Saturday, June 13, 2009

Face to face with the BNP

Today's Leicester Mercury carries Adam Wakelin's interview with Leicestershire's first ever BNP county councillor, Graham Partner ... sitting directly opposite a full-page interview with the authority's first Asian councillor for more than 10 years, Jewel Miah.

As Adam says:
It’s tempting to present Graham and Jewel as polar opposites, the yin and yang of last week’s elections: fear versus hope, exclusion versus inclusion, division versus diversity, nasty versus nice.

The reality is probably a bit less black and white.
There was an understandable horror at the result when it was announced, but I hope that over the past few days, the Mercury has been able to put it into some sort of context - the BNP have not swept into power in the county on a wave of popular support ... a mix of circumstances allowed one councillor to be elected with little more than 1,000 votes and a wafer thin majority. Perhaps our focus should be on the changing attitudes that have seen a Bangladeshi immigrant, taunted with swastikas when he arrived in Loughborough, rise to be elected to represent those around him.

Even as I post this, I'm cringing!

I've taken this from the Jeff Jarvis blog,, so I know it's not going to be a sales pitch for newspapers in their current form, but it is a decent starting point for a conversation on what newspapers are for. I've talked about the problems we face on timing before, but this clip uses comedy to make the point far more forcefully.
Before I put forward my own thoughts, I thought it would be interesting to see what people had to say about this from a local newspaper's point of view.

Brian Greenberg comments on Jeff's blog:
Right tool for the job, folks. The past mission of the newspaper is not the future mission. News reporting wants to be immediate and online, and so it shall be. Investigative reporting, well-researched background pieces or profiles, long-term analyses - these can be online as well, but they can also be in print (newsprint, magazines, even books).
That's one thought, but what role - if any - do you see papers like the Leicester Mercury playing in the future?

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
End Times

Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

PS Brian Greenberg also has a great 'favourite quote' on his profile: “In theory, practice and theory are basically the same. In practice, they are not.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tackling the BNP in the paper

I always knew that dealing with the BNP would be difficult. Until now, we have mostly ignored them, but I sense that we have reached a tipping point and that it makes more sense now to challenge their policies and be sure that those voting for them know exactly what they are voting for.

I blogged about this dilemna - to report or to ignore - previously and received a reasonable amount of feedback, almost all of which came down on the side of reporting, with the notable exception of someone employed full-time to worry about social cohesion who felt that it was still best to ignore. With the election of a BNP county councillor in Coalville, we have decided that we cannot ignore the situation.

Tomorrow, we run a two-page thought piece on how it was that Coalville came to elect a BNP councillor. The two main parties both say that they didn't take the far-right organisation seriously enough and paid the penalty. The sitting Labour candidate admits that half way through the count when he knew he'd lost, he found himself in the peculiar position of hoping his Tory opponent would take the seat. It wasn't to be. It is easy to run away with the idea that the BNP candidate, Graham Partner, was swept to power by a huge protest vote. In fact, 62% of the electorate didn't vote for anyone and 73% of those who did vote, didn't vote for the BNP. The votes that were cast were spread amongst the candidates, leaving Mr Partner elected with a majority of 86. To be fair, the BNP is not the first party to benefit from our first-past-the-post electorial system which frequently sees people elected with a very small percentage of the possible vote.

Tomorrow's article by Lee Marlow makes for an interesting read, but it is the follow-up piece by Adam Wakelin that we are planning for Saturday which presents a bigger challenge for me as editor. Adam is a great writer, but his article is not an analysis, it's an interview with Mr Partner. I read an early draft this afternoon and was left feeling a little uneasy.

It's not that Adam hasn't asked the right questions or that he doesn't have the right background - he's got a great line about repatriation based round the fact that his own wife is 'brown-skinned' - it's more to do with the fact that Mr Partner is, in Adam's words, not a monster. Mr Partner describes BNP leader Nick Griffin as a prat, Hitler as a lunatic and he voted Labour most of his life before becoming interested in the BNP five years ago.

This all chimes with a discussion I had with the editor of the Stoke Sentinel whose paper circulates in an area which has elected a number of BNP councillors to its city council. He told me that it is very difficult because BNP councillors don't spend their time making racist comments, they spend their time being seen to do good things in the community. Of course, they don't want to spend their time talking about their racist policies and it's difficult to mention them every time you write about something they say which is not racist.

I've asked that Adam goes back on his feature and is more explicit about the racist policies and gets Mr Partner to talk more about them. In the meantime, I'm grateful that our lawyers have agreed that it is ok to say that the BNP are racist, fascist bigots ...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Teasing out a sale

It wasn't the best way to start the day. As I drove down one of Leicester's main arterial roads, I passed an ad for the Leicester Mercury which asked the question: 'Why did city vote Labour?'

The ad took the form of what we call a bill - the A2-sized posters that you see outside newsagents.

This particular bill reminded me of some training I did back in the days when reporters still used typewriters and the only computer in the building was the size of a room and had less memory than my iPhone! We were looking at how easy it is to write meaning one thing, only for readers to see something completely different. The example we were given was this:
Clearly intended to conjure up a picture of disaster at sea, I still can't see the words without imagining a giant of the jolly green variety happily waving down the funnel! It's easy to see at least four meanings of this single bill and I don't doubt there will be those who see many more.

I knew the story behind our bill this morning - our political correspondent Martin Robinson had been looking at why it was that Leicester bucked the national trend in the Euro elections, giving Labour an increased share of the vote in the city at a time when their share elsewhere had fallen significantly. (We concluded that the main reason was that at the last election something like 7,000 Labour supporters in Leicester had voted for the anti-war Respect party, which didn't put up a candidate this time round, leaving the voters to return to Labour).

My problem with the bill was that I read it as if it was castigating Leicester for voting Labour, as if we thought the voters had done something wrong. It might have been a question we would have asked if the BNP had won the vote.

May be I was looking for it because I hadn't liked one of the bills we wrote the day before which read:
I was definitely looking for that one because I'd seen someone laughing at it on Twiterfall, the live feed of tweets from Twitter that I have running in the background on my PC picking up every time somebody says anything about Leicester. The tweeter had a fair point - it's hardly headline news and, worse still, it was difficult to see how it could possibly sell us any papers ... which after all is the purpose of the bills. We're looking to catch the eye of a passer-by, to persuade the casual buyer.

Talking of Twitter, those who use that particular social medium will know just how difficult it can be to get your message across in 140 characters or less - bill writing is a skill that requires you to sell a newspaper in 20 or 30 characters and that's not always easy.

I mentioned that I had been trained in bill writing and in April of this year I did write to the relevant staff at the Mercury with a copy of a training document based on work by Peter Sands, a well-known editorial coach.

That included such tips as:
  • Headlines tell it, bills sell it. They are not the same.
  • Will it sell? If not, find something else. Poor bills drive sales away.
... and my personal favourite:
  • Tease the reader. Don't give away the whole story. 'The bill is like the bikini; what it reveals is provocative; what it conceals is vital' - former Sunday Times editor, Harold Evans.
Clearly, bill writing has not been our top priority, but we spent a bit of time talking about it today and, hopefully, while they might not cause as much amusement from tomorrow, our bills might sell a few extra papers.