Blogging

County council failed to heed warning before pursuing blogger

A senior officer of Suffolk County Council did not follow internal advice which would have avoided it being accused of trying to “censor the free media“, a Freedom of Information response has revealed.

 

The incident arose from a Downfall video parody posted on his blog by James Hargrave who is both a governor of his village primary school in Stradbroke and a vociferous campaigner against a new Free School to be opened in Beccles.

 

Downfall videos are an internet meme in which sub-titles are added to a sequence from the film of the same name in which Hitler hears defeat is imminent. In this case the captions related to the Free Schools plans of the Seckford Foundation.

 

Hargrave explained in his blog what happened after he had rejected a request from Seckford to remove the video:

I received a phone call effectively summoning me to a meeting with someone from Suffolk County Council to discuss this video.

The matter had already been discussed with the Head of my children’s school where I am also the Chair of Governors.

I eventually spoke to this council officer who wanted to drive all the way from Ipswich with a colleague to talk to me about about the video. The officer refused point blank to discuss the format of the meeting and who would be present and eventually “closed the conversation down”.

Hargrave  also produced a new video putting himself in the Hitler role (it is on the same post as the above link). But he did remove the first video because he wanted to avoid involving his children’s school.

 

A freedom of Information response has now shown something of what happened.

 

The email trail starts with one from County Councillor Joanna Spicer to Tim Ryder, the Monitoring Officer, one of the council’s most senior officers. It reads:

I have just had an anonymous telephone call leading me to the latest Hargrave blog.

Please see the link – and if possible save it – I am not sure I know how to. It may get deleted if it is not saved

This is portraying the Beccles situation with a Nazi film. It is vile and it is unacceptable that the creator of this “film” on the world wide web is appointed by us as a school governor (and is chairman).

It shows Graham Watson as Hitler

Do school governors sign any form of code of conduct ?

Every journalist is familiar with the “it has been drawn to my attention…” intro. Spicer is a strong supporter of Free Schools and the Seckford bids. Her concern seems to have been to preserve the evidence, rather than the simple removal of the video

 

Ryder sought advice from Kate Thomas, the Governor Services Manager, who replies:

Having looked at the video – I think the fact that it names local schools and the video depicts Nazi characters and unfortunately its school related, this undoubtedly shows the governors (sic) actions to have been inconsistent with the school’s ethos/religious character.

She suggests as a first stage a meeting with the governor and letting him know “our concerns” regarding the inappropriateness of the video. Depending on his response “we could point out that we would advise the governing Body to suspend him for 6 months”.

 

But there is very different advice from Simon White, the Director of Children’s and Young People’s Services, which anticipates Hargrave’s reaction accurately:

I would be very wary of taking this course, Kate.

I think Mr Hargreaves would contend that his blogging is nothing to do with his role as a governor, but legitimate political activity that any citizen can undertake. It is not analogous to, say, membership of the BNP, where we make the argument that while no organisation is proscribed the published views of the BNP are inconsistent with activity in a multi cultural setting. Opposition to Free Schools is not like that, and so cannot be argued to be inconsistent with his office. The GB would be the judges of whether he is bringing his office into disrepute by posting a Downfall parody – which is an established form of satire – there are literally hundreds of them on You Tube, mostly about football. I very much doubt whether they would make that judgement, and so us getting heavy with them would not play well politically.

Jane Sheat, the Diocesan Director of Eduction, is also consulted as Stadbroke is a C of E primary school. She consults a lawyer and responds:

Given our views that it does not bring Stradbroke CEVCP into disrepute nor is it inconsistent with the schools’ religious character, I would not envisage being involved, although I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss

There is no evidence from the emails that the council’s communications and media people were consulted. If they were, I imagine, their response would also have been to steer clear and would probably echo Skeat’s comment: “The Seckford Foundation may, of course, pursue.”

 

The Freedom of Information response sheds light on what happened at the County Council but gives no indication of why, despite a warning that “getting heavy with them would not play well politically”, they pressured Hargrave.

 

In his blog about the response to his FoI request Hargrave writes that he  was amazed that these complaints were taken at  face value and the “clear political motivation” was missed.

 

I hope the county council will think carefully about its procedure for reacting to future social media comments which councillors or officers do not like.

How social media brought Trayvon’s shooting to world attention

The fascinating story of how the shooting of a teenager in Florida became an international news story, is told by Kelly McBride, a journalist working for the Poynter Institute.
 
She writes:

Ten years ago Trayvon Martin’s family would have had a hard time getting the national media’s attention. But with the help of a few bloggers, Change.org, and social media, they managed to put increasing pressure on the Sanford, Fla., Police Department to charge their son’s killer and release the 911 recordings. When they prevailed on that second goal a week ago, they got the break they needed.

When Barack Obama said yesterday that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon, a world audience on peak-time TV news was assured.
 
It was back on February 26 that Trayvon was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch person in Sanford, Florida.
 
The Orlando Sentinal carried a brief story the following day, but did not follow it up for 8 days. The paper used to have an office in Sanford. The editor told McBride he believed that if they still had that office they would have heard about the details sooner.
 
If this story of cuts affecting local news coverage by mainstream media sounds familiar, it is because it is happening in many parts of the world.
 
It is the people close to events who bring them the wider attention that gets things done. With regional and local newspaper reporters thinner on the ground the people who are close are often those who use social media.
 
But newspapers have been slow to harness this resource by working together with bloggers and tweeters.
 
In the country the Guardian has recognised that this must happen if the paper is to survive and recently launched its concept of open journalism. The BBC is also increasingly using what it calls user generated content.
 
The future of effective journalism will depend on these ideas developing through co-operation between “citizen journalists” and mainstream media.

Blogger told ‘we are monitoring you for defamation’

For any journalist to get a message from an organisation he or she is writing about saying they monitoring what is written about them for defamation, is an endorsement.

 

It usually means the journalist is getting things right and the organisation has poor media relations advice. And now it has happened to Suffolk “citizen blogger” James Hargrave. He has been writing extensively about Free Schools, some of which he opposes.

 

Today he publishes what he describes as a “curious response” from Graham Watson, director of the Seckford Foundation which is behind several Free School proposals:

 

Dear Mr Hargrave

 

We do not know Margaret Read or what, if any, interest group she represents. She may be, like you, someone who has no locus standi beyond having an interest in the subject of free schools. Please note that we do not intend to engage in any further correspondence with you but will continue to monitor your blog in case you publish any defamatory comments in the future.

 

Should we be approved to pre opening stage you will have an opportunity to raise any points you wish as part of any public consultation process.

 

Yours sincerely

Graham Watson

 

Margaret Mead’s email address seems to have been terminated and a search is now on for her through twitter. To understand this you will need to read Hargave’s blog pot today: Stoke by Nayland Free School: A ‘kick up the backside’ coasting neighbouring schools with inexcusable poor performance.

 

The Seckford Foundation runs the fee-paying Woodbridge School.
 
Later: Mark Valladares has a good post on this on his Liberal Bureaucracy blog

Free Schools: a blogger’s determined investigation

On the educational merits and demerits of Free Schools I don’t have an informed view. But I have been following the campaigning journalism of James Hargrave on his blog as he slowly unpicks details which have been hidden from public view.
 
I have been following his sustained series of stories as he slowly unpicks details which have been hidden from public view.

 

As a journalist I do have a view on this. Making public information that someone wants to hide is journalism. One of the definitions of news is, something that someone does not want printed or broadcast.

 

As we have seen the Guardian’s phone hacking stories, it is determined and sustained investigative reporting that gets results that are very much in the public interest. As stones are turned-over there are always surprises.

 

This week Hargrave is starting a series of posts about what he has learned from 1,400 pages of papers released to him by Suffolk County Council as the result of Freedom on Information request.

 

We learn today from him about the Ixworth Free School proposal where proposers talked to education secretary Michael Gove but did not share everything with the local education authority.

 

This fills in a gap in out understanding and, as Hargrave comments:

Sadly the politicians involved appear to prefer to make all these decisions in private and we only get to find out about them after through freedom of information requests after the event…

 

Representative democracy seems to be falling into the gap between Whitehall which is directly financing more and more schools and a county hall that is increasingly powerless. Finding the evidence is what journalism should be about.
 

While national newspapers and broadcasters still have the resources for sustained investigative reporting, in the provinces the job is increasingly falling on bloggers, like Hargrave.

 
Later: The continuing investigative work of bloggers in Barnet is impressive. Mr Mustard reveals today that a council employee who took early retirement in 2008 is still employed as a consultant with the money paid into his limited company.

Archant Suffolk dailies and the digital gap

Thanks to a tweet from Tim Youngman, head of digital marketing for Archant newspapers, the world knows that he was in Ipswich today with editorial staff of the East Anglian Daily Times and the  Ipswich Star  (Evening Star until it moved publication to the morning last year).
 
I wonder what he had to say to the staff of papers which seem to be in denial about recognising the digital revolution and its impact on newspapers.
 
After reporting that the four Archant dailies in East Anglia had bucked the trend of declining sales, media commentator Roy Greenslade tweeted: “Archant suckered me into believing its papers had increased sales. But things were no quite so rosy after all.”
 
His second look showed that the sales figures included much higher bulk sales than most other regional dailies. Taking these out, sales of the Star dropped by 10.7% in a year and those of the EADT were down by 7.9%.
 
Looking at the papers websites (they have a joint staff so the content is very similar) there is little sign of awareness of the way things are changing. Yes, stories have social media buttons and there are blogs.
 
But look at those blogs and start wondering why they bother.
 
The two Suffolk papers have six blogs that appear on both sites plus two with appear only on the Star site and two at the EADT. Here is a list of them with the dates when they were last updated:

  • Dominic Castle, Deputy Editor EADT  (Dec 22, 2011)
  • Penelope Parker, EADT only (Jul 11, 2011)
  • Nigel Pickover, Editor Star (Jun 22, 2011)
  • Paul Geater, Political reporter, Star (Nov 4 2011)
  • Anthony Bond (July 11, 2011)
  • Wayne Savage  (Mar 12, 2012)
  • Dan Gooderham (Nov 21, 2011)
  • Josh Warwick (Jul 27, 2011)
  • Mike Bacon (Feb 15, 2012)
  • Mark Heath (Feb 14 2012)

The papers have clearly been hit by reductions in staff. So you might have expected them to do a lot to encourage what the BBC calls “user generated content“. Blogs with rare posts do not encourage reader engagement.
 
The Guardian has a new advertising campaign based on its concept of open journalism. Editor Alan Rusbridger explains here.
 
In Suffolk there are many active blogs covering and reporting news. Ipswich Spy has four authors of various political hues and has adopted the Press Compaints Commission code of conduct.
 
Many of the sites in the county are written by politicians, some are good and some are tedious. There are village news sites, small town news sites. A wealth of material for the mainstream print media to tap into.
 
But Archant seems to pretend that they don’t exist. Over the past year there have been several major local stories in which bloggers and tweeters have been heavily involved.
 
There was the debate over the New Strategic Direction and the influence of the County Council chief executive Andrea Hill. The Archant newspapers covered this very heavily producing many good exclusives but there was no meeting with the work of bloggers who also broke stories.
 
This story ended with the resignations of Ms Hill and of Jeremy Pembroke, from his role as leader of the council.
 
A year ago the council was consulting on its plans to close many libraries unless communities came up with plans to save them. This has now moved to a promise that no libraries will close, although the management of the service is being passed to an Industrial and Provident Society to be controlled, eventually, by local library groups.
 
Much of the campaign to save libraries developed on social media — Facebook, twitter and blogs — which have broken many of the stories. Tomorrow I expect the EADT will carry a story that appeared in the Suffolk section of this blog six days ago and has been followed up bother bloggers locally and nationally but I will be surprised if the paper mentions its source.
 
Another story I wrote recently was about council tax fixing meetings in two districts. Wordblog reported the outcomes the day after the meetings, but stories did not appear in the EADT for several days.
 
I know that a lot of people read my story first. That cannot do the reputation of the regional morning paper much good.
 
James Hargrave brands himself a “citizen blogger”. I would simply say he is a good journalist, although that is not his paid occupation. He had written much about libraries and the new strategic direction/Andrea Hill and is now demonstrating his “journalism of engagement” skills on the topic of free schools.
 
And it is not just comment. At the weekend he live blogged a report of a public meeting. That is now a standard technique, but I have not seen it tried on any story in an Archant website.
 
People in Suffolk are increasingly getting news from social media with twitter often guiding them to fuller reports. Suffolk blogs are frequently quoted in national media, but not in the local papers.
 
Ian Katz, the Guardian’s head of news, give an excellent of explanation of how open journalism works in this video (Archant, please watch).

 
What Tim Youngman has been saying to journalists in Ipswich today, I have no idea. I just hope it more than tips on how to use twitter better to bring readers to their news sites.
 

Blogging is being drawn into the press regulation debate

Lord Hunt the new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission believes bloggers — “Guido Fawkes or whoever” — are a greater challenge than the tabloid press. This emerged in an interview he gave to Roy Greenslade, former tabloid editor and now a media commentator, at the weekend.

On Tuesday at the Leveson inquiry Rhodri Davies, counsel for News International, said regulation was a daunting question when so much information was available on the internet. “You have to draw a line somewhere between a blogger and a professional journalist,” he said.

Lord Leveson responded: “That’s a line we are going to have to draw anyway”, and referred to the Huffington Post and Guido Fawkes.

It really does look as if bloggers are going to be drawn into the regulatory net, whether a voluntary system, which I support, or a statutory system which I oppose with all my heart.

That line between bloggers and professional journalists (I would prefer to call journalism a trade rather than a profession) is almost impossible to draw. Blogging covers a wide spectrum that at one end you might as well try to regulate what someone on the corner stool of the bar might say.

At the other end the Huffington Post is really an online newspaper and there is no obvious problem in it adhering to the PCC code. Some bloggers, like Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes), will rightly always be on the edge, as Private Eye has been on the edge of print media.

The Ipswich Spy blog, one of the best in the East, has committed itself to voluntarily abiding by the PCC. This follows a post on Tuesday headed “Tories won’t advance unless they drop their poor leader.” which has now been removed following complaints that it was “poorly sourced and contained a number of potential inaccuracies”. It is being edited.

I admire Ipswich Spy for doing this. It says:

This site will, from now on, strive to follow in the footsteps of those journalists whose persistence uncovered what was corrupt and rotten in this state of ours, whilst providing thoughtful and informed insight into the Ipswich political scene. It may be that one or two members of Ipswich Spy may have to come out of the shadows to make this possible. So be it. We are aware that some people believe our anonymity damages our credibility, a subject we have returned to with regularity.

We are also aware that the changes we are instituting into the way Ipswich Spy is published may give us less flexibility in publishing posts which are interesting and provocative, which spark debate and which add to the colour of the media. We may be publishing fewer posts as it will take longer to confirm details. For that, we are sorry, but see no other way.

Ipswich Spy is a collective so is able to mediate its posts, albeit with the overhead which may reduce its output and slow its reaction to events.

Many blogs, like Wordblog, are just one person and we can only realistically ask for a second opinion when we have doubts about what we are writing.

Perhaps Ipswich Spy’s writers will have to come out of the shadows less than they fear. For most of its history The Times stuck rigidly to a policy of not naming writers, although the editor’s name was known.

The issue of speed and lack of mediation is one which is also affecting large news organisations as costs and the need for speed result in more material being published without editing.

I have followed the code myself and will continue to do so. But there are some areas I feel need revision and clarification before they are fully applied to blogging.

Archant to deliver evening paper with the morning papers

Newspaper publisher Archant is to deliver its Ipswich Evening Star to newsagents at the same time as copies of its morning, the East Anglian Daily Times.

East Anglian Daily Times front pageNewsagents have been told this will start on July 25. Evening paper delivery staff will loose their jobs, I am told.

The two papers already have a joint reporting team and most of the news content is identical. Other than to retain the very different designs of the papers it is difficult to see why they should not go all the way and merge them with substantial edition changes for Ipswich and the east and west of Suffolk. The west Suffolk edition also covers a chunk of Essex.

Evening Star front pageTraditionally the EADT has been the county paper while the Evening Star is the paper for the county town. The latest ABC circulation figures (second half of last year) show the EADT selling 29,691 a day, and the Evening Star 15,408.

As circulation declines this sort of cost cutting is inevitable, but still very sad. It is unlikely they will have a new title piece for the “Evening Before Star” but perhaps it will be renamed the “Ipswich Star”. Otherwise it will look ridiculous on the newsagents’ counters at 6am.

As someone who worked on regional morning and evening papers in what now seems like a golden age, I find what is happening to the regional press very sad. But it is more than nostalgia, it is a concern about the role of newspapers in places like Suffolk, digging deep, reporting successes and holding businesses and local government to account.

The Evening Star and the EADT have played crucial roles it overturning the unpopular county council New Strategic Direction (virtual council outsourcing plan) and the departure of Andrea Hill, the NSD’s leading advocate, from her job as chief executive.

But the editors, Nigel Pickover at the Star and Terry Hunt at the EADT, have done a good job despite their much reduced resources. Sharing a newsroom has also removed the plurality of views and the sheer journalistic competition which produces the stories.  With more scrutiny from journalists Andrea Hill might not have been appointed in the first place on her exceptionally high salary.

Is there a better way forward? Possibly. National newspapers are facing some of the same problems, among them the Guardian which faces reduced pagination as it struggles with its losses.

Its editor in chief Alan Rusbridger said recently, the newspaper needed to embrace an “open” digital philosophy in which it embraced contributions from beyond the ranks of its own journalists.

The Guardian plan which involves extending its international penetration (much smaller per reader income than it gets from print, from many more online readers) is not a directly applicable to Archant.

But the point about embracing contributions from beyond the ranks of its own journalist is very applicable.

The Guardian is building links with bloggers around the UK, including many of us in Suffolk. Its online coverage of Suffolk County Council has been increasingly using material from blogs in the county. The paper links to us and as a result increases our traffic.

None of that material is finding its way into Archant websites, or the papers. They seem to be ignoring bloggers although they are monitoring our tweets.

The growing importance of bloggers was underlined by the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, at a conference this week when he said of a controversy at Barnet Council:

I’ve got news for Barnet. Liveblogging from council meetings. Microjournalism. Call it what you like.
It’s here to stay.

This is quoted in a Cuts Blog by Patrick Butler, one of the Guardian journalists who is working hard to engage with local bloggers.

If there is benefit for a paper like the Guardian engaging with bloggers, could not a similar approach help Archent’s daily newspapers. We are are providing some of that plurality of opinion which is important for healthy journalism.

Let’s talk. I am sure I could get together a few bloggers to talk to editorial stragegists at Archant. We might even be able to help each other.

Live blogging: a solution for covering a fast-moving story

Today I tried live blogging — a practice which has become routine on some national titles — for the first time. The results, detailing the day that saw the departure of Andrea Hill as chief executive of Suffolk County Council, are on Suffolk Wordblog.

While the the medium, the web, is different, it felt very much like working on a big running story on a city evening newspaper 40 or 50 years ago.

In those days there were fresh editions every hour and fudge boxes (stop press) to be filled between editions.

The sources now are different: twitter and a news reader to keep up with what other news sites are saying, plus a few emails to gather extra information or clarify things.

The story started with a tweet from Private Eye saying the decision had been taken and Mrs Hill was leaving. It was quickly followed by tweets and stories from other journalists.

The information seemed to be reliable (I knew personally or by reputation most of the journalists who seemed to be getting information from a source in London) so I was ready to quote them. In large measure my live blog was an aggregation available sources.

In the middle of all this Paul Geater, political reporter on the Evening Star in Ipswich, rater forlornly tweeted: “It’s frustrating waiting for facts to be confirmed while others are dealing in speculation and rumour!”

Clearly little or nothing was leaking from the scene of the meeting to decide Mrs Hill’s future or his sources, but why did the paper not fall back on one of the old formulas such as: “Andrea Hill is to leave Suffolk County Council with a pay off of £218,000, a year’s salary, according to unconfirmed reports.”

Evening papers are very different now with even the London Evening Standard having only two or three editions a day. While print newspapers are no longer suitable vehicles for fast-moving story developments, they all have web sites.

Why not use them? There was substantial interest in the story in Suffolk today but the Evening Star was missing out on traffic which it should have been able to satisfy.

Suffolk Wordblog has had its second busiest day since it was started earlier this year.

Redundant articles on the path to a new journalism!

Jeff Jarvis is at his provocative best today on the front of the Media section of the Guardian. On the future of the article he writes:

Yes, articles continue. But now I believe they should be treated either as valued luxuries that are worth the use of precious resources, or as by-products of a news process that can produce them more efficiently.

It is a complex argument about the future of news and newspapers, which seems to reflect some of the thinking which is going on at the Guardian itself.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor, has announced radical changes saying the paper would “move beyond the newspaper, shifting focus, effort and investment towards digital, because that is our future”.

Faced with mounting losses Guardian Media Group is moving to invest in digital growth areas rather than declining print areas and cut the number of journalists.

The paper is to be residesigned, will have few pages and reflect fact that the first sources of news for many readers are now online. Half the readers are now said to look at the paper in the evening rather than the morning.

Roy Greenslade, who is close to the action as media blogger at the Guardian, had a fine analysis in his Evening Standard column. He concludes:

But Rusbridger’s enthusiasm for digital media is not about money. It is based on his belief in the value of an open, “mutual journalism”, where the audience and journalists work together. Digital-first is another step towards the practical expression of that philosophy. Can Rusbridger bring it off?

Back to Jeff Jarvis who writes:

…writing articles is also expensive, becoming only more costly as news organisations operate with ever-scarcer resources.

So we must question the best use of those resources. I say reporting is our highest journalistic priority. Telling stories will always have a role. But journalists have more roles to play today. When working in collaboration with the public – which can help news become at once more expansive and less expensive – it may be useful to help collaborators improve what they do: journalist as community organiser, journalism teacher, support system.

That seems to me to be fairly close to Greenslade’s take on what Rusbridger is doing.

Things are changing at the Guardian. I know this from my own experience blogging about Suffolk, mostly affairs of the county council. Guardian jouralist are going out of their way to encourage blogging, by guoting from blogs and linking to posts.

Roy Greenslade has been doing this for a long time, but I now see links coming from other sources. Patrick Butler’s cuts blog and Clare Horton at Society Daily are not only engaging with bloggers through what they write online but through twitter.

Much to my surprise Clare Horton today mentioned the splitting of Wordblog into two sections, Suffolk and Media. There is a change of approach, but what I can only guess at his how Guardian Media Group hopes to make enough money from online.

And finally, I think Jarvis is playing with words. Article is a portmanteau word in journalism which means whatever you want it to mean. My feeling is that most readers will continue to want a pulling together of information from a variety of sources into one piece of writing.

Blogs return to Evening Star, but very slowly

Good to see the Evening Star in Ipswich has restarted its blogs. Pity the site is running so slowly it is a painful experience reading them. It must be dispiriting for the bloggers too.

Paul Geater has written quite a few post recently, one of them about the price of tickets to watch Ipswich Town. They cost about £30 and he wants to see better performance for that money.

There were two comments, so I clicked to see them. Both from Geater himself. So I decided to help out by adding my own thoughts.

Then I discovered the reason for the paucity of comments. Twice I clicked on the “sign in to comment link”. Twice it timed out.

I would have written: “I sat in a comfortable stalls seat at the National Theatre last week to see The Cherry Orchard. The price £30. Not the same excitement thought: I knew the trees would be chopped down.”

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