His rifle was pointed at a projection of Berlaymont, the European Commission HQ. “Is that the real thing?” I asked him. “I’m not telling, mate,” the reporter said, laughing. “You sort it out.”
Thankfully, it was only a screensaver. Still, if you wanted to know what his politics were, the mock attack on Berlaymont, was in keeping.
“Nigel calls me all the time now,” he was fond of telling me back then, pretending he was on a first name basis with the UKIP chief. “I can get a meeting with him whenever I want.”
It was the Spring of 2016, during the lead up to the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. No one was more of a celebrity in Brussels back then, albeit a notorious one than Nigel Farage.
That my desk mate could claim any intimacy with such a polarising figure in EU politics was not insignificant, even though it was somewhat exaggerated.
He did have a friendly rapport with Britain’s Eurosceptic-in-chief though, and his reporting on Farage, alternating between neutral and supportive, was in no small part key to his career.
“Don’t suppose Herman might be free for a beer?” asked the other British reporter we shared a desk with, referring to Farage’s press secretary Herman Kelly.
“I’ll give him a ring,” he replied. “Nigel is in town for a change. Perhaps we could all get a pint together.”
The rumour was that our UKIP man was actually a Labour voter, but that he put on a good act at work to irritate people. I wasn’t so certain.
Day in and day out, he’d interrupt my editing with vitriolic attacks The Guardian for its left-wing coverage of EU topics we were also tracking while calling a charismatic Greek reporter we worked with a fag for frequently coming over and embracing me.
“Definitely a homosexual,” he liked to quip, before yelling out to an American woman colleague of ours, who sat next to the Greek, “Show us your tits,” across the newsroom.
As someone who had gone to elementary school in London, I found his yobbish behaviour amusing.
A privileged kid with a boarding school background, and an international upbringing, he was acting out the role of a typically provincial, working-class caricature on a BBC sitcom.
At times, the reporter could be very funny. Still, when he’d make his tits type remarks, one could see the other female staff in the newsroom get uncomfortable. As the news editor, I’d feel responsible for giving him a first heads up, before passing it up to our boss.
“I’ll say something to him,” I said more than once to an angry female colleague, to no avail. And every time I did, he’d come back at me with the full force of a wounded animal, telling me my editing sucked and that my English was shit because I “spoke American”.
“You wouldn’t last a minute in a British newsroom,” he once said, arms flailing as though he were about to hit me. “I worked for some of the meanest and toughest guys in the newspaper business and I would know.”
Fifteen years his senior, I’d spent the better part of the previous two decades working in publishing myself, for some pretty difficult people. But I’d never worked with someone quite as a volatile.
Or, in a typically British way, as class conscious. “The news business is only good for two things,” he was fond of telling me after he’d come back from a pub lunch and was a little more relaxed: “Beer and money.”
“If wealth is your objective, you’re definitely in the wrong business,” I remember saying to him. “I never had any illusions I’d make more than a college professor, and neither should you.”
I rarely pulled rank on him, but I was his superior and found his money fixation reflective of an idealisation of our work I hadn’t encountered before. He’d worked in financial reporting before coming to work with us, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.
But it wasn’t until I’d heard from a colleague at The Guardian, no less, whom we at one point worked with, that he was writing anti-EU pieces for The Sun, under a pseudonym, that it got complicated.
“You could get in a lot of trouble doing this,” I remember telling him, referring to the fact that our firm’s owner did not take kindly to cross-publishing with anti-European publications like that.
“It’s about as anti-Brussels as it gets,” I said, “and what I’ve read of yours doesn’t exactly throw roses on the union either.”
“C’ mon mate,” he replied, sounding like his guard was down. “I need the money to pay off my wedding bills, and it’s all for a laugh. Who cares. It’s the bloody Sun.”
We spoke about it a couple of more times, and I let it go. Everyone seemed like they knew of his side work, and there were no repercussions so far. I was glad.
In fact, he was using the notoriety it was granting him to push for a promotion, particularly with the French owner of our news service, who secretly envied British tabloids for their success.
It’s not like our firm had any business policing what we wrote outside of it, either. We were all freelancers, including management, with near-full-time work, minus a couple of days each month to avoid paying us benefits. We should feel free to do what we wanted in our spare time.
Still, we worked for a news venture with a decidedly partisan, pro-EU agenda, and it was awkward to have such a reporter on our team, riding the Eurosceptic wave, in all of its reactionary, glory.
If it weren’t for the EU, none of us would have jobs, and many of our positions were funded by Commission grants.
“How do you reconcile your politics with working at a publication like ours?” I remember asking my colleague one day, after he showed up several hours late, unable to finish sentences, reeking of alcohol.
“By drinking several beers before coming into the office, and having a few more at lunch,” he replied, snarling. “Now fuck off and leave me the hell alone.”
Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.