Online and under cover: The award-winning NightJack blog is a gritty and addictive insider's view of modern-day policing
Its anonymous author talks to Mark Hughes
Thursday 21 May 2009
If the police arrive to lock you up, say nothing...All you are doing by trying to explain is digging yourself further in." Words of advice from a solicitor, perhaps, or even a hardened criminal who knows how to work the system? Far from it – this is one of the many musings of Jack Night, a serving police officer whose anonymous blog detailing the daily working life of a detective has won him plaudits and prizes.
The online diary, "NightJack - An English Detective", was started just 18 months ago and details the author's frustrations with his force and attempts at the reform of policing which, he says, has turned officers from "approachable neighbourhood figures into neon-clad stormtroopers."
Its honesty and insight meant it quickly became staple reading for 1,500 people who visited the site every time he posted. Earlier this month his undercover work was rewarded when he won the Orwell Prize - one of the most prestigious awards in political writing.
But, despite the praise, the author has remained anonymous, preferring to be known by his online moniker, Jack Night. His hidden identity meant that he was unable to attend the awards ceremony for the Orwell Prize. Instead he sat at home, eating sausages and chips, washed down with a glass of champagne "that had been in the fridge since before Christmas, waiting for an excuse to be opened".
Jack Night's identity is known to The Independent but we have agreed not to reveal anything apart from the fact that he is a detective constable, aged in his mid-40s. His force area and his real name remain a secret.
The diary started in February 2008 when, after reading other police blogs, he decided to start his own. NightJack - the police slang for a detective who works the night shift - was born. "I wanted to write about where I think police reform has taken us in the 20 years that I have been in the force," says its creator, "because I don't think the changes are always good."
In the blog he has been able to give forthright views on a number of policing and political subjects without fear of reprisal from his paymasters. Police Community Support Officers, he says, are: "deployed into inevitable confrontations that they [are] neither equipped or minded to deal with." Teenage yobs, he writes: "Just want to get high, shag your 14-year-old daughter until she is pregnant, and nick your stuff." And lax jail sentences, mean it is: "Entirely possible to live a career of criminal life without facing any serious consequences."
He also treats readers to anecdotes from cases he is working on, such as the rapist he caught after the man left evidence on his mobile phone: "Now me, if I had a video of me molesting a 14-year-old on my phone, If I had used a well-positioned door mirror to video my grinning self on the job...I would delete it. Thank you Bilal you stupid arrogant child rapist." Of a typical arrest with a colleague, he writes: "Lee takes his watch and wallet as trophies. Stamps on Mike's head more for the sake of completeness than anything, I mean, that's just what you do, you stamp the head when they are down. Everyone does that. It's soft not to."
Such honest observations meant that the blog's popularity quickly grew from 20 or 30 readers to more than 3,500 a day.
"The most exciting bit for me was when bloggers I read and respected started linking to my site," Jack Night explains. "When Iain Dale (the Tory blogger) put a link for my blog on his site I was amazed; here was someone I read all the time, acknowledging he liked my stuff. It was like starting a pub band and having Oasis come in and say 'That's not a bad sound you've got there lads'."
Police officers are not normally known for their writing skills as their notepads, so often filled with impenetrable acronyms and undecipherable phrases, can testify. But Jack Night suffers from no such problems with his prose.
In making their award, the judges of the Orwell Prize said: "The insight into the everyday life of the police that Jack Night's wonderful blog offered was - everybody felt - something which only a blog could deliver, and he delivered it brilliantly. It took you to the heart of what a policeman has to do - by the first blogpost you were hooked."
If the stories were addictive reading, Jack Night admits he thoroughly enjoyed the writing process: "I used to do a bit of creative writing when I was younger and did a bit of poetry and songwriting at university, but writing the blog came really naturally. I would start with a fully formed idea and it would just flow."
Despite the obvious pleasure he takes in writing, he managed to keep his blog unknown to his colleagues since its earliest days.
"No one in my force knows that I do the blog, although I think a couple suspect something. A few friends outside of the police know and so do my family. Thankfully I've never had the moment where someone I work with has mentioned it, but it did happen with a friend I go to the gym with. He was talking about the blog and being very complimentary. He asked if I had read it and I felt I had to tell him that, actually, I wrote it. Mind you I don't know how I'd have felt if he'd have slagged it off.
"When [I won the award], I got a bit worried that I was putting my head above the parapet, so to speak, and that I'd be found out. I didn't go to the ceremony, I sent a former colleague of mine on my behalf. He works in a different force and I thought enough time had passed between us working together that no-one would be able to make the link."
The win came with a £3,000 cash prize, but that was immediately donated to the Police Dependants' Trust, a charity which provides financial support for the relatives of police officers killed or injured in the line of duty.
"There was no way I, as an anonymous blogger, could keep the money," he says, "Besides, I blog for pleasure, not profit."His email inbox is now bulging with congratulations. "But the most touching was from the British Library who asked if they could add my blog to the national archive. Of course I said yes. Maybe in a few years people will look back and laugh at the fact my writing is in there, but I don't care."
As expected, publishers are hovering around the blog's explosive contents, and one book deal was already on the table before the prize, but the author has rejected them all. Yet he does plan to write a novel, in his real name, and says he will reject the temptation to use the blog to help launch a writing career.
"That would involve telling people who I am and I don't want to do that. I love my job. I get to investigate some of the most serious crime in my area. I would never want to give it up. To reveal my identity would put my employer between a rock and a hard place. It could possibly be career-ending and I wouldn't want that."
And the subject of his forthcoming book? "The police," he laughs. "If you read my blogs you'll realise that after 20 years in this business I don't know about much else."
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