Tuesday, 26 July 2011

George Osborne's Murdoch links exposed

Big news today that we're supposed to be shocked about the relationship between the Chancellor and News International.

This is, of course, nonsense. Under the communications direction of Alastair Campbell Labour went as far as the other side of the world to woo the proprietor and his family and just as with the MPs' expenses scandal it is just a case of who is sitting at the chair when the music stops and the hacking scandal was exposed.

What is more of interest is how the sharks are circling and jostling for influence, sensing a weakened News International grasp over the political classes.This has resulted in a more hostile 'right wing' press putting pressure on the Government, undoubtedly jockeying to replace the fallen king Rupert.

The Mail has steadily ramped up its anti-Government output in the past few weeks since the hacking story exploded. Today, the Chancellor felt its razor sharp bite and this is on the back of the 'where is the PM?' rhetoric of last week before PMQs and the statement to the House.

The Telegraph too has been quick to out pressure on the PM over the hacking scandal and BSkyB bid and this has meant that the Prime Minister has seen friends disappear faster than Rebekah Brooks in front of a select committee.

Of course, you can argue that Paul Dacre has been the quiet Kingmaker all along. Gordon Brown certainly thought so but with the Daily Mirror now launching its own hacking investigation the chances of the Mail being undisputed after twelve rounds grow stronger by the day.

But a day is a long time with this hacking story.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Sunday Sun

The News of the World has closed and The Sunday Sun will replace it.

That's the prediction of Ken Clarke today and the feeling on Twitter at the moment.

So where does that leave the News of the World staff?

Many, as acknowledged by James Murdoch, had nothing to do with the old regime and are victims by association. For them, failure to re-house them would be a legally difficult issue and his statement seems to insinuate a re-branding will allow them to get on with their jobs without the stain of the News of the World hacking scandal.

I don't think, however, that this is going to be enough for campaigners. They will want blood i.e. someone to go down for this.

If that man is linked to the Government, then all of a sudden this will cast massive pressure on the Prime Minister.

Whatever happens, I hope that the honest staff at the News of the World are looked after. It would be hypocritical for a PR, a profession so happy to woo newspapers when it can, to say otherwise.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Interview with NUJ rep about the campaign to save local newspapers

Tomorrow sees the launch of the NUJ campaign to save local newspapers. It's starting in Enfield, where the 'Enfield nine' group of journalists recently went on strike over the quality of their newspapers.

This is an issue right at the heart of democracy in this country with most of the local and regional newspapers in the UK facing continued cost cutting measures or even closure.

To get a front line perspective on the key issues I spoke to the NUJ union rep at North London & Herts Newspapers (where the interviewee works as a Features Editor) about why the campaign is important, how social media has changed the media landscape and the relationship between PR and the media...

1) The North London and Herts strike seems to be more than about jobs. You refer to accountability and this fits in very much with the idea of Britain's media as the pluralistic fourth estate. What long term damage to local democracy will the death of local newspapers have? 

It's a sad fact but over the past few years one in four journalists on local newspapers have lost their jobs. As a consequence councils, courts and public bodies are no longer being properly scrutinised as reporters do not have time to leave their desks and are unable to cover a number of important stories and report them to the public. We have the figures that 64% of editors believe they are not adequately scrutinising local councils and 80% of judges believe courts are not subject to adequate scrutiny. If reporters are not sitting through inquests or badgering local bobbies, or holding those in authority to account or running campaigns we're missing a fundamental cog in our local democracy.

2) The (remaining) staff at the group seem under huge pressure but many of us won't understand to what extent. Just how tight have deadlines been and do you really just have two reporters producing all those editions? 

Yes. It's a crazy situation. We currently have two reporters and one news editor to cover nine editions of our paper. To give you some example of how much worse off we are now we used to have seven reporters and two news editors covering the same patch. So we have lost two thirds of the newsdesk. This means that from 9am to 5.30pm on most days the reporters are tied to their desks churning out a great mass of copy to fill these nine editions. Obviously, they don't have time to go out and meet contacts and hunt down original stories because they have a certain amount of pages to fill by a certain time of the week (Actually we have two deadlines because we have so many papers: 4pm on Tuesday and 4pm on Wednesday. The moment these are reached they start on filling the next week's papers. It's more and more becoming like a factory). They might also have a council meeting or a residents' association meeting or an event to attend in the evening so a lot of the time they take work home with them at weekends which is, frankly, unaccceptable.

3) Why do you feel more hasn't been done by the national media to support you? The Guardian and Indy have regularly covered the topic, but do you think it is editorial policy or apathy from the rest? 

Yes, we have been surprised by how little has been written about us in the national newspapers in relation to our recent strike and battle for quality papers. The trade press has been good but, bar the odd blog from the likes of Roy Greenslade in The Guardian, there doesn't seem to have been much put out there in the nationals. Why is this? I don't think it's apathy so much but perhaps other newspaper owners are wary of printing stories about strikes or the death of local newspapers in fear of unrest and unease spreading to their publications. That was certainly the case with our opposition papers who took a strong editorial line on not printing anything about our dispute. Interestingly, radio has been very responsive with items on local and regional channels while Jeremy Vine devoted a half hour segment to the death of local papers on his BBC 2 Radio show recently.

4) Has social media helped or hindered local journalism? 

I think social media can only be a good thing and local newspapers should adapt and embrace the new technology. In many respects it has helped as people tweet, blog, Facebook etc the moment they see an article they like and help spread the word. The problem is that most newspaper owners have been very slow to embrace social media and are still very suspicious of it so we are playing a big catch-up game. But they can certainly co-exist and help each other.

5) Do you think there is still room for local print media in the age of 'hyper local' websites and blogs? 

You can't beat mulling over a newspaper in a cafe or at home with a nice cup of tea. In terms of local print media there's a whole bunch of local information about what's happening in your community that isn't on the web. You can get national stuff online but rarely the kind of information about church fayres, court cases, about the opening times of your local dentist, or a review of a local play which you just can't get on the internet. Or, if you ever do track it down on the web, this information is scattered all over the place and it's not the same as having it all in one simple format of a proper newspaper. Also, it has to be said, these 'hyper-local' websites and blogs are often run by people who are not trained as journalists, who often miss essential facts or get things plain wrong which is very serious from a legal point of view. I would certainly trust my local paper over any of these numerous blogs.

6) How can local blogs and websites be accountable and is the danger that they can be partisan influencers? 

As trained journalists we take every care to remain neutral and non-partisan. If we show any bias then it undermines our relationship with our reader. You have to wonder about the bias of many of these blogs which are often an excuse for the writer to let rip with his very personal feelings about any number of issues. I am not saying I am anti-blog - I have my favourites - but the reader should take what they say with a large pinch of salt. In terms of accountability this is a pretty unregulated area and the only way to judge their trustworthiness is reading them over a period of time and making a decision for yourself based on the facts.

7) Who suffers most from a declining local press?   

The community. A lot of the time the local press is the only one to stick up for the man and the woman on the street. A weakened local press is symptomatic of a weak society. If you have a robust press then you have a passionate defender of those who might not normally have a voice. There is a reason why the first thing dictators do is to close down any independent press. Words have power.

8) I work in public relations. In your experience does the practice of media relations offer local media valuable opportunities or does it hinder journalism? 

In my experience good relations between press and PR can only help the journalist. Part of my job is a reviewer and I have to be careful about getting too close to PRs for obivous reasons as this might impact on my review but there is nothing wrong with maintaining a friendly relationship. In my experience I find the PR is much more forthcoming - sometimes leading to other stories or a different angle on that particular story - if we strike up a decent relationship. We can help each other.

9) Some local politicians have said that local media only wants to hear bad news and is therefore skewed. This is one justifications for council-run publications. What is your response to this? 

That argument is incredibly lazy and boorish. We report on the news and, unfortunately, the majority of that may be "bad". But if "bad" means writing about a hit and run and putting an appeal out to find the perpetrator then that surely is a good thing. If that means offering a fitting tribute to the young girl killed in the hit and run which might make her parents proud then that might be a positive. Council run publications are generally stuffed full of council propaganda - you will never find one of those rags criticising the council! - and I like to think readers are mature enough to know the difference and desire a publication that looks at the good and the bad without any political bias.