Norm: Good day John and thanks for participating in our interview.
Why did you become a television journalist and would you still choose this career knowing what you know now?
John: When I was a boy we lived in the countryside in North Lancashire. We didn’t have a television set but neighbors up the lane (who were richer) did and sometimes in the evening I would creep up and peer through the cracks in their curtains to look at the set. And sometimes they would realize there was a strange youth outside their house and invite me in!
I was besotted with TV and used to bombard Granada and ABC television trying to get a job even though I was still at school. And eventually it paid off. Granada used me as an extra in their hit comedy “The Army Game” when I was 16 - they thought my innocent face would be the perfect foil for the ferocious sergeant major (Bill Fraser) bellowing at me. And it worked. Granada had letters from middle aged matrons saying I shouldn’t be exposed to such cruelty. Me? I loved it. Not only was it a dream come true but they put me up in a hotel and paid expenses and money – ten times my weekly pocket money of 2 shillings and sixpence.
I was determined to become a television journalist, even though opportunities were few. And I had a plan.
At Durham University I read Economic History and co-edited the college newspaper. The helped me get holiday work as a reporter in the London office of Provincial (now United) Newspapers. And after uni they offered me a graduate trainee post on the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. It was a good place to learn the nuts and bolts of journalism and I owe them a debt of gratitude.
Each week I scoured the trade press for jobs in television – any jobs! Eventually my persistence with applications paid off and a nerve-wracking audition I was given a reporter’s job on the ATV Midlands News. Success at last!!
This led to a forty year career in the industry working for ITV companies, the BBC and Sky News.
Would I have changed any of it? Not on your life. It was (for me) the best job in world.
John: It’s always said you should write about what you know and two of our greatest novelists – W. Somerset Maugham and Charles Dickens - did just that. Journalism taught me to write sparingly and critics have said I’m weak on description. It’s true but in “Blood on Cop Fell” the narrator is a 20 year old farm hand. And they don’t use adjectives (well none that can be printed anyway.)
If you have the urge to write just do it, as Nike said. Your work may not get published. Does it matter? Get it off your chest. Make your friends and family read it. You’ll feel all the better for it and, who knows, someone somewhere might think its great.
I can’t draw. It’s a real regret. But I can write and that’s a major asset. Maybe you are the same.
Norm: What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
John: The future is secure for both. We live in a multi-media digital age yet you’re reading this. And I’m writing it!
Norm: Have you ever covered a story/assignment you felt strongly against and what did you do? If you refused, what was the consequence? Or if you did your job, how do you resolve the personal/moral/ethical/philosophical conflict?
John: As a news editor I’ve had run-ins with my bosses about attempts to hi-jack the programme for political reasons and resisted them by threatening to resign and tell the public why. But this only happened twice and the theory perpetuated in some media colleges (usually staffed by people with no experience of working in press, radio or tv) that the media is the mouthpiece of The Establishment intent on suppressing free speech is absolute garbage. In my experience journalists are robust in defence of their independence and freedom of expression.
Norm: What is the most outrageous story/assignment you had to cover.
John: I was on the ITV team covering the 1966 World Cup and for a soccer nut that was very exciting meeting the stars of West Germany, Spain and Italy.
I had an independent production company and we spent a year with the British rock band Def Leppard travelling all over the United States and Europe. That was fun.
For Tyne Tees Television we make a film called “The World’s Longest Traithlon” following a team of guys who ran down England, swam the channel, cycled to Gibraltar then swam across to North Africa. That was fun but life-threatening when the captain of our little boat taking us from Gibraltar turned out to be a drug smuggler. He was taken off by armed coast guards and I ended up steering us through the rocks in pitch darkness to the port of Seuta. We were lucky to survive as my previous nautical experience had been taking a narrow boat along the Leeds-Liverpool canal.
Norm: How do you resolve the ethical dilemma of being a spectator covering a story when you could have helped out in a situation?
John: I remember an incident in February 1967.
The ATV news team was in radio contact with the news desk and they
told us a viewer had tipped them off about a train crash at a place
called Stetchford. Some tip off – we arrived before any of the
emergency services were on the scene. Seven people including the
driver were dead or dying. 16 were badly injured.
The scene, to my inexperienced eye, was utterly horrific and I went into a state of shock. The cameraman, John Varley, took charge. Grabbed me by the shoulders and pointed out that I was paid to report not stand their shivering. He and the sound recordist talked me through a short report to camera and an interview with the chief fireman when they arrived. The film was rushed back to the studio by a despatch rider and led the six o’clock bulletin. I went back the office to warm congratulations. Ah if only they knew!
One thing’s for sure: I couldn’t have helped the injured and dying. Now, a bit older and more experienced, I probably could
Norm: What are some of the journalism practices that are prevalent today you don't like and wish you can change?
John: Journalists are flawed. Some more than others and recent court cases have exposed their failings. But there’s a saying “A news story is something someone doesn’t want published. All the rest is PR”. Just think of the Daily Telegraph expose of MP’s expenses. There was a time when that story would not have seen the light of day. So much for the Media Studies conspiracy theory.
Norm: There has been a great deal in the media concerning “fake news.” What tools do you use to establish whether the news is fake or true?
John: For a decade I had the good luck to work on BBC World News. They operate to the highest standards. No story reached the screen until it has been verified by at least two sources – one of whom should be the BBC’s on site staff reporter. They have to take care. BBC news is believed worldwide in a way no other organisation can claim. Literally wars and revolutions can depend on the accuracy of BBC news output.
Norm: What makes a good journalist?
John: Stamina, a thick skin, boundless energy and an annoying habit of asking the questions people would rather you didn’t. Oh and a facility with words helps.
Norm: Could you tell our readers a little about Blood on Cop Fell and what served as the primary inspiration for the book?
John: For many years we had a home in the Lake District and I got to know people in pubs. (Well I am a journalist.) In some places I would hear dark mutterings of a paedophile ring involving local people in high places and other from as far away as Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland. “You’re a writer”, the drinkers would say, “You write about it”.
So I did, initially using real place names until my sister a lakeland farmer, pointed out that some of the people involved – or at least their relatives – might still be around. So the place names have been changed but anyone who knows that part of the world would be able to track down the fells and hostelries. Oh and by the way, the paedophile ring no longer exists – well, there at least.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your story serves, what matters to you about the story and what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the book?
John: Read the book if you like a fast moving, tightly written narrative with plenty of cliff hangers and surprises not to mention romance and even sex! And a fair amount of violence.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Blood on Cop Fell?
John: contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Norm: What is next for John Wilford?
John: I’m about to embark on a seven act play for the seven junior schools in the town where I live – each section tells the story of Horsforth from the Doomsday Book to the present day and our gold medal Olympians – the Brownlee brothers.
I’m also part way through a comic spy thriller – Four Weddings and a Funeral meets Hammer House of Horror.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors