APOLOGIES, to most people, are either the last resort or a hobby. To journalists however they are the equivalent of bellowing "Whaddya want, MICK?" in an Irish bar at closing time on St Patrick's Day: the very last thing you're going to do before you die.
Making other people sorry, though, is something of a mission statement in Fleet Street.
Arguing a point until it is eroded beyond memory is a skill honed in anyone who spends a lot of time in pubs but there is something about being a reporter - to whom humanity often turns in angry blame over everything from cats stuck up trees to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system - which produces in that creed an angry thirst for a fight, even and especially in the face of massive opposition. Because if you never say sorry then you haven't lost the argument, and you never have to back down.
That's what makes us erstwhile champions of lost causes, vocal campaigners for the underdog and the rabid enemy of anyone who might have the nerve to slash our expenses, spill our pint, or make a complaint against us that actually stands up. There are reporters who will argue a point all the way to the gates of hell regardless of cost or consequences, and that's why Harry Porter has spent six hours, so far, arguing on the telephone with the residents' parking section of the London Borough of Lambeth.
"I started off with a call centre in Delhi and now I'm on hold for the Director of Transportation," he said proudly when we inquired how he was doing. "It's amazing. You need civility with the lower ranks and then inventive insults for the managers; works a treat. Hello? Oh at last, a moron in authority! I was wondering if you might be able to explain why your buffoonish stormtroopers of uniformed doom have seen fit to ticket my car every day for a week..."
I rolled my eyes, holding my own phone six inches away from my ear while The Reader continued a long diatribe on why he wanted us to print a front-page apology for a story about the Queen's corgis having worms. "... I mean, how do you know how Her Majesty feels about it? I'm sure she is upset but who is this unnamed 'courtier' you quote? I don't believe Her Majesty would condone her staff discussing her pets' toilet habits with a lackey from the Press... "
At the same time I scrolled through my email inbox, rammed full as it always is 24 hours after any kind of story about the Royal Family. There were two attempts at witty comments which I forwarded to the letters editor, three poems, four 'isn't the Queen lovely?'s, and one long and detailed note about sado-masochism, the late Queen Mother and how prostitutes have the bloody cheek to say no sometimes. It was signed 'Whipping Boy' but also included the (rather elderly) gentleman's name, age and home address. I wrote "Thank you for your email, the contents of which have been noted" and hit 'reply to all'.
'Civil yet sinister,' I thought with satisfaction and then turned my attention back to the ranting caller. "Is this really what you call journalism, young lady?" he hissed at me.
"Well sir," I said. "The corgis have yet to complain about invasion of privacy and the Queen would, I think, much prefer to read about her pets than errant members of her family. While I would not claim it is the best piece of writing I have ever perpetrated people care more about animals than they do any other kind of story, so we sold more papers, got more letters and kept redundancies at bay for another day. And because people like you saw a picture you liked and bought the paper, you all had the chance to read the far more worthy story about a shocking Government policy change on page two which, had it been on the front, you would not have paid to read. So yes, it is what I call journalism."
"Oh," said The Reader, deflated by an argument so well-rehearsed his off-the-cuff irritation was no match for it. "Well in that case I have to say you're doing a fine job. And as you've been so polite I shall buy your paper again next time."
Just then Porter crashed his phone back into the receiver with a whoop. "At last! Victory! He said sorry and refunded all the parking tickets!"
"But you didn't have a permit and shouldn't have parked there," said Bridget Jones the crime reporter, a stickler for rules.
"Not the point!" crowed Porter. "Point is, I was such a nuisance that in the end he had to find a way to get rid of me. Like being the biggest fly in the ointment - they notice you first."
"Well I just won an apology simply by being reasonable, Porter," I said. "Maybe you should try that."
He snorted. "Bollocks, Lilly. I've been in this job a lot longer than you and let me tell you, if you want to be treated with respect you have to damn well demand it. And by the by, if you think being reasonable with The Parrot's going to get you anywhere then you don't know men at all."
He was referring to my drunken upset with The Parrot, in which he'd chatted up some girl, I'd shouted at him in the street and then he'd made a tasteless remark about my 'baggage' from being in a recently-dissolved and occasionally-violent marriage. It being the first argument I'd had with anyone since the split, I had sought advice about how to handle it from the comrades who slave alongside me at the coalface of the newsroom, a place where emotion is mined, refined and turned into a pun every day.
I sniffed at him. "Well, that's just where you're wrong, Porter. I told him he was out of line and he said sorry. Twatface never did that, and it just goes to show that if you're honest and reasonable and polite then people treat you the same way."
"Oh yeah? And what did he say about chatting up other crumpet in front of you?"
"Well, that was different." The others all raised their eyebrows at me. "Look, The Parrot's not my boyfriend so he can do as he likes. And besides, I got completely the wrong end of the stick. He was only having a smoke with them. It was a bit bonkers for me to start shouting at him in the street and storm off."
Bridget said: "Hmm. Well, maybe. But just promise me you won't sleep with him again until you get it all sorted out. He needs to say whether he's seeing other girls as well, or just wants to see you. You should demand better treatment than that."
Porter gave me what can only be called A Look. "You apologised to him, didn't you?" He scoffed at my silence. "You're a fool."
At that moment Bish, on his way from the gents' back to his seat, stamped past the reporters' desk with a glare. "What are yer up ter? Don't like it when yer all yakkin'. Mean's yer not workin'," he said with a scowl, before crooking a finger at me. "Miles, approach the bench if you please."
Sticking my tongue out at Porter, I followed Bish to the newsdesk with notebook in hand expecting to be told about a story. Instead he slumped into his orthopaedic chair and burrowed in the papers piled around his keyboard for a letter which he tossed at me. "Yer favourite person's got a right cob on," he said.
The letter was from Gullet & Brains, London's most expensive and feared law firm which makes a killing by going after the newspapers on behalf of its celebrity clients on a no-win, no-fee basis. If they can wangle an apology or correction the lawyers charge them a small price and damages are agreed, usually a few grand. Then Gullet & Brains deliver their costs to the paper's legal department, which are so ginormous, so gargantuan in their unreasonable extravagance, that they don't just dwarf the damages paid to the celeb but positively shit all over them and then plant a Leylandii hedge in front of their view for good measure.
In short, the sight of a Gullet & Brains letterhead is enough to send poor Mossy our lawyer into a six-month trough of despair and make the paper's accountant lose the last wit he's managed to hold onto. For the journos, though, it's like being confronted with Goliath and given a slingshot. How could you not have a pop?
My knuckles began to itch as I read the letter, which was written on behalf of "our very upset client", a slightly-faded pop star whose public meltdowns and habit for marrying nice-girls-next-door and cheating on them had made him a figure of nationwide, spiteful fun. As The Reader loved to loathe him there was a massive appetite for stories and for some months I had been exchanging cash and gossip with his gardener, an elderly gent who took exception to being regularly insulted by his famous boss and also wanted to keep his wife in a nice nursing home rather than move her to a cheaper one.
Every story we'd done, from the one about plastic surgery on the pop star's willy to the one about forcing his girlfriend to have his name tattooed inside her lower lip, had been on the money and the pop star had been unable to complain. He'd written a few letters moaning about a vendetta but in every case my pebble of a silly story had smacked him straight between the eyes and there was nothing he could do about it: instead the pop star had been left to brood about just how much he wanted to shut up that annoying Lillys Miles.
This is the kind of implacable hatred for our sort which makes a reporter rub their hands in glee; it is a job well done to be hated by someone who themselves is despised, and even better to do it in a way that is journalistically as tight as a drum. But a couple of weeks ago, when I was out of the office on another job, Tania Banks had been working on a story about the pop star buying a holiday igloo in the Arctic. Evil Elliot asked me to double-check it with my source, who knew nothing about it. Banks' tale went in the paper but somehow or another my name - my highly-recognisable, and as far as the pop star was concerned much-loathed name - was put on the byline.
The story was utter bullshit; complete pony from start to finish. Gullet & Brains pointed out their "very upset client" was less concerned about being known as a purchaser of igloos - hardly defamatory when everyone knew he once worked as a rent boy in Soho - and more worried about the fact we had incorrectly reported the value of his country estate as £4million when it was, in fact, £14million.
"This drastically undervalues the house and land which our very upset client is in the process of selling at a figure your newspaper infers is unreasonable and has already caused concern among prospective purchasers, leading to a potential loss for our client of £10million," said the letter. "We invite you to redress this matter immediately by means of apology or a payment in lieu of the financial damage caused to our client, who is very upset."
I handed the letter back to Bish. "Well, he's right," I said. "Every story I've written about that pop star says his house is worth £14m. It's in the cuttings library. Banks must have...
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