As a former journalist I sometimes get asked ‘what’s the best story you’ve ever worked on?’
Two decades of employment in newspapers here meant I had the opportunity to be report on many of the most important moments in our recent history – historic political developments, terrorist outrages, sporting triumphs and failures.
I was also privileged to meet a more diverse range of people than I would otherwise have expected and to witness sights that will always stay with me (watching Air Force One roll along the tarmac of the runway at RAF Aldergrove as George W Bush arrived for his ‘Iraq War summit’ with Tony Blair at Hillsborough is one such example).
But when I get asked the question about my best story I always reply ‘Neville Sanders’.
Which almost always brings the response ‘Who’s that?’
Which takes me back to 2003 when I was a fresh-faced and ambitious young reporter with the Belfast Telegraph. I was determined to make my name in journalism and constantly sought out my own stories, networking a wide range of contacts prepared to feed me information.
I remember very clearly I was at a murder scene in the spring of that year when I got a call from one of these contacts wanting to share some information.
The information turned out to be a letter written by Carrickfergus council to Peterborough council. It was a circular letter sent to all councils throughout the UK requesting support for a campaign to launch an inquiry into the death of private Paul Cochrane, a young soldier who shot himself at a Royal Irish regiment barracks.
Usually such a missive would receive a formal response, a vague letter in return expressing support or not. It’s the sort of correspondence which runs through all local government on a daily basis.
But on this occasion Carrickfergus council received an unexpected reply. Their own letter was instead returned to them with a hand-written message scrawled onto it. The note read: ‘Members of the armed forces do get killed, be it by accident or design. That is what they are paid for.’ It was signed ‘Neville Sanders’.
I Googled the name. It turned out Neville Sanders was the Conservative leader of the council, a self-made millionaire and colourful, controversial character who seemed to attract friends and enemies in equal measure.
My source told me that Carrickfergus councillors had been outraged by the tone of the response. He also told me that they had decided that the matter should be dealt with privately.
I had a different idea and decided I would call Mr Sanders.
I was at home that afternoon. I phoned Peterborough Town Hall and was told Mr Sanders was not available. I waited half an hour and tried again, this time I got put straight through to his office and was met by a gruff, impatient voice.
I remember being caught unaware, scrambling to find a pen and an empty page on my notebook. I nervously asked him if he thought his language in the correspondence was appropriate. I told him members of Carrick council had been offended by what he had written.
He began his response: ‘I don’t give a fuck what Carrick council thinks.’
And off he went. My hand began to ache as I scribbled shorthand notes at speed. He said he was ‘fed up paying taxes to pay for to pay lazy Irish bastards in Ireland’. He said ‘soldiers had to be prepared to deal with a bullet’. He demanded an apology from the people of Northern Ireland for all of the British servicemen who had been killed here.
He went on: ‘We are quite happy for Northern Ireland to fuck off and run its own affairs. Tell Carrickfergus, wherever it is, that their whole bloody scenario over there has killed a lot of Englishmen. If you do not want to be part of the UK, then fuck off.’
The conversation probably lasted less than ten minutes but the implications of it would stay with me, and Mr Sanders, for years.
I remember I rushed to transcribe my notes, because I wanted to ensure that the record was word perfect. Then I went to bed.
I was in the office early the next morning and wrote up my story ‘Tory councillor’s foul anti-Irish rant’. The editor seemed pleased with it and it appeared on the front page. I was happy that I had produced a front page exclusive and, I suppose, I imagined that would be the end of the matter.
Not a bit of it. The first sense I had that something was a bit different was when I was at my desk reading the first edition. One of the Tele’s then army of sub-editors,a mysterious gang of senior professionals that young reporters showed reverence towards, strolled by, pointed at page one and growled ‘That’s the best story that’s ever appeared in this newspaper’. I flushed deeply.
The phone calls started sometime in the mid-afternoon. BBC, UTV, national papers, all wanting to talk to me about what had happened. Journalists usually try to avoid becoming the story but, in this instance, because the comments had been made directly to me, there was no other way for other media outlets to cover the story other than going through me.
It led all the broadcast news bulletins that evening. Mr Sanders made multiple TV and radio appearances, and while he had naturally toned down some of the more profane nature of his language, he was still bullish and not in the mood to back down. At no point did he deny any of the comments he had made to me.
Later the anchor on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra won an award for her interview with Mr Sanders. The judges said she had demonstrated she was ‘not afraid’ to ask the politician the difficult questions (not that I’m bitter).
The story turned out not to be a one-day wonder. Instead anger grew over several days and the pressure on the local politician began to snowball.
Perhaps sensing he was in trouble Mr Sanders then changed tactics and began to backtrack. After a short period claiming he was misquoted, he then conceded that he had made the remarks but insisted I had provoked him. The Tele received a solicitor’s letter claiming I had phoned him more than twenty times and alleging that I had continually barracked and abused him with anti-English comments, until I got the response I was looking for.
I had to produce my personal phone records to nail this definitively as a lie.
By now the story was being pursued by every news organisation in the UK. Private Eye jumped on it gleefully, labelling the previously obscure politician as Neville ‘Fuck the Irish’ Sanders.
I got to know the family of Paul Cochrane, the young soldier who had taken his own life, and whose case had sparked the original correspondence. They asked me to go to England to confront Mr Sanders. I agreed.
By now his career was in desperate trouble. He was facing investigations from the Standards Board, which examines the standards of local politicians, and from within his own party. A motion of no-confidence in his leadership of Peterborough council was introduced and his own Tory group divided into those who would support him and those who were ashamed by what he had said.
I went to Peterborough to cover the council motion and to meet Mr Sanders. I remember the very surreal experience of three TV camera crews being there to film me as I got off the train.
When it became clear that Mr Sanders would lose the vote he decided not to attend the council meeting. I went along anyway and presented a letter from Paul Cochrane’s parents to the council chief executive, asking her to pass it on.
I remember being struck by the strength of feeling, both in favour and against Mr Sanders. I met people who were outraged by him, but also others who said he had done more for the town where he lived than I would ever understand.
One tiny elderly female Tory councillor was so angry that she barracked me for several minutes outside the chamber. Shouting into my face that I was orchestrating a ‘Sinn Fein plot’ to discredit the armed services.
Two large Tory councillors actually stood at the doorway to the council chamber to block my entrance at one point. The whole episode was being filmed and after I tried to make a light-hearted remark, they eventually stood aside.
Tensions were running high. When the vote was cast Mr Sanders lost and was deposed as council leader.
It was only later in the evening I realised that I had nowhere to stay in the city. I went to a bar, befriended the landlord, and ended up sleeping on his son’s bunk-bed that night. I was awake early the next morning, still severely inebriated and on a packed commuter train back to the airport, trying to file my copy for that night’s Tele over the phone.
That really should have been the end of the matter, but it refused to go away. The Standards Board held an investigation and banned Mr Sanders from being a councillor for two years. He was later also thrown out of the Conservative Party.
But he refused to go quietly and launched legal action, taking the matter to the High Court. He managed to get the severity of his punishment reduced to a prohibition on leading the council for 12 months.
I was asked to take part in several investigations and, while I did my best to co-operate, I avoided too much active participation. In my view the story was done and finished and it wasn’t my role to decide on the punishment. Also, in truth, I had become tired of it, I wanted to move on and leave it behind, to move on to new stories and challenges. But it refused to leave me alone.
There was one humorous moment where I was asked to provide my notes for the High Court. I duly complied. Then I was contacted by a court clerk who asked me to translate them. It seemed there was nobody in England who used the old Pitmans 2000 shorthand system which I had been taught at journalism school.
In 2005 Mr Sanders went on the offensive after his punishment was reduced, claiming publicly that his reputation had been entirely vindicated. The court had decided that there were defects in the way the Standards Board tribunal had dealt with his case, but he instead choose to represent it as defects in the original story I had written.
I was moved to phone him once again and we fenced with each other once more. He insisted his interpretation of the outcome was correct. When I tried to question him he kept repeating ‘but the court awarded me costs’ over and over.
This led to a renewed flurry of interest in the story. The Nolan Show picked up on it asked me if I was prepared to debate the issue live on air with Mr Sanders. I wasn’t hugely enthusiastic, but it seemed a better option than simply allowing him to rubbish my reputation.
The next day I waited beside the phone. Then a Nolan producer contacted me and said Mr Sanders had decided not to participate. I didn’t admit it but I was relieved. It was time to let it lie.
The following year Mr Sanders lost his council seat and his political career was finally over.
Neville Sanders died in August 2016, with his reputation never having fully recovered from his short interview with me in 2003. I imagine that he would have been completely unrepentant to the end.
Reports on his death in local media reflect on his huge energy and enthusiasm as a businessman and councillor, and his spirited efforts to improve his own city. He paid out of his own pocket to keep Peterborough’s Lido open in 1991 and 1992 and was once arrested when trying to help a local couple find 50p to put in a parking meter. In 1990 he was bound over to keep the peace after a charge that he had punched another councillor was dropped
I learnt a lot about the nature of journalism and politics from him. And just as much about the volatility of human nature.