only story I’ve ever heard, told by my father, was about a train full of political prisoners, and my father says, “you don’t want to know what happened to them”.

My father was a lieutenant at the time. He had left military academy in 1976, and became involved in it probably by 1979, but the only stories I know are from 1980/81.

On March 31, 1964, a coup d’etat by the Brazilian military deposed the then president Joao Goulart, who had been democratically elected in 1961, amid fears that a left-wing president was helping the growth of communism in the country, and that there was a communist revolution about to happen.

Goulart fled to Uruguay, and Marshal Castello Branco took office 15 days later. It would be the beginning of 30 years of torture, censorship, gagging of the press, and murder.

He was followed in office by General Costa e Silva, from 1967 to 1969, and then by General Medici, from 1969 until 1974.

It was when Medici was in power, that Institutional Act 5 (AI-5) was decreed, and when newspapers were truly gagged (not just asked to align with the government), artists (such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil) were forced into exile, and protesters and critics of the dictatorship started disappearing more often, never to be seen again.

Medici was followed in office by Generals Geisel and Figueiredo, and in 1985 the regime came to an end.

Officially, 457 people either died or disappeared during that period (the Brazilian government is currently reviewing that figure to add another 858 deaths). Journalists were muzzled and arrested - some killed.

In 1980, my father led a battalion within Rio de Janeiro’s Army police (Policia do Exercito). His job was to lead small groups into unsavoury areas (mainly favelas, where some of the activists would hide), after receiving intelligence information, to catch them during their “subversive meetings”.

The only proof I have seen of that was a document which explained the procedure to end those meetings and arrest “subversives”, and the scars of a pistol gunshot that entered the back of his left leg and exited through the front. He was shot as he was chasing someone in the narrow alleys of a favela.

In 1981, a car bomb went off outside a concert, at a venue called Rio Centro, celebrating the return of exiled artists. By that time, the way to a new democracy was already being paved, and some sections of the Army were prepared to do whatever they could to remain in power and make the population believe the guerrilla was dangerously out of control.

One of the versions of the incident was that a sergeant and a captain decided to plant a bomb at the gig, which was being attended by thousands, to create panic.

Unfortunately, for them, the bomb went off when they were still in the car, killing the sergeant and forcing the captain to walk 200 yards to the nearest road holding his exposed bowels to call for help. He survived and is still alive. He’s been known in the Army since then as “Captain Bomb”.

The Rio Centro bomb crime scene
My father was one of the crime scene forensic officers (I’m pretty sure he took the picture on the left – I’ve seen the original in one of his Army albums at home) for the military and one those responsible for drafting the report with the Army’s own version of events – that lefties had planted the bomb in the car.

In 1996, Brazil’s  biggest investigative TV show, Globo Reporter, sent one of their investigative reporters, Caco Barcellos, to our house, to interview my father on the 15th anniversary of the failed car bomb attack. He refused to speak to camera, but agreed to speak off the record briefly.

During the interview, the cameraman held the camera down and told my father it was off, but kept on filming, and caught him explaining where the bomb had been placed in the car. He maintained the Army line, but as he was still serving as a lieutenant-colonel at the time, he wasn’t allowed to talk about it, and received a mighty bollocking after the interview was aired.

As a young lieutenant, of course my father was obeying orders. He loved the military – it was his career, had been his father’s career, his grandfather’s career, and so on, and generally, even though it’s not my cup of tea, it’s not a bad career to have.

And I believed that was ok for a long time. It wasn’t until I was 16, in my last year at Military School, that I stopped repeating my parents’ political views and started developing my own. Deep down, I always knew there was something entirely unacceptable and utterly disgraceful about authoritarian governments, regardless of how good for the economy, as some claim in Brazil, they might have been.

That was also about the time I found out that my granddad on my mother’s side had been arrested for a few days for speaking out about the government in the 60s. The police knocked on his door one day, told him to pick up some clothes and go with them. Terrifying.

One of my history school teachers had been tortured in the 60s. Our current president, Dilma Rousseff, was part of the guerrilla movement, and was herself tortured at the time.

One of our most famous newspaper columnists, Hildegard Angel, lost her mother, Zuzu, and brother, Stuart, during the regime. Her brother was arrested and killed by the secret police – his body never found. His mother, Zuzu, tried to fight the state to get recover her son’s body, and was murdered too. 

These are only some of the examples of violence.

The main evidence that growth without civil and individual liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, is unsustainable, is that Brazil collapsed into the worst decade and a half of its economic existence from 1980.

After all the story-telling, my main point is I'm not proud of my family's own personal experience with a dictatorship, but I'm glad that hearing the most horrendous stories and political views at home has made me despise authoritarian regimes of all kinds.

So, anyone willing to praise any dictatorship to me, for whatever reason, will have to do better than say it did wonders for the inflation rate, or gave power to the "best" ideology.

And think of those murdered, abused, the violence, and all the censorship, before saying any dictatorship is ok.

Monday, 11 June 2012

France and football often make for bad news

I have two issues with the French football team. One is that they beat Brazil to win the 1998 World Cup, and I hate them for that. The other is because they were partly responsible for one of my most nightmarish crime shifts from the time I worked at Jornal O Dia, in Rio.

Watching the Euro 2012 match today brought back memories of the 2006 World Cup quarter final, the match where Thierry Henry destroyed our dream of, well, winning the trophy yet another time.

It was July 1, 2006, a Saturday. I was working the weekend shift. This was a while ago, so I can’t remember exactly what time my shift started, but I think the match was scheduled to start at 3pm, Rio time.

I arrived in the newsroom, met the photographer and the driver, and the news editor, Hilka Telles (a crime-reporting genius – will write more about her soon), sent us all down to a French restaurant in Ipanema called Olivier Cozan.

The homonymous chef had set up a giant screen where he projected the game for a small Franco-Brazilian community, and I was supposed to cover their reaction to the match for that Sunday’s paper.

It was all going well - we were given some food, the guests were nice people, Brazil was resisting France’s attacks - until at 57’, Zinedine Zidane (known in Brazil as “Carrasco” or executioner) took a free kick. The ball found Thierry Henry and, subsequently, the back of the net.

I am a very proud Brazilian supporter and having to stand there, clutching my notepad, whilst the French guests (and our host) jumped up and down, was horrific. I couldn’t say a word, of course – I was working. I couldn’t drink either, but I may or may not have had a beer.

By the time the match ended, I was livid. The French were laughing at other Brazilians who happened to be there too, and like me, looked miserable. I went outside to call Hilka and give the news desk a quick update on the reaction, and was about to summon the snapper to go back to the newsroom. She picked up and I started reporting to her, and while I did, someone started shouting in the street.

A guy appeared out of nowhere, running after another guy on a bike, shouting “catch him, catch him, he’s got my bag”. Then this other guy standing next to me – he had been at the restaurant with his children and wife, watching the match – ran across the road and launched himself onto the robber, who was cycling on the pavement and got knocked off his bike. He hit the shutters of a closed shop on his way down.

By that time I had already scanned my side of the pavement to check if the snapper was there. When I looked again at the two guys, the robber had drawn a gun (looked like a revolver, but it all happened a bit too fast) and was about to get back on his feet.

That was about the time all hell broke loose. I was half perched behind a car, too excited to care whether the guy was going to shoot in our direction or not, shouting at my snapper “take a photo, take a photo now”.  The man’s wife was hysterical, and other people carried her inside with her children. What happened next, to my utter amazement, was that instead of taking pictures the snapper grabbed me (she was much bigger than me) and pushed me inside the restaurant too.

After the guy drew the gun, I’m not so sure what happened. There weren’t gunshots, as far as I can remember, but the guy who tried to be a hero probably had to run away for a while, because it took him about 10 minutes to come back to the restaurant. Unscathed.

I was inside for about two seconds, when I realised the news editor was still on hold on my mobile phone. She had heard the whole thing, so I explained what had happened. She asked me if everyone was ok and if the snapper had taken any pictures, and I had to tell her the truth. I got a little bollocking, even though it wasn’t my fault, but that was how Hilka rolled.

Looking back at it now, I probably should have at least hidden all of myself behind the car, but I don’t regret staying out and watching the scenes unfold at all.

I do understand the snapper’s reaction though. Photographers at Jornal O Dia risked their lives pretty much every day, and still do, next to lunatics (police and criminals) waving guns, and she probably thought it wasn’t worth it that day. I was angry for a while, but I don’t blame her for not wanting to take a bullet for nothing.

Half an hour later, we went back to the newspaper feeling deflated and upset. Brazil had been eliminated and we didn’t deliver what would have been an incredible front page story.

Even though I didn’t feel it at the time, I now understand her fear. But I sometimes still wish we had nailed that story and made that horrible day a little bit better.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Local newspapers are great and you should know it

Most journalists who have never worked at local newspapers have no idea how great local newspapers are.

Some will say local reporters only write about school fĂȘtes, giant sunflowers, endure boring council meetings to write a down page (the second most important story on a page, usually about 200 words’ long), and churn press releases. That’s one way of looking at it.

When I used to work at a local newspaper, what I saw was a newsroom full of people who knew their trade inside out. Reporters who did a sterling job covering court cases, and who could build an argument and present it in front of a judge to have a court order lifted. Reporters who gave local councils, NHS Trusts, and police a hard time, if they chose to hide their murky business from the public. Reporters who would work the longest hours during the week and yet volunteer to work at weekends (because of the money as well – we all had to pay our rents).

Local newspaper newsrooms are where reporters learn to be reporters. They learn how to deal with people and become welcome at their homes; they learn to be compassionate when listening to their stories, and to identify the issues that are important for local communities. They are the ones, despite the hard times and severe cuts in most newsrooms in the country, who are closest to the public.

If you are a local reporter, you need to talk to people to get stories. You need to get to know the busybodies, the politicians, the shop owners, the community leaders and as many local people as you can.

That is precisely the reason why so many national newspapers look to local newspapers for stories.

It is hard for the public to notice when a story has been sold by a local newspaper to a national. It’s usually done via news agencies, but reporters also sell their own stories sometimes.

Consequentially, it is hard for the public to know when local newspapers have been shortchanged.  But it happens a lot.

The most recent example I can give is happening to my old paper, the Streatham Guardian. Their reporter Rachel Blundy (who writes the whole newspaper by herself) landed an exclusive that was reproduced by the Daily Telegraph, with no credit and no pay.

I don’t particularly like or agree with the story, but it pains me to see young talented local reporters being robbed of the credit for their hard work. When Rachel contacted the Telegraph news desk, according to her, they said there was nothing they could do.

Well, I have a couple of suggestions: 1) you can give her a byline on your website, and 2) you can pay her the appropriate fee for a story that goes in print (as this one did).

I have emailed the reporter whose byline appeared at the top of the story, Richard Alleyne, to ask if the story came from a news agency. I’ve had no response yet.

If the story came from a news agency, I understand from speaking to Rachel that, whichever agency that was, they were not authorised to sell it on the Streatham Guardian’s behalf.

Unfortunately, this dismissive and disrespectful view of local papers has been growing for a few years now.

Due to the attitude of most national newspapers - including the Guardian, the Telegraph and so on - it is highly unlikely that local newspaper reporters, despite their training, knowledge and capability, will end up in staff jobs at those newspapers.

To add insult to injury, they constantly have their work lifted by nationals, with no credit whatsoever.

With all due respect to many young national reporters I know, who are very talented, the reality is that newspapers have been taking on kids straight out of their MA courses, from top universities, with no real work experience. By doing that, they are not only filling their newsrooms with inexperienced reporters, they are putting themselves at risk (remember the reporter who tweeted a juror’s name and made a trial collapse), and denying those who are trained and experienced an opportunity to work at national level.

I know one extremely talented award-winning reporter who was given shifts at a national, after nearly four years working at a local paper. When she started, her colleagues, who mostly fit the category above, told her she would have to “up her game now” because that wasn’t the same “as some local newspaper”.

All I can say is, despite the prejudice, she is so great she’s been wiping the floor with them. But that doesn't make it any less absurd that this is the view being perpetuated in national newsrooms nowadays.

I wish editors like Alan Rusbridger, James Harding, Tony Gallagher and others would change their minds about turning their newspapers into exclusive clubs for those who have the privilege to go to top universities. They might claim local newspapers are dying, but ignoring the gold that comes out of them is only hammering another nail in their coffin, and denying reporters from a multitude of backgrounds a chance to work for a major title.

It would also help, of course, if they recognised they benefit from the good work done by locals, by always paying them for their stories or not forgetting to credit their reporters.

But since it seems unlikely things will change, my advice to local reporters out there is, if someone steals your story, give them a hard time. Your hard work is worth a lot, so don’t let them get away with it.