WE were travelling home from a superb winter day on Creag Meagaidh when we heard the terrible news that two climbers had died in Glen Coe after being hit by an avalanche.
I knew what was coming. Within minutes of becoming aware of the tragedy, my phone rang. At the time, I was writing a weekly hillwalking column for a national newspaper and this was a reporter from the paper wanting my take on the awful news.
Except it quickly became clear he had already formed – or been given – his views on what had happened. He was merely looking for some 'expert' confirmation that these people were foolhardy and shouldn't have been out on the hills in winter conditions. I reckon I did well to contain my anger.
I pointed out that I had also been out in the mountains in similar weather that day just like hundreds of others, and as no one yet knew the circumstances of the accident, rushing to any kind of judgement was foolish.
Because I was 'their' mountain contact, they used my quotes and explanation exactly as I had given it, even if it hadn't been what they wanted. I had made it clear that if they twisted what I said to fit an agenda, my contribution to the paper would be at an end.
This method of driving the narrative had become a tactic increasingly used by many newspapers – not just the tabloids – since the circulation wars sparked by the aggressive incursion of The Sun in the 1990s. Whenever a big story broke, before the full facts were known, word would come down as to how this should be treated. The desperation to get ahead of rivals saw the sensationalism cranked up while trust levels in the content went into a downward spiral – as did the industry. Readers deserted in droves, and falling sales meant lower profits, which, in turn, led to savage staff cuts.
There are still many talented, hard-working and honest journalists, but lack of resources and an ever-expanding workload inevitably takes its toll on morale and levels of accuracy. There is precious little to time to properly research stories, everything done in an instant. No surprise then that quality is often the biggest casualty.
When I first started in the business, every desk of reporters and sub-editors had at least two or three climbers or walkers among their healthy number, plenty of experience to make sure mountain names were spelled properly and that their locations made sense. There was also the back-up of a proof readers' desk to provide a final check on that copy. As staff numbers were slashed, there were fewer and fewer people with the relevant knowledge to handle a wider range of information. Greater emphasis was placed on the trust of what had been written in the first instance, less time spent checking to see if it was accurate.
One example was a query over a location in the Cairngorms where a climber had fallen. The reporter had named the place 'Coire an Lochain' but a quick look at the map suggested this was wrong. When I mentioned this to the newsdesk, they were adamant their man was right. I explained I knew the name to be wrong but my concern was initially dismissed. After a bit of batting to and fro, and with anger levels increasing, the reporter was called over.
He was asked: “Is this the name you were given by the police?”
“Yes,” he replied, but just as my adversary turned in triumph, the reporter added: “well, they said Coire an Lochain Uaine but that seemed too long so I just dropped the last word.” Tabloid thinking at its worst: too many words. I walked off smugly to the sound akin to a monster truck tyre deflating.
On another occasion, I had an exasperated photographer begging me to talk sense to the picture editor about a job he had been allocated in Glen Shiel. Two jobs, actually. The first was for a story on a big Hollywood production being filmed there.
The problem arose when the picture editor spotted on the map that the location was close to the venue where another feature could be shot thereby saving a future journey. The snapper reasonably asked for an overnight hotel stay so he could cover both jobs.
He was told no, because the locations were only about three kilometres apart. They were, however, in separate glens. “You can easily just walk over to the second when you've finished with the first,” he was told.
It was then pointed out that although the distance was indeed short, it would involve a near 3,000-foot vertical ascent over the mountains and then down the other side with the same rise and fall on the return journey. And all this with a full set of heavy camera equipment. The editor in question may have been eagle-eyed, but when it came to understanding map contours in regard to distances, he was definitely more bird-brained.
This lack of understanding is a long-running feature when it comes to mountain mistakes in newspapers. It also applies when providing many geographical frames of reference. Just as every story emanating from Florida has to refer to 'near DisneyWorld' even if it's 500 miles away – hey, everybody loves Disney so they will be more likely to read the story – then here it's 'near Ben Nevis' or 'near Cairngorm (sic)'. Obviously the readership is too conditioned to care otherwise.
During one campaign about caring for the Scottish landscape, our paper sent a writer to walk from Glasgow to Fort William. He would spend four days on the West Highland Way gathering supporters along the route before finishing with a walk to the top of Ben Nevis to plant a saltire. It was a decent enough stunt. Unfortunately, the writer had no idea what he was taking on. He was not a walker, his only mountain views coming through pub windows.
Day One was tough, Day Two almost did for him. By Day Three he was in mutiny mode and by Day Four he was in the pub refusing to go any further. Even when it was pointed that a few hundred were making their way north to join him, he was staying put.
He was eventually 'persuaded' to head up Ben Nevis and he planted his flag. This picture was presented to heads of department at the next day's conference in triumph. Problem was, the picture was not taken at the mountain summit but instead at a cairn about halfway up.
I pointed this out and was told: “Ach, no one will know.”
I replied: “Well, I know that, and so will thousands of others. There are even people dressed as chickens who will know that's not right.”
The picture was more subtly captioned for publication, the bravado toned down.
Providing a regular column constantly provided plenty of frustration. The most common mistakes were with photos: for every correct Ben More or Beinn Dearg sourced from file, there was a wrong one. In the end, I sent in my own pictures for use with the words even though I was wasn't being paid to do so. It was a small cost to bear in the name of accuracy.
One particular headline was worth its weight in hilarity, a statement that if you had climbed all of Scotland's highest peaks you were a Munro. Take note, all of you who have 'compleated': you are not a Munroist, but a Munro.
One long-running problem was the seeming inability to ever spell 'Buachaille' correctly. And then there was the reporter who thought Ben Alder was a person. But a particular bugbear is the descriptions used in reports of mountain mishaps, the confusion between walkers and climbers, the lack of understanding of what separates the two, the difference about routes and how accidents can happen.
The over-use of the word 'experienced' also jars. Someone who has done 20 Munros and only has been walking up hills for a couple of years in summer conditions can have good mountain safety and awareness but it's misleading, even dangerous, to describe them as experienced. It's an emotive term and one that should be used sparingly.
The best journalists do their research before meeting the interviewee but there are some who don't bother doing even the basics. I was always taught that knowledge is power and knowing your subject and what they do even if it is not something you are particularly interested in is vital. It helps the person relax and open up more and the answers you receive will be fuller, more informative.
One reporter sent to talk to a footballer that Celtic had signed from an Italian side, remarked how impressed she was by his English. He looked astonished. “Well, I am from London.” A quick check of his biog before heading out would have avoided that awkward moment. The interview went downhill from there.
During one interview I did for a magazine article about my first book, Moonwalker, it was obvious the guy asking the questions had resented being asked to do the job or simply wasn't interested. I remember thinking that he had failed to ask this or that, but I didn't see why I should do his job by mentioning these facts if he couldn't be bothered.
However, when it comes to not being able to understand basics, the booby prize must go to one notorious former boss who continually failed to grasp the concept that people worked to live rather than lived to work.
I had been on Arran for a mountain weekend when a storm roared in 24 hours early, forcing the cancellation of all ferries. That meant an extra day on the island. Not a great hardship, but when I called to say I would not make it in on the Monday because the weather had left me stranded, he didn’t seem to quite understand the situation.
“Is there no other way you can get back in time?” he asked.
Well, I didn’t have enough money to hire a helicopter and I thought the swim was a bit far so unless we could snag a passing submarine, the answer was no. Even then, you could hear the cogs working as he pondered these ideas.
I offered to work the Saturday instead and killed the call before he could ask me to slip into a wetsuit and start doggy paddling across.