Wednesday, September 8th, 2004
Despite the fact that I'm currently working on the website of a national newspaper – am, in fact, sitting at this moment in its offices waiting for the final edition sports pages to drop – I no longer consider myself a reporter. A journalist, perhaps, since that's a statement of vocation like saying you're a musician or a politician. But someone who's involved in the day-to-day reporting of news? Not me.
I don't miss it, and one of the things I miss least is what is variously called 'doorstepping' or 'death knocks'. This is pretty much what it sounds like – calling on families who have lost loved ones in newsworthy ways while their grief is still raw, asking such inane questions as 'how do you feel?', and then borrowing their entire photo albums. (You borrow the entire family collection of photos so that when your rival newspaper arrives next, there's none left for them to take.)
I've never worked for a national paper, so obviously I've never doorstepped for one – and I'm glad of that. I've only ever done it for local papers, where it's completely different. On a local, you live in the area you're reporting on and so you've got a pretty good chance of finding yourself in the queue in the supermarket next to someone you interviewed the next day or week or month. This gives you a real incentive to respect the family's sensitivities and write the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. On a national, I gather doorstepping is a bit more like a one-night stand – get in, get what you came for, and get out again, forgetting about it as quickly as possible afterwards.
But if you do a doorstep properly – and at my best I was very, very good at them – you can't ever forget them.
I sound sour here, but I actually think doorstepping – horrible though it sounds when described in cold print – is a perfectly legitimate journalistic technique if it's done properly. If you present yourself politely at the door, explain who you are and what you want, and ask their permission to talk to them, many families agree. And if you treat them fairly, listen to them in silence when they need to let stuff out, quote them accurately, understand that not everything they say ought to go beyond their four walls, leave when you're asked to, and above all return their photos safely, most feel it's been a positive experience.
I saw a few families I'd doorstepped around afterwards – one particularly – and was able to listen to their reactions to the stories published. All said that being interviewed helped as part of the process of coming to terms with the death. They appreciated being able to explain what the loss of their loved one had meant to them, and being able to describe their special qualities. And they very much liked having a cutting, an actual piece of newspaper, that said these things in black and white for them to hold in their hands and show to people and keep and treasure.
A good doorstep is a good thing. A bad one is a cruel thing, but I swear I never did a bad one.
One where I failed to speak to the immediate family came in 1998, late in my career in local papers, when frankly I was just about burned out and wasn't much use to anyone. He was a publican's son in Surrey and his name was Darren Hickey. He was a telecommunications engineer who'd gone abroad to work. Specifically, he was helping rebuild Chechnya.
Now you see what prompted me to write this.
He actually worked there three times – safely twice, but on the third occasion the rebels kidnapped him, along with three colleagues.
I joined the Surrey Comet while he was being held, and the first time I spoke to his father was on an entirely unconnected matter – their pub had been listed in a good pub guide and I rang him for a quote to go in a cheerful little story on it. Being new, I forgot the bigger story and couldn't work out why he was so wary when I rang and said I was from the local paper. I explained about the guide, and he chuckled and his tone changed slightly, like a man who had been given a very brief respite from carrying a very heavy weight, and I remembered in a rush what he was going through.
Time passed, and silly rumours started circulating, suggesting the four engineers had been engaged in espionage for the British government. Utter rubbish, but some papers – and politicians – ran with them, leading to lurid stories that angered the family. I didn't touch them – they were unsourced and utterly implausible – and as a result of this, and of generally accurate reporting on the whole subject, I learned from Darren's uncle (the family spokesman) that I had become one of the very few journalists the family were prepared to talk to. I did get a phone call from a Conservative MP – one of the worst offenders, a woman I'd never dealt with before and who had no obvious connection with the case – warning me not to upset the family with sensationalist journalism. I'd have liked to have told her what I thought of her hypocracy, but was too busy spluttering with astonishment to do so before she finished her lecture and hung up.
More time passed, and optimism grew. The engineers had spoken to their firm. Secret negotiations were underway. Other western hostages had been released. And then it all went wrong. The Chechen authorities tried to rescue them, and the kidnappers beheaded them.
Now, alas, beheading seems a common ending to a kidnapping. Then it was unknown and carried with it the even greater horror of the unfamiliar. First the heads were found, and then later – much, much later – the bodies.
I went to the pub as the news was breaking to try to talk to the family and was politely turned away. I didn't argue. There are times to say 'are you sure, because…' and there are times to nod, express your sympathy, and leave. This was undoubtedly the latter.
When Darren's remains came home and they were able to hold a funeral it was communicated to me that I would be welcome to attend if I wished. Of course, I went – in a professional capacity, with a photographer. Every Irish publican or pub-goer in London and Surrey and beyond seemed to have come, and the little church was packed. I didn't try to go in, although I'm pretty sure I had permission, and I saw an agency reporter who certainly didn't – a cocky-looking gangling one-night-stander – thrown out on his ear. Instead I waited outside with hundreds of others and listened on the speakers that had been set up for us.
And afterwards I returned to the office and wrote a page of the best, most moving, copy I have ever produced. I don't think the paper had planned to give it a full page, but I wasn't taking any argument on that count.
Something like three months later I saw some of that copy again, on the front page of the launch issue of a new paper. The sub laying out the page was on Prozac (honestly) and had just filled a gap with anything that would fit. The editor had failed to spot when she checked the page that the bottom quarter was taken up with an ages-old funeral report. I saw it the second I saw the bundles of papers delivered to the office and went ballistic. When I came down from the ceiling I phoned the uncle – 'you know you once said I was one of the few journalists you were still willing to speak to – well, I think that's about to change…' I think I got the editor to write a letter of apology too, but I don't quite remember. Things were going pretty badly by then, and not long after I was sacked.
Since then, I've always noticed when Chechnya came up in the news. Usually, I'm pretty hostile to countries that use force against citizens who are protesting for self-determination. But since Darren Hickey, I've made an exception for Chechnya. Frankly, it wouldn't bother me if Vladimir Putin razed Grozny to the ground and deported every citizen to Siberia. I gather Stalin did something not dissimilar and it worked for him.
When the school seige started last week, I knew there wasn't going to be a peaceful solution – not with Chechens involved. I knew that whatever Russia did, many – perhaps most – of those children were not going to come out alive. There seems to be a twisted, sadistic side to Chechen terrorism you don't find elsewhere. 9/11 was a straightforward terrorist strike – quick and effective, for maximum casualties and maximum publicity. It was bigger than anything ever before, but it wasn't fundamentally different. They'd tried to blow up the World Trade Centre before – this time, they used bigger bombs, self-propelled, with people in. But the school seige was different. It wasn't really a hostage situation in the recognised sense. It was more a bomb with a very long fuse. There were never any circumstances under which those hostages were going to be peacefully freed by negotiation. I believe the whole purpose was to kill them, and to me the mystery is why it was ever set up as a hostage situation at all.
And I don't buy the idea that this had anything much to do with al-Qaeda. Sure, I expect they're working with the Chechens. But the Chechens were hard at it when bin Laden was just another minor Saudi princeling, and they'll still be at it long after he and Bush and Putin are dead of old age. Chechens have been fighting Russians for at least 150 years, and they're not about to stop, war on terrorism or no war on terrorism.
Right now, Putin's got to find a response. He's already made it clear to the West that he doesn't much feel like negotiating. I'm inclined to say we should let him get on with it.