There’s Someone in Reception: Stories from the newspaper's front counter

In local journalism, a walk-in is a person who arrives with a story they want printed or broadcast. These sometimes result in stunning headlines. Other times, a walk-in brings an unpublishable conspiracy theory, a massive or weirdly shaped vegetable, or no story at all.

Journalists are often alerted to a walk-in with the words that give the new book its title: There’s Someone in Reception.

“I worked as a journalist for ten years, and during that time I realised every local reporter has at least one amazing story about a walk-in,” said author Alex Morrison.

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“I pitched the idea on Twitter in 2022 and I got hundreds of replies. “Some of these were brilliant stories that got published – such as a guy who accidentally windsurfed from Swansea to Devon.

Alex Morrison.Alex Morrison.
Alex Morrison.

“But many more were about the experiences of the journalists themselves, including a news team who slammed the shutters to stop a visitor bringing in a hand grenade.

“The book also includes some stories that changed the lives of both journalists and the people they encountered.”

Here follows two extracts.

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30th March 2010. 
Courier driver Paul Murphy who hit a duck in Belgium and it was still alive when he returned to Leeds.30th March 2010. 
Courier driver Paul Murphy who hit a duck in Belgium and it was still alive when he returned to Leeds.
30th March 2010. Courier driver Paul Murphy who hit a duck in Belgium and it was still alive when he returned to Leeds.

“There’s a man in reception who is doing a sponsored swim and wants to speak to you. He’s got no legs and says he’s a convicted murderer.”

These words have made me laugh at least once a day since Polly Rippon first replied to my tweet. News stories usually open with the best or most interesting fact – and this call from reception spectacularly misses the news line.

Surely “convicted murderer” is key here, followed by the killer’s lack of legs. The sponsored swim – though undoubtedly remarkable in the circumstances – comes a distant third in a list of things I need to know about this person.

Rippon usually enjoyed the late shift at the Sheffield Star. “You were on your own a lot because most of the other reporters went home at four, but you did get a lot of good tales,” she said.

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Courier driver Paul Murphy who hit a duck in Belgium and it was still alive when he returned to Leeds in March 2010.Courier driver Paul Murphy who hit a duck in Belgium and it was still alive when he returned to Leeds in March 2010.
Courier driver Paul Murphy who hit a duck in Belgium and it was still alive when he returned to Leeds in March 2010.

The arrival of a murderer brought this lack of backup into sharp focus, but curiosity trumped fear and she headed down the dingy stairwell to the grotty tradesman’s entrance at the back of the building.

She can’t recall why reception sent the visitor round that way – but it might have been due to the security guard on duty there, who kept an eye on the reporters.

Armed with nought but a notepad, Rippon met the visitor while the security guard pretended not to watch. The swimming sensation explained that he had killed his former housemate, after the housemate had been convicted of a sexual offence against a child.

Now out of prison – where he had lost his legs due to meningitis – he was planning a sponsored swim at Sheffield’s Ponds Forge pool to raise money for a children’s charity.

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The duck stuck in Paul Murphy's van.The duck stuck in Paul Murphy's van.
The duck stuck in Paul Murphy's van.

“I took his number and interviewed him there and then,” Rippon said. “I knew I would have to check it out, so I went upstairs and looked him up in the paper’s cuttings library.”

The backstory checked out: he had indeed killed his housemate, and the Star duly ran a piece on his sponsored swim. The sub-editor (the people who edit, write headlines and design pages) went with a no-nonsense headline: “Legless murderer swims for charity.”

“When you went to reception, you had to go down three flights of stairs,” said Stuart Robinson, who worked for the Yorkshire Evening Post in a huge newsroom that also housed the Yorkshire Post.

“You had that long trudge to think about ‘what’s waiting for me when I get down there?’”

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The walk culminated in a long corridor – like a football stadium tunnel – where the reporter could see the “enthusiastic walk-in” waiting at the far end.

Robinson said ninety-nine out of a hundred were “not a story”, adding: “You’d be thinking ‘how long is it going to take me to get rid of them?’”

But in March 2010, a van driver became that one-in-a-hundred visitor.

When Robinson reached reception, the driver – a “really nice, down-to-earth guy” – was already speaking to a security guard at reception, and he led the guard and Robinson outside to his van.

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“I’ve got a duck stuck in the engine compartment,” he told them. And so he did. He explained that he had startled a flock of ducks on a country road in Belgium, and believed he had hit and killed one.

Thinking no more of it, he had driven to Calais, crossed to England on a ferry then driven all the way to Yorkshire before stopping at services and noticing a hole in the radiator grille on the front of the van.

Incredibly, the duck was alive. Robinson recalled wondering “is this for real?” But he had a more pressing problem: the driver and the security guard didn’t want to touch the duck – and someone had to get it out.

“The poor little thing is just sitting there in the dark, looking up at me and the security guy and the driver,” he said. “I’m a bit of an animal lover. The security guy got some latex gloves and I reached in and gently picked it up.”

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The duck didn’t struggle. Robinson put it in a box, and the van driver said he would take it to a local animal charity.

Robinson took some pictures and the driver’s phone number, then went back to the office and told his editor: “I think we might have a tale here.”

The story got national and international coverage – including a report in Belgium about their missing duck, and one in a Canadian town whose ice hockey team had a duck mascot. Robinson followed up with the animal charity, who said the duck was not injured and had been released in a local park.

“It hopefully lived happily ever after. I don’t know if there’s a language barrier with ducks,” he said. “I like to think it’s still out there in a local park, quacking in Flemish.”

There’s Someone In Reception is out now.

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