Man banned from every shop in Britain

Talking of worrying about mistakes, this headline above still makes me shudder.

In 2004, a few days into my new job as a general reporter at the Worcester News, I was sent to cover the city’s magistrates’ court.

There was a case of a heroin addict who had been caught shoplifting for the umpteenth time.

As part of his conditions read out by the magistrate he was banned from entering shops to prevent his stealing and I eagerly scribbled it down in my notebook.

I came back to the office, excitedly hoping to impress my new employer with a good story.
“He’s been banned from every shop in Britain,” I said.

It was only after the paper was printed, and during the course of a sleepless night that I began worrying that I’d perhaps misinterpreted and exaggerated the magistrates’ statement.

Do they even have jurisdiction out of their own town? How would that ever be enforced? Who’d ever heard of someone being banned from every shop in Britain before?

Well, that was the point. No-one. And that’s why it was seemingly such a great story.

It was a horrible journey to work  the next day. The story had been placed on the front page and ever single newsagent I passed had billboards screaming, “Man banned from every shop in Britain.” Every time I saw it I broke into a sweat.

I was sure I was going to be sacked. I felt sick. I was certain I’d got it wrong. What would be the best course of action? To own up straight away (already too late) or hope it went away?

But as soon as I got in, things went from bad to worse. The news editor asked me to go round to the shoplifter’s house to find out what he thought about being banned from every shop in Britain.

I knocked on his door. His mum answered. She let me in, made me a cup of tea, offered me biscuits and told me about her sorrow over how her son had turned to heroin and crime.

She hadn’t seen that day’s paper and her son wasn’t in.

It was a decent, heartfelt interview of a mother at her wits’ end. But as I got up to leave, her son came home.

No sooner as she had introduced who I was, he lunged at me.

“You’ve plastered me all over Worcester,” he was screaming. “It says ‘Man banned from every shop in Britain’ wherever I go. Everyone’s seen it.”

I could cope with the threatening physical violence, I couldn’t cope with what he said next: “It’s not even true. I’ve only been banned from every shop in Worcester.

“And I’ve got the magistrates’ document to prove it.”

He hadn’t found it by the time I left the house but I was even more certain I was about to be sacked.

I was off the following day. It was horrible. Phone call after phone call from news agencies, national newspapers, the BBC and Central News, all wanting the man’s contact details so they could interview the first man to be banned from every shop in Britain.

I didn’t return their calls and I think I probably cried. I certainly couldn’t eat.

Then the strangest thing happened.

I was watching the news on the television in the early evening. Suddenly, there he was.

“The man banned from every shop in Britain speaks,” they said.

And he did too. Filmed in his garden proudly waving around his magistrates’ document, enthusiastically telling the reporter how he was determined to abide by the court conditions and would then change his ways.

I don’t understand to this day what happened. I have no idea whether he really was banned from every shop in Britain or whether, by the end of the day, because so many journalists had contacted him he just convinced himself it was true.

I can laugh about it now. I’d rather not go through that experience too often though.

About Ian

A journalist working in Brussels
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One Response to Man banned from every shop in Britain

  1. Ciaran Fagan says:

    This is not a Mercury story.
    I was once sent to interview some young women who one of my bosses was convinced were working as prostitutes.
    “No we’re not, but everyone thinks we are and we keep getting propositioned by dirty old men”, they told me.
    Well, I thought there was a story there, so I got on with the interviews. Names, ages etc.
    The story ran along the lines of “Leave us alone, we’re not working girls, say young women”.
    After the paper appeared a bewildered mum contacted me and asked why the paper was saying her daughter was not a prostitute.
    The girls in question had given me names, but not their own. I can only gather they gave me the names of their enemies.
    Good job they didn’t say they were selling it.

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