The Outer Circle

By Ian Ridley

Set in the week following the London Olympics, this novel imagines an attack on London Central Mosque and follows five people caught up in its aftermath



THE day after used to be follow-up day for newspapers. Having reported the event and what everyone said about the event, and publishing pictures of the carnage - and rejecting plenty on the grounds of public taste and decency - this was the day for filling in the gaps, for giving context and background, drawing it all together.

Newspapers had changed, though, in the internet age. Print journalism's follow-ups were happening even as it was all unfolding on TV, radio and now the web, where conspiracy theorists, crackpots and trolls shouted loudly on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and vied to be heard with those directly involved or who had witnessed events, making it ever more difficult to find the truth amid the clamour, the light amid the heat. This was supposed to be where the papers came into their own.

There would also be an act today to fan the flames and force the media to change direction in pursuit of the fire engines.

In previous times, Jan would have been cursing that yesterday had been a day off and she had missed all the action. Actually, she wouldn't have missed it. She would have rung in to tell them she was on her way, then spent 12 unpaid hours on the story. Once upon a time, in fact for a good 20 years after leaving school to join her local paper in Yorkshire, she loved newsrooms on such days and nights; chasing the story, selling angles on it to a news editor, watching it roll off the presses near midnight. Seeing it in the paper under the byline: Janet Mason. The combination of adrenaline and coffee, with lunch and dinner at your desk and a late-night lock-in at the local at the back of the office by a landlord whom they rewarded with tickets to film premiers and football matches, was her very lifeblood.

These days, though, she felt emptily disengaged with the paper. She came in and did her job, to the best of her ability, but at the age of 41 it was more about keeping earning to pay off as much of the mortgage on the two-bedroom flat in Maida Vale as she could before the inevitable redundancy as the industry contracted - in terms of numbers of people, that was, though not in its ambition. Fewer were just spread more thinly. She was a high earner, too, having been hired in the halycon days, and thus vulnerable.

On top of all that, she was treading thin ice these days. The verbal warning had come when she had refused to accept the positive spin on a government press release that said fewer hospitals would need to be built as we were all getting healthier and then write the subsequent puff piece.

"Just fucking do it," Vickers had said. "Editor's a mate of the health minister, OK."

"But it's bollocks, Ivan," she had replied to her News Editor. "It's just an excuse for lack of investment in the NHS. Go and sit in an A and E one night and see what's happening."

Then came the first written warning. Word had got back to Vickers that she had left a job up in Great Yarmouth early. This was in the days when she was still sent out on stories. It concerned a paedophile ring in which a Government minister was implicated and she was supposed to be doorstepping a recently released nonce who had taken a house overlooking a primary school, though she knew the bloke had disappeared. She had had theatre tickets in London with her brother and bunged a local reporter 50 quid to cover and keep her in touch. But somebody had snitched and she had broken the paper's golden rule on any job: you are always the last reporter to leave.

It meant that one more written warning and she was but a moment of Vickers' capriciousness away from the sack, even if she did think that might be desirable some days. But that mortgage... God knew there were plenty of capricious moods involving a man who delighted in the title of Nastiest News Editor in Fleet Street. Jan always referred to him as TGV. It was not because he could come at you like a French train. It stood for That Gobshite Vickers.

And so, with how she was treated and the office-bound hours she was forced to keep, she had watched the TV coverage of the unfolding Mosque story on her day off from her sofa with a glass of wine and a growing sense of being marginalised. With that dilemma of the disaffected, she had no desire to force what had been described by grudgingly admiring rivals as the sharpest elbows in journalism into the middle of the fray and resented that no-one rang her to ask her to get in the middle of it.

Now it was all about satisfying websites and being forced to tweet updates. Relentlessly, hour after hour. The paper felt like an afterthought some days. Churnalism, they called it; clickbait the result - web-angled stories, often spicier than the paper would submit to Middle England but titillating to the world beyond - to show to advertisers how many people they were reaching and so increase prices to try somehow to make the internet pay for beleaguered news organisations.

Reality show 'stars' in various states of undress vied with dysfunctional showbiz families for attention. Alongside, readers would be invited to discover five things they might learn about fast food or find out why the midde classes had been driven to drink by the recession. The internet had spawned Wikileaks, which was, astonishingly, telling us that the US Government had been spying on other governments, and this was the best we could do? It smacked of that time when that Big Brother reality show had gone out online when off air and a couple had had sex. "The day the internet came of age," was the headline on a leader by one of the red tops.

Jan watched people on the tube this morning on her journey round to the paper's latest offices in a cheap new block in the City of London lamenting that she had no reason today to feel that old frisson of seeing someone reading your story, under your name, and watching their reaction. The curious thing was that the younger reporters on about £25K a year in the modern national newspaper sweatshops loved seeing their name in the paper too, even if so many more readers would see it online. It was to do with ego and anonymity, she guessed. With print you had visible proof that you were involved. Online, you relied on your imagination of somebody in their back bedroom logging on. To what else besides she stopped at contemplating.

The paper still sold well, though at 1.5 million around half of what it did 20 years ago, and some were reading it, with room to do so now that the rush hour was over. She noted the headline POWDER KEG BRITAIN and sighed that again it was follow-up stuff, or actually more like speculation, rather than just telling properly the real story from yesterday before and above anything else. At least the front page of one of the few copies of the Telegraph had it right, if you asked her: MURDER AT THE MOSQUE. The problem was that nobody did ask her these days.

She bought a double espresso in the ground floor cafe and wandered through the atrium that was the paper's copious reception area, not stopping to speak to anyone, nobody speaking to her. People were too busy in their own worlds or gazing at the news channels on the TVs to notice or care about each other. She took the lift to the third floor and walked to her desk, neither saying nor receiving a hello and had taken but one sip of her coffee, not even sat down, when TGV arrived at her side.

"Conference room now," said Vickers. She picked up her coffee and traipsed dutifully from what was now called the news hub to a glass corner 'think tank' office with a view of a concrete city square. Around a dozen reporters were gathering round a long, rectangular black table.

"Nice front page this morning," said Natalie Bridges, a 25-year-old who had come through the training scheme and the website and whose name was on the front page piece, turning inside. Jan would have hesitated to say she wrote it. More probably it was pulled together from other reporters' work and news agencies and assembled by a talented sub-editor. She was just young flavour of the moment and her picture byline, with its long blonde hair, looked good. Vickers nodded and all agreed with her analysis of the front page. Actually, Jan wanted to say, it was fucking terrible and this paper has lost its way and its identity in the rush for rubbish, knee-jerk material to fill the website. Of course she didn't.

Vickers ran through what they had from the police at that morning's 9am briefing, first what everyone knew: some nutter in blue overalls and a balaclava had walked unhindered into the Regent's Park Mosque yesterday at 11.45am and torched to death five people from a flame thrower taken from a back pack. The events were picked up on CCTV but the bloke's identity was not. Soon after, a blue or black Japanese car, a witness couldn't be sure which make, sped off down the Outer Circle. The witness did say he was white. There were no cameras on that road, so the car had not been immediately identified.

Vickers then added new material that was emerging from the Met press office. A traffic warden working the park remembered someone, also white, sitting in a dark blue or black Honda around that time but he didn't pay too much attention as the car had a valid parking ticket. A cyclist also recalled almost being knocked out of his saddle when someone opened a car door on him there but there were two men in the car.

"So the Met's theory," said Vickers, "is that the nutter had an accomplice who probably dropped him at the front of the Mosque then drove round the back and waited for him. One woman with a child also remembered a short conversation with a young bloke in a hoodie nearby in the park. He looked out of it, apparently. Whether he's involved or not, they don't yet know."

And that, Vickers said finally, was pretty much all the police had, apart from the obvious theory that the motive must be religious, racist or both. They were now trawling congestion charge and traffic cameras on roads surrounding Regent's Park to see if they could get a sighting of the car and thus the number. Oh, and they needed press help.

The police always did need press help, Jan mused. It was something people forgot, as she always argued with friends and often of an evening on her third glass of wine with ignoramuses on Twitter who accepted simplistic arguments against phone hacking. They also forgot that journalists on the Millie Dowler story, in the wake of which episode newspapers were dying, were actually trying to help, trying to find a young girl's murderer. Often in the past they had done so before the police, stretched and in need of fresh eyes, who used reporters as supplementary detectives. And reporters from newspapers; rarely, if ever, from TV or radio.

Her industry had always been under siege, always been seen as not fully trustworthy. There had always been some respect, though, for holding government and institutions to account, for exposing, for - at its best - helping those who could not help themselves. For entertaining and informing, for stories well told.

Now, since phone hacking had been uncovered, they, she, were largely scum. The Leveson Inquiry into newspaper practice, set up after revelations about hacked mobiles by red top journos, was being televised not showing up the industry and reporters she had known and worked with in a shockingly poor light. Celebrities were queuing up to up to get their own back, lawyers were milking their moments, playing up their costly parts. It would be reporting soon and newspapers could not expect to carry on the way they used to. That, she had thought, was a case of being careful what you wished for. To emasculate the press would be to play into the establishment's hands.

Vickers assigned people to the various parts of the story, starting with Natalie. He wanted more on this car - someone must know who owns it and where it is. It would lead to the killer. Jan was the last taxi off the rank. Vickers told her to help and guide the kids, use her experience. Be their bloody leg worker in other words. She hated being at the beck and call of someone like Natalie bloody Bridges, someone who had found herself in the right place at the right time, like yesterday. Jan used to have that knack. Yes, she had been ambitious and keen like her once but at least she had some respect, even reverence, for more experienced and senior reporters while she was learning the trade. These kids reckoned they knew it all and held in contempt the likes of her, whom they believed to have had their day and now it was time for the new breed.

"Jan," said Natalie as the meeting broke up, "I was just wondering if you might give one of your contacts at New Scotland Yard a ring about this car...." Jan smiled at her and said OK, of course she would. She would do no such thing, though. Natalie could get her own fucking contacts and do her own job. And hopefully get found out because she couldn't.

Jan heard a raised voice behind her as she made her way back to her desk, uttering its trademark phrase. "Just fucking do it," Vickers was shouting at some fresh-faced kid questioning his assignment. Jan reckoned the paper had a factory somewhere in the Home Counties where they produced a job lot of them every year. The kid scuttled off, terrified.

Vickers saw her watching. "They don't make them like you any more, Jan," he called across. "You've long since learned to do what you're told." 'I', she thought to herself, 'have long since learned the art of making it look like I'm doing what I've been told.'

"This kid in the hoodie the woman mentioned..." she said.

"Some junkie by the sound of it," Vickers replied.

"Was wondering if he could be the driver, perhaps? The Met's accomplice."

"Well ring them then. See what they say."

"I was thinking that if maybe I went over to Regent's Park, I could sniff around a bit. Maybe talk to regulars. Dog walkers, joggers. Find out something the police may have missed. You never know."

"Look just get on the phone will you. The days of spending all day walking round London on the off chance of a story are long gone. I know how it works, disappearing into pubs for lunch with your other mates, divvying up info. We need you in the office, filing updates for the website. Tweeting. OK?"

Jan shrugged her shoulders and nodded. But you did never know. And as Vickers summoned over some other terrified young reporter to go and get him coffee, she took advantage of his distraction to pick up her bag, grab her Mac, slip to the lift and out of this impersonal, glass prison towards the tube station for a train to Baker Street.

She was sick of watching these kids take all the glory. This, the biggest story since 7/7, was a chance to get herself back in the game. And she wanted, needed, to be back in it. It was shit or bust time, she reckoned. May not get another tale like this, not before the next round of redundancies. Anyway, what was a second warning between enemies? She would still have one more strike.

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