Sunday 9 December 2012

Interviewing Amy

Last week I had the opportunity to interview reality TV star Amy Childs. Amy shot to fame on ITV2 show 'The Only Way Is Essex', which has divided the people of Essex (some have adopted the show as a lifestyle template, others believe it is detrimental to the entire county's image), and divided critics.

I have only seen one episode of TOWIE and I can't say I was a fan. The cast had gone 'glamping' (glamorous camping) and my only real memory, besides the terribly stilted acting, was the enforced idiocy. Two men were shown trying to dig a toilet with bendy twigs. Nobody is that stupid. The whole thing was clearly staged. I found it infuriating.

Nonetheless, I found Amy to be a lovely woman with a keen business sense and a lot of ambition. Here's how it looked in the paper but I think the image is too small for the print to be visible, so I have pasted the story itself below.

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On Saturday Amy Childs opened her new boutique at Basildon’s Eastgate Centre. With less than 24 hours until the shutters went up, she told YA reporter Charles Thomson about her top secret new TV project and why she would never return to TOWIE.

AMY CHILDS is putting the finishing touches to her new boutique. Tomorrow she will officially open it. Fans are expected to descend on Eastgate in the hope of glimpsing the presenter, model and businesswoman who shot to fame on ITV2’s The Only Way Is Essex. Few of them probably realise that Amy has been at the Eastgate for much of the last two weeks, hidden behind the store’s shutters, personally overseeing the whole project. 

“People think I don’t do anything,” she tells me during a 15-minute break. “They see the products and the shops and they say, ‘What’s she even doing, though?’ But I work hard. I work seven days a week.”

The hard work has paid off. As TOWIE’s most successful alumnus, she is now the face of an ever-expanding business empire which, to date, includes three clothing lines, a range of false eyelashes, her own line of tanning products, a perfume, a magazine column and now plans for a national chain of shops.  

For now, the Basildon boutique is temporary – but if it proves popular it could stay. She will work part-time in the new shop, which will only sell Amy Childs products, in-between shooting dates for a lucrative new TV project she refuses to tell me anything about. 

“I’m really excited about it,” she says. “I’ve been offered so many shows but I wanted to do the right thing for me. I didn’t want to just rush into any old TV show. I can’t tell you anything, but it will be out next year.”

Amy and her fellow TOWIE stars have been the butt of comedians’ jokes since the series first aired in 2010, constantly painted as preening dimwits. 

I suggest to Amy that her burgeoning business empire throws that reputation into serious doubt. 

“It’s not true at all,” she protests. “I’ve always been business-minded. Ever since I was 13 I’ve known I wanted to own shops. I worked in a salon for two-and-a-half years before I was on TOWIE and had lots of clients who came to see me at home. I’ve always worked hard. But when I did TOWIE, doors opened for me.”

So was TOWIE a means to an end? 

“Not at all,” she says. “But I never wanted to be on the telly. I was in two minds when they asked me.”

Amy was the break out star of TOWIE’s first two seasons but departed in late 2011.

“I decided to do the show and just be myself,” she continues. “I loved every minute but nothing lasts forever. It was brilliant for me, but I needed to do this. The show got really big and I thought, ‘You’ve got to make the most of this’. I left at the right time. It’s still a great show but I’d never go back.” 

Amy’s looks and multi-faceted business model have earned comparisons to Katie Price, often cited online as Amy’s ‘idol’. She’s even represented by Price’s old manager. 

However, she laughs off the suggestion that she’s attempting to emulate the former glamour model.
“It’s so funny what the press say,” she giggles. “I said in one interview that I admired Katie and now they say she’s my idol. We are so different. I’m my own person.”

So who is her real idol? 

“Victoria Beckham,” she says, immediately. “She is brilliant. I really look up to her. She looks absolutely fantastic.” 

Amy will hit screens again before Christmas in an appearance on ‘Stephen Fry – Gadget Man’ – a move she hopes will go some way towards dispelling her airhead image. 

“He was so lovely,” she beams. “We were talking all about beauty gadgets. That’s why he came to me – I know my beauty inside-out.

“He was so interested in me. He said he was a big fan of TOWIE.”

He’s not the only one. Amy now has an army of young female admirers, including 1.2million Twitter followers. 

How does it feel, I wonder, to go from complete anonymity to such enormous adulation?

“It is weird having fans” she says. “But it’s amazing. I absolutely love them. They’re like my little family. They’re so sweet.”

Is it a burden being a role model for so many young and impressionable girls?

”I’m just myself. They look up to me but I don’t feel any responsibility because I’ve always been the same way. They love me for me.”

Gay Hairdresser Stabbing; Has copy & paste journalism turned an aggressor into a victim?

On Tuesday morning I made my way over to Basildon Crown Court, as I often do. I had been following the case of Lee Howett, a 26-year-old man from Stanford-Le-Hope in Essex, since his first appearance at Basildon Magistrates Court on Thursday, August 23rd. Howett was charged with a Section 18 'Wounding with Intent' offence. A hairdresser by trade, he had stabbed a man with a pair of scissors at Basildon rail station on June 24th. He didn't enter a plea at that Magistrates Court hearing. His case was referred to Crown because of its seriousness.

A Plea & Case Management Hearing was held once the case got to Crown Court, where Howett entered a guilty plea. On Tuesday he appeared at Basildon Crown to be sentenced for his crime.

When I arrived at court, a reporter from our rival newspaper The Echo was already in the building. We both scribbled notes throughout Howett's hearing. Howett had been waiting for a train when three intoxicated football fans had spilled onto the platform, singing and shouting. Howett shouted at them to 'shut up'.

Howett claimed one of the men responded with a homophobic comment. CCTV played in court showed that Howett then lunged at the man three times. On the last occasion, he had taken a pair of scissors from his bag. He plunged them, between one and one-and-a-half inches deep, into his victim's back. Had he hit the man's spine - and he wasn't far off - he could have been paralysed or killed. Howett was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

As my paper, the Yellow Advertiser, is a weekly title, the Echo - a daily - inevitably beat us to publication. By the time our paper hit streets, the Echo's report had already been picked up by the Daily Mail. From there it was republished by outlets from France to Florida. Europe's biggest gay news outlet Pink News ran the story. So did US websites Queerty and GayStarNews.

Many of these reports were somewhat sympathetic to Howett. Rightly so, you might think. He was a young man on a train platform who simply asked some unruly men to be quiet and was in turn abused over his sexuality. He snapped and plunged pair of scissors into his tormentor's back. It may not be the best way of dealing with the situation, but many might find it understandable.

Indeed, much of the user discussion on Pink News was supportive of Howett.

"If the 'victim' had kept his mouth shut he wouldn't have been stabbed," wrote a poster called Allex. "What goes around comes around. More of these straight thugs need to be taught a lesson."

Another user, B Ingram, wrote, "I'm not a fan of violence but I have to say, as I read more and more stories on would-be gay victims of hate crimes fighting back, I am thrilled."

Some posters felt justice was unequal for members of the LGBT community. They suggested that if Howett's victim had instead attacked Howett, his sentence would have been much more lenient. A poster called Adam wrote, "If [Howett] had been stabbed or beaten to a pulp, the men, if caught, may get a fine."

Another poster, called Another Hannah, wrote, "This is a sentence which is obviously disproportionate to the sentences given when the boot is on the other foot."

However, all of the above articles, which prompted these sympathetic responses, omit what I consider to be a vital piece of information. Here's a copy of my report in the Yellow Advertiser. See if you can spot what was left out of everybody else's stories.

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Lee Howett already had another conviction for possessing a bladed article in a public place. That conviction was for using a pair of scissors in a threatening manner. He had been found guilty of brandishing the scissors in a supermarket in Grays. He did so when confronted by staff who had caught him stealing alcohol. He was handed an 18-month community order for the crime. He had various other prior convictions too, including more than one count of assaulting a police officer.

Moreover, no evidence was presented to suggest that Howett had actually been the victim of homophobic abuse. It was always Howett's contention, but it was never proved. During Howett's Plea and Case Management Hearing there was talk of holding a Newton Hearing - a trial of issue - to hear evidence on the point and have the judge make a decision as to whether he felt Howett's claim was true. Judge Owen-Jones decided not to hold the hearing. On Tuesday, he said he was prepared to give Howett 'the benefit of the doubt'. In his summing up, he said Howett had 'probably' been the subject of a homophobic remark.

That's not quite how many of the outlets who ran the story presented it, though. The Daily Mail's intro read, "A gay hairdresser has been jailed for two and a half years after he stabbed a man with a pair of scissors in revenge for making a homophobic comment. Lee Howett snapped after a passenger waiting at Basildon rail station, Essex, abused him over his sexuality during a series of skirmishes."

It is not a matter of fact that Lee Howett was the subject of a homophobic comment. Moreover, the phrase 'abused him over his sexuality during a series of skirmishes' suggests a flurry of homophobic insults, whereas Howett alleged only one, and that one was alleged to have happened before the physical skirmishes - which Howett started - not during.

The inclusion of the alleged homophobic slur as fact, coupled with the omission of Howett's prior convictions and the use of the word 'snapped', paint a picture of an innocent bystander provoked into an uncharacteristically violent act by an extreme set of circumstances. The evidence does not fit that picture. The evidence suggests Howett's behaviour was entirely characteristic. He had prior convictions for violence and a prior conviction involving a bladed article.  The evidence also does not suggest any extreme circumstances. Being called a single homophobic name is not pleasant, by any stretch of the imagination. But nor is it sufficiently unusual to be held up as an excuse for a stabbing.

The Echo report which sparked the global coverage did not mention Howett's prior convictions. I won't criticise the Echo for that. Facts get left out of court stories, by necessity, all the time. To put everything that is said during a hearing like Howett's into a newspaper would be impractical. It would fill half the paper and nobody would read it. The job of the court reporter is to present the salient information to the reader without misleading them or giving undue weight to either party.

The Echo may have felt the information wasn't especially important. That is a perfectly valid opinion. All journalism is subjective. I have often quoted Carl Bernstein on the subject. Mr Bernstein once said that the very act of journalism is subjective, because reporters and editors decide what is or is not news. Unless everything that happens in the world on any given day - every flick of a light switch - is reported, then somebody, somewhere has made a decision as to what is or is not news.

But I found it interesting how the dynamics of the story were so drastically changed by that simple omission. Coincidentally, when I brought the story back to the newsroom on Tuesday morning, a senior staff member said it was a shame about the prior convictions because without them, it could be a great story about a put-upon gay man who, after years of taunts, snapped and attacked one of his bullies. Of course, we could have taken a decision to omit the prior convictions and write that story - but that wasn't an option we even considered.

After watching the story go around the world in the form that it did, it would have been easy to kick ourselves for not simply omitting the prior bladed article conviction and turning the Howett case into the story we wished it had been. The money we could have made! But we had a discussion on Friday and concluded fairly quickly that we had done the right thing.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Back To School

Last month I received two letters in the post at work from children at a local primary school. They were studying 'how the media affects our lives' and they wanted a real-life journalist to come in and give a talk. Ordinarily I would have politely declined, as I am no fan of public speaking, but my colleague Suzi talked me into it.

So last week the pair of us went to the school and spent an hour being grilled by 60 kids, all aged 10 and 11. Their teachers hadn't told them in advance that we were coming in and when they discovered who we were, I was susprised to hear them all gasp. It was a big deal to them, which just made me even more nervous.

Lots of hands in the air, waiting to ask questions.

Thankfully, Suzi was brilliant. Having had some teacher training, she was able to talk to the kids on a level they could understand, adopting a sort of animated persona and keeping them giggling. They were a little too young to grasp a lot of what our job entails - trying to explain government corruption to a 10-year-old is a losing battle, and the content of a lot of the court and crime stories we cover would be entirely inappropriate for their age group.

 Suzi and I answering questions.

However, they were very entertained to hear that I had just interviewed a man who was about to chain himself to a tree to stop the local council from chopping it down, and they loved hearing about the time Suzi had lunch with Prince Charles. They asked, bizarrely, if either of us had met James Bond and were most excited to hear that I had once got Daniel Craig's autograph (nothing to do with work, though!).

We got some lovely 'thank you' letters in the post a few days later. One of them said, "Throughout the amazing hour you were here we have learnt much more about the media than we expected to know by the end of this topic. We had lots of fun and are now inspired to become journalists like you."

Pictures supplied by Laura Dance.

It was nice to see that the kids were so excited to have us there and to know that they enjoyed the experience. Maybe I'll be less hesitant when the next letter comes in.