Journalists do not often get much chance to put something back into the community we spend our lives writing about.
Earlier this year, Media Trust, my newspaper and a young man called Lee McConville gave me a chance to do just that.
It sounded reasonably straightforward. My communications director at The Times asked me if I could mentor a young person in my role as political editor – show them the ropes, give them a feel of life and work outside their normal home environment, enthuse them.
Lee, I was to learn, was living in a hostel in Birmingham after leaving home in the notoriously tough Lozells area. He was on incapacity benefit, desperate to break free from his surrounds.
The Media Trust uses funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and volunteers from newspapers and broadcasting to organise mentoring projects.
Neither of us knew what to expect of the other, but one day in May we met on the green outside Parliament. I took Lee to the Red Lion in Whitehall to get to know him, and within days he was touring The Times, interviewing the culture secretary Tessa Jowell and travelling with me to the G8 world economic summit in Germany.
From there, he sent back reports and videocasts for Times Online and one morning he was up at dawn to be my ‘legman’at the Bush-Blair doorstep, their last together. The result was a joint byline with me in The Times. And all of it was being filmed as a documentary for Community Channel.
Our double act attracted a lot of public interest. Lee made me a star. For years, I had lived in obscurity as the political editor of the world’s greatest newspaper. Now Lee and I were on the couch with Richard and Judy, and appearing on a string of radio chat shows. Lee has now worked for regional papers and hopes to be on an NCTJ course within weeks.
For me as well, things will never be quite the same again. I found it one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. Just about everyone I know who has reached a senior position in any walk of life can point to someone helping them at some stage of their career. I was helped when a senior staffer at The Times noticed that I could write shorthand pretty fast and hired me, virtually on the spot, to report in Parliament.
I hope I’ve given Lee that start. There could be nothing more pleasing than watching himswiftly gaining the enthusiasm I have had for this job all my life, and then having the drive and aptitude to put it into practice.
I’ve gone back to being a political editor, but I would say to anyone in our world: think about mentoring. It does not end, of course, when the mentoring finishes. I have been looking over Lee’s shoulder ever since, trying to help him on his way, coming up with suggestions here and there. Media Trust has also done itsbit to make Lee feel that he has not been forgotten now that he has ended his spell as a movie star. I hope he regards me as a big brother, in the best sense of the phrase, not interfering too much but always there at the end of a phone if he needs me.
If you are a interested in finding our more about Media Trust’s youth mentoring scheme, visit www.mediatrust.org/youth-mentoring.