31 January 2011

Lionel Barber's Hugh Cudlipp Lecture on journalism now.

Lionel Barber from the Financial Times delivers the Hugh Cudlipp lecture.

He is interested in the position of Journalism in the wake of Wikileaks and the Phone Hacking scandal. He wonders if the press have left it too late for effective self regulation.

Full Text

30 January 2011

In the shadow of the opinion polls

Everyone who is on twitter will know that the political opinion polls are a fact of life.

This spreadsheet from You Gov looks at the detailed breakdown of answers on 28/01/11

My guess is that for anyone working as a party communications officer this must act as an end of the week test to show how well they are doing at getting the message across.

If you look at the phrasing of the questions that people are answering it shows how important it is to have a "message" and "counter messages" and to get in with rebuttal before messages have a chance to stick.

The questions in these polls are designed to polarise opinion. We have seen how when it comes close to elections, that the emphasis on polls and movement of the polls becomes obsessive.

This is the highly pressured world in which communications officers and journalists are operating.

What is interesting as you scan through the spreadsheet, is that it is for the most part highly predictable. Peoples opinions divide on their voting intention. They will espouse the "line" that has been promoted by the papers they choose.

There are just two issues in this particualr poll which show a high degree of cross party agreement. The first is that life for most people over the next year is going to get worse. The second is a very high level of agreement (all parties over 80%) that phone hacking is wrong.

If people are constantly measuring their progress in the battle to win ground, then the pressure must be to use techniques that persuade, rather than perhaps to assist people to understand the complexity of the issues in hand.

How the lobbying industry has the message on NHS tied up.

We are used to the way reports from different think tanks hit the news, and it is often interesting to see how these reports seem to tie in very closely with the opinions of ministers.

This fascinating video takes us on a tour of the streets around Westminster. The reporter is specifically interested in Lobbying groups and Think Tanks that have an interest in the health service.

There are companies that are keen to step in and take up the opportunities that will be created by the new Health service regime, as it is opened up to competition through "any willing provider". These are enormously powerful businesses. A clip from america tells us that one of these companies was getting 1 out of every 700 dollars being spent on health care in America.

There are "grass roots organisations" including the interesting Nurses for Reform - which provided David Cameron with some interesting PR opportunities in the run up to the election.

There are the Think Tanks, many of which have been set up by prominent Conservative party Ministers. The think tanks bring ministers in to address their conferences to give them greater credibility. Many of these think tanks have close relationship with the private sector providers.

There are links between many of these bodies and the Conservative party.

All of these bodies which surround Westminster are together giving the same powerful messages to Ministers. The video does not specifically look at the relationship of the companies with the press, but thinking back through the recent years there have been a series of "independant reports" from the think tanks, which have popped up at strategic points through the press.

I assume that part of the job of a good communications director for the conservative party is to make sure that there are reports in preparation to support the message that they may wish to get across.

I do not know if there is anything "corrupt" or wrong about the activities of these groups, but it does concern me that companies involving this sort of money can easily crowd out the voices of those people who genuinely understand our health services.

The Rise of Murdoch

Just came across this amazing archive of material from Adam Curtis in the BBC about the rise of Murdoch over the last 30 years.

Too good not to share.

27 January 2011

Update on yesterday's post.

Following yesterday's post on the articles in the Express and Mail which appear to distort the facts and statistics given in a recent report from the Department of Work and pensions, I was passed the link to a blog which covers the same story, but from the point of view of someone with a much more personal standpoint than mine.

Diary of a benefit Scrounger

Rosie Robertson

26 January 2011

Incitement to Hatred?

Once gain we note the blatant misreporting and manipulation of statistics in very similar articles to be found in yesterday's Daily Mail and Daily Express.

In a previous
blogpost, I showed how some of the tabloids use exaggeration and distortion of facts in an attempt to influence public opinion.

Here, below the headline:


is The Daily Express
piece. Its opening paragraph states in bold print:

'THE welfare mess left by Labour was exposed last night after figures suggested three-quarters of sickness benefit claimants are fit to work.'

The article, quoting from a report carried out by the Department of Work and Pensions, states that out of all of those claiming incapacity benefit of whatever type, 39% were deemed fit for work, another 36% :

'abandoned their claims as soon as they were told to undergo new work capability assessments introduced to weed out scroungers.

The total figure of 75 per cent was released by the Department for Work and Pensions yesterday following a review of almost half the 2.1 million people on incapacity benefit.'

So from 1.05 million people already tested, we are led to believe 75% are 'scroungers'. By my calculations, the reality is that following an assessment, only 39% of a total of the 1.05m people could be considered as claiming a benefit they were not entitled to.

Even this assertion would be challenged by many of those who have undergone one of the tests and found them unfairly conducted and dubious in their validity.

But the article in the Daily Express is mild in its condemnation of disability benefit claimants compared to what is to be found in the Mail Online!

400,000 'were trying it on' to get sickness benefits: 94% of incapacity claimants CAN work

This time, we are given a figure of 94% of benefit 'scroungers'!

Both articles are full of contemptuous language and thoroughly judgemental. Both articles misuse data in an effort to confuse and hoodwink the reader.

To what end? Well, scandals and shocking facts sell newspapers! Words which denigrate the subjects of such articles may incite hatred, or at the very least, dislike. Could it also be that by whipping up a storm of indignant feeling against a certain group in society, support for potentially unpopular policies being put forward by the government of the day might be increased?

As Nick Angel wrote of the Daily Mail in an article in the Guardian on 20th August 2007 :

'A month spent reading the nation's leading mid-market newspaper took me into a terrifying, depressing world, filled with suspicion.'

You can find the rest of that piece here : For me, it says it all!

Someone else who speaks with more honesty than could be found in either of the two articles I've highlighted today can be seen and heard in this clip posted by 'peekaypurr' "Shame on you Prime Minister. I know you know better." , @BendyGirl on Twitter.

Factcheck have just posted a link to their site, where they've been working on the veracity of the data given by Mail.

Rosie Robertson

25 January 2011

Does this government have the courage to communicate?

The dust is settling and the thousands of words written on the Andy Coulson’s resignation are now heading for the recycling bins, so where does this leave us? Has anything changed?

I think so. When I started following the Coulson story, back in 2009, the power of the Murdoch Empire, the damage that his papers could do to individuals, the way in which it exerted influence over political parties was something that was spoken about in whispers. Steve Bells Cartoon from September 2010 shows us very clearly just how menacing it all felt.

It has taken a lot of courage and a lot of persistence to ask the very difficult questions, that bring us to where we are now.

We have moved from the point where hardly anyone knew about the phone hacking story – or understood its relevance, to the point where it dominated the press and BBC for days on end. I know this makes a difference to me. I know that there are many thousands of people who now see what I see and feel pretty much as I feel.

It is still not true to say that everyone now knows about this. The tabloids still appear nervous about this, for obvious reasons, as you can see from this scan of the front pages from 22/01/11.

As News International begins going through its emails with a fine toothed comb, new court cases are being prepared that will raise the same questions in a range of other tabloid papers. Journalists are rattled, as well they might be. There is the real prospect of individual journalists being jailed for actions which they know to have been widespread throughout the industry.

Why are we so bothered about the hacking, this game that everyone was playing with scarcely a second thought? Jackie Ashley in her article –“The Andy Coulson affair raises the question – who runs Britain?” touches on it. She paints the picture of a dark network of private snooping, with no more noble justification than providing stories that will help to sell newspapers. This is something that has penetrated so many parts of our society, and touched so many people with fear that we do not have a defence against it. MPs, Judges, the Police, political parties, are all powerless to act.

We used to roll our eyes in horror at the idea of an East German State with its army of snoopers, but here we have rich and powerful men who have used their skill at story telling to wield power.

For anyone who is in the public eye, the knowledge that some minor slip, or even no slip at all, can be used at the whim of some journalist or editor to wreck their reputation and destroy a career is always there, exerting its influence, constraining the decisions that they make. We should not console ourselves that this is confined to the important people. Any one of us may by some accident of fate find our self an object of interest to the press.

The focus has been on hacking, but even if the practices of hacking, and entrapment can all be stamped out, then this does not get us to the root of the problem. The article by MagsNews points to wider problems with the Press Complaints Committee, the body that in theory currently protects us from other forms of misreporting, and the structural reasons why it is currently so hard for us to trust it.

Hacking is covered by one small part of the editor’s code. There are many other problematic areas of the code, accuracy, public interest, harassment, intrusion into grief.

There are many good decent journalists with the interests of their communities or country at heart, but there are also strong inducements for members of the press to turn predator. When they chose to do so then the code, or the way in which the PCC enforces the code, does not seem to be strong enough to protect us.

But there is more. Beyond all this there is the matter of how people at the top of politics think, and the way in which influence is brought to bear on their decisions by the Murdoch Empire and by other newspaper editors. Whilst politicians continue to believe that electoral victory is in part in the gift of the tabloid editors then the relationship between the press and the parties will continue to bring us the very worst of politically driven tabloid journalism.

The departure of Andy Coulson is not and cannot be the end of the story. His replacement is being sought. We are at a time when the government is already feeling that they are under attack, and the temptation will be there to use the papers in the ways that Coulson did so effectively. The vision that set the frame for “Broken Britain”, “benefit scroungers”, “the death tax”, “non-jobs”, “Labour’s deficit”, “floods of immigrants” and so much more will probably still wield its influence. The government may still chose to fall back on this lazy option of using the media to divide us against ourselves.

Andy Coulson’s last days in no 10 brought us something valuable. It has brought us information about how this relationship between the Conservative party and the press works.

We can see now it is about codes of friendship and mutual advantage. The cosy picture of Christmas as Chipping Norton tells us all we needed to know. For David Cameron it would probably never have crossed his mind that he could be criticised for having a pleasant dinner with his friends, Rebecca Brookes and James Murdoch. Maybe he did not even see himself how it would be perceived by other friends who have to make these very tricky decisions about Mr Murdochs commercial interests .

He needs to see how he is seen.

Mr Cameron is not a details man, I am sure he would seldom bother to read the stories produced by his friends papers. He just knows that it is useful to him that they continue to do so. He should look, -really look, at some of the articles peddled in his name and see the damage that this does to some of the more positive aspects of his own vision.

Mr Cameron has a choice. The distrust that people felt towards politicians during the expenses row has not gone away, it has changed. We were bothered about the hobnobs, but the distrust now goes far deeper. It is about broken promises and the failure to consult or listen. This is actually about a failure of communication, and a failure of respect. David Cameron thinks very highly of Coulson's talents, but, under Andy Coulson’s watch the media was used to manipulate and persuade. It was not used to communicate clearly and respectfully.

If the replacement for Andy Coulson offers us more of the same then the last of the respect we may feel for a government that so clearly fails to respect us will be lost.

What I believe people really want is a government that offers meaningful dialogue and creates the means for us to work with each other. The tools for this exist. Does this Government have the courage to use them?

23 January 2011

Well, we can always turn to the Press Complaints Commission... can't we.... ?

It appears that more and more people are complaining about what is and what is not appearing in the newspapers, the emphasis placed up on it and how news is reported on tv with suggestions that 'this just isn't fair'.

What if allegations are made in the press that are deemed untrue?  Who would an injured party turn to...  presumably their solicitor which is what is happening more and more these days. But what about the Press Complaints Commission which is there to handle cases of injustice. On its website it cites recent cases from Kerry Katona who had complained about allegations in The People about her private life to Dr. Tonge who noticed in The Sunday Telegraph that a particular 'thumb sucking clinic' was reported to be the first of it's kind in London - not so, Dr. Tonge had already opened one such clinic ! The PCC took up their complaints and were successful. There are others too   http://3.ly/pFyt some would say not too serious.

But what happens if you feel that biased reporting, or even lies, is taking place by either one journalist, one tv programme, or perhaps a whole network ? What facilities are available to make a complaint and to whom ? Many of us felt most aggrieved at the way Jody McIntyre (the young man in the wheelchair at the recent protests) was interviewed by Ben Brown and the BBC responded  http://is.gd/KXGBLi   I gather the BBC received thousands of complaints. But that appears to be the end of the matter ! Maybe Jody received a personal apology...

I've read that over 1,000 complaints were sent to the PCC, about an article in the Daily Mail written by Richard Littlejohn. Here is a report which was written on the blog Liberal Conspiracy - it gives a flavour of the reporting at that time http://is.gd/51D3zt.  However, when I search for apologies to Jody McIntyre I've been unable to find a response/decision about these complaints and when I searched on the PCC website I received "0 results".  The alternative action would be to take your case to a solicitor but not everyone has the resources to go to a solicitor of course...  Then there's the handling of the situation - not a word of apology from the Police who, certainly in my eyes, got it so wrong...  Maybe Jody received an apology,  was there a public one?

So what is the PCC, under whose jurisdiction does it operate and who funds it ? Well, here lies a story...

For starters I find that "The independent Chairman is appointed by the newspaper and magazine publishing industry" according to the PCC website. Independent ? Really ? Why would the newspaper and magazine publishing industry appoint the Chairman... I can see that such an action would be in their interests... Aaaah, I get it... on further investigation I find that the PCC is funded by... the press ! Yes, the press ! I suppose this is where the term 'self-regulation' comes into reality.

How can it be right that the press can fund a Commission to investigate complaints about the press ? How can the press insist that the only option available to complainants is for them to complain to a body which has been created by the press and is based on a Code which the press drafted. Yes the Commission drafted it's own code - by members of the Press ?  The press of course has access to lawyers to defend their case. Many individuals do not ! And there appears to be no element of appeal ! Here is the editors' code of practice http://is.gd/5UyplF

You'll be comforted to know that the editors' code of practice is periodically reviewed by "a special committee of editors" ! Yes editors ! The Chairman of that special committee I gather, is Paul Dacre from the Daily Mail  http://is.gd/6t1bZ6.  The Chair of the PCC itself is Baroness Peta Buscombe, a Conservative Peer. There's an article relating to her and the PCC here http://is.gd/AZFzCE and it's an interesting little story!

I began to search to find out how and why the PCC was established in the first place. It seems that it replaced a body called The Press Council which was considered not to be fulfilling it's role from what I can gather. So the PCC was formed in 1991. Seems a long time ago and the media and press has changed since those days... one example being that there wasn't the incessant coverage of 24 hour news that we have today. Don't think the 'paparazzi' was around either?   It seems to me, and I know to many, that the press just appear to get away with whatever they wish to write...  Once the headline is there, it's there.  If an apology is ever given it's usually on page 17...  hidden away.  Broadcasters seem to believe that we'll believe anything they spout forth !  That really isn't the case at all...  We've all become media savvy and it's time the press woke up to it !  They treat us as though we've just landed on planet earth...

And finally who is the PCC accountable to ? I'm afraid that is an answer I cannot give as I've not been able to find any reference to the PCC being accountable to anyone but itself !

And if you're really interested here's some further information :
Website of the PCC http://is.gd/TBtOaB.
The governanace of the PCC : An independent review http://is.gd/TBtOaB
er.. who undertook the review ? Hmmm...

This week-end has seen the unfolding of criminal activity that cannot be ignored however much the press would like to ignore it...   The press of course are usually the one's to break the news where unfairness is seen to be playing a part or where criminal activity takes place and is of public interest.  But this story is about them!!   And it has taken months to receive the tiniest smattering of coverage. Now we are beginning to find out why... 

More newspapers appear to have been caught out in the phone-hacking saga - the first person to break this news was a lawyer. Since then others have come forward...  Are people frightened of the press for some reason ?  And let's not forget that phone-hacking is illegal..   This is a very serious matter.  We have No 10 involved, the judgement of the PM, a former Prime Minister who believes his phone was hacked, members of the Royal Family, various celebrities, other Members of Parliament, Vodafone is in there somewhere...     Have I left anyone out....   I'm sure there's someone else...  of course, one Mr. Rupert Murdoch, for whom all roads seem to lead  in this issue.   So where does this leave the BSkyB application ?...  Are we really confident that Mr. Murdoch's application should go through without a blink ?  I, for one, am certainly not ?

This week-end has seen news uncover that makes it apparent that 'things have been going on' for a long time. One question that springs to my mind is - who holds the power - and who exactly runs this country ? 

But not to worry - we can always turn to the PCC !

Let us know what you think ?  Your views are important...

21 January 2011

Why I am glad Andy Coulson has resigned.

I seem to have known about Andy Coulson for ever. It will mean a gap in my late night twitter ritual of checking to see what new stories were swirling around him, what more was it telling us about the way the press and power operate.

This is not personal. When I think of the individual I have felt real pity for a young man under such remorseless pressure, opening his door to an army of waiting photographers, Seeing the same handful of photos of his drained grey face, growing old before his time. This has clearly been torture for him, and I am glad he has let it go.

My interest is because of what he stands for.

The reason why I spent a morning watching Andy Coulson’s appearance in front of the press standards committee, http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=4634 was that our town found itself in the centre of a media fire storm which I believed then, and more firmly believe now to have been lit and stoked by the Conservative party. I wanted to understand more about how the party's propaganda machine operated and about this person there at its centre .

In reality this appearance is still our best window into the working of this young man’s mind, because he has done his best to remain in the shadows.

There was a single sentence for me that summed it all up. Members of the committee asked a question about the way in which News of the World gets stories through subterfuge. The clear feeling in the mind of the MP was that subterfuge is not a good or decent way to go about things.

Andy Coulson’s answer was deeply revealing. “Subterfuge is not illegal.” He simply did not recognise that there was anything wrong with the way that the press were getting their stories. He and the papers in-house lawyer had tried to ensure that his staff abided by the letter of the law. If you can get away with it then it is by definition alright.

Whilst we have journalists who think in this way, they are not thinking about how to present “the truth”, but how to present attention grabbing stories, preferably in a way which avoids getting sued.

Whilst we had someone at the head of the Conservative Communications operation who thinks that way then the party was thinking not about how to share information honestly with the public, in a way that allows the public to be active participants in the political process, it is thinking about what it can get away with as it herds a passive public into the voting booths, and how it can sell aspects of policy that a better informed public might find unpalatable.

Take the NHS. The Conservative election campaign, was launched with the now infamous airbrushed picture of Cameron, - We’ll cut the Deficit, not the NHS. This reassuring picture is miles away from the policies that were- we are told – planned years ago, but which the Conservative communications machine conveniently forgot to communicate.

Andy Coulson’s departure is I am sure good for him personally. It does not in itself solve the problem of how the party and press operate.

It is an opportunity for the Conservative party to begin with a clean sheet, perhaps even to acknowledge some of the unsavory ways in which they have behaved. It is I believe also a time for us as the public to demand something better.

Better politics means that parties in their relationship with the press need to make a commitment to inform rather than control. Getting there is going to take more than a change of staff. The editors code does not appear to be strong enough to protect the public from highly misleading reporting. Clever operators in communications understand and exploit this. The code needs reform. Perhaps there also need to be a new code of conduct for political parties in their use of the media.

With better behaviour from political parties and the press we should take this opportunity to seek much needed #pressreform

20 January 2011

Double - checking! It works....

For once, I managed to catch the front page of the papers review last night on Sky News and almost spluttered cocoa over the laptop at the sight of what I have reproduced to the left of this post. Large headlines on the Daily Express suggested that the employment figures:- http://tinyurl.com/6yxckoy hid a worrying trend I had previously allowed to slip by me.

The article itself can be found here : http://tinyurl.com/625dmvh and appears to be a breathless and alarming analysis of the statistics released, though slightly less alarming than the headline suggests.

In the Daily Mail, there was a piece which also related to the newly emerged employment figures but which erred more , though not quite wholly, on the side of accuracy:-
http://tinyurl.com/66eq6kz. I was able to check the statements in the two articles in an extremely cursory way using the official data from the Office for National Statistics. I came to an initial conclusion that a certain amount of poetic licence, for whatever purpose, had been used by the journalists when working up their articles.

Both of these articles appeared to be suggesting that a disproportionate number of vacancies in a dwindling jobs market are being filled by those not born in Britain.

My suspicions were supported somewhat when I found, on the Full Fact website this morning, an analysis of what The Express and the Daily Mail had reported. http://fullfact.org/blog.

It is very worrying when facts and statistics can be manipulated or misreported in what seems to be an attempt to suit a political agenda or feed an appetite for a certain kind of story, so leading to enhanced sales of a paper.

Rosie Robertson

16 January 2011

Hyperbole's Not Just a Greek Myth....

...it's useful to journalists, politicians, salespeople - in fact almost anyone with a story or a commodity to sell instinctively reaches for this device to further their cause. It's a lovely word in its own right. Hyperbole! It rolls off the tongue and is impressive when sparingly used in an analytical essay for A Level English Lit. It's also much easier to spell than exaggerate.

Kelvin MacKenzie, who writes for the Sun and occasionally for the Spectator, during a recent late-night Sky News press review, cheerfully admitted that his job as a one-time editor was to make the reader of his paper angry and shocked.

That is what sells some newspapers and increases their readership. It panders to a need in many of us to find someone or something to blame for the ills of the world or to feel smugly self-righteous that we belong to a 'respectable' majority.

Hyperbole magically transforms the subject of a headline or an article from a take-it-or-leave-it prospect into a compelling one. Who will ever forget the ubiquitous 'FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER' headline, and how many resisted the temptation to read the related article?

Hyperbole, then, can be a way for a newspaper to grab the attention of casual buyers scanning newsstands for an interesting read. But there is a much more dangerous and worrying use for 'hype'.

Remember back in the early days of this Coalition government, when suddenly the right-leaning press were for several weeks full of stories of how some benefit claimants were cheating the taxpayer? Those stories which abounded then came immediately before an announcement by Ian Duncan Smith as to how he and his department were to revolutionise the welfare system. Here's a link, from last November, to take you to a short piece from the BBC on the announcement and a linked video clip:

There have been many examples of statements from the government leaked to the press over the years. This practice has the effect of testing the water of public opinion and gauging the reaction of the political opposition,thus enabling Ministers to be ready for any difficult questions which may arise.

What has become much more prevalent over the recent months, is something truly insidious which seems specifically designed to turn one particular group in society against another. Using facts, often distorted and easily challenged, some of the papers have used the anger and resentment, generated by lurid and derogatory articles, to prime the general public into accepting new government policies which they would perhaps reject in other circumstances.

The question remains: is the government using the press, or is the press using the government?

Rosie Robertson

Public or Vested Interests?

On Friday last, a study was published in the British Medical Journal, from the University of London's Childhood Nutrition Research Centre and two other research centres in Birmingham and Edinburgh, causing widespread concern and confusion for many parents. It appears to fly directly in the face of advice from the World Health Organisation and many other well-respected sources, that babies should ideally be breast-fed until six months old to ensure good health and proper growth. The report seemed to suggest that babies whose parents follow this advice run the risk of harming their baby.

The study was reported on by many newspapers as here in the Independent on Saturday 15th January: http://ind.pn/gHaBS3, The Observer on Sunday 16th January: http://t.co/QqrLU3S and in the Mail Online, a slightly more humorous take by Suzanne Moore: http://bit.ly/hwKOnD. Almost every newspaper carried the story.

Each paper had its own slant on the implications and consequences of such a piece of research being made public. Almost all, however, pointed out the potential effect it could have on the confidence and peace of mind of those who were contemplating breast-feeding their children, as well as those who had or who are now doing so.

When I read the articles about the BMJ report, I'm afraid my first reaction was to wonder who were the researchers behind it. What were their motives in bringing out results of a study which adamantly went against current advice and practice? I was, I'll admit, very sceptical and my suspicions were aroused.

Then, today, I found this :
Analytical Armadillo: Starting Solids - The Facts Behind Today's Media H... http://t.co/U3XvsWS. The following sentence is a part of a very detailed and well-researched article:

"The paper states three of the four authors "have performed consultancy work and/or received research funding from companies manufacturing infant formulas and baby foods within the past three years".

Were my suspicions correct? Is there an ulterior motive for bringing out such a report for at least some of its authors?

Whatever their motivation, the study has caused consternation and doubt for many parents. Is this a money - making scam, playing on the consciences and feelings of responsibility most parents feel?

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is surely yet another case where it would be in the public interest for us to be aware of just who the advice-givers are and whether they have a vested interest in changing commonly - held beliefs!

Rosie Robertson.

15 January 2011

What makes a good community newspaper?

I think that our local press have been going through a pretty rough time over the last few years. When the credit crunch came lots of advertising revenue went, journalists were made redundant, and people stopped buying papers so often. You ended up with journalists under pressure in an increasingly squeezed market.

One of the things that we lost in our local paper was the photographer, who had produced many great photos of things happening in the community. This mattered, because his photos were something positive and joyous and gave the whole paper a positive feel. Whenever I met this photographer I complained that it usually meant wearing a silly hat, and frequently it did, but he knew his trade, and he knew how to make people look interesting.

Over the last years lots of papers have gone to the wall, others have found new ways of doing things. Not all of this has been good!

Over the last few months I have undertaken an interesting exercise. I needed to see in detail how the press had reported one particular story, so I looked through 15 months worth of papers that I had been keeping stacked up in boxes, to find the thousand or so articles I needed. (this was an awful lot of paper, and it is great to consolidate it down to one very large boxful)

What I had not been looking for was the way in which the papers contribute to building the community, but I found that this was a significant matter.

What we have been finding out over the last few months in our town - Stafford - is that monitoring services depends ultimately on handfuls of people performing a civic function. Attending meetings, reading digesting and thinking about reports, asking difficult questions, and asking them again if they don't get satisfactory answers. It is clear that in many ways we have not been doing this well. Groups get hijacked by people with a particular point of view, groups are badly managed. There are not enough good people coming forward to perform these essential, but hugely
unexciting tasks, and there could well be less people willing to do them if people get pilloried for doing them badly.

All of these bodies that are there to look after the governing of our towns, plus all the political parties, are much much weaker than they should be, and the only people who can change this at the end of the day are us.

In Stafford what I found in the papers is that page 1-10 would generally have quite a lot of prominent stories, with pictures, telling us that people had not been listened to, or had not been able to get the bodies to do what they wanted them to do, and then on page 27 you would get a very dull paragraph inviting you to be a member of
LINks. If people read these articles at all they would probably feel that it has nothing to do with them. Why would anyone bother?

This is completely in line with any paper I have dealt with over the last 20 years, where you can simply never guarantee that events which rely on people to come to them will receive any degree of prominence.

If we really want to be able to meet the challenges of the next few difficult years then it is clear to me that we have to be able to communicate, and that one of the tools we need for this is a really good community newspaper.

Hyperlocal works well, and that has to be part of the solution, but for a sleepy town like Stafford, where many people only use the web for limited purposes this also has to be made accessible by a a newspaper.

I am talking with a few people at the moment to see what is possible.