Francis Beckett

I'm currently handling media relations for the Fire Brigades Union, and a smooth-voiced young man from Metro called up tonight and reminded me of the misery of dealing with a journalist who is scrabbling eagerly up the greasy tabloid ladder, and doesn't care how much truth gets trampled on the way.

"What's the average pay for a firefighter?" he demanded.  Something in his voice told me this wasn't a story about how little the men and women on whom out lives might one day depend are paid.  So I asked what the story was.

The answer, of course, was that the Taxpayers Alliance have issued a press release attacking union leaders who they claim are well paid. 

General secretary Matt Wrack and I have already discussed this press release earlier today.  Matt (who, for the record, is not especially well paid) agreed with me that there wasn't any hope of a fair hearing for pointing out any of the facts that I suspect we'd both like to shout from the rooftops.

Like that the Taxpayers Alliance clearly isn't concerned about taxpayers, because taxpayers don't pay Matt's wages. The agenda is purely political. Or that anyone in commerce with Matt's level of responsibilities - the same number of staff, the same turnover - would get a hell of a lot more.

Our best bet, we decided, was to brief full details, and not go on the attack. I am still sure we were right, but it leaves me feeling frustrated.

I started my briefing, and got as far as saying that Matt was paid on firefighter pay scales. But the young chap from Metro wouldn't listen. He said he wasn't interested. I protested that he ought to be, if he was going to do the story properly and fairly.  He said: "If you're telling me that journalistically I ought to have this information, it's a waste of time because I don't need it."

So I gave him Matt Wrack's age (which he did want) and said there was no meaningful figure for the average wage for a firefighter (which he also wanted, in the hope that it would make a dramatic contrast with what Matt gets), and he hung up.

Then I emailed the newsdesk:

"I was called just now by your reporter Mr John Higginson, about the salary paid to FBU general secretary Matt Wrack, as reported by the Taxpayers Alliance. He made it clear that he didn’t have time to listen to the breakdown I offered. 

"Whether it’s relevant, you’ll decide.  But I want to be sure that at least I’ve given the additional information which Mr Higginson did not have time to hear. 

 *It’s as follows: 

  1. Mr Wrack places 30% of his pay into a fund which is used for trade union purposes.  Such a purpose was that during a recent firefighters’ dispute, a four figure sum went to the hardship fund.
  2. The benefits, quoted to me by your reporter, include pension payments which are increased due to the fact that they follow those of firefighters, whose pension reflects the fact that currently they may retire at 50.

"Of course it’s your prerogative to decide not to include this information, but I was sorry your reporter wouldn’t consent to hear it, and felt it was my duty to make sure it got at least as far as the newsdesk."

The reply was instantaeous.  Here it is, in full.

"We very much value your opinions and time. However, owing to volumes, we cannot guarantee a personal response to every email. In the meantime, why not register with us at .... You can tell us your views on today's stories by adding a reader comment or join the debate at.... Did you know that you can get E-Metro, our electronic edition, sent direct to your inbox each day? Just visit....."

Thank you, and good night.