Friday, October 16, 2009

Update on Mercury columnist

Here's the latest on our newest columnist and BBC 5Live reporter Ben Jacobs. It comes from the Biased BBC blog.
BBC freelance sports broadcaster Ben Jacobs, the alleged prime suspect in a high-level BBC inquiry into the sabotaged early Saturday morning precording for a 5 Live sports news bulletin that contained inserted obscene material from the Beeb’s bloopers file, will take legal action if necessary to clear his name.

Jacobs says in an email to BBC colleagues: ‘I now face being barred from potentially all BBC outlets for something I fervently, vociferously can swear I did not do, nor could ever conceive of doing.

'I will take the matter to a law-court if I have to, because I have worked hard and honestly for the past five years and some idiot has ruined my reputation and career overnight.’
Hey ho.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Another sucker punch for newspapers

Great. It's just what we needed five days before Nick Davies rolls into town to persuade everybody - if they needed persuading - that newspapers are full of lies!

The author of Flat Earth News is in Leicester to speak to a meeting of Skeptics in the Pub with the promise that: 'A veteran reporter blows the whistle on his own profession, exposing the scale and origin of falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the news.' I've read Nick's book (twice, as you ask,) and he has a list as long as your arm of examples of how papers get it wrong.

So, he doesn't need any help. But that hasn't stopped director Chris Atkins and his documentary film makers from loading Nick's gun with further ammo. I don't suppose there's much chance that he's missed the reports especially as the Guardian, the paper that employs him on a freelance contract, reported what was going on.

Chris Atkins and his team decided to test their theory that tabloid editors sometimes print stories about celebrities without checking them very much first. All right, without checking them at all. They set about ringing the Sun, Mirror, Star et al with completely false tip-offs and then sat back and laughed as the papers ran the stories without even vaguely checking if they were true.

Here's a taste of what happened according to the Guardian:
Their first call, on 18 March, concerned a fictional sighting of the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne asleep at the nightclub Bungalow 8.

The story appeared in the following day's Daily Mirror under the headline: "Avril Lavigne a lightweight at London clubbing". "After knocking back cocktails, the singer was found slumped across her table, snoring," the story noted. "Lightweight!"

Within a fortnight, almost every daily tabloid newspaper in the UK had published one of the Starsuckers team's bogus stories about the likes of Amy Winehouse, Pixie Geldof and Guy Ritchie. At times, the fake stories were reproduced by media outlets across the world, where they were presented to millions of readers as fact.


A story about singer Amy Winehouse's hair catching fire from a faulty fuse spread across the world after it was printed in the Mirror on 21 March under the headline "Amy Winehouse in hair fire drama". The Starsuckers researcher gave the newspaper fictional details of the story, which she said she had "heard" from an unnamed friend who was at the singer's house.

"Fuses blew as Wino jammed with mates at the house in north London – and sparks lit up her beehive," the Mirror reported. "We always knew you were a hothead, Amy."

What can I say? I'd like to say that it's the tabloids, that we wouldn't do it, but I know that's only tempting fate. I think we check more carefully than that ... and we sent out a link to the Guardian's story to all our staff this afternoon as a gentle reminder.

Fair play to Chris Atkins - he set about proving his point and proved it.

But wait a minute. There's a short video on the Guardian site with an interview with him in which he makes completely unsubstantiated claims which go far further than can possibly be stood up by his film ... and the Guardian lets him state these 'truths' without vaguely checking them or challenging him.

For example, Mr Atkins says: 'on no account were any of the stories fact checked.' Is that true? The Guardian gives a number of examples where various tabloids did not run the stories. Mr Atkins says his film shows 'exactly how little truth there is in the tabloid press.' I don't think it does that at all - it shows how easy it is to fool them into printing untruths, but that's not the same thing. And then, finally, he goes on to say that when it comes to celebrity stories in the tabloids 'nothing whatsoever is about the truth.' Again, his film simply does not prove that one way or another.

Which sort of brings me all the way back round to Nick Davies.

Because he's coming to Leicester next week, I thought I'd read his book again. I have to admit, I agree with a certain amount of what he says, but I can't help thinking that he's guilty of what he accuses papers of doing ... and of what Mr Atkins and the Guardian do in that video.

For example, as I drove home tonight, I was listening to a chapter from Nick's book (I bought it from Audible, a life-saver for anyone who has a daily commute) in which he casts a nostalgic eye back to the good old days and tells us about a journalist in the 60s who went off to a small Welsh town to report on a court case. While he was there he met journalists from all the other nationals. Nick's point is that these reporters went to where the story was and he contrasts that with an account of life on a regional daily paper today where a young reporter tells how he is tied to his desk. Nick goes on to say that this is one of the problems - reporters don't get out any more and nobody covers courts. They don't have time to make good contacts or find their own stories.

I'm sorry, but that's simply not true. It's a generalisation.

The Mercury still has two reporters whose only job is to cover courts - it's all they do. We also have two full-time council reporters, two full-time business reporters, a health correspondent, an education correspondent and a social affairs correspondent. None of these is tied to their desk. They all run their own diaries, find their own stories, cultivate their own contacts - they decide whether or not they are at their desks or out and about.

Much the same could be said about our district reporters as they pretty much set their own diaries. It's also true of our feature writers who nearly always suggest their own topics. It's less true of our general reporters, but that's at least in part because the newsdesk has stories that it wants covering - as do I, as Editor - and these are usually given to general reporters. We also have to make sure that various evening and weekend shifts are covered.

What's the point I'm making? I don't know, I guess I'm just hacked off that the tabloids get caught out so easily by people who want to pour scorn on them and it ends up reflecting badly on the whole media industry when you find those same people doing pretty much what they accuse the tabloids of.

But then again, may be I'm just hacked off!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You'd miss us if we were gone!

Some of the response to our exclusive revelations about the perilous state of the finances at De Montfort Hall was surprising to say the least.

Take this comment left on our website by Sean, of Leicester:
Once again, the Mercury, printed from Nottingham, shows that is only interested in 'bad' news stories from Leicester. We have a fantastic city and the vision that the team at De Montfort Hall have shown to grow an event of nationwide significance like Summer Sundae should be absolutely applauded. Instead it's derided by jealous journalists who are upset because they couldn't get a free ticket to the show.

Adam Wakelin should put his true cards on the table as should the editor of the Mercury. How are your sales going Keith?

So Summer Sundae lost money in 2007 and 2008. I hear that 2009 figures will be much healthier. I hear that the Mercury knows this as well but was only interested in printing the bad news.

And with Summer Sundae it's not just about the bottom line. I'm sure that Leicesters restaurants, hotels, shops, taxi firms, pubs and clubs all benefit from the activities which go on.

I for one would hate it if Summer Sundae did not happen next year. I'm hoping that the Mercury's witch-hunt with half truths will not lead to that but if it does we'll all know who to blame for hurting Leicester.
Putting aside the jibes about where we are printed (actually, it's Derby not Leicester and it makes no difference to what we cover, or how), and our falling circulation (we are independently audited and our figures are published), Sean misses the point.

Do you know what? I agree with him 100% about one thing - I'd also hate it if Summer Sundae disappeared.

There are, however, a couple of factual errors in his comment. Firstly, Summer Sundae is not derided by our journalists - we put a massive amount of effort into previewing and reviewing the festival and I've just checked this year's coverage and it was overwhelmingly positive. The only negative note came from the fact that The Streets pulled out at the last moment and even that was covered in article headlined: 'Word on The Streets meant cancellation was no problem.'

We'll come back to Sean's call for me to put my cards on the table - it's the main point of this post and I do have a few cards I'd like to lay down.

But he says that he has heard that this year's festival performed much better financially and that we know this, but were only interested in printing bad news.

Actually, we don't know that. We did ask for the figures, but we were told they were not yet available. If they had been, we would have published them whatever they showed.

Which brings me to my main point: this article was not about Summer Sundae. It was not even really about DMH - it was the latest in a series of revelations from the Mercury about the way the city council spends our money.

Don't get me wrong. It's not about the fact that the city council spends our money, it's about the way it spends our money.

Personally, I'm in favour of public money being spent on public art. I don't believe Leicester spends enough on it, but the level of spending is a decision for the councillors we elect to make these decisions. Should they plough money into DMH? I think that it's great that they do.

Over the past two years, councillors have looked at DMH and decided to give it a grant of just over £1million to help it bring music to the city and we at the Mercury have no issue with that at all. Leicester needs DMH and it needs to attract performers to the city.

So far, so good.

But what we do take issue with is what happens next and the way the city council reacts.

It turns out that De Montfort goes £1.4million over budget and needs to be bailed out with taxpayers' money. Independent auditors are brought in and uncover a catalogue of mismanagement and a bewildering scene of chaos. (We'll try to publish a full copy of the report later today - we should have done that yesterday).

What does the city council do to stem the flow of cash? Well, not enough. The overspend went up in the year after the report and it's clear that the council failed to implement many of the recommendations of the auditors' report.

And that's the nub of our report. It's not about the level of grant aid given to DMH in general, or the Summer Sundae in particular, it's about the lack of control over the way our cash is spent and the way the council makes decisions.

As I hinted at above, this is not an isolated instance:
The Curve Theatre - another essential part of the city's cultural offering - was promised at a cost of £26million, but came in at £61million. Again, independent auditors were very critical of the city council's handling of the project. The Mercury's complaint is not that the city council built The Curve, but that it got the finances so wrong.

Plans for a new art gallery on New Walk - the estimated cost has risen from £1million to £2.2million before we've even seen the plans ... and the plans themselves were not made publicly available early enough in the process and turned out to be unsuitable.

Bowstring Bridge - contrary to popular opinion, the Mercury has not campaigned to save the bridge, but we have tried, to no avail, to force the council to hold its discussions in the open instead of hiding away behind closed doors when making such a big decision.
The common thread running through these reports is not that we object to the decisions taken by the council - we elect them to make the decisions. But we, in common with all the taxpayers of Leicester, have a right to expect the council to spend our money wisely and openly, and to keep a tight grip on projects so that we don't 'accidentally' spend far more than they told us we needed to.

And going back to Sean's comment about our circulation, I'm not sure what point he is trying to make. In common with every newspaper in Britain, our circulation has fallen and has done so pretty much every year for the past 30 years. However, we still have about 150,000 readers every day and we see 'public watchdog' as one of our key roles.

Uncovering the sort of mismanagement outlined in the stories mentioned above is not easy. Adam Wakelin has been looking into DMH's finances for months - it takes determination, time and knowledge - and if we weren't doing it, who would?