Ennemi public numéro un!!

by Mark Pinder

Easington Colliery 1989 ©Mark Pinder

This is how I once became the most reviled photographer in the north-east, nearly rivalling a French pap’ in a Parisian underpass, co-incidentally also involving our Gallic friends, and almost causing a minor diplomatic incident in the process.

In late January 1999, I received a call from a journalist with the French weekly Telerama, who had gotten my number from the Big Issue. He was in the north-east and wanted to speak to someone with good local knowledge and contacts about a story he was working on.

We met in a pub in Newcastle, and discussed the story. Basically, he was writing about how beneath all the New-Labour assertions to things never being better that poverty and inequality were being abolished etc, he wanted to show that behind these claims, there were still significant pockets of deprivation and inequality in Britain that for many was going to remain structural, and thought the north-east a good region to illustrate this thesis. A thesis I couldn’t disagree with.

We swapped notes and a few phone numbers, and I left him to get on with it.

A week or so later, I had a call from the Telerama picture desk asking me to email some examples of my work as they had a commission taking portraits of Antoine’s case studies and some of the areas he’d highlighted and wanted to see whether I was any good or not. Amongst the dozen or so pics I sent, was the above pic’ I had shot in Easington Colliery in the late 80’s looking over the town towards the colliery.

They saw the photos, and commissioned a 3 day shoot, which was completed, delivered, billed and forgotten about until the last Wednesday in February, when I received a call from a reporter on the Newcastle Journal asking about the story.

Apparently, the boss of the Northumbrian Tourist Board had been in Paris the previous week, picked up a copy of Telerama and blew a fuse. Apart from not liking the story, there had been a mistake by the production desk at the magazine and they had run my old picture of Easington Colliery on the opening spread suggesting that this was Newcastle…..ooops!!

The Journal reporter wanted to know about the circumstances under which the picture had appeared, and I told him that a mistake appeared to have been made even though the picture was correctly captioned in the IPTC fields with the who, what, where, when etc, and gave him a copy of the file by way of verification.

Nothing appeared in the Journal until the following Monday. That morning, I arrived at an early press call at a hospital on Teesside, walked into the room where it was happening and a BBC reporter who was usually really snotty and stand-offish, welcomed me with a hearty ‘Good morning Mark’, and a big grin. I finished the job and thought I’d get the papers and have some breakfast in the hospital refectory. On the news-stand in the hospital shop, I was confronted with this:

My first response was to burst out laughing. My second response was to laugh some more. The story ran to a cover and several pages inside. The gist of it was essentially how dare those damn Frog’s come over here and criticise our beloved region, the place that gave us stotties, Alan Shearer, the most loved call centre workers in the world, and possibly the most well developed sense of chauvinism this side of a Jock, (for any non British readers who may have stumbled onto my blog, a ‘Jock’, is a Scotsman).

The story continued in the local press for several days with some bizarre exchanges between the Telerama and Newcastle Journal factions, pulling the French ambassador into the fray for good measure. Antoine forwarded me a copy of the magazine and an English language transcript, (most of which I couldn’t disagree with), as well as a copy of a fax to Jon Bennett with one of the most surreal put downs I’d ever seen:

‘Thank you for your “articles”. I was quite amused to discover how the gutter press from Newcastle imagines (in a rather Freudian way actually) it can teach a lesson to a cultural magazine from Paris’. Quite!

And in a wonderfully Gallic cover note to me: ‘Dear Mark, Here is the (in)famous reportage! I was sorry to discover the big mistake with your photo. What a pity! For the rest, I send you what I send to Mr Bennett, who looks for me like a camembert telling to a cheddar: “you stink!”.

I like living on Tyneside, if I didn’t, I’d have moved. That doesn’t however make me blind to the shortcomings of the region where I choose to live, one of which is how easy it is for the place to get an over inflated sense of it’s own importance, and if that bubble gets pricked every now and then, so what, grow up. Whilst the mistake regarding my photo in Telerama was regrettable, and should not have happened, it shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the central thesis  of the article. Nor should I forget that I have chosen to work, primarily, in journalism, not public relations. As to the charge that the article was unbalanced, so what? I’m not the BBC, and there is already enough unbalanced uncritical reporting of the region that is bland, tourist chief friendly and unlikely to raise synthetic  outrage or offend the sickly sweet sentimentality that the British local media is so practised at, whether print or broadcast.

Whilst the vista portrayed in the photo looked fairly grim, this was 1989. The pit that gave Easington Colliery it’s name was still working, employing nearly 2000 men. Since then, the mine has been shut and if anything the reality of Easington Colliery is far bleaker today, having some of the worst youth unemployment and early mortality rates in the UK and consistently does very badly in just about every index relating to health inequality and incidences of multiple deprivation, with the highest rate, in England, of people claiming sickness benefit because of mental health problems. All this despite 13 years of Labour rule. A situation which will only worsen under the Tories. Easington may not have been Newcastle, but it isn’t Mars, and it most certainly proves Antoine’s basic thesis correct.

For the rest, as in the words sung by Gallic warbler extraordinaire, Edith Piaf, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’.

I got  a hundred quid in repro’ fees out of the Journal into the deal as well!