Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ok, you can make us look stupid

A couple of readers pointed out yesterday that we had carried a letter in the Mercury with a not very subtle reference to 'uphill gardening' - a not very pleasant homophobic insult - purporting to be a comment on expense claims by MP Alan Duncan. Fair enough, we were pretty stupid, or at least very naive, for not spotting the gag, but what was the point?

We try to give pretty free reign to our readers through both the letters in the paper and through the comments on our website. The letter would have been read by at least three people at the Mercury before it ended up in print and obviously none of them picked up on the reference even though it was pretty obvious once somebody had pointed it out. So what? It's a term that I hope none of them would use and it's possible that they may not even have heard it before (although, I had).

It reminds me of a website that I once saw which was put together by a group of people who spent their time trying to place as many small ads in a newspaper on a given day containing a pretty obscure smutty term. I'm sure it made them giggle, but I don't get it - I can't even remember what the term was, but I'd never heard it used and I'm sure the vast majority of the newspaper's readers hadn't either. What they'd managed to do was con someone in the advertising department into thinking it was a genuine ad. Well done. It's why I don't really like April Fool stories in newspapers - what do they prove? Apart, that is, from the fact that our readers tend to trust us and believe what we write. May be naively, we tend to trust our readers, especially in those parts of the newspaper where they write under their own name, rather than ours.

Anyway, the letter in the Mercury this week was pretty obnoxious and I apologise to both Alan Duncan and any reader who was offended. I'm sorry.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Beat bobby of the year update

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I'd been on the selection panel for the Leicester Mercury Community Police Officer of the Year ... and the winner has now been announced.

PC Harvey Watson was the unanimous choice of the panel and was nominated by more than 50 people, but I'm not sure our article (or that on the police website) give enough credit to the two other shortlisted officers, PCs Andy Raybould and Ian Hamilton - it was a very close call and I'm not sure that anyone could have argued if the results had been reversed!
A matter of trust

I visited Leicester College yesterday - 26,000 students, mostly from Leicester - to get an update from Maggie Galliers, the Principal. It has been a good week for the College with Princess Anne opening its new Abbey Park campus.

Ms Galliers mentioned a mutual acquaintance which reminded me of one of the cornerstones of the Leicester Mercury's success.

The person concerned is Mark Haysom, who recently resigned from his position as chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council following a debacle over funding which has left many colleges throughout Britain teetering on the brink of disaster after Government cash for building projects dried up after they had been started.

According to The Times newspaper, Mr Haysom received a payoff of 'more than £100,000, equal to six months salary.' That means he was paid more than £200,000 a year. Nice work if you can get it! He resigned because there had been failures in the way his organisation had managed its work, prompting one commenter to say he had received a 'payment for failure.'

Anyway, I digress. I knew Mr Haysom in a former life - he was managing director of the company in Cardiff which ran the South Wales Echo, the paper of which I was Editor in the mid-1990s. As managing director, he appointed me to my post and held the right to sack me as well - the Editor reported to the managing director. This can be a fairly uncomfortable postion to find yourself in as it then effectively gives the MD the final say on what the paper covers - should we run that expose of the local company that spends £10,000 a year advertising with us?

To be fair to Mr Haysom, although we met every week to discuss what I was doing and where I was taking the paper, he never once 'told' me to do anything. Nevertheless, the ultimate sanction remained with him. The South Wales Echo was owned by Trinity Mirror.

The Leicester Mercury, on the other hand, is part of Northcliffe Media Group and there is a fundamental difference in the way it runs its papers - the Editors are appointed by the group's managing director, Michael Pelosi. Mr Pelosi is one step removed from the day to day running of the paper.

This means that the local managing director, Steve Hollingsworth, the man with direct responsibility for the commercial success of the Mercury, does not get a direct say in the editorial policies and does not have the power to say: 'You can't run that article.'

As it happens, Steve and I go back a long way. We have worked together in other parts of the Northcliffe business over many years and we get along well personally as well as professionally. Steve knows that I value his input into what I'm doing editorially and we often discuss the direction in which I'm taking the paper and the changes I am making, but we both know where the line is drawn. I think this separation of church and state is one of the fundamental reasons for the Mercury's success - readers know they can trust the editorial to be honest and independent.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Upsetting all sides

Interesting blog from our education correspondent Ian Wishart on the perils of reporting on the controversial topic of the proposed closure of Riverside College - neither side in the affair is very happy witht he way Ian covered a recent council meeting. On balance, I think Ian probably got it right - he can only report what he sees and hears. The fact that he upset both sides of the argument probably means it was a fair report!
Working with vision

I spent a few hours yesterday being introduced to an incredible Leicester business. Behind the unassuming facade of Clifton Packaging on the Meridian Estate near Fosse Park, is a business that is so alive with ideas and passion that it is difficult to take it all on board.

On the face of it, Clifton produces innovative packaging for food companies, including the likes of Kellogs, but the family-run business has a vision which lifts it above most organisations. MD Shahid Sheikh told me that the family likes to excel in one of four areas every month: business, community, charity or sport. This is not PR waffle for a company paying lip-service to the idea of social responsibility, it is the embodiment of the spirit of a family which has dragged itself from the depths of being expelled from their homeland to the heights of a business that turns over millions of pounds, but more importantly adds to the success of Leicester itself, employing about 60 people.

And when the family talks about giving back to the community, they mean it. Spend five minuts with his elder brother, Khalid, the company chairman, and he'll tell you of his plans to transform the fortunes of Africa - yes, that's right, transform the continent! He sees terrible injustice, legalised robbery by the West on the commercial front and a removal of dignity by the use of aid on the 'humanitarian' front. His is the driving force behind a vision to build the economy of Africa by passing knowledge to the locals, allowing them to extract the value from the raw materials that they possess rather than alllowing this value to be added and extracted once the goods have left Africa's shores. BABA - buy African, build Africa. Khalid has a head full of facts and figures and illustrates his visions simply - farmers in Uganda receive £1,000 a tonne for fresh pineapples, by the time the West has dried the fruit and packaged it, we pay £10,000 a tonne in our shops. He wants to help the Africans add some of the value, to turn their raw material into the finished product, before they are shipped out. May be he can make it so that they are paid £5,000 a tonne, may be £6,000. Whatever, it will make a massive difference to the people of Africa.

Can he do it? Well, the thing about the Sheikh family is that they are doers, not talkers. I wouldn't bet against their success!

Anyway, I'll be asking our business editor, Ian Griffin, to follow the story carefully so you'll be able to read about it in the Mercury ... and I've asked our award-winning feature writer Lee Marlow to bring to life the incredible story of how a family of Ugandan Asians, kicked out of their homeland in 1972 by Idi Amin, will return to the country in 2009 as guests of the current head of state, President Yoweri Museveni.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Beat bobby of the year

I took an hour at lunchtime today to help judge the Leicester Mercury Community Police Officer of the Year Award - it made a nice change to talk about three officers who were putting so much back into the community amid all the noise surrounding the MPs. It was a difficult choice and the award might have gone to any of those on the shortlist - you'll have to wait to find out just who did win until we make the formal announcement.

It's encouraging that abuot 10 per cent of the community officers in Leicester were nominated for the award, something the police will, I think, see as recognition of all the efforts they have put in over the past 18 months to improve their relationship with those they serve.
The first call I took this morning, almost before I'd had a chance to switch on my computer or read the paper, came, somewhat unsurprisingly from Keith Vaz, MP. Mr Vaz had been the subject of yesterday's Page 1 story outlining the £80k worth of expenses he has claimed for his second home over the past four years, a story which whipped up an enormous amount of public comment.

Perhaps more surprising was his tone. Mr Vaz was not jumping up and down or trying to suggest that he had been badly done to by the Mercury. He seemed more concerned that the current scandal over MPs' expenses should be seen as non-party political - this was not a story about the Labour party, it was about MPs of all hues. I assured him that I agreed and pointed out that our main story on the issue today centred on Tory Alan Duncan.

I suspect that most MPs caught up in the scandal now regret their claims, most of which were probably made without thought in an atmosphere of 'everybody's doing it.'

My favourite comment on the matter so far came from a reader called Keith - not me, I promise - who said of Mr Vaz's claim for 22 silk cushions: 'Perhaps he will need the cushions to sit on after the spanking he will get (hopefully) in the next general electon.'

Monday, May 11, 2009

Council expenses?

On the subject of expenses, our political reporter Martin Robinson has been asking for details of the expenses paid to the councillors on Leicester City Council. He has made a request for the full details, including the receipts used to back up the claims, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

There are two things about this which make me a bit uneasy. Firstly, why do we have to use the Act to ask for these details? When we ask, why wouldn't the council just say: 'Yes, here they are'? They tell us they believe in open government, but there's not always that much sign of it.

Secondly, why does it take so long for the information to be made available? The law is quite specific. It says that information requested under the Act must be handed over promptly and 'in any event, not later than the 20th working day' after the request is made. The Information Commissioner - the man responsible for policing the Act - has said that it is not acceptable for public bodies to routinely wait until the 20th working day to hand over the documents ... we're not at the 20th day yet, but nor are we in the first 10 days.
The furore over MPs' expenses in recent days spilled onto our website today when we ran the story about Keith Vaz's £80,000 claims for the past four years.

The article probably attracted more comment than any other in recent months ... but they weren't all printable! We use a system of post-moderation on our site: that is we allow people to comment directly on to the site and then we go on afterwards and check them for decency and libel issues. This means that we quite often end up removing comments a little while after they have appeared and this in itself often leads to our readers complaining that their comments have been taken down. Usually they accuse us of censorship.

In fact, we usually remove comments either because they are not appropriate - they might be racist, or full of personal abuse, for example - or because they leave us open to being sued for defamation.

It's quite easy to confuse a statement of opinion, which can't really be said to be libellous, and a statement of fact, dressed up as opinion, which may well be defamatory. Let's, for a moment, consider an imaginary MP. It is quite acceptable to say that you think it is disgraceful that this MP has claimed expenses and that you feel he should be sacked from the Government and that voters should refuse to re-elect him at the next general election. You can go on to say that you think he is an idiot who has shown a complete lack of common sense. However, it would almost certainly by libellous to say that an MP was on the fiddle or that you always knew he was corrupt and open to bribery - that is to say, it would be libellous unless you could prove that it was true.

There's no doubt that there is a great deal of anger out there over the claims made by MPs and we are happy to reflect this - we've said in our own leader articles what we think - but the arguments for reform remain much stronger if we don't allow our comments to sink into personal abuse or allow the MPs to deflect the criticism by suing the newspaper over errors of fact.