May 4, 2009

That's a really stupid question

THE mobile buzzes gently to let me know I have a message.
I pick it up and have a look, hoping it’s a contact with a good story.
No such luck. Instead it is from a colleague who was with me at a press conference held by the Garda Representative Association in Killarney, Co Kerry a few hours earlier.
He was listening to the recording he made of the conference – and felt compelled to tell me how much of a muppet I was.
“Just listening bak to my tape,” the text said, “Why do u ask so many stupid questions? I know ur stupidity levels are out of ur control, but please reduce number of questions. Thank you.”
I thought this was actually a tremendously funny text and you really need to know the personality of the texter to realise the spirit in which it was sent. I just laughed and showed it to everyone. They laughed as well.
At least he said thank you. And he probably had a point on this occasion; I suppose I did hog the press conference somewhat.
But it was one of the few times my career where I can think of the two things in which I am interested most – crime and languages – were together. I was always fascinated by crime and studied Italian and French at university, so the press conference obviously attracted my interest. (As an aside, I’d strongly advise any young person who wants to be a reporter to study languages. It opens up a lot of doors. And if you speak a language, you’ll get foreign gigs much more often than some hack who relies on speaking loudly and slowly in English to a Spanish cop or Italian politician. My language skills have got me to some weird and wonderful locations I would otherwise never have seen were it not for work. I also think foreign language training helps with your journalese.)
The speaker at the presser was Detective Garda Tom O’Sullivan, who is attached to the Interpol National Central Bureau at Garda HQ in Phoenix Park. He’s also a qualified interpreter and translator; so he clearly knows his stuff.
He was worried that there was no vetting in their home countries of foreign interpreters working for gardai in Ireland: there’s not much point checking them on the Irish system without being able to confirm that they are conviction free in whatever part of the world they come from.
He was also concerned at the possibility that foreign gangs could plant members of their outfit into a Garda station as an interpreter. That stands to reason. If there are no checks in someone’s own country, it’s quite clear the system is open to abuse. His points were well made. I hope I didn’t bore him too much.
But I did ask more than my fair share of questions, hence my colleague’s kind text message.
Like most newspaper reporters, I tend not to ask too many questions at press conferences. In my line of work, the pressers I attend are usually after murders. I, and other paper people, usually leave the questions to the broadcasters. They need quotes from the local superintendent, or chief, for the TV or radio. They need the basics: the what, when and where of the murder for their next broadcast. They have to be there for that – we lazy paper reporters can simply lift those details from the news. There’s not much point in asking the who or why at any press conference. They won’t tell you. So it’s much better to speak to someone off the record, and away from the cameras, for the really important information. In addition, broadcasters like to be seen, and heard, asking the questions – I think their editors believe that helps their station brand. That’s fair enough.
And, sometimes, you don’t have any questions to ask. It’s actually hard, particularly at the start of your career to ask questions of someone, especially in authority. Sometimes your mind goes blank, followed by your face turning red.
Also, you really have to be fully prepared before asking some people questions – any weakness and your part and you target will turn on you. The two people I prepared most before I rang them were Ian Paisley Junior and President Mary McAleese, when she was a law professor at Queen’s University of Belfast in the mid 1990s. They were both the same. They let you ask a question and then demolished you if there was any wriggle room, or mistake, in what you had put to them. It was great training, however. You soon learned to stop asking silly questions.
For me, the worst I ever heard of was in the aftermath of a gangland murder last year in Dublin. There was a press conference the next day, a Saturday, so I wasn’t there. But a pal rang me a short time afterwards, convulsed with laughter. The victim had been shot as he enjoyed a pint in a pub, before the killers fled.
In the scrum of the press conference the next day, the Super was fielding the usual questions, when a hack asked him: “So, did the killers make an immediate escape?” What did the reporter think the gunmen did, have a pint themselves before casually strolling out of the pub?
Sometimes it’s better not to stick your head above the parapet at a press conference – or you’ll get a text like I did at the GRA.