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From one hack to another, thanks for the tips, tipples and Belly laughs David
Posted on the 8th Jun 2020 in the category sport


The word “legend” is bandied about now way too much, just like “genius”, normal blokes down the pub are not legends or geniuses.

However, not everyone knows “legend” is an actual term in journalism for a special kind of hack and David Bell was a legend.

I only ever wanted to work for the Birmingham Mail, not the Sun or the Screws but the Birmingham Mail.

On my first day at the Mail I expected to be surrounded by legendary Brummie journalists all vying for the front page by snaring exclusives.

What I found was a newsroom full of people not from Birmingham terrified of missing something. And also if they put in a call for a story in the basket they’d want a joint byline, it was all very alien to me who was used to the Sutton and Great Barr Observer newsroom where there was a battle for the front page every week and two names would only appear on a story if both journalists had put proper work in.

The best journalists from what I could tell, Jim Levack and Steve Swingler, had been forced to edit local pages so instead of digging out exclusives themselves or leading the news team to be brave they spent their days shouting at the likes of me for nibs and downpages.

I quickly realised David Bell was the legend in the newsroom, he was the only one getting exclusives on a daily basis. There were other top class operators too like Jon Griffin, who’d got business locked down, and education correspondent Tony Collins who could bash out a lead in 20 minutes from phone call to page.

But I’d always try and sit near David if I could, but if I did he’d only be in his chair for a few hours until 10.30am when he’d head over the Old Joint Stock where his work would begin.

Councillors, council officers, lobbyists, lawyers and anyone else who had anything to do with Birmingham City Council would all pop in and see him, and through face to face conversations, he would get stories that most often someone somewhere did not want printed.

Back in the newsroom I’d hear the snarky comments from the brownnosers about him being a dinosaur, not getting a comment for a story and not being able to do the multi bit of the new multi-media world we were all entering.

As they were saying this they were probably rewriting a press release thinking that was actually news. I’d always say: “He’s getting exclusives.” Which I would think was the end of any conversation, however, they’d come back with “but…..”. By then my simmering rage would stop me hearing anything else they said, because I’ve always, and still do, think exclusives is what journalism is all about. Sadly as years have passed they are no longer what journalism is all about, its about who can write ten press releases or other newspapers’ stories.

David had four decades of exclusives. And keeping Birmingham City Council to account, which is the biggest local council in Europe, was an incredibly important job.

Every Birmingham taxpayer should raise a glass to David Bell because he helped stop millions of pounds being squandered on bonkers schemes and financial cock ups. If the clever corporate clogs tried to hard hide their plans in an incredibly complicated constructed sentence in an appendix of a document David would spot it and shine the light of press scrutiny on them.

But David was not just razor sharp mentally he was not scared to roll his sleeves up and get the exclusive.

This is from Councillor Iron Mike Leddy: “He really was a great journalist, he was like a dog with a bone at times, but in my opinion always wrote truthfully, whether you like his story or not, it was always well researched. He along with Jeff Rooker broke the story of the road bearings failing on the M6 viaducts just four years after the motorway opened, climbing an extended ladder perched up against a concrete pillar in Hassop Road.”

David was a gruff Northerner from Hartlepool who had made his home the West Midlands and could be quite intimidating to young journalists. He’d seen them come, and seen them go into PR so would not be too interested what the latest person sitting next to him had to say.

However, I started speaking to him, first in the office and then in the pub. And then not in the office and just in the pub. I began asking him advice about how to break exclusives I had got hold of. Getting an exclusive has always been easy for me, because of my brilliant contacts, but standing them up has always been the hard part. 

And because David loved hearing gossip and stories he started to help me out, giving me ideas of who to ask for the killer quote or which council department would have been involved in whatever story I was trying to uncover. And if, like many of my tip offs, they came to nothing well at least David and I would have had an interesting chat.

But when a brilliant tale did come off, like my Shameless story when I broke the exclusive about the family who had knocked two council houses into one and turned it into a speakeasy, he was genuinely pleased for me, unlike the Black Country chief reporter who rang me up demanding how I got the story instead of congratulating me.

David also encouraged me about my ability and place at the Birmingham Mail when it always seemed to be in doubt.

The whole newsroom knew I had a boss who was “trying to break” me after he’d told me, and maybe everyone else, “you gave me the best interview by a journalist in 20 years but now I’m working with you I feel violently mugged.”

There were disciplinaries and public dressing downs but David would always just chuckle and say “take no notice, just keep getting them stories of yours.” And then we would compare our appraisals over a Guinness or two and laugh some more.

 I remembering him really laughing when I told him my opening gambit in my Chief Reporter job interview: “I’m here to represent the hacks, like David Bell, I will get exclusives, having me in the Sutton office is like having a Ferrari and driving round the block, give me the job and lets have a road trip across America! If you want a chief reporter who gets national exclusives then I’m your man but if you want someone who organises rotas and a load of admin crap then the paper will remain boring and I'm not your man.”

Reply: “Have you read the job description? The job involves doing the rota and admin.”

David to me was the King of the Hacks, maybe the last great hack, hacks are different than journalists, they get their stories in pubs and live the job but are always overlooked for the top jobs, which to be fair, should go to journalists, not hacks. Except the chief reporter job, I always think whoever gets the best stories should have that post.

The first time I saw David after my Obama resignation furore he bought me a Guinness and told me how much he’d laughed when he saw the video and it tickled him how the Times had got the name of BPM wrong and called it BTM so in hundreds of reports it said BTM despite a big marketing drive about BPM the month before.

When I was running Cheekie Media I could give myself Friday afternoons off to sit with David. Sitting there hearing about his stories really made me realise I’d made a mistake and should still be in the game.

One of the few downsides of getting a job with the Halesowen News in Stourbridge meant boozy Friday afternoons were a near impossibility. But I would always fit about two meetings in a year and he was delighted I was back in the game.

It took a few more years for him to tell me he actually got the Halesowen News delivered so would read my stories. He lived off Spies Lane, which in my book is in Halesowen so he’d have laughed every paper reported he lived in Cradley Heath (sorry if this wrong btw).

As his years advanced he gradually stopped going to the Old Joint Stock and would enjoy a tipple in the Haden Cross Inn in my patch, Halesowen. So I could see him a bit more and he told me he’d always look forward to the Halesowen News because of my front pages, which meant a lot.

When I was in the battle of my life trying to reveal the corruption in Sandwell Council and all the threats, intimidation, paranoia about being followed and then realise it was not paranoia, he was a great help giving me ideas where to look. When I’d moan about it all he’d laugh and say: “You love it all.”

Then when I went to London to try my hand at Fleet Street he’d be interested in my tales of working with millionaires and bonkers viral stories that would go across the globe. I’m really pleased last year when I returned his great friend Elaina took me over to see him a few times, he was still sharp as a shit-hot poker and raging against all the corruption that was going unreported because his like were no more.

I nearly moved in his spare room as well, because I was having a few abode issues and he offered, no he didn’t who am I kidding, Elaina told him and he agreed I could but I did not need to in the end. His eyes lit up though when I told him about the exclusive I’d got through my predicament (picture above is the last time I saw him).

Before Christmas I could see he was genuinely upset for me that there were no opportunities for me in Brum in journalism. When I told him I was happy because I’d found love in Brum and wasn’t going to move to Scotland for hard news, it went totally over his head: “But you should be a journalist.”

I’m glad I got to tell him what he meant to me, and I’m glad he got it when I told him: “You had the best years of journalism, never forget that.”

Now, I better get on writing this exclusive, it’s what he would have wanted, and demanded.



 

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