Getting Naked with Journalist Luke Chilton
I first met Luke Chilton at a party approximately a hundred years ago where there was a free bar (standard) and if memory serves me correctly, an up-and-coming singer called Emeli Sandé was providing the entertainment. At the time Luke was writing for a magazine but little did I know that he would shortly be landing a dream job, at our media equivalent of a national treasure, This Morning presented by the charismatic duo Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby. From there he was part of the team to launch the short-lived but no less successful New Day and these days he is putting all his journalism training into practice searching for un-sung heroes with the wildly successful and inspirational Pride of Britain Awards. What I really like and admire about Luke, is that he is not afraid to speak his mind, or offer his opinion. But, equally, he is not about to start a heated debate for the sake of it. All these qualities make him a thoughtful, versatile, thoroughly interesting guy who has worked in many different fields but at the core, he knows how to tell a bloody good story. Here’s my interview with the captivating and very funny, Luke Chilton.
NakedPRGirl: Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I was born in Edinburgh, but I grew up in a very small, leafy village in the south east of England. We had a big lake and maybe two pubs. I guess it was a bit like a slightly rubbish version of Dawson’s Creek.
NakedPRGirl: When I met you, you were Features Editor at Real People? How did you get your first job as a journalist?
I was very lucky; I did some work experience at Real People magazine while studying for my NCTJ journalism qualification. They asked me to come back after the course, originally as an “office assistant’, and I ended up staying five years. I think being a man helped (as usual), because men working in the weekly magazine market were a bit of a novelty back then.
NakedPRGirl: It must have been a challenging role? Did you learn a lot? Any crazy real life stories to report?
People can be a bit snobby about ‘true life’ titles, but there’s a real skill in writing in that style. The interview process is really in-depth and you have to turn random true events into narratives with a beginning, a middle and an end that resonate emotionally. People say if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing Eastenders – I say he’d be writing for Take A Break.
I remember interviewing a woman who got stuck in her bath. She was there for hours until finally her son came home from work and rescued her. The incident spurred her on to eat more healthily. So just within that simple story you have comedy, tragedy and redemption.
The stories in these magazines are about the most dramatic and extreme things that can happen to people – and they really do happen! You’d be surprised how much work goes into making sure these stories are 100% true. I interviewed everyone from terminally ill teenagers to swingers to parents of murder victims. I once wrote a piece told from the point of view of a pig.
So that’s was a good training ground for a journalist, especially when I would be sent all round the country to interview people in their homes. That really expands your world-view that you wouldn’t get from say, re-writing press releases in an office.
NakedPRGirl: From there you went to This Morning as News Producer, was this your dream job? Did you have a favourite presenting duo? How did you handle the early starts?
The early starts were okay – luckily there was a never-ending supply of toast to keep you going.
I don’t think there’s another show on TV quite like This Morning. Whatever you think of it, the mix of current affairs and often truly bizarre human-interest interviews is unique to British television. That’s what I liked about the job – you never quite knew what was going to happen next. One day you’d be writing questions for the Prime Minister, the next you’d be trying to get a cat to give Rylan a high-five.
I had run-ins with Scientologists, David Icke nearly throttled me and once I spent a night in the studio trying to catch the This Morning ghost with a psychic and his spirit guide. They made me dress up as a gorilla a couple of times.
Another time we had to find someone to agree to get a vasectomy live on air. After a lot of rejections, I eventually found a guy willing to do it, and we arranged everything. At the last minute I asked the man his surname, and it turned out to be “Balls”. No way would the viewers buy that co-incidence! It was too late to find anyone else so in the end we just had to never say his surname on air! But things like that were genuinely quite ground-breaking for morning television, and informative too.
Actually This Morning has an important role in delivering content to an audience that isn’t served well by other news outlets. Daytime TV viewers don’t necessarily watch Newsnight or Panorama, but they will watch an item on This Morning about, say, Islamophobia. I think This Morning does a good job of covering subjects that matter to their audience in a balanced and straightforward way.
As for presenters, I would say Eamonn Holmes is one of the most genuine presenters on TV. He’s exactly the same on-set as off screen and always showed a real compassion for the guests before and after the show.
NakedPRGirl: You were Deputy Features Editor at The New Day which got off to such a cracking start that everyone was surprised by its sudden closure. What do you think the future of news looks like?
I’m no expert but I can’t envision a world where people don’t want to read the news. So it’s just about working out how to monetize the way we read it.
The current trend in TV seems to be monthly subscription fees, a la Netflix, but that hasn’t seemed to work for newspaper websites. I think the bravest step a newspaper could take now would be to completely shut down their print version and go all-out online. That would force its loyal readers onto their website / app. But that’s risky strategy!
The New Day was great fun and a really good opportunity for me to work on the launch of a national paper. While I was there I was lucky enough to be sent to India with Save The Children to report on child labour in Delhi. That’s a world away from dressing up as a gorilla.
Sadly I doubt they’ll ever be another national newspaper launch like The New Day. But I could be wrong – look at the recent rise in sales of physical books. I do think any new newspaper would have to be a free sheet like the Metro / Standard to survive.
It’s a scary time for print journalists because it seems like the world is ending. But digital journalism is really still in its infancy and changing all the time. Already you can see the public becoming frustrated with ‘click-bait’ headlines. We’ve seen the rise and fall of the ‘listicle’ style of article. So I’m sure that we’re still in the middle of this latest evolution of journalism, and eventually someone will figure out how to make it work for readers and publishers. “Life will find a way” as they say in Jurassic Park.
NakedPRGirl: You’re working on Pride of Britain at the moment which has become such an iconic event, what’s your role there? How is it to work on such a high profile and inspiring event?
I am part of a big team that scours the country for super-impressive people. We come up with a short-list of amazing nominees for the judging panel to choose from. Once the winners are decided, it’s all about turning their stories into an entertaining, inspirational TV show. With the amount of negative news around at the moment, it’s refreshing to work on something that is over-whelming positive. We try to recognise the good in people, especially those who are over-coming extreme obstacles to help others. Please watch it. I guarantee you will cry (In a good way.)
NakedPRGirl: How does TV differ from print?
On live TV, an interviewee is pretty much completely unedited. You are reliant on them ‘performing’ on-screen to get a great interview. In print, the journalist has the power to control the narrative a little.
There are pros and cons to both methods! When I wrote for ‘real life’ titles like Real People, I was able to help people tell their stories in the most dramatic and readable way possible, in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to on their own. But there’s an immediacy in live television, where you can have instant reaction and unpredictable moments, that you can’t recreate in print.
NakedPRGirl: How has digital impacted and changed your job?
The Internet has enabled anyone with a computer to become a journalist. Anyone can have a blog or a Youtube account or even just a Twitter handle and plonk his or her view onto the world. That’s great in a way, because it means everyone has a voice, not just old men in Fleet Street. But it also means there will inevitably be a drop in quality of the journalism.
The biggest change in television has been on-demand and catch-up viewing, but I think they’ll always be a place for live news and magazine programmes. I think people enjoy watching something knowing that millions of others are watching it at the same time too. And now with a show like This Morning you can have live interaction with viewers that can actually change the direction of the show while it’s on air. That’s a good way to build a connection with an audience that you couldn’t do 10 years ago.
NakedPRGirl: Who’s your favourite person that you’ve interviewed or worked with over the years?
I wouldn’t say favourite, but one I remember vividly is going to meet the parents of an 11-year-old girl who died of cancer. Coincidently they lived in the little village I’m from, so I went back there to interview them in their home. They lived just round the corner from the house where I grew up. It was incredibly sad and had completely shattered the lives of her family, who were shell-shocked but desperate to pay tribute to their daughter. It’s easy to become blasé & cynical when you’re a journalist, working day in, day out on sad stories. But every so often you work on something that can circumvent that.
NakedPRGirl: What’s your favourite social media channel? Do you use social media for work?
Actually one of the first things I do when I wake up is look at Twitter. Twitter Trends and Moments are a good barometer of what the world is talking about. I mostly use social media for getting in contact with potential interviewees. Recently I had to track down a biker gang in the US and I was able to get in touch very quickly with their leader via Facebook. I guess even Hells Angels use Facebook now! Linkedin, despite its deriders, is also a helpful tool for finding experts and spokespeople. And I do like to see how people on social media react to a story I’ve written or a TV interview I helped set up. It’s interesting to be able to get live feedback on your work (even it’s not always positive)!
NakedPRGirl: Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?
Pick a niche, something you’re interested in, and focus on becoming to ‘go to’ journalist in that field. Be nice to PRs.
NakedPRGirl: Do you have a motto or mantra that you live by?
I remember when I first worked at This Morning, if things every got really stressful (which they did, often), one of the producers would remind us “It’s only a TV show”. Ultimately in my field of journalism, the aim is to entertain people – whether that’s making them cry or laugh or shout at the telly. So sometimes you just have to roll the cameras and see what happens.
And whether I’m writing or tweeting or even saying something out loud, I try to ask myself two things: ‘Is this helpful?’.
By that I mean: Am I actually adding something useful to the debate, or do I just want my opinion heard? I might have a perfectly valid opinion about something but is it of value to anyone else? Am I saying anything new?
And the second one is ‘Is this boring?’ If something is both helpful and not boring, it probably has a good reason to exist.
NakedPRGirl: Where would you like to be in ten years time?
Like all journalists, I’ve got a good idea for a novel, so if any publishers are reading this, please get in touch!