By Tom Hill, Course Director and Founder, Up To Speed Journalism.
In this series of posts on the skills you need to be a good reporter, I have been concentrating on people skills. Some of these skills can be used to charm contacts or to persuade interviewees to talk, but a good reporter should also develop a habit of looking over her shoulder to see what “the competition” is up to.
Today’s top tip is taken from the appropriately named Chinese General, Sun Tzu, who back in the Fifth Century BC, was quoted as saying: “know your enemy.”
- Tip #21 Know Your Enemy
Have you heard the one about two men from London, a donkey and a sack of pesetas?
Well, if not, pay attention, because it is a story for journalists about living on your wits and going the extra mile. And the moral of the story is: never give up and never underestimate your enemy.
It all started one Pancake Day in a sleepy Spanish village called Villanueva de la Vera. The year was 1987 and the hero of the story was a little donkey called El Negro.
El Negro was picked by the villagers to be the star of an ancient Shrovetide festival. The bad news for El Negro was that the role involved being ritually beaten, abused and dragged through the streets and tormented in an alcohol-fuelled fiesta.
It didn’t look good for the little donkey, but then help arrived from the unlikely direction of London. Fleet Street reacted swiftly. With the stroke of a pen, the unfortunate ass was re-christened Blackie, Spanish phrase books and battered copies of For Whom The Bell Tolls were milked for Hispanic headlines, and the leader writers worked their cojones off, goading the great British public into a froth of righteous indignation.
Meanwhile, two rival desperadoes called Whittow and Mackay, were dispatched by the Sun and the Star. The race was on. Fleet Street was hell-bent on vengeance, mercy and a piece of the ass.
The Spanish villagers didn’t know what was about to hit them.
Whittow of the Sun arrived first. Clutching a fistful of pesetas, he bought young Blackie for the equivalent of £250. Back in London, Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie sensed victory.
Whittow filed his story and then, baulking at the thought of bedding down with his burrito, the intrepid Sun reporter paid a farmer a sackful of pesetas to turn the young donkey out to grass in one of his fields.
It was an error of judgement Hugh Whittow would live to regret.
For, hot on his heels, was Don Mackay. And Mackay, a gringo from the Daily Star, meant business.
Dawn broke with a rustle of bank notes, and before Whittow could say, “full English breakfast”, Mackay and Blackie had made a break for Blighty and the border and Kelvin was choking on his corn flakes.
The Daily Star headline, read GOTCHA! and the front page showed a picture of Blackie and the receipt they had been given by a Spanish farmer who can scarcely have believed his luck.
The Sun tried running spoiler stories alleging that it was cruel to remove Blackie from all his donkey friends in Spain, but the Star hit back wheeling out legendary animal experts such as Johnny Morris to say that the little donkey would be happy in Devon.
On the day Blackie arrived in Dover, the Sun arranged its own welcoming party featuring a female donkey called Coco, but the five year old filly was snubbed. Once again the Star hit back, this time revealing that Coco was actually a he.
So, when you are a reporter, remember that pride can often come before a fall. Make sure you work out who your rivals are and make it your business to try and beat them on every story. Journalism is a competitive game and so it is a good idea to cultivate a friendly rivalry with colleagues in the same office, but also to make sure you do a better job than people working for rival organisations.
You are less likely now than you once were to have a direct rival in regional newspapers, but try to find someone you can aim to beat.
All journalists should take pride in their words and their craft, but the moments of real triumph you experience, when you punch the air in victory, are usually at another journalist’s expense. There is no honour among donkey rustlers.
So, what happened to the protagonists in this modern morality tale?
Blackie Star was to live for five happy years at The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon. He died there in May 1993.
“He had a friend and companion, another donkey called Lola, and he was very happy here,” said Dawn Vincent, a spokeswoman for the sanctuary, which has since set up two burrito shelters in Spain.
The people of Villanueva are under pressure to keep donkeys out of their Fiesta and the sanctuary has launched an online petition on Facebook to stamp out animal cruelty at the Shrovetide event.
Don Mackay was hailed as a red-top hero, but was later to switch allegiances from the Star to the Daily Mirror.
Kelvin Mackenzie struck Whittow off his Christmas card list, but stayed on as Editor of the Sun until 1994. He currently writes a column for the newspaper and has also appeared on the TV series Grumpy Old Men.
Hugh Whittow left the Sun and was working on the news desk at the Star when the sad news of Blackie’s death was announced in 1993. As the story broke he was heard to remark, “Oh dash, I hope you don’t expect me to write his flipping obituary!”
Or words to that effect. He was later to become editor of the Sunday Star and Deputy Editor of the Daily Express.
And as for the farmer who got paid twice in one night? Well, he’s probably bouncing his grandchildren on his knee and telling them the one about the two men from London, the donkey and the sack of pesetas.