Karl Eriksson, 24, graduated with a BA Journalism and Broadcasting in 2013, and completed a Masters in TV Documentary Production the following year. In March this year, he made headlines around the country after appearing in a Dispatches exposé about the much-maligned Universal Credit benefits system.
Karl spent seven weeks working undercover in a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) call centre in Bolton, and his findings caused huge controversy. Now gearing up for a career in documentary production, Karl explains how hard work and seizing opportunities have helped him on his way.
“Journalism and Broadcasting seemed like a good course and it quite quickly pinpointed what I didn’t want to do, which was writing,” he explains. “So I started choosing the broadcast and camera modules, and began to focus on those.”
Having settled on a medium, Karl found his surroundings particularly influential. “Being based at Media City was great for discipline,” he says. “I realised that I couldn’t be seen as a student running around hammered when I was surrounded by people who could be interviewing me for jobs the next day. It made me much more responsible.”
Although being based at MediaCityUK presented opportunities, they didn’t fall into his lap. Karl explains: “The opportunities are there, but they’re very few and you have to push yourself if you want to make anything of them. I had great experiences though. I interviewed Kirsty Wark and Nicky Campbell, and they both gave me some great advice. I decided to try out being a cocky 19 year old doing the silent treatment with Nicky Campbell, so just asking the question and then staying silent so he’d have to fill that silence.
“That was a very awkward two minutes. I broke first, obviously! Afterwards, though, he said, ‘I see what you did there, and that’s a really good method.’ To be in a situation like that and be able to get immediate feedback from a professional was a really good experience.”
After graduating, Karl took a year out to work before returning to complete a Masters degree in Broadcast Journalism. “I worked all through uni,” he says. “Working in a repairs garage, in a call centre, they’re all transferable skills. If you work, you’re not only making sure you can fund yourself, it’s all experience.
“One of the main reasons for wanting to come back to Salford was the people,” he continues. “You’re surrounded - and more importantly taught by - professionals who’ve spent their careers at the BBC and ITV. They’re always talking about when they were working on World In Action or some other iconic programme.”
It was a combination of his varied work experience and the professional contacts that landed Karl his biggest career opportunity to date, as an undercover reporter for the documentary series Dispatches. “One of my lecturers recommended me to the media company,” he explains. “Yes, it is about contacts, but you’ve also got to prove yourself.”
Having been introduced to production company Nine Lives Media, Karl then had to go through the rigorous application process of the DWP.“The problem with undercover work like that is if you don’t get that job at the DWP, you don’t get the job as the undercover reporter,” he says. “I had to go through all the stages: in your head you’re applying to work for the DWP, not to work undercover. If I hadn’t done the call centre jobs I wouldn’t have had the chance to do the undercover work. That’s why it’s so important to get that experience.” Although the interview process was straightforward, the nature of the role itself, combined with the secrecy of being undercover, was anything but. “It was horrible,” says Karl bluntly. “I was working with people who were vulnerable and in need, and I’d have to tell them there was nothing I could do. It’s a very weird psychological state to be in, but I got great support from the production company.” After two months, Karl handed in his notice and left the office for the last time before spending another two weeks with the production company making sure his facts were water-tight. “They could have been sued if I’d got anything wrong. People can get fired and that’s something you have to take responsibility for.” Karl now has his sights firmly set on a career in access-driven documentary. He’s submitted a documentary to the prestigious Sheffield DocFest, has freelance work with Title Rule and more TV work in the pipeline, and several of his own projects lined up. And although his studies are over, Karl values the relationships he fostered while at the university. ”If you work hard while you’re here and keep in touch with the tutors they’ll recommend you to their contacts. Contacts lead to contacts and more opportunities – you just have to be committed enough to take advantage of them.”