john stapleton

An interview with Harlow College School of Journalism patron John Stapleton

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WHEN award winning journalist and patron of Harlow School of Journalism John Stapleton visited the college, reporter Andrew Impey got a chance to quiz him on his remarkable career, reporting from some of the major trouble spots in the world. Andrew also got an insight into his views on Brexit, British Prime Ministers and Manchester City Football Club!

JOHN Stapleton started his career working as a print journalist for newspapers, before moving into television where he initially worked as a researcher and scriptwriter on This is Your Life. He subsequently became a presenter hosting shows such as Panorama, Watchdog, and GMTV.

During his career he has covered a number of major news stories from the frontline including the Iraq War, the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia, and Hurricane Katrina.

John’s work covering the Iraq War contributed to him being named the Royal Television Society’s News Presenter of the Year in 2003.

John had already spoken at length to journalism tutor Dr Pamela Jenner in an interview in front of an audience of media students, but took the time to sit down with me for a chat afterwards.

I began by asking him about the most pressing issue in British politics, Brexit, and what his views are on how the UK as a country should move forwards.

He said: “I made no secret of the fact that I voted remain. I never wanted this to occur in the first place, but it has occurred and we’ve got to learn to live with it. It’s a terrible, terrible mess isn’t it?

“As of this morning I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going to happen and I suspect most of the country haven’t either. There’s talk about getting rid of Theresa May, but is there any evidence that anyone else would do any better? I don’t think there is.

“What are the options? We either accept what by everyone’s view is a lousy deal or crash out and I think crashing out would be an absolute disaster for this country.

“I’m quite fearful, not for my generation so much as my son’s generation. They think they’ve had their future stolen from them and feel very angry about it indeed.

“It’s sad, to put it bluntly, it’s a sad situation.”

I asked John how he would feel about a second referendum.

He said: “I would be in favour of a second referendum because I think that the situation is so dramatically different to when we first voted that it’s justified.

“The referendum was a huge mistake in my opinion. It was far too simplistic. You can’t vote on something as complex as this on a simply binary choice. We were told lies by both sides but particularly by those who wanted to leave.

“Liam Fox famously said this would be the easiest deal in history. Well what a joke that turned out to be. They played on people’s fears. They created the impression that if we didn’t leave, the country would be flooded by immigrants, which is just an outrageous lie.

“All sorts of lies were told and the situation is now completely different. No one voted for no deal, and that’s a real prospect. I think there’s an absolute case for a second referendum and people won’t like it, but that would be one way out of the situation. What the result would be no one knows.”

John was willing to accept that a second referendum could cause unrest, especially amongst those who voted to leave.

He said: “I completely understand if people think it is undemocratic to have a second vote. It’s a case of shifting the goalposts. But it’s as though we’re voting on two completely different issues. What was voted for first time around is not what’s happening now.”

John Stapleton with staff and students from Harlow College

Having got current affairs out of the way, I wanted to speak to John more about his own career. I asked what his favourite area of journalism to work in has been during his illustrious career.

He said: “Television is the most satisfying in the sense that it gets the most recognition because you’re on the TV and lots of people get to know who you are. So that’s very flattering and very nice most of the time. Sometimes it isn’t, people can be quite rude about it.

“I love TV, I’ve been in television for nearly 50 years. I’ve got to love it to stay in it that long. But I have to say, the buzz of seeing your written word in print is something that stays with me. It gives me a tremendous thrill to see my words in black and white.

“I think it’s partly to do with the fact that print journalism is all your own, whereas television is a team effort and therefore you can’t take the credit for the end product all yourself. In that sense working for newspapers is more satisfying.”

I asked John to speak about some of the more harrowing subjects he has had to cover during his career, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

He said: “Katrina was quite interesting because people think journalists go to these disaster locations and live in five-star hotels. Well some of the time you do, some of the time you don’t.

“Katrina was remarkable. When we eventually got there, everyone had left, apart from the really poor people who had no cars and no means of getting out of the place. They were living in community centres, in tents, all over the place.

“There was nowhere for journalists to stay. There were two hotels, both of which were full. And there were hundreds of journalists there.

“I finished up sleeping in the car park of NBC television. The reason we went there is that they had security and gates because there were looters around with guns at the time, and it was a dangerous place.

“Sometimes I slept in the vehicle, but more often that not just on the floor. This was for three or four nights and it was very uncomfortable. There was no food and we drove for two hours one day before we found somewhere that sold food. This is an American city in the 21st century, it was extraordinary.

“So it was not always that straightforward and not always that easy.”

Moving on to interviewing techniques, I asked John about the difficulty of speaking to politicians who are notorious for dodging questions.

He said: “You’ve just got to be dogged basically. That’s what I tried to be. If you see someone avoiding the question you’ve got to pursue them and you’ve got to have no qualms about it, that’s your job.

“There’s nothing personal about it and most politicians accept that. The difficulty is working out when your insistence on someone answering that question begins to irritate the viewer.

“You’ve got to take a view that, at the end of the day, this person isn’t going to answer that question, there’s no point in pursuing it any further, and the viewers will draw their own conclusion as to why they aren’t answering the question.”

As John has interviewed every prime minister since James Callaghan, I was keen to find out who was the most difficult to interview.

He said: “Margaret Thatcher without a shadow of a doubt. She was a very clever woman and I don’t wish to decry her completely at all. She would try and put you down and try to appeal to the viewers over your head by doing things like turning to the camera and saying things like ‘Well you can see I’m trying to answer the question but he won’t let me answer’.”

Finally I asked him about another subject very close to his heart, Manchester City Football Club, and whether he was confident of their chances of retaining the Premier League title.

He said: “I’m very confident. I think we’ve got a fantastic team, some very, very talented players. What Pep Guardiola has done with those players is extraordinary. It’s like watching a ballet.

“The control and the finesse of these guys is unbelievable. I feel very privileged being able to watch it. Having said that I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been a City fan for more than 60 years so we’ve had some dark days. It’s our turn for a day in the sun.”

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