December 1, 2008

Hello

“Please. No. Please. Just go away. Please.”

Your heart is beating so ferociously it feels like it’s about to leap through your ribcage. Your mouth is dry. Your knees are weak. As you walk up to the door, you are silently praying for two things to happen. Firstly, you’re hoping the person on the other side of the door will talk to you. Secondly, you’re hoping they’ll pass on the chance to give you a damn good kicking.
Welcome to the world of the doorstep – the worst part of any journalist’s job.
Some reporters can’t do it. They simply can’t walk up to a house and ask to speak to whoever is inside, particularly if it’s a story about someone who has just been murdered and you’re hoping to persuade their family to speak to you. Who can blame them? It’s a tough gig.
I did my first one while I was on work experience, almost 15 years ago. It was an approach to the family of a man shot dead in the New Lodge area of north Belfast by loyalists. I was terrified. The family said no to my timid approach. I must have done hundreds of doorsteps since then. It doesn’t get any easier. I still get terrified every time I knock on the door.
It could be approaching the home of a family who had a child killed in an accident a day earlier. It could be confronting a paedophile, back in the community after serving his time for committing horrendous, unspeakable, crimes against kids. It could be approaching the family of a criminal, shot dead for losing €30,000 worth of heroin.
Approaching a house where people are coming to terms with a tragedy that has visited them - or who really, really don’t want to talk to a reporter - is as scary as it gets. It’s scary because you’re worried you might just get beaten to a pulp. It’s also scary because, when you’re approaching good people to whom something bad has just happened, you’re terrified they’ll look at you with nothing but contempt, before asking you how you can do your job and sleep at night.
You spend a couple of minutes sitting in the car a few doors away, talking strategy with your photographer colleague. We agree that I’ll do the doorstep myself – two people often look more intimidating than one. And anyway, if things kick off, the snapper won’t be too far away. He’ll come and help me if there is a problem – after, of course, getting the pics.
You get out of the car, parked with the engine running and facing out of the estate in case you need to make a quick getaway. You take a deep breath and walk up the path. Sometimes, as you approach the door, you hope no-one is there, that your knock will go unanswered. That you can go back to the office and say you tried.
You arrive at the door. You take a deep breath. You knock. After a few seconds, the door opens. Now it’s all about who’s on the other side of the door. Rather, it’s all about how they’ll react to you. You can usually tell before they even say a word. You know by their body language whether they’re going to talk to you or not. Sometimes they politely decline. Sometimes they chase you away, spit at you, threaten you or even try to hit you.
Sometimes you wish they had hit you, rather than say what they said to you. A punch would have been less painful.
A day after the Omagh bomb, of August 15 1998, I was sent to Buncrana, Co Donegal by the Irish News. Three young children from that town had been killed in the bomb. I had to doorstep each family to see if they would talk.
The first family, that of James Barker, brought me in and gave me a full interview. The second family, that of Sean McLaughlin, did the same. Each also gave me a photograph of their boy. The third family, of young Oran Doherty, declined. The man who answered the door, who I can only assume was the young boy’s father, said something that has stayed with me - haunted me - to this day. I told him I was a journalist, that I was sorry for his loss and asked if I could speak to him. He looked at me, shocked and appalled, and appealed to me to go away. “Please. No. Please. Just go away. Please.” I apologised, walked away and slithered back under the rock whence I had come.
A few days later, I was doing another doorstep, this time in Omagh. It was the family of young Deborah Cartwright, a teenager killed in the bomb. I teamed up with a British reporter for it: there was no point in both of us doing it separately. Her father, an RUC officer, was standing in the garden, his hands in his pockets, staring at the grass. I took the lead. Again, I asked if he would speak to us. He said no. I apologised and walked away, expecting the reporter with me to also retreat. However, as I was walking away, I heard her angrily exclaim to him: ` What? Not even a word?’ I didn’t wait to hear his reply. I got out of there as quickly as I could.
Both those events taught me one thing: if people want to talk, they will. If they don’t, nothing you can do can persuade them. I have a rule that, if someone says no, I don’t go back and ask a second time. It’s pointless and just causes the family more anguish.
But sometimes people do talk.
Sometimes they bring you, a complete stranger, into their house, sit you down and talk to you about the loved one they’ve just lost. I used to wonder why they did. I’d tell whatever photographer I was with, if a reporter ever called to my door, I’d chase them. The photographer usually agreed – but they really don’t like reporters.
But then, after several years, I realised why so many of them opened the door, let me in and let it all out. Some people just like to talk to strangers about their grief. In April 2000, when I had been a journalist for six odd years, my own father, Gerald, died suddenly abroad. When it happened, all I wanted to do was talk about it. To anybody who would listen. I realised there and then why some people speak to me and other reporters on death knocks: they just like to get it out. Sometimes it helps talking to a complete stranger.
And sometimes seeing the face of your loved one on the front page of The Irish Daily Star – where I am Crime Correspondent – or other papers, gives validation to the victim. That they counted. That they were important. That they were necessary.
It’s the worst part of being a crime reporter. Sitting there as a mother tells you how much she’ll miss her son. Trying awkwardly to comfort her when she breaks down in tears. Hoping the ground will swallow you up when a father reacts angrily to your request for an interview.
This isn’t an appeal for pity: the feelings of a hack are nothing, less than nothing, in comparison to their suffering.
I’m just trying to show what it is like to be a crime correspondent in Ireland today. I want to talk about crime and what it’s like to report on it.
Being a crime reporter today is the most interesting, the most frightening, the most exciting, the most rewarding and most challenging of jobs. Read on and I’ll tell you why...

4 comments:

  1. Superb insight, Michael. Not that I've been in the situation but I've always imagined it as the toughest part of the job.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good stuff, squire ... and best of luck with the blog. Any chance of you writing any crime fiction? Cheers, Dec

    ReplyDelete
  3. That's an interesting perspective...

    It's good to know that it doesn't become easy as time goes by and that there's a human behind the job title.

    Nice blog

    JNS

    ReplyDelete
  4. Good explanation of a much misunderstood practice, Mick.

    ReplyDelete