Owen Bennett

Owen  Bennett is a political reporter for the Huffington Post. His book, Following Farage: On the trail of the People's Army, is out now.

There are two exams you can't blag your way through - your driving test and your shorthand.

You can either drive, or you can't. You can either write shorthand at 100 words a minute or you can't. There is no wiggle room.

I've lost count of the number of times I failed my 100wpm shorthand exam, but I can clearly remember when I passed it - Friday, 7 May 2010, the day after that year's general election.

On the way back from Kingston, where I had sat the exam, to Essex, where I was working, I got off the tube at Westminster to see the national journalists in action on college green opposite the Houses of Parliament.

The inconclusive result meant there was plenty for journalists to talk about. Seeing the likes of Jon Snow, John Pienaar, Matt Frei, and Andrew Neil interrogating politicians up close was amazing, and my desire to follow in their footsteps leapt up another notch.

Two years previously I had been studying for my NCTJ preliminary certificate in news reporting at Harlow College. The fast-track course for post-graduates was just that - fast. Law, public affairs, news writing, shorthand all taught over 19 weeks. Hard work, yes, but fantastic fun, and every day I was learning so much. 

Every Friday I worked for free at my local paper, but I quickly realised this was not enough. Sure, seeing other reporters in action was useful, but I didn't want to just rewrite press releases. So I started going to council meetings after college, even if another journalist from the paper was there. I looked through minutes of meetings, went round the pubs and chatted to the bar staff to get a feel for what was going on. The pride of bringing in even just a nib off your own back compared to getting a page lead through rewriting a press release is immeasurable. 

I left Harlow College in June 2008 having passed every module but my shorthand. Alas for me, the financial collapse had just kicked in and newspapers just weren't recruiting. I actually went to one interview for a job which withdrew the vacancy rather than appoint because of the uncertainty in the market.

I took an administrative job at Essex County Council, all the while still desperately trying to pass my shorthand, and used my holiday to work for free at a local paper. 

Eventually, in November 2009, I got a job at the Colchester Daily Gazette. I was given six months to pass my 100 words a minute shorthand exam. I didn't, but thankfully rather than sack me the editor moved me to the weekly Braintree and Witham Times and gave me a further three months to get up to speed, or I would be out. Five days after my move, I travelled to Kingston and finally passed the exam. The relief was enormous. A year later I passed my National Qualification in Journalism (NCE), meaning I was a fully qualified senior reporter.

I stayed working in local papers until April 2013, when I went full time at the Daily Express website. I had been doing weekend shifts there for the previous three months while working full time at the Hertfordshire Mercury. I had one day off in 14, which meant saying goodbye to my social life for a while.

From the Express website I joined the paper's parliamentary lobby team, and then on to the Daily Mirror and finally I am now political reporter at the Huffington Post, the best job of the three by far.

My advice to anyone wanting to be a journalist - any kind of journalist - is this: accept there are no shortcuts. 

If you work hard, stay focused and realise this is not a 9-5 profession, you will have the best job in the world. You will make the best friends you will ever have. You will make the community you work in a better place.

Don't be seduced by quick jumps up the ladder: rewriting someone else's copy for the Mail Online and adding a few pictures DOES NOT make you a journalist.

As a trainee, you will be on rubbish money. But so is everyone else, and the camaraderie helps make the frequency of beans on toast slightly easier to bear.

I have only been a journalist for six years, but already I know I never want to do anything else. I've even managed to get a book out of it - Following Farage, my attempt at a Hunter S Thompson/Louis Theroux style account of reporting on UKIP in the run up to the election.

All this has happened while I am safe in the knowledge that I am not a particularly good journalist - I can think of 20 local journalists I worked with and for who are far better than I will ever be. 

But I had the best training possible from the NCTJ, and learnt my craft from local papers, which meant I was better than anyone who went straight from college to a national website uploader.

And I still use my shorthand every day.

August 2015