I don’t pretend to be a journalist, but there are obviously journalistic aspects to what I do. When my blog was at its height I’d break quite a few stories, and I got a kick out of being first to do so. It happened several times. But there was always that fear that you’d be scooped by someone else if you didn’t press SEND pretty damn quickly. Obviously that has its dangers, in that if you do it too quickly you might not quite have checked it out properly and stand to get a lot of egg on your face. I certainly remember one occasion when I got it very wrong.
On Thursday at around 5.30 I got a tip-off that Conservative MP Stephen Phillips was about to stand down from Parliament. ‘Well that’s a big story,’ I thought, and set about trying to stand it up. Trouble was, I was on air presenting my radio show, so phoning anyone was a bit difficult. Given who my source was (and no it wasn’t David Davis) I was 100% confident that the story was correct, but I wasn’t prepared to go with the story publicly until I had a second source. Just in case.
I have never met Stephen Phillips but quickly got hold of his phone number. No reply. I texted, but no response. My producers did the same. Nothing. We spent an hour and a half on it, getting in touch with anyone we thought might know something. Well, it got to 7pm and still we couldn’t get a second source, so I had to come off air without being able to announce anything. Damn and blast.
Over the course of the evening I spoke to several people who knew Phillips and none of them expressed particular surprise at what I told them. “He’s all over the place at the moment,” said one MP. “A tortured soul,” said another. “He can’t get over the fact that he hasn’t been made a minister,” said someone else. But still, I couldn’t get that second source. And of course the longer that was the case, the more likely it was that someone else would beat me to the story.
The next morning I learned that Stephen Phillips had sent a letter to his Conservative Association explaining his decision. In some ways that ought to have been enough for me to go public, but I still needed some sort of corroboration from a second source. I can’t say how I then got it, but events dictated that it was somewhat delayed. I was in an LBC meeting discussing our latest audience figures and had my phone on silent. When the meeting finished at around 11.10 I sat around chatting to new LBC recruit Maajid Nawaz and only then looked at my phone. MISSED CALL 10.54. I inwardly swore. I rang back. “Yes, it’s true,” said the voice at the other end. I then rushed down the stairs and broke the news on James O’Brien’s show at 11.20.
I saw afterwards that Guido had tweeted at 11am speculating that there was some interesting news surrounding Stephen Phillips and that he might resign. I beat Sky News by one minute but I think PA had got there before me.
Does it matter? Not really, I suppose. But every broadcaster likes to beat their rivals to a story. Do I regret not going with it even though it was only single sourced? Not really, because if it had turned out that he had changed his mind, it would have been highly embarrassing both for me and LBC.
If this had happened in my blogging days, I suspect I would have gone with it because I had 100% trust in my source, but if you work for a national broadcaster you just can’t take those kind of risks.