Uncovering the North East

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Chris Jackson
For over a decade Chris Jackson has been the face of BBC current affairs programme Inside Out, investigating the underbelly of the North East and earning a reputation as one of the country’s top reporters. Living North spoke to him as the series returns
‘Most students were getting in at 4am from whatever nightlife they had but I was getting up at 4am to do traffic and travel news for a radio station’

You probably recognise Chris Jackson. For the past 12 years he’s appeared on our screens as the presenter of BBC One’s regional current affairs television programme, Inside Out. He reports on some of the lighter stories from the region, but also investigates things that some people don’t want investigated, upsetting a few villains along the way.

He says the most dangerous investigation he’s carried out was into dog breeders – one of them tried to hit him but he got out the way just in time. He’s been threatened during other investigations. And ‘Northumberland’ is as specific as he’ll get when Living North asks where he lives (‘Not because I’m being an arse, but because I have to be really careful’).

The riskiest part of an investigation, according to the 53-year-old Geordie, is usually when he confronts a subject – known among journalists as doorstepping – though he says he only does that after giving them the right of reply, and he has to ask them in person because they either didn’t reply or the reply didn’t address the issue.

‘The best hope is that somebody will turn around and give you an answer,’ he explains. ‘You’re there to get an answer. You’re not there to make the other person look ridiculous. They haven’t answered the question so that’s why you have to go in person.’

He’s eager to emphasise the point: ‘You’re not doing it for fun. You’re doing it because somebody somewhere needs some proper answers or some kind of justice. If there’s been wrongdoing you’re challenging it and that’s perfectly fine, and a good reason to be putting yourself into what some people would think is a difficult situation.’

Challenging wrongs is a big deal for Chris. He returns repeatedly to the subject of justice, and when describing his childhood he highlights a story that he believes instilled in him the sense of justice and righting wrongs. It involved getting hit on the bum while at boarding school in North London.  

‘In those days corporal punishment was still around,’ he explains, ‘And I got punished for something I didn’t do.’

Basically, someone made a noise, the teacher thought it was Chris, and he got punished. 

‘I got six of the best,’ he continues. ‘I got a gym shoe whacked against my backside, and I remember thinking about the injustice of it. I think that has informed what I do now, where I get really quite into the idea of fighting for people who’ve suffered some kind of injustice. That sounds a bit grandiose now but I think I can trace it back to something like that, where I felt that what happened was so unfair that it has stuck with me – I don’t like seeing unfairness.’

If you see Chris onscreen you might wonder where he’s from as he lacks any sign of a North East accent, but he lived in Darras Hall until he was five, at which point his dad, who worked for Procter & Gamble, relocated to Germany, where Chris went to a German school, then an American school, before his parents sent him to boarding school in London – ‘I went there aged seven, so you can get the violins out,’ he jokes.

When he was 12 the family returned to Northumberland, but Chris continued at the London boarding school, where he had already decided upon a career in broadcasting. When it came to choosing a university, he opted for Warwick principally because it had a student radio station (they also had a German degree course, and as he could already speak German he thought it was a good option – ‘As in, not much work for me,’ he laughs). He ran the student radio station as well as taking a part-time job at a local commercial radio station.

‘They needed cheap labour,’ he says, ‘So I ended up working there while I was supposed to be being a student. Most students were getting in at 4am from whatever nightlife they had but I was getting up at 4am to do traffic and travel news for a radio station.’

The station, Mercia Sound, covered Coventry and Warwickshire, and when he started he was just compiling local traffic and travel news. Towards the end of his degree, however, he was reading sports bulletins on air, and after doing a post-graduate Broadcast Journalism course at Cardiff University, he began a full-time job at a Swansea radio station, though he soon felt an urge to return to his native North East. 

‘Like all Geordies – even though I’m a Geordie without the accent – I kind of had that hankering,’ he says, ‘And in 1986 an opportunity arose with BBC Radio Newcastle to be the Northumberland Producer, which was based in Alnwick. 

‘It was probably one of the best jobs in the BBC because although you worked on your own in the district office, which is a bit weird, you’d get up every day and be based in Northumberland Hall in the marketplace in Alnwick, which was nice, and any story you did you had a fantastic drive, be it Berwick or Rothbury or Otterburn or wherever, and you’d just be thinking, “I’m being paid to do this, it’s amazing.'

He did that for two years before taking a temporary BBC attachment in Nottingham, which is where he made his debut as a television news reader thanks to another news reader’s misfortune – the usual onscreen reader turned up with a black eye, so Chris, despite never having read an autocue, and despite not getting permission from their boss beforehand, swapped duties and read the news onscreen.

‘We let it go for two bulletins,’ says Chris, ‘And then we rang the boss to say what had happened. He was a bit perturbed and said, “Well, I’ll have a look at the next one.” He had a look at the next one and said, “You’re alright sunshine, no worries.” So I ended up being a newsreader that way.’

After the short attachment he returned to the North East and joined Look North as a reporter, progressing to weekend shifts as a news reader and eventually becoming a regular news reader. Then, in 2002, Inside Out began. He was hired as presenter and has been fronting the show ever since (he also produces other BBC programmes).  

His work at Inside Out involves all kinds of journalism, some of it light, such as reporting interesting tales from the region (like why Testo’s roundabout on the A19 is called Testo’s roundabout – it’s to do with a circus, but you’ll have to watch the new series to find out), as well as more serious stories. One story he’s particularly proud of is when he helped a Taiwanese artist avoid being unjustly deported by the Home Office. 

‘We literally changed his life,’ Chris enthuses. ‘We shouldn’t have had to have done that – he should have been able to prove it all by himself. So, you know, there are amazing times when you do stuff and you think, “This is why we do what we do.”’

He says he still loves the job, particularly the opportunities it offers, such as meeting a Duchess one day and meeting someone scrabbling around food banks the next. He’s been on assignment to a nudist colony and parachuted out of a plane, but he says the best thing about his job is still righting those wrongs – ‘We actually make a difference,’ he says.  Inside Out is on BBC One at 7.30pm on Mondays.
 

OFF TOPIC
What’s your favourite meal? 
‘A good Indian meal that isn’t covered in sauces. I’ve done some stories abroad and happened to go to India, and I just had the most fantastic food out there.’ 

Favourite view in the North East? 
‘I do archeology in my spare time and recently we were up at Flodden. I think the best view is around there, the Cheviots really. It feels like the most wild area in the North East.’

Place you haven’t been which you’d like to visit? 
‘I’ve never been to South America. The furthest south I’ve been around there is Costa Rica, which is stunning, but South America appeals. I’ve just never been able to find the time.

Any advice for someone aspiring to your job?
‘Start now. Write for your school newspaper or badger whoever’s in charge of media at your school to let you take a camera out, because by the time it gets to choosing university or trying to get a job, if you can prove a track record from an early age you’ll stand out a mile.’

 

Published in: January 2015

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