Thursday, May 28, 2009

Apology for blocking citicism of the Mercury

ajnorman has taken me to task over one of my earlier posts about freedom of speech in which I said that we moderate posts on thisisleicestershire after they show up on the website, 'removing only those which we think create a legal issue or which are in some other way offensive.'

This is what he/she says:
'Or critical of the way the newspaper has covered a story. I don't know who does your moderating, but one of the things that has turned me away from engaging with the website is that even mild criticism of the paper is removed instantly, however well-justified, while all sorts of racist bile is left on the site (see all the pro-BNP comments today, or the comments on any article to do with travellers, for example).'
Firstly, let me apologise. I am sorry that we have removed any comment that was critical of the way the Mercury has covered any story, unless that criticism contained baseless personal criticism of a member of staff. I am assuming in this case that it did not since ajnorman says that we remove even mild criticism.

I promise you that is not my policy. I am happy to allow criticism of the newspaper - the guidance I have given to my staff since the day I arrived in February is that they should engage with readers who have an issue with our coverage. That is, if there is criticism of us on our site, leave it there and explain our stance and, if we got it wrong, apologise and correct it. We're not infallible, we make mistakes, sometimes factual sometimes on matters of judgement. As I said, if that has not been ajnorman's experience since I arrived, I'm sorry and, if you can let me have more details, I will look into your complaint more thoroughly. I would have replied directly to you, but I don't have any contact details.

In the meantime, I will remind those who moderate our site, of the way I feel.

I'll also take another look at your point about us allowing 'racist bile' in case we have misjudged that as well.

UPDATE 10.48pm: Checked for racist bile - ajnorman was right. I've taken the lot down. A few BNP supporters masquerading as lots of different people stimulating a thread that looked as if more and more people said they would vote BNP. Once I'd removed that, the thread made no sense, so had to take the rest down to.

I hate it when we get it that wrong. Sorry. (Stands back and waits for hate storm!)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Readers' letters and that MP

Most of my day today was spent in a meeting with Northcliffe's senior editors having what was described as a robust discussion around our print and digital strategies. One thing you can always say about editors is that they are incredibly passionate about what they do ... and you could also say that anyone trying to get general agreement from them on anything has a task akin to herding cats!

The few moments that I did spend in the newsroom of the Mercury was spent going through all the letters and emails submitted by our readers for publication in the paper. I'm guessing, but I've probably read through somewhere in the region of 60 today which is probably pretty typical of the numbers we see every day. More than half of these will have been submitted by snail mail, although we do see an increasing number arriving through our inboxes.

The advantage of spending a bit of time doing this task is that it does let me see what our readers have got on their minds.

What surprised me today was that, unlike the editors, a huge percentage of readers agreed with each other on the main topic of conversation. More than half of the letters came from people who were still exercised by the Keith Vaz allowance claims ... and I didn't see one letter of support. I did see one that didn't like Mr Vaz very much, but felt that the Mercury was a Tory rag which was revelling in putting him through the wringer.

We're not. Well, not entirely.

What I mean is that we do not support the Conservative Party. In fact, the Mercury doesn't support any political party and won't while I'm editor. We'll call it as we see it on individual issues. Obviously with Labour in power at both a local city council level and nationally, we are more likely to be seen criticising them than the Tories simply because they are doing more. But you will equally see us supporting some decisions of the city council - see this or this (and indeed tomorrow's editorial which supports work being done to clamp down on noisy neighbours).

So, we're not a Tory rag, but are we a rag? You know what, I don't mind that term as it is normally used in the context of the 'local rag' and, while it might be mildly insulting, it is also sort of affectionate ... it's the sort of mild insult you might use about a close friend! And, above all, I like people to comment on the paper - and this blog - because it means that we are doing something worth commenting on and I'd hate for the paper to fade into irrelevance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Writing the leader column

The last thing I did before leaving the office tonight was to write the leader column for tomorrow's Leicester Mercury. Unlike most national papers we don't have a specialist opinion writer and it is usually written by me or the deputy editor, Richard Bettsworth.

You may have noticed from various previous posts on this blog that I am currently exercised by an uneasy feeling with the way things operate in Leicester and tomorrow's opinion column reflects this.

Here's a sneak preview:
It has become increasingly clear over recent days that the scandal surrounding MPs’ allowances is not simply going to fade away. The anger expressed by voters everywhere demands fundamental change. Tory leader David Cameron continues to attempt to wrestle the initiative away from Gordon Brown by suggesting changes that he hopes will restore some confidence in Parliament. Today he has suggested moving power away from London back to local communities.

On the face of it, we would support such a change. Too much local policy is effectively set in Westminster by the Government issuing public targets for local councils and then using funding threats and restrictions to force the local authorities to comply.

However, many local councils have a pretty poor record when it comes to openness and changes in the way they operate over the past decade have meant that more and more decisions are taken behind closed doors ...

All councils pay lip service to open government. They all claim that they are transparent and that local voters can see for themselves how decisions are made, but actions often do not match the rhetoric ... If Mr Cameron is going to send more power back to our local councils, he will also have to reform they way they work.
I'll try to blog soon on the difference between the newspaper's opinion column (the newspaper's stance on a given issue) and this blog (the Editor's opinion on various issues), especially as they will often, but not always, be similar.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dirty tricks? But it's all within the rules! Sound familiar?

The Leicester Mercury's front page article on Saturday outlined alleged dirty tricks involving the Tory administration at Leicestershire County Council ahead of next month's elections.

We have a whole series of emails between an independent Conservative candidate and the Tory leader and deputy leader of the council after which the independent candidate decides to withdraw from the election.

In a nutshell, the candidate, Simon Jones, put himself up to fight against the council's deputy leader because the community he lives in, Breedon on the Hill, is in the middle of a long-standing - and possibly very expensive - High Court battle with the council over a community hall in the village. In the emails, the leader of the council, Councillor David Parsons, promises that a new community hall will be built. The deputy leader, Councillor Nicholas Rushton, wrote to Mr Jones to say: 'I sincerely hope that you will now withdraw your candidacy.' Mr Jones withdrew.

In today's Mercury, the Tories' prospective parliamentary candidate for the area, Andrew Brigden, describes a police investigation into the matter as a complete wast of time. Mr Bridgen says the investigation is “something about nothing”... “To call it election dirty tricks is ridiculous. I think for a politician standing for election to pledge there will be a replacement of the facility if it is removed is quite legitimate.”

The paperwork leaked to the Mercury shows a trail of e-mails starting on May 11, following a conversation between the council's deputy leader, Councillor Nicholas Rushton, and Simon Jones, who are contesting the same Valley seat in the county council elections.
  • Mr Jones suggests to Coun Rushton that they should meet and writes: "You say that you are prepared to put your energies behind a campaign to get things brought to a conclusion, and that you will guarantee that a community building will be constructed whatever the outcome of legal proceedings.
  • "If we can achieve this together then fantastic."
  • Later that day, Coun Rushton replies: "Great news! Should get something to you this evening from David Parsons (the leader of the council). It will promise all you want."
  • Later on May 11, council leader David Parsons writes to Simon Jones and Coun Rushton: "I am happy to give my personal commitment and that of the administration at County Hall to the provision of new community facilities at Breedon within the lifetime of the next council."
  • Coun Rushton also writes to Simon Jones saying: "I sincerely hope that you will now withdraw your candidacy and we can all move forward united and together."
  • The next morning, Simon Jones writes to Coun Rushton saying that he is ready withdraw his candidacy.
  • Coun Rushton replied to Simon Jones saying: "You have a written guarantee from me and the leader that a new facility will be delivered."
I'm no election law specialist so I have no idea whether or not anything illegal has happened, but clearly somebody at the county council is not happy with what went on - according to the police, it wasn't an opposition councillor who reported the issue to them, it was 'the county council.'

And, in the middle of the MPs' expenses scandal where the public has been so outraged by the defence that claims were 'within the rules', it is hard not to reach the conclusion that whether or not the law has been broken in Breedon, what happened was not right.
Looking after the pennies ...

One of my all-time favourite journalism books is Prof John Paulos' 'A Mathematician Reads the Newspapers', a sometimes quirky review of the way journalists pass on their misunderstanding of numbers to their readers.

I was reminded of this when reading Stuart Glendinning Hall's post on how to pay special attention to your top community contributors which reports on an HP Labs study which, in turn, concludes that people's propensity to keep participating increases with the more they contribute. The paper demonstrates that submitters who stop receiving attention tend to stop contributing, while prolific contributors attract an ever increasing number of followers and their attention in a feedback loop.

Well, anyway, that's what the paper claims.

The conclusion is interesting - if perhaps a little predictable - but it was the mathematical computations that led to the conclusions which brought Prof Paulos' book to mind. The learned prof argues that journalists' grasp of fairly simple maths is so poor that articles are often riddled with ridiculous mistakes. While that is undoubtedly true, the HP Labs documents shows conversely that mathematicians and other experts often make lousy communicators and they usually need a journalist to misunderstand the maths, but get the message across!

Stuart doesn't give away a lot about himself in his online profile, but his post reads as if he understands the maths behind the HP paper. Me? I read the paper, but skipped the maths which lost me in the first few lines!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The gentleman's club which leads to poor reporting

Peter Preston writes an excellent article in today's Observer questioning how the MPs' expenses scandal could have gone on for so long under the noses of the lobby correspondents which newspapers pay to cover Parliament full-time.

Disclosure: the Leicester Mercury has a lobby correspondent. We share him with Northcliffe's other Midlands titles (including Nottingham and Derby). He is based full-time in the Houses of Parliament, but works under the direction of the local Editors, including me.

Preston asks: 'Didn't anyone, updating his flipping contacts list, ask why Hazel Blears was always on the move? Why the chancellor's home telephone number kept changing? How Hon Members on £64,000 a year could afford to clear their moats, build duck islands or tackle dry rot 100 miles from Luton?'

Further down he says: 'They're expert, self-regulated members of one gentlemen's club, monitoring another one. They need to cultivate sources, buy drinks and keep onside to keep the chat coming. They are part of the institution, in a way.'

And then: 'But editors back at their desks are surely entitled to ask themselves a few questions now. Does the lobby - its briefings, its access, its exclusivities - still deliver the goods I need? If everything else is changing, can the snug set-up that missed the story be left untouched? '

He has a point. And I intend to ask the questions.

But it is a difficult situation and one that journalists come across all the time - striking the balance between having a relationship that allows mutual trust and access to 'exclusive' stories with the need to be detached enough to ask the difficult question or report the fact that will obviously upset and anger your 'contact'.

The lobby is not the only place where this issue exists.

Take football reporting. The Mercury's long-serving football writer Bill Anderson has just retired. When we reported this in the paper - and online - readers reacted by wishing Bill luck in his retirement, but rather harshly (in my opinion) criticising him for his closeness to the club. Even Bill recognised that supporters often felt he had been at a different game from them. But Bill probably spent more time with the club than he spent in the office of the Mercury and, inevitably, if you spend that much time with people, you build a relationship, even friendship. It is never easy to be very critical of friends and it is even more difficult to be critical in public. What is the alternative? The football writer relies on contact with players, the manager and the club and knows that it will take little to upset that relationship, leaving him out in the cold with nobody to talk to. It's easy for the Sun to parachute somebody into Leicester, be as critical as they like about the club, and then disappear back to London without having to care about the fact that they might want to ask about team news or transfers the next day. Many of our readers have a seemingly insatiable appetite for news about Leicester City and our football writer is expected to find stories every day. Yes, every day. Even in the summer when all the players and the manager are away on holiday. How easy is that if you don't have their mobile phone numbers?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to defend this sort of journalism, I'm just explaining why I think it happens.

Personally, I think it is about the relationship you build with your contacts. I think you have to have the discussion with them about 'bad' news and why you will report it. My own experience is that most people understand this and the more you talk about it, the easier it is to get through difficult issues.

In the short time that I have been in Leicester, I've been impressed with the level of partnership in the city, between public and private sector and between both of these and the various faith organisations - it's clearly a big part of what makes the city tick and I wouldn't want to do anything to undermine it. But I've also expressed some concern about what I see as a lack of scrutiny, about how many decisions are made behind closed doors and are not seen by the public until they have been carefully sanitised and wrapped up in neat little packages, with everyone sharing the same point of view. It makes me uneasy.

So, the question posed by Peter Preston needs asking not just about our lobby correspondent, but about all our reporters. And me.