Sunday, May 5, 2013
No sooner had I bitched about Grayling and the broad thrust of Tory prison policy then the man himself decided to make the nightmares come true. The first I really knew about it was when a couple of media orgs contacted me to see if I was available to comment on Graylings announcement the next day. Unlike the rest of us, media folk are given copies of ministerial waffle a day in advance, on the understanding that it is under embargo until a specific time. These were duly winged my way, and I went to sleep with a nasty taste in my mouth at what was to come on awakening.
Whizzed down to London I duly popped up on the ITV daybreak programme at the unearthly hour of 0640. A time I had previously existed only as a myth. The green room there on the south bank is populated by two long sofas and a coffee bar. The latter is the most essential item. The sparse population of guests for the programme at that hour were all seated, being shuffled between makeup, coffee and nibbles. As is the way in TV land, I was accompanying a victim of crime into the studio. Mrs X’s son had been killed in a particularly empty assault and, unsurprisingly, she had views that diverged from mine. We met in the green room and chatted quite pleasantly I was was pleased to learn that she was keen on education and training, albeit in a punitive environment, and not a dull person filled with blind hatred.
At the appointed moment we were gently molested by those tasked to administer microphones about our person and led into a corner of the studio. The presenters were about their business and, as a video tape played, we were ushered onto the sofa. A few words of greeting and straight into the questions… here’s a secret. I never prepare responses; I never try to fathom what may be thrown at me and pre plan any response; neither do I have prepared points I wish to lever clumsily into the exchange. My working theory – and its succeeded so far – is that there isn’t a single issue around prison that I haven’t spent years considering, and so my responses flow from that history spontaneously. The danger in this is that a question may floor me completely, but we shall see!
Time takes on a different meaning before a camera. I know, objectively, that the telly puppet masters are controlling the whole environment down to the last second but in the moment I somehow fail to recognise this in that I don’t try to squeeze in as much of what I want to actually say as possible. I just talk. When time runs out every guest feels slightly bereft, left knowing there was so much more to say…
I shot out of the studio like a jackrabbit, knowing a car was awaiting to scuttle me across the Thames to the BBC – Radio 5 Live Breakfast with Nicky Campbell. It was one of the grand artdeco buildings the BBC still clings to – thankfully – and I shot up the grand staircase to reception behind schedule. Radio 5…breakfast..Ben Gunn…guest…” and the guards pointed this wheezing apparition to the next floor. Where I found, in the corner, an incongruous room that leapt from grander days but was now fitted with headphones, mikes and the paraphernalia that wafts disembodied voices across the airwaves. Max from thePpolicy Exchange was already there and we faced each other across a small table. No idea where Nicky Campbell was, not even in the same county as far I ever knew. Voices of producers and presenters streamed through our headphones and we said our respective pieces. Somewhere in all of this I'm pretty sure I also spoke with Nick Ferrari on LBC. Forgive me, this was all absurdly early and very rushed!
That episode concluded, off up the stairs several minutes late to the sky breakfast studio. Shoved into a cubicle to be faced with a monitor, camera and microphones I felt slightly disembodied as Eamonn Holmes spoke to me. Item concluded, I sat for a moment…no one came. TV folk assume everyone knows what’s what but this was all new to me. Rather timidly I pulled the door open to be faced with….Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling. Yep, it was himself. And a flunky. Probably a PPS or the like, but anyone trailing behind someone I recognise carrying pieces of paper falls under the heading of “flunky”.
Grayling extended his hand and said good morning. I grinned, shook his hand and said, “Just so you know, ‘ve just given you a kicking in there.” Unperturbed he replied, “that’s alright, I’m on in 10 and will return the favour…” I shot off to the exit and the next car, wondering just what the hell I could say to him in a few brief moments that could convey the depth of my meaning.
On the pavement TWO cars awaited. Like an idiot I forsook the Mercedes for the Prius (Clarkson, forgive me…) and shuddered back to ITV for round two at the coveted 8.10 spot. Essentially a repeat of the earlier exchange, but made more interesting by the appearance of Julian Clary into the Green Room. I pondered. And couldn’t resist. Leaning around the PA who sat between us I spoke. “Mr Clary, did you ever meet Norman Lamont?” Alas “No”. And if you need the potential humour in that meeting to be explained, you’re way too young.
And here my mind begins to fade, my memories fragmenting. It was only just past 8am and I had already done 3 TV and 2 radio interviews. Something else happens here, another interview to fill an hour of my time? Because I knew I was due at Portland Place for the Beeb again at 10 till 1130. No snazzy green room with nibbles and coffee at the Beeb, just straight into a “sound pod” which made a cell seem spacious, to give 9 back to back interviews with local radio stations.
By the end of this I was in need of coffee and sleep. Or either. Instead I found myself being led into the lower levels of the building to the News 24 studio, where I bumped into my old boss from the Howard League who was also giving interviews reacting to Grayling’s proposals. In response to my bemoaning this treadmill he told he he had recently given 25 interviews in a single day. Blimey.
Without any experience of TV studios we have a mental image of how it must be. Presenters, technical people and, obviously, cameras and camera operators. All of my experience to date only reinforced that picture, until I came face to face with what I can only call a robotic studio- BBC News 24. The presenters sit in front of a glass wall with the floor of the Beeb dedicated to news hustles and bustles behind them. The circular desk at which they sit has monitors recessed beneath the glass surface. So far, not so odd. But as I was led in I noted only one other person…and four cameras whizzing around on semi-circular rails, televisual C3PO’s that popped up next to you without warning. It was weird.
After saying my piece and backing away from the robots, it was back upstairs for two further radio interviews and then to re-enter the normal world. I stood in a small alley behind the nearby church at Portland Place and felt utterly and completely drained. The alley was full of piss smelling cardboard, and I won’t deny that the idea of just laying down to go to sleep didn’t cross my mind!
Not an option…I had to catch up on a dozen voicemails and phone my long-suffering probation officer. And explain just why I wasn’t sitting in her office as per established appointment. For amongst this chaos my travel plans had gone massively awry. It’s fortunate that I have never even come close to never making any previous appointments and oil was poured upon the waters to everyone’s satisfaction.
Which still left me exhausted. So I wended my way across London to the Howard League, turning my mobile off for respite, to catch up with the bits and pieces do there with students and youth. This gave me a few hours calm. At some point I made the error of switching my phone on, to find myself with engagements for Channel 5 News and then the Iain Dale phone-in show on LBC.
At Channel 5 I bumped into Max from the Policy Exchange again, who somehow forgot to mention that he had designed the IEP Scheme in several prisons…but a fair opponent in these debates. And as is the way when time is vital, in the car to LBC I hit every set of red lights across London. Dripping sweat I ran up the
stairs 20 minutes to late, to be welcomed by the always urbane Iain Dale. This was a phone-in, a new experience for me and one fraught with potential to be a vicious engagement. It wasn’t.
I finally staggered into bed at midnight. This was the most hectic and gruelling day I have experienced since release and if nothing else increased my respect for those celebs touring to flog us their wares. And then I had to ponder quite why I said yes to any of these things , rather than no.
This is a serious business. There are so few ex prisoners able or willing to stand in public and risk speaking, especially when that message may not be the one most popularly received. Prison is in my bones, perhaps inevitably, and whilst I no longer feel the sharp anger of the prisoner there is rarely a conversation where I don’t inadvertently say “we” rather than they. I am a prisoner, albeit on license, and I also have the outrage of any sensible person when faced with populist political interference in prison life.
The core issue at hand, whether prison life is too hard or too soft, is to be distracted from the true path. The question Grayling should be asking – if need be on the insistence of the electorate – is whether anything he proposes will actually reduce future crime.
And that is the question our politicians won’t go near, for fear of popular dissent. The assumption is that people prefer “tough” to effective”. If that is right, then the consequences fall on our heads and consciences and we should be ashamed of ourselves for swapping the pain of future victims for a brief atavistic twitch of glee rooted in prisoner-hating.