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Niall Couper was News Editor of SCAN from 1994 to 1995. After spending time as a sports journalist for The Independent and a local paper in London, Niall entered the world of PR and now acts as the Head of Media at Amnesty International. I sat down with Niall at the Amnesty International UK Headquarters – where we talked about his time in SCAN and where it led him.
Niall had only good things to say about his experience writing for SCAN. Calling it his “starting point”, he said “it was absolutely, brilliant fun.”
“We had an office, at that time, on Alexandra Square. We’d be there at all hours, in this smokey room, coming up with ideas.”
“Sitting in that little room, we’d all be crammed in, working till stupid hours.”
“We were able to do whatever we wanted, try and experiment with different styles of writing. It was really cool to get out there and do stuff.”
Niall reminisced on the rivalry between SCAN and Bailrigg FM. Niall was writing for SCAN at around the time that Bailrigg was being issued its FM Licence.
Niall said that he had kept most of the articles he wrote – including those written under a pseudonym (which, he told me, he frequently used). A particular favourite was a story about security at the newly opened Chancellor’s Wharf building. Niall disproved the University’s claims about the security of the building by successfully breaking in – in order to show it was not secure. He said the University Administration was “livid”!
He also remembered a time when he interviewed Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, a group of six men who were convicted of two Birmingham bombings and later had their convictions quashed in 1991. He said it was “really scary”.
“We did a lot of quirkiness. We had some interesting columnists that would write weird stuff. There was a ‘sex tips’ column at one point.”
He said that his time at SCAN was an opportunity to become “buried in news”, finding unusual things and “developing that news nose.”
“You get the opportunity to interview whoever you want. A lot of these people are patronising to student journalists and so they’re easy to catch out. As a student journalist you can be totally blunt, you don’t have to play the game, you can go for it.”
“You are able to try things and find your journalistic voice. It’s a chance to learn how to find the truth, where to look for stories, not to be scared. You get a buzz from sussing out liars, and you have a desire to expose people trying to hide stuff.”
“And that’s related to what I do now. It’s getting people to know about all the hidden bad stuff in the world.”
“We at Amnesty push student journalism. So many people don’t give student journalists the support, but I will help at every opportunity.”
So, does he prefer PR or journalism? “I’ve been in newsrooms and I miss the buzz – but the Amnesty Media team does get that buzz. In newspapers you are told what stories to write, you don’t get to choose. At Amnesty I care about everything I work on. That’s so liberating.”
And, though SCAN was where he developed his “journalistic instinct”, Niall suspects that SCAN will go the route of The Independent and go online-only in “5 or 10 years”. Calling it “sad, but inevitable” he said that “we’re only used to reading things on screens.”
“Journalists today have to use multimedia. That’s increasingly common, but it’s so exciting about your generation. You can play around, learn and try everything out.”
Niall’s advice for SCAN writers is to take every opportunity to interview interesting people and build up your contacts – because you never know where someone will end up. And, he says, “don’t use rolling headlines, that’s a cardinal sin.”