Friday, May 22, 2009

Local politics dominate - Vaz, Taylor and the county council

At the risk of being boring, I'm going to mention Keith Vaz again. He's really not very happy with me or the Leicester Mercury and to make his point he has written another, much longer, open letter to our readers explaining how he feels we have been unfair to him. I'm obviously happy to publish that letter - see the Mercury tomorrow (Saturday) for the letter in full, unedited and without comment.

The key to his argument is that we have concentrated unreasonably on the expense scandal when there was much more important news about him to cover, including work that he has done to help reverse the Government stance on the Ghurkas, the publishing of a 400 page report on human trafficking, interviewing the Metropolitan Police commissioner and speaking eight times in Parliament.

He concludes by saying that while he accepts that it is 'absolutely legitimate' for the paper to inquire into the question of the expense and allowance claims, 'it is right that that you should be fair.' I agree. We should be fair. I guess our readers will decide whether or not we have been.

While Mr Vaz has been in the public spotlight, his colleague in North West Leicestershire, David Taylor, has not. But tomorrow, we have full details of Mr Taylor's expense claims ... and they come to a very similar amount as those of Mr Vaz, almost £80,000.

To give him credit, we have the full details because Mr Taylor brought them to us today. Some of the details are not pretty and he's aware that some peope will be very angry about his claims. Again, you can see it in tomorrow's Mercury.

But neither of these stories has made it to the front as we feel there is an even more important local policitical story - police investigations into alleged dirty tricks in the upcoming county council elections.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

That Keith Vaz open letter

I suggested last night that the reaction to Mr Vaz's open letter in the Leicester Mercury might not be great. We received 72 comments, one of which was largely supportive of the MP and another of which accused the Mercury of racism in our coverage of the issue - the rest were as you might expect!
Free speech - Part 2

Interesting to see that 'community guru' Patrick O'Keefe has commented on my earlier post on the problems we have around reader comments on the McCann family. He picked up on Stuart Glendinning Hall's blog reference to my post and I think he said he agreed with what I'd said.

He said: "The important thing is to cultivate the proper community that fits within whatever your looking to accomplish or what your brand is. Do you want a website where people can’t feel safe browsing from work or around their family? There is no right answer there, just what your audience is. If so, there are things you’ll need to remove. Do you want a website that is riddled with personal attacks and bitter, nasty arguments? Again, no right answer, but whatever you decide will require maintenance."

For more, visit Stuart's blog.
Newspaper profit details

The Leicester Mercury is part of the Northcliffe Media Group, which in turn is part of the Daily Mail and General Trust - owners of, amongst other things, The Daily Mail.

I've mentioned elsewhere that times are tough in the newspaper business at the moment, just how tough can be seen from today's half year figures from our parent company. See here for the Guardian's take on our performance, or here for the group's announcement (you'll need to scroll down to find Northcliffe Media details). UPDATE: Press Gazette has a more Northcliffe-centred version.

It's not pretty and we've had to make some unpleasant decisions ... and we're not out of the woods yet.
Why the secrecy?

Finally, the city council has come out and said that it will fund the Special Olympics in Leicester with up to £1m of taxpayers money, but why did it take so long to say it?

Ever since I arrived in the city three months ago, it has been clear that there was a large hole in the funding plans for the games. In only my second week I met with a representative of the organisers who bubbled with enthusiasm for the 'best games ever' and talked about their aspirations for a 'world class' event, but squirmed horribly when I asked about the funding. They had hoped for a £2m injection from Visa, but it had not been forthcoming. Over the next couple of weeks I spoke to several people about the funding. Nobody seemed that keen to talk about it, but nobody seemed that bothered about it either - it was clear that somebody had said they would underwrite the costs and it didn't take much to work out that it was the city council, but nobody would confirm it officially.

Why not? Well, I'm guessing that everybody was worried that if the council said out loud that it would fund the games, any slim hopes of getting anybody else to put money in would just disappear. At the time, the organisers were still talking about commercial sponsorship, even though the games were no more than a dozen weeks away, but apart from the sterling efforts of the Lord Mayor, it was pretty clear that nothing was going to be forthcoming.

I don't have a problem with the city council putting the money in. In fact, I think it was the right thing to do (and we've said so in our leader column in today's Mercury), but I'm uneasy about the way it happened. £1m is a not an insignificant amount of money from an authority that worries about its income and feels the need to push up council tax at a time of deflation and recession. So where will the money come from? Which departments or projects will lose out?

Everyone, whatever business they are in, knows that it is a matter of priorities - the council has a finite amount of money, it has to set priorities. Having decided the games are a priority (a decision we support) I'd like to see the discussion around where the money is coming from. I don't like the fact that these sort of discussions go on increasingly behind closed doors away from the public gaze. This is not an issue confined to the city council, local authorities across the land have switched from the old committee system to a new cabinet controlled form of government. In itself, that didn't need to mean that there was much less public debate, but our councils have taken the opportunity to make sure that this was the outcome.

And perhaps there is a bigger lesson to be learned from this. It's important that the city goes into major decisions with its eyes wide open. Take the bid to make Leicester a host city if England win the right to host the 2018 World Cup. On the face of it, this looks like a fantastic opportunity and the Mercury supports the bid. But, the first piece of work that needs doing - and it is already underway and may well cost the best part of £100,000 - is to gather a thorough understanding of what might be involved. We already know that the Walkers stadium will need to be expanded. Mr Mandaric is on record as saying that this would happen if Leicester City are promoted into the top division (and look like staying there?), but what if they are not promoted or, as happens with many clubs, they yo-yo in and out of the top division while they try to establish themselves? Will we be in the same position as we are with the Special Olympics where we really have no choice but to go through with the event? Who will pay to enlarge the stadium if Leicester City do not? How much other work will need to be done in terms of infrastucture around the city to handle the expected influx of fans?

None of this means that Leicester should not be looking at making a bid to be a host city, but there should be a full and public discussion about the possible cost as well as the undoubted upside that the tournament would bring.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Keith Vaz open letter to Mercury readers.

Oh dear, oh dear. After more than a week chasing round after Leicester East MP Keith Vaz, we have finally managed to persuade him to respond to the rage that has swept the country over MPs' expense claims. You can read the letter in full, unedited, in tomorrow's Mercury (ie Thursday).

I fear his response will not satisfy everyone (anyone?).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he takes a swipe at the Mercury. We've concentrated too much on this single issue: 'From the moment this information was published in another newspaper I have responded. My office deals regularly with the local press.

'The problem is the coverage of politics has declined in both the national and local press. In the past week, I have been involved in a number of issues including Gurkhas, Sri Lanka, policing and human trafficking. Sadly, none of this has been reported locally.'

Mea culpa. Let's see how our readers react tomorrow.

Interestingly, another leading local politician rang me only yesterday to thank us for treating the upcoming county council elections seriously, highlighting the issues that are being presented on the doorstep and how each party intends to deal with them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Free speech?

One very irate reader - probably ex-reader - emailed me with a bitter complaint about the Mercury's 'decision to deny freedom of speech' to our readers.

She wrote: 'I am of course referring to your apparent decision to omit an 'add comment' facility for the most recent story about the McCanns ... the British media's generally misplaced sympathy for the McCanns and lack of ability to acknowledge that the parents deserve to be criticised (and convicted) for their negligence makes me suspicious that this a deliberate move by the Mercury to gag their readers. We should be proud of our right of free speech in this country and if you have made the decision to exercise selective censorship you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves. Yours disgustedly etc'

I'm not convinced the name or email address supplied were genuine, but she was clearly very angry. It is a very difficult area for us - we give our readers the ability to comment on articles on our website without requiring them to register and without us putting in any form of pre-moderation (ie we moderate posts after they show up on the website, removing those which we think create a legal issue or which are in some other way offensive).

We certainly allow things on to the website which we would not allow into the paper - I guess we think it is clear that it is the opinion of the reader and not something that we would necessarily agree with. But we do have to draw the line somewhere. The problem with legal issues is that we are legally responsible for our website and we are more likely to be sued than the comment writer - I don't think it is clear cut, but the risk is there for us. I don't think too many people would expect us to accept clearly libellous posts.

But there are those comments which we remove for other less easily defined reasons and this is the area where we run into trouble with disgruntled posters. There are things that no right-minded person is going to object to us removing: racism and homophobia, for example. Personal insults would not generally be accepted, but we have let some pretty nasty comments about Keith Vaz and Alan Duncan go over the past week or so. The fact that they put themselves into the public eye probably means that we allow our posters more freedom than we might if the subject was simply Joe Public.

So what about the McCanns? It is true that we don't allow comments on any stories about Maddy or her parents. Why is that? We used to allow posts, but there is a small group of people out there who are convinced that they know what happened to Maddy - they have no evidence, but they are happy to make their allegations publicly and forcefully. Every time we have allowed comments on our stories about this family, the articles have become swamped with baseless accusations.

Of course, our decision to close down the comments has meant that we are preventing reasonable people from using our website to have perfectly reasonable discussions about the case - in fact, the complainant I quote above, accuses the McCanns of negligence, presumably because the children were left alone at night. You may or may not agree with this opinion, but it an opinion that a reasonable person might hold. To that extent, our complainant is right, we are suppressing free speech.

However, the right to free speech comes with a responsibility and the bile that is poured out by a minority on this issue, leaves us with little choice. I don't like the decision, but I don't see what else we can do without using resources we don't have to moderate more quickly. I am considering changing our comment system to allow only those who have registered to comment. This, I think, would give our readers more commitment to the site and it would be much easier to build a system of trust that meant we didn't need to moderate at all or where the readers themselves could moderate.

But that's for the future. For now, I'm sticking with the ban even though it cost us a reader.

Monday, May 18, 2009

BNP - to report or not to report?

I spent much of the day getting to and from London for a meeting with Northcliffe's MD, Michael Pelosi, at the group's HQ in Kensington. In my previous job on the digital side of the business, I spent two or three days a week in the London office, but since arriving in Leicester three months ago, I've only been down twice, including today. The travelling certainly eats into your day, but it was a positive meeting.

However, it meant I spent little time 'editing' the paper today, but one or two interesting emails arrived. One of the questions we need to answer very quickly is what our stance is going to be on giving coverage to the BNP during the current Euro and county council election campaigns. Conventional wisdom has ruled that it was best to starve them of publicity, but I sense a change in the mood both inside and outside newspapers, suggesting that this has allowed the BNP to cloak itself in respectability and make outrageous claims that have gone unchallenged. I've read a couple of reports recently - including one from Leicester City Council which described the BNP's activities in the city as 'chilling' - which say that the best way to prevent the BNP gaining a foothold in local politics would be to show them up for what they are.

While I was out of the office today, my deputy, Richard Bettsworth sent out an email to senior members of our team at the Mercury outlining some of the BNP policies:

  • Restoration of national service
  • Deportation of illegal immigrants
  • Voluntary repatriation of legal immigrants
  • Clamp down on asylum seekers
  • Introduction of corporal punishment for minor offences
  • Capital punishment for murderers, terrorists and paedophiles
  • Selective exclusion of foreign goods from Britain
  • Withdrawal from Nato
  • Withdrawal from EU
  • Foreign aid given only to those countires which accept repatriation of immigrants
Richard asked for comments from our senior staff on what our position should be.

I wonder what our readers think? I'd be happy to hear from you.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

2018 World Cup bid by Leicester?

No, I don't mean we'll be putting in a team to play against the likes of Brazil, Italy and England, but there's plenty of rumours flying around the web about the chances of Leicester bidding to be a host city should England win the right to host the whole tournament in 2018.

To find out what's really going on, see tomorrow's (Monday) Leicester Mercury.
Why we use the FoI to ask questions

Earlier, I commented on a post by Coun Rory Palmer on his blog where he mentioned the fact that the Leicester Mercury has put in a request under the Freedom of Information Act for details of expenses claimed by councillors on Leicester City Council.

This is what he said: 'From reading the journo's blogs it appears they will be (somewhat predictably) looking at councillor's expenses. According to Keith Perch's blog the Mercury has submitted a Freedom of Information request for councillor's expenses. Councillor's allowances and expenses are published each year by law but I fully recognise why the paper want to do this in the current climate. For the record, I am the first and to my understanding, the only councillor in Leicester to have published details of my expenses on my council website.'

Credit where credit is due - Coun Palmer does disclose his claims describing what money he gets and what he uses it for. You can see it here. To be fair, his claims are pretty modest, he gives details and it looks transparent - I wouldn't expect to discover anything alarming when we see the detail we've asked for.

However, experience tells me that this may not be the case with everyone. Coun Palmer says that the law demands that councillors allowances and expenses are published every year, but they won't be published in the sort of detail that we think they should. What we have asked for is a copy of all expense claims AND the receipts used to back up those claims. Why? Because the summary that is published can hide a multitude of sins.

Take this example. A few years ago, we asked to see the detailed receipts behind the expense claims of a chief constable - not in Leicestershire. We were interested in a trip he had made to the USA. On the face of it, everything on the expense claim looked fine: flights, a hotel, conference fees, meals etc. But a closer study of the receipts (which evidently nobody in the audit or finance department of the police authority had done) showed that he had actually claimed for two return flights to the US, most of the meals were for two people and we'd paid for a double room and a 'partner's' package at the conference. The chief constable had taken his wife with him and charged the ratepayers. It wasn't the only thing we found - he regularly took his wife to London with him on business trips - and the chief constable resigned.

I remember a senior councillor - not in Leicester - being jailed after we found him working in a burger van after he had claimed that he had been forced to give up work so that he could concentrate on council work, which, in turn, allowed him to claim more money from the council. A council leader who had to resign after many years in charge after we discovered that he was being paid by a company effectively owned by the council.

I could go on.

My point here is not that all councillors are corrupt. I don't believe that for a minute, but there are some bad apples out there. Even if we find nothing wrong with any of the claims made by our local councillors, it will have been a worthwhile exercise - look at what happened in Westminster where nobody was able to check! It is part of what newspapers do, we help to keep people honest.

One other point: Coun Palmer says it is predictable that we would make an FoI request for the details. What is more predictable is that the only way we are likely to see such details is through a formal request under the law. Despite all their claims that our councils believe in open government, we know that when we ask for this sort of information informally, there's no way that the council will respond by saying: 'Of course, come in and take a look.' No, they'll force us to go down the legal route and they'll take as long as possible to give us the answer.

Finally, earlier I used Twitter to say that I'd commented on Coun Palmer's blog ... except I called him Coun Taylor! I can think of a few politicians who would be happy for us to misname at the moment, but I don't suppose Coun Palmer is one of them! I'm sorry for the error.