Journalism

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

What has happened to the ‘mission to explain’?

While national newspaper continue to seek to be first with the news and on their websites fright over seconds in their live blogs, regional newspapers are loosing their sense of the timeliness of news.

 

Proximity in time as well as location has traditionally been seen as giving events a higher news value. Maybe I am living in the past but I was shocked that two district council meetings in Suffolk which took place last Thursday were not reported in the East Anglian Daily time until today (Monday). The stories have not yet appeared on the website.

 

At the meetings Babergh decided to increase its council tax while Mid Suffolk froze its demand (see Suffolk Wordblog). Those seem to me to be stories of immediate interest to the readers.

 

But what concerns me more is the lack of explanation of the reasons for the different decisions. Local government finance is always difficult to understand but it has a real impact on people.

 

It is back in the 1970s that John Birt, then head of current affairs at London Weekend, and Peter Jay, a Times journalist at the time, coined the phrase “mission to explain”. An article in the Times began:

There is a bias in television journalism. Not against any particular party or point of view — it is a bias against understanding.

Appearing under John Birt’s name it was naturally about television but the point was not lost on print journalists.

 

This brings us to council tax setting this year. The Government has offered a one-off grant worth the equivalent of a 2.5 per cent rise, to councils that freeze or reduce the tax.

 

It seems like a no-brainer to accept. But that is not how all councils see it. Nor are the decision being taken entirely based on politics. Conservative controlled Chelmsford council in Essex has voted to reject the offer while Labour controlled Ipswich is set to accept it (Ipswich Spy).

 

The problem is that it is a one-off grant, which means that a 2.5 per cent rise next year would be standing still, just making up for not having the extra grant. To get a real increase of that size next year, a 5 per cent hike would be needed.

 

And the water is muddied further by a Government  requirment for a local referendum which would be costly and difficult to organise if the rise is more than 3.5 per cent this year. (Decisions on the trigger for future years will be decided nearer the time.)

 

Yes, it is a bit difficult to follow and I hope I have got it right (corrections and clarifications welcomed in the comments below). And when it comes to police authorities the trigger level is 4 per cent which explains why the Suffolk Police Authority can increase its demand by 3.75 per cent.

 

Suffolk’s chief constable, Simon Ash, explained that “if council tax were frozen in 2012/13, it would result in the loss of at least £1.6 million in funding in subsequent years because the government grant would be a one-off payment”.

 

That, in essence, is the dilemma facing all councils. I would hope that there are journalists out there who will make it more lucid than I can, but there is no excuse for not attempting to explain.

BBC news head ‘launches’ journalism MA in Suffolk

Helen Boaden, BBC’s head of news, speaking at University Campus Suffolk last evening, asked the audience the predictable question about their main sources of news. Was it newspapers, television, radio or online?

 

It is a question I have asked new students many times, but in pondering my response I realised convergence has gone so far that there is no longer a clear-cut answer.

 

Often my television is delivered by iPlayer (it is just another channel on the TV) watched from the comfort of an armchair.

 

I buy a printed newspaper, but I also subscribe to it as an iPad app which is more convenient to read at the breakfast table.

 

The distinction between lean-forward and lean-back media is disappearing. Both iPlayer and iPad app are delivered by the internet but the distinction is much less clear than it used to be.

 

In the introduction to Helen Boaden’s talk, Professional Journalists Wanted, it was mentioned that she had been named as a likely contender for the job of BBC director general in the Daily Telegraph.

 

Back home, I checked online to see what they were saying. I also saw that the Guardian was leading on the story that the search was on for a successor for Mark Thompson who is expected to step down at the end of the this year or early next.

 

In this case my primary source of the news was a talk at UCS, backed up by the internet and expanded by reading a printed newspaper this morning.

 

Ms Boaden, who went to school in Ipswich and Colchester, was effectively launching a new Journalism MA which still has to gain formal approval. That should come in early March with the first students enrolled in September.

 

As a new course at a new centre of higher eduction, the UCS MA will establish a programme specifically designed for convergent media, without the traditional separate courses for newspaper, magazine, broadcast and online journalism which continue to afflict some of the long-established journalism departments.

 

Ms Boaden painted a picture of the requirement for multi-skilled journalists with flexible approaches to where and how they should work.

 

User generated content (BBC jargon for what some call citizen journalism) was of growing importance but it required skilled journalists to assess it before broadcast. She gave the example of mobile phone video submitted after wrecking of the Costa Concordia much of which was filmed on different ships in different places.

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.

Time for a Royal Commission on the Media

Anything I write today in defence of journalists will sound self-serving. But I will point out that it is also journalists who have relentlessly and bit by bit uncovered the story of the News of the World’s hacking.

The Guardian has been at the forefront and I am glad to see that Roy Greenslade, their media blogger has returned to his tabloid roots (he worked for Murdoch as assistant editor of the Sun and was editor of the Daily Mirror for a time).

That tabloid approach is seen in his dishing out of the New International phone number and urging the mass protests to NoW advertisers in a what you can do post. He provided a link to a site which makes it easy to tweet them.

Call Wapping for free --- here's the toll-free number 0800 010373 .... tell them what you think about hacking Milly Dowler's phone
@GreensladeR
Roy Greenslade

Last night Ford announced it was pulling its ads from the NoW and others said they were reconsidering. Again twitter is playing a big part in the development of a news story.

Among the thousands who took up the invitation was Caronline Page, a Lib Dem county councillor in Woodbridge, Suffolk. She had tweeted 17 companies when I counted.

Dear @, will you be reconsidering PC World's advertising spend with #notw given that they hacked Milly Dowler's phone?
@CroPage
Caroline Page

This issue has to be cleared up. A full inquiry, if David Cameron announces one today, will be important so long as it looks at more than simply hacking.

We also require the News International full take-over of Sky to be subject to a competition inquiry rather than being nodded though as the culture sectretary Jeremy Hunt intended.

Self-regulation of the press is in tatters. The Press Complaints Commission is not looking good and will have to become much robust and have sharp teeth. That is one of the things an inquiry should look at.

And then there is the relationship with politicians and the police that Murdoch has cultivated. I have never believed his papers changed the course of elections (he is just good at spotting winners) but politicians seem to believe they do.

This has allowed Murdoch to ignore editorial safeguards after he took over the Times. The safeguards for Sky News look equally flimsy.

If you want to know why Murdoch is not a suitable man to command a third of British print and broadcast TV media, just take a look at the News of the World and Fox News.

Self-regulation came about after the 1947 Royal Commission on the Press. We now need another similar wide-ranging inquiry.

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.

East Anglians still reading newspapers

Media commentator Roy Greenslade finds a bright spot among the latest sales figures for regional newspapers. While some have sales falls of 10% and more compared with a year ago, those in Suffolk and Norfolk are doing pretty well.

Roy reports:

There were just three risers – the Dundee Evening Telegraph (publisher: DC Thomson), up 3.4%, and Archant’s two Norwich titles, the Eastern Daily Press and its evening partner, which each put on 0.5%. Their Ipswich titles  [East Anglian Daily Times and Evening Star] were not too bad either, down about 3% apiece. So well done to Archant.

Archant is based in Norwich. I am not sure whether it is a reflection of quite how poor many regionals have become, or that in East Anglia we are slower to loose the newspaper reading habit.

Little things that undermine confidence in Suffolk County Council

It is often little things that undermine confidence in any organisation. Copies of the budget available to the public at yesterday’s meeting of Suffolk County Council had every other page printed upside-down. Then, when it came to a vote, it was announced the electronic voting system was not working properly. The clerk had to call out the name of each councillor to record the vote.

Council pays £500,000 to former employees

A dramatic headline in the East Anglian Daily Times relating payments by Suffolk County Council to former employees reads: “£500,000 to silence disgruntled staff”. The article below starts:

County council chiefs have been criticised for using more than £500,000 of public money to silence disgruntled employees.

Suffolk County Council has spent a total of £521,277 on gagging orders over the last 12 months to ensure staff don’t whistle-blow once their contracts have been terminated.

That figure is almost double what the organisation spent on “compromise agreements” during 2008 and 2009 and comes just months after sweeping cuts, including the axing the entire £230,000 budget for school crossing patrols as well as a number of bus services. The data, obtained following a Freedom of Information Request, revealed that during 2010 a total of 41 council employees were given Compromise Agreements ranging in payments of between £2,000 and £60,000.

But I am not sure this is entirely fair on the council. Compromise agreements are often made when an employee is disputing dismissal, and starts the process towards taking a former employer to an Industrial Tribunal.

If is often cheaper, and less time-consuming, for the former employer to make a settlement than to go to the tribunal. The compromise agreement system was explained in a recent article in Personnel Today.

While these agreements usually include a “confidentiality clause” that is not generally the prime purpose. The employee is likely to see them as compensation for loss of earnings etc.

A doubling of the number of such agreements at SCC does raise questions about the efficiency of the human relations department. But to categorise the payments as “gagging orders” is only partly true.

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