Focus Interview with freelance journalist Joanna Biddolph

FeaturesExec recently interviewed PRO and freelance journalist Joanna Biddolph. She loves writing about food, and most recently has written for Square Meal magazine, but also has a passion for eco issues, recycling and local produce. She also writes for her local lifestyle magazine, The Green.

Joanna’s Freelance Journalist Directory entry can be found at:

About your journalism:

What do you write about?
Local and national issues, some of which have a political slant but all of which have an effect on people. I’m interested in taking a broad view, looking at a subject in the round, so that others have the fullest picture space allows. I like to throw in a controversial opinion or two, to stir up debate.

As I’m a generalist, there is no one subject that I specialise in though the homegenisation of our high streets, and encouraging local people to use their local independent shops, are regular themes.

Anything to do with waste gets my blood boiling. I have cupboards full of to-be-used-up plastic carrier bags and last week my local authority announced it is to distribute plastic sacks for us to put our plastics into, for recycling – to save us from using plastic carrier bags. That strikes me as being very skewed logic. I’ve caused much amusement for years in my local independent shops for always taking old plastic bags with me – and, more recently, for reusing the brown paper bags my greengrocer sends me home with. Now everyone does it (well, nearly everyone). It’s the only claim I have to be a fashion leader.

As an obsessive foodie who thinks about food most of the day (thank you, Nigella, for confessing the same and helping me see I’m not that abnormal) I love writing about it, especially reviewing restaurants. An ideal day for me is writing about restaurants or food, with breaks for eating.

I keep meaning to write about India, where I was born and lived for the first seven and a bit years of my life. Eating and reviewing Indian food would be a very good day.

Where are we likely to see your work?
The Green and The Green in Richmond. We are very lucky, in west London, to have such a strong sense of community and to have it championed by good quality, free, local magazines.

From time to time I offer reviews to our local community website,, and for six heady weeks I had my own column in PR Business, a magazine established to rival PR Week. Sadly, it closed – so PR Week continues to disappoint. I generated some heat which pleased me. I write truthfully and some PR professionals did not like my candid approach. The column was about freelance life – as lived by me, a lover of freedom. People who like to recreate conventional work life – with a fixed and formal routine – didn’t like my approach. Each to their own, in my view. My work is just as professional whether I’ve done it at my desk in a nine to five routine (horrid thought) or in the middle of the night when I’m at my most creative. I wrote this on my lap as the sun sets on a rain-spattered day during Wimbledon fortnight.

I’m currently writing articles which I hope to place in a national newspaper. Aren’t we all?

What’s the most memorable work you’ve done?
Producing a five year communications strategy for Transform, a special interest group campaigning to regulate and control all drugs. Its what we do with alcohol. It’s what we do with tobacco. It’s what we do with pharmaceuticals. It’s madness that other drugs should be unregulated. Back to the point … it was fantastic working with a broadminded group which wanted to get the best out of all its consultants – and to take a long view. Devising a roving strategy mirrored the way I like to work now – widely. It covered every aspect of communications, from internal PR and its supporters to media relations and the public via lobbying, crisis management and fundraising.

Before that, working for the Corporation of London, as head of press, was exhilarating particularly after the Bishopsgate bomb went off in the City. Rebuilding a damaged reputation is hugely rewarding as is planning to avoid, or deal with, any crisis.

Working through a general election, for a political party, provides a degree of excitement that can never be beaten.

What interview or feature would you love the chance to do?
A series of reviews of restaurants, written from the ordinary eater’s point of view. Some reviewers can be tediously pompous. I particularly enjoy Tracey MacLeod’s reviews in The Independent and anything written by Deborah Ross – we have a similar sense of humour and of the ridiculous.

About you and PRs:

Where do you source ideas for articles?
Opinions I overhear. It’s amazing how strongly opinioned we all are. I get several ideas a day just on my way to or in the greengrocer, café, dry cleaner, lighting shop … (not chains, of course).

How can PRs be useful to you?
Not just by providing background information but also, and more importantly, widening the context of a subject. There is always more to both sides of every story and that always makes it more interesting for the reader (and the writer). Being coy about the negative is always spottable; it’s much better to be candid so we don’t dig around and get an even worse picture from someone else.

How and when do you like them to get in touch?
Some things are obviously best sent by post. I’ve kept every marketing gimmick sent to me by Gordon’s gin. They’ve changed their tack recently but it’s given me a lot of pleasure – and turned me into a loyal buyer. Otherwise, email followed by phone – and with enthusiasm, having thought about what I need to know not just churning out the same stuff as if reading a script. As for when, PROs are the worst for respecting deadlines yet most of my editors are unbudgeable. I’m still waiting for one local authority press office to ring me back – it’s been three years. I now avoid writing about issues that involve information only they can provide.

Do you find press conferences, trips, parties and other events useful or an interruption?
They can be hugely useful, if they have a well-defined purpose and are well planned.

One memorable, in a good way, trip was a morning at New Covent Garden Market organised by Moyses Stevens. It was a horrific time of day for me (5am is nearer the end of my day, not an enthusiastic start) but the whole event was uplifting. There was a clear point to it, the right people were there (including the MD), they’d thought hard about the itinerary, and the treat was relevant and enlightening – a tour of suppliers, breakfast, a demonstration, a very generous selection of flowers and foliage for each of us to practise making a hand tied bouquet, and a huge box of the freshest, most scented, beautiful flowers to take home with a pair of scissors, branded gardening apron, string. I used the scissors with pleasure the other day, the beautiful box provides excellent storage (back to waste again, see how it happens?) and I sing their praises whenever I get the chance. I was the only attendee who was a freelance –and it was my first ever freebie (freelancers tend to be ignored, which is a bit shortsighted in my view). Everyone else was from a magazine and all were due to go on to three or four more PR events that day. I’m not sure I’d like a day full of press trips; I’d rather be selective and go to the ones I know I’ll be able to write about.

Another was memorable for forgetting its main aim. A new cookery book, linked to a restaurant, and I was there like a shot. It turned out to be an ego party for the publishing company’s press team whose only interest was in hobnobbing with the celebs who came along for the champagne; journos were ignored. Worst of all, there was so little food, we went away grumbling. It was in the evening and we’d been promised a full range to sample from the cookery book. A group of us ended up crowding together outside the kitchen door and grabbed what we could as it emerged – and even then, only had three small canapés each. I haven’t recommended the restaurant once. I’ve used the cookery book a couple of times. Any sensible host organisation would have made sure some of their staff were allocated to impress the big names they hoped would become their authors, and others to look after the press. I know I’m particularly tough – being a PRO and a freelance journalist makes me doubly judgemental – but none of the PROs I’ve worked with would have treated any journalist shabbily. If you don’t want to build a relationship with them, don’t invite them.

If you could make one change to the way PRs deal with you, what would it be?
It doesn’t apply to all, by any means, but … provide information. One press office answered every question with “it’s on our website”. Yes, it might have been but the website was so badly constructed I couldn’t find what I needed. The fees we get, as freelancers, can be very low and leaving us to spend hours searching for snippets of information PROs should have at their finger tips means they’ll get uninspired, possibly negative, coverage. In-house PROs are paid a salary, often receive pension contributions, go on paid holidays, can expect annual increases … but still some can’t be bothered. My fee for one of the magazines I write for hasn’t changed for four years – £140 for 1,000 words. Helping me make the most of those words by putting in a bit of effort pays dividends that last for ever. I will never write about that organisation again – and I expect they looked at my (very boring) article and said something like “I knew it wasn’t worth putting in any effort”. Oh yes it was; you just blew it.

Do you have a PR pet hate?
Several. Grammatical and punctuation errors in press releases/letters – they go straight into the recycling box. Jargon not relevant to the audience sends me into orbit. Lazy ways of writing, especially using unnecessary words – and I don’t mean being verbose, which I am prone to being (as my responses show) makes me roll my eyes. Located in – what’s wrong with in? Situated in – ditto. In order to – just use to. Split infinitives (I’m unreconstructed on those) are a huge irritation.

About you:

How would you pay the bills if you weren’t a journalist?
I’d love to make cheese but, in a top floor flat with not even a window box, I’ve got nowhere to keep goats. I wish I’d invented Little Wallop – the cheese Alex James (ex Blur, now a gentleman farmer) makes. It’s the most delicious English cheese I’ve ever eaten – dreamily creamy, runny within a lightly firm cider-washed rind, slightly pungent but without a hint of ammonia (unless you keep it too long, which is hard to do as it is a small cheese with an eat-me-now freshness). Nothing beats Vacherin Mont d’Or but French cheese is generally in a class of its own. Am I thinking about food again?

If we gave you £1,000, how would you spend it?
If I didn’t have debts, I’d go to India – and come back with food stories.

<strong?What books are on your bedside table, magazines in your bag, or blogs on your screen?
Bedside table (on the floor, actually): A John Grisham – escaping into crime novels has been part of my life since I discovered Agatha Christie as a teenager. I’ve only recently learned to walk past bookshops (I never come out empty handed) but I often get reader’s block so I have heaps of page turners waiting to be turned.

Magazines (on the bed): I’m a sucker for a food magazine but only recently discovered Square Meal, as a restaurant guide (because I’ve written for it). Their magazine for subscribers is a brilliant read; I wish I’d found it years ago. I’m on a mission to try every variation of gin and tonic in the current issue. I subscribe to Private Eye – but it’s not really a magazine; I read it in the bath.

Blogs: I haven’t got into reading blogs regularly but I enjoyed reading the blog written by David Juritz, the violinist who busked his way round the world last year to raise funds for Musequality ( I declare an interest – I worked with him and his wife, Jane, during the last nine weeks of his world busk, trying to get press coverage for him in each country of the tour I covered. I’m now a trustee of Musequality – it’s broadened my life hugely – and still dip into the blog to relive those times. Trying to get coverage for him in the far east overplayed into my preference to live nocturnally. A journalist in Seoul asked me to ring him at noon his time – 3am here – so I stayed up. I rang only to find he’d rung in saying he’d been delayed and would be in at 2pm his time. So I stayed up. I rang again – so had he; he’d be in two hours later. So I stayed up. At 7am here we spoke. We got coverage. It was round the world for David – and round the clock for his wife and me. Exhausting but fun. I learned so much about the media around the world, not all of it positive – anyone want to publish my article on that?
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