Doctor Who? The lessons a journo learns when chasing a new Time Lord
If you're even remotely into popular culture, it won't have escaped your notice that there's a new Doctor Who being announced this Sunday, live, on BBC 1. And while my inner geek can't wait, the journalist in me is raging.
Who will replace Matt Smith as the Doctor?
Why? Because I had the scoop on the last two doctors and this time I don't have a bloody Who, sorry clue, as to who it is. And as journalists and ex-journalists of a certain age do, that's got me reminiscing about the PR issues the BBC had in the past, allowing the news to sneak out, and how news has changed as well…
It shows how good the BBC has got at controlling the message – and the change in technology – that we are now seeing the BBC keep it under very tight wraps and that the announcement TV show is going to broadcast live in the US as well as the UK.
It was all so different when NuWho started back with Christopher Eccleston as the time traveller under Russell T Davies. The BBC were giving it a push but apart from the tabloids no-one was really caring.
But even then, new technology was proving to be either an aid or a hindrance to the show (depending on your point of view). The first episode was leaked online via BitTorrent after a Canadian TV station got the episode early. The Daily Mirror was quick to run a spread on that – not the technology side, but the world's first review of NuWho. And in fairness to the BBC, there was only one really angry phone call about it. Their press people had hoped that we would hand back the disc we had and not mention it, finding it hard to believe that we didn't really have a disc, we had just pulled it from the web.
But that was nothing as to what came the next week. The Mirror at the time had tried to pull a cheeky and give the byline to someone in the London office and not the Scottish reporter who had found the torrent, watched the show and done the screen caps (byline banditry is nothing new in journalism, nor is bylines accidentally sliding off).
Anyway, someone at the BBC who was a Who fan – let's say an outsourced cleaner – spotted the article and got in touch to say: "We met once before at a party, saw your article and I thought you might be interested that there's a new Doctor Who coming soon. A guy called David Tennant."
Turns out that there had been draft paperwork doing the rounds and some of it had been left in places where it shouldn't – like dropped in hallways and left in toilets – as a lot of BBC types were prone to printing off emails and reading them elsewhere (perfectly common practice, even now).
Anyway, the call is made to one Mr Tennant who very politely says that no, as far as he's aware there's no news about him being Doctor Who. He certainly hasn't seen any contracts recently (that was the word I should have picked up on) and that he's a fan of the show, it's a great role, wishes it all the best and so on. A very polite rebuttal to what I put to him, but with hindsight no actual 100 per cent denial.
I speak again to the contact cleaner who says: it's him. Bet your broom on it. I speak to the people who should know best – the Who fans and most of them say nope, heard nothing, stop muckraking and let us enjoy the show when it starts on Saturday.
So the first week airs. And it's a hit.
And the contact cleaner comes back and says: it's him. And then says the words that makes editors think the contact is either 100 per cent legit or has issues: I don't want a tip-off fee for this, I'm just giving you the tale.
Now sadly this was pre-internet for the majority of the UK press or it would have been linkbait.
Anyway, the editor – Mike Graham – says it's worth a punt. NuWho wasn't back in the stratosphere like it is now. So we run it as a Page 7 lead with the very talented Aaron Donnelly mocking up how Tennant might look in the TARDIS. And we think no more of it. The London edition don't carry it as the BBC are telling them we're off our heads.
Then the next day, the world goes a bit pear shaped as the BBC are forced to confirm that indeed, Chris is leaving and David is the new Doctor. 24 hours after the Scottish Daily Mirror had it, The UK Sun, The London edition of the Mirror and others all splash it, showing that Who still had a place in the national psyche. The only tabloid that didn't splash it was The Scottish Daily Mirror because a) we had the tale the previous day and b) we had no follow in information (oops).
Fast forward a few years and it's known that David is moving on and his replacement will be announced on a Saturday night TV show. A pre-recorded Saturday night TV show. And again, thanks to outsourcing, this TV show has had to go through a few departments before it will broadcast. And in those departments was someone who remembered his sister saying she worked with the guy who had revealed the last Who.
Twelve hours before Matt Smith was to be announced there was a very suspicious phone call left for me on my mobile saying "Hi, I'm related to XXXX and I work for XXX. Feel free to check me out online. The new guy being announced tonight is Matt Smith."
One quick check-out later – and a phone call to the sister to make sure I wasn't being pranked – off I go to share the scoop. There were only two problems: one, I wasn't a journalist any more and two, I was in the middle of nowhere with no access to a laptop or web to even update my own blog. Bugger, as one might say.
So I phone a few papers and met with Universal Indifference. Again, even with Smith was being announced, the UK press wasn't the most integrated setup for news online. But I knew a man who was more than set up well. Rich Johnston of the popular news site Bleeding Cool (www.Bleedingcool.com) and Rich ran it, dumping his own previous prediction and about 10 hours later we probably both heaved a sigh of relief as Matt was announced.
This time? I haven't a clue. And it's doing my head in. But there's some lessons here for journalists:
1. Try to never change your contact details too much so people from years ago can still find you
2. Be nice to everyone – you never know who will turn up with the good scoops. Not every deep throat is a high ranking cop or official
3. Outsourced workplaces are a journalist's friend
4. BitTorrent can be a journalist's friend (but piracy is wrong OK?)
5. Printed off emails are your friend
6. Always try and have a follow-up to your good tales
What's interesting to note though is how different the BBC are doing it this time.
What the BBC has done right - the PR wins
1. It's a live show so there's far less people having seen the actual content due to the fact that it hasn't actually been filmed yet
2. They are simultaneously broadcasting the show live to the USA and BBC America meaning this will be a big part of the Sunday news cycle over there (and here) and into Monday
3. 7-8pm is a very PR-friendly time. The news can make first editions and there's still time for background features to be written too
4. There's been a far, far tighter control of information
Total credit to the BBC – and Moffat and his team – for this one. It's a far tighter, more controlled PR operation now. But I'd still love to know who it's going to be…