It is a dark and unique story about competing news reporters and the pressures that can affect their actions. Set in a small regional newspaper in England,it shows how young journalists at the start of their careers are moulded to become impervious to the grief in lives they doorstep and intrude on. It resonates with the UK phone hacking scandal.
As deputy news editor of The Metropolis, Pete Cowley had one overriding ambition – to replace Phil Holmes as its news editor. Cowley was a sporty, red-haired, fresh-faced media graduate, a “whizz kid’’ was the contemptuous description of him employed by his fellow hacks.
Cowley knew he wouldn’t realise his ambition by just being the lapdog of the studious coffee-addicted Holmes. There had to be conflicts in judgement on key editorial decisions and he had to show he had a vision for The Metropolis. He had spent months agonising over this when the idea suddenly hit him out of the blue.
It happened on a slow news day which fortunately coincided with Chalmers, the editor, being at a media conference and his deputy, the Londoner Eddie Black, being indisposed through illness.
It was therefore a day when people could mentally put their feet up. Holmes was doing the Telegraph crossword and thinking of a job he could find for the Irish girl, something that would involve a lot of feedback between reporter and news editor, a way of getting to know her better. Cowley picked up a piece of A4 paper and printed on it, in large marker pen letters, THE LEAGUE OF DEATH.
He waved it to claim Holmes’ attention but the poker face wasn’t having any. Cowley continued with his work, writing the figure one and placing against the name of Tony Carver. The list continued with names until it was 10-strong. He waved it at Holmes again.
“What’s the story?’’ Holmes sighed and threw his crossword page on to the pile of papers on his desk.
“It’s The League of Death. I have just created it. What do you think?’’
Holmes took the paper from him and gazed blankly at it. “The League of Death,’’ he repeated.
“Yes, don’t you see,’’ Cowley waxed enthusiastically. “It’s sometimes very difficult to work out shades of performance in our reporters. How do you judge rankings from top to bottom over, say, a period of a year to go towards an annual review, for instance?’’
“Personally, I think it’s bloody impossible. You can be a good reporter and have a bad run when you don’t pick up good stories like a football striker who is not scoring goals.’’
Holmes was taken aback by the whoop of glee from beside him. “Exactly, that’s the perfect analogy,’’ said Cowley. “It’s the league that ranks them. For a top striker it’s the Premiership league that counts for everything. So we have a League of Death because that’s what sells newspapers.’’
“Well, you know what Chalmers will say don’t you?’’
“Yes, have you got nothing better to do?’’
“Ah, c’mon Phil, a bit of light relief, you know.’’
“How can a League of Death be construed as a bit of light relief?’’ Holmes inquired weightily.
“Well, it’s the business isn’t it. It’s the business we are in. We are not kicking footballs.’’
Holmes smiled wearily. “Yes, nothing sells newspapers like death. That and the thought of the city’s glorious football team actually winning a trophy for once. When I think of it like that, it makes us seem pretty pathetic really.’’
“Look,’’ said Cowley, his voice turning serious. There was a strange almost fanatical gleam in his eyes. “There is a production line in tabloid newspapers, we all know it. It starts with the small town papers and works its way through the bigger city papers covering the larger industrial areas and ends up in Fleet Street and what’s the common thread? The common thread is knocking on doors. It’s where all the big stories are made , on the doorstep. Our kind of paper is a halfway house between the small and the huge. We are messengers swooping on every bit of misfortune we see on the screen, fax or in the classified columns, notably deaths. We are the link between the small and the big, we find the stories that grow like snowballs until they make the nationals.’’
Cowley dropped his voice as he realised the office had gone quiet.“So my league of death is like on a goals for and against basis based on the number of successful death knocks for each reporter.’’
He started drawing lines and columns on the paper. “See. It starts this month and it’s early days yet. Carver is top because he, so far, has had three successful knocks.’’
“But so’s Jeremy,’’ Holmes pointed at the second name on the list, Jeremy Earnshaw.
“Yes but Jeremy has done four knocks, right, and on one he came back empty handed. He scores a minus one for that so he’s only on two points.’’
Holmes, reluctantly, was becoming intrigued by the scoring system. It was almost amusing. “Jeremy came back empty-handed just the once because the house was empty. The night man, er, woman, got an answer, she got that story about the lad who was gassed by a faulty flue.
“Yes, good story, but the point for that goes to Kirsty. She got the story, puts her in fifth position with one point.’’
Holmes squinted at the list again through his black Buddy Holly glasses. “So there’s four reporters with one point each in the list. How come she’s the top one amongst them?’’
Cowley’s face was so serious that for a moment Holmes wondered about his sanity.
“Because she made the front page. It goes in order of placing in the paper. Gareth only made page two and Emily and Jane were page five and page seven respectively.’’
“Road accidents. Ten a penny.’’
“Exactly, so you see my system gives each reporter a ranking which exactly equates to his performance.’’
“But it only applies to death knocks. What about all the other aspects of the job. Interviews with celebrities, local politics, magistrates’ courts, crown courts, sport, all the other blah, blag blah things?’’
A silence dropped between the two men. It lasted a minute until Cowley broke it.
“Unusual death sells newspapers like nothing else,’’ he said tersely. “It’s The League of Death.’’
Cowley was like a man who had been possessed by a spirit. He was stone cold serious and he hadn’t finished.
“We could develop it more with a more complex points system, you know like in the Premiership, three for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss.’’
“What on earth would count as a draw?’’Holmes asked incredulously.
“If a reporter goes on a death knock, gets an answer at the door, but, after trying all his powers of persuasion, he cannot coax an interview out of the family, he might merit a point.’’
“In other words, a no comment.’’
“Yes, exactly. There’s a fair level of stress in no comments. You are trying to get someone to talk and they are not responding. It’s all journalistic energy wasted. Much different to a straight no.’’
Holmes shook his head unbelievingly. “Fuck me Pete,’’ he growled. “It’s not Match of the Day. If you want to do this, keep it simple.’’
Cowley nodded feebly, realising he had gone too far.
“And it has to get the nod from above,’’ Holmes stipulated, comforting himself with the knowledge that it never would.