Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stand up for the not-so-silent majority

AS AN exercise in public democracy it wasn’t quite up there with the fall of the Berlin Wall or the storming of The Bastille.
But the Essex Chronicle Soapbox did show how important it is that free speech continues to have a platform in society.
To recap, we pitched up in Chelmsford High Street on Saturday morning with our own soapbox to give people a chance to air their views free of any editing or interference. As editor Alan Geere said himself from the box: “Forget your Facebook and toss your Twitter, now is the chance for everyone to talk directly to your audience.”
And you duly did. We heard why the troops should be pulled out of Afghanistan, why Stansted should not be developed and why the bible is right or wrong depending on your viewpoint.
But what was most striking was not just the people talking, but also the people listening.
The crowd ebbed and flowed during the two-hour session. Some heckled, some tried to argue but most simply listened in a respectful and admiring silence. All were grateful for the opportunity afforded simply to be part of our democratic exercise.
And now there’s more to come. We plan to make this a fixture on the town calendar. We are working with the Borough Council to find a more permanent home and once we do there will be regular soapbox sessions, featuring the great and good of our community. We’ll invite MPs, community leaders, church and faith organisations, pressure groups and of course you, dear reader.
The media in general and newspapers in particular have an important part to play in the democratic process. People are feeling less and less connected with the process of government and more and more disillusioned with how a chosen (or in some cases appointed) few can have such a dramatic impact on our lives.
We are proud to yet again stand firm with the now not-so-silent majority.
From editorial column on the Essex Chronicle, October 15 2009

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Move along please, nothing happening here

HERO cop Stewart Gason prevented a terrifying pile-up when he jumped aboard a runaway lorry and stopped it after its driver suffered a stroke.
Wow, what a story! You may have read this terrific tale in your Sunday newspaper – and all this drama happening right here on the A12 near Chelmsford.
And quite rightly you turn to your reliable local weekly newspaper for more detail. Perhaps an interview with the ‘hero cop’ or even a talk with the driver if he’d recovered enough.
And we were ready to do just that until Essex Police sent out a ‘correction’. In one swift sentence – repeated here in all its police-speak glory – we moved from:
Sgt Stewart Gason alighted from the police car and ran alongside the moving lorry, jumped into the cab and managed to apply the brakes just prior to the dual carriageway.
Sgt Stewart Gason alighted from the police car and ran alongside the moving lorry and attracted the lorry driver’s attention by shouting at him to stop and throw his keys out. The lorry driver, though unwell, responded to this and stopped just prior to the dial carriageway.
So, what happened, we asked? Could the ‘hero cop’ explain to us how he first ‘jumped into the cab’ but then just ‘shouted at him to stop’. Sgt Gason is too shy to talk, came the official reply from the Essex Police media machine. Could you tell us anything about the driver? No.
So there we have it. An unexplained mystery. Had we got a reasonable explanation you wouldn’t even be reading this now. But we’re not prepared to let you think that we hadn’t bothered to get the full story and that we just settled for the prescription story doled out by the media managers that so many of our less-inquisitive colleagues in the media settle for.
Who knows, by next week, we may even have the full story. Watch this space…
Taken from The Essex Chronicle Says August 13

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Smile, you’re on our mobile candid camera

LIKE MOST good ideas the notion to taking pictures of people using mobile phones while driving – which, of course, they shouldn’t oughta – and publishing them in the paper is ridiculously simple.
What comes next seems ridiculously complicated.
Our ever-industrious Gazette news team came up with their own cure for the summertime blues and set up a photographer at a notorious roundabout in the middle of town. In just an hour he snapped 15 people in cars and vans clearly using their phones. Job done.
A simple yet elegant design complete with as few words of possible to explain what’s what and we’re ready to roll (click on the image, right, to see it in more detail). Well, not quite.
Mr Lawyer has his say. We’re OK to run the pictures but must be prepared for all the people featured to come back at us with a defamation claim.
“I wasn’t talking on the phone; I was just holding it.”
“I wasn’t driving; I was parked.”
“It was an emergency.”
“I’ve lost my job and it’s all your fault.”
“Right-thinking people are shunning and avoiding me.”
(Mr McNae)
And if we did end up in front of m’lud the photographer would have to stand up and be counted. He’d have to attest that it is a genuine photograph taken when and where we said it was. For a variety of reasons, not least that aforementioned man who’d lost his job has now lost his home and family and is coming after you, we decided that probably wasn’t fair.
Determined not to lose what we’d done we switched to Plan B, pixilated the faces, published and now sit back waiting to be damned.
The paper is on the streets tomorrow (Weds) and we can’t double guess readers’ reaction. Will they thank us for exposing the ongoing flouting of the law in such a dangerous way? Or will they feel we’ve unfairly targeted family and friends who were just doing something that everybody does?
I simply don’t know. And I’m not even sure I made the right call with pixilating the faces.
What I do know is that we’re doing it all again in four weeks time to see if the good people of Brentwood have learned their lesson.
And to make sure we can publish properly and be damned I’ll even take the pictures myself, Your Honour.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Why we are the headline act*

LIKE A lot of journalists I know a little about a lot of things but not much about anything.
That’s why I’d struggle on Mastermind as I wouldn’t have a clue what to do in the specialist round.
If pushed, though, I’d probably do ‘Headline Writing’ if John Humphrys and the gang would allow it. I’ve been writing headlines for more than 30 years and still get a thrill when those words leap off the page enticing the reader into the story thanks to our skill and creativity.
I’ve been impressing on all or subs here how important it is to tell the story and not present the reader with a cryptic crossword puzzle clue or something that’s there just to show off to your mates.
They’ve responded with gusto, telling it how it is all the way from Folkestone to Leatherhead. Witness:
Man took dead
friend’s money

here in the Essex Chronicle.

Give me that any day as opposed to the convoluted old tosh that appears daily in the national tabloids, such as these in today’s Sun:
Potter plotter is
hotter to trotter

I was blind, bite
now I can see...

No, I’ve no idea what they mean either.

But outright winner is from our Whitstable Times:
Seagull flew
off with cat

How could you not read that story?
And the headline score so far is: Us 2, Them 0

*Yes, I know it's not that straightforward, but we all like to show off sometimes...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Come on Arlene

I tuned in to Desert Island Discs this morning hoping to hear Kirsty Young put actor Martin Shaw through the wringer.
But what a Desert Island washout.
What we got was a passing reference to the street fight that forced him to have plastic surgery on his face, a nod to what is still his most famous role (Ray Doyle in The Professionals) and what seemed like an eternity warbling on about his spiritual conversion to ‘teetotalism, vegetarianism and meditation’.
No insightful questions from Kirsty Young about his three wives, stalker Sandra Price who poured petrol through his partner’s letterbox or why he does that latest TV cop tosh, Inspector George Gently.
Young, a former TV news anchor, follows in the illustrious journalistic footsteps of other DID presenters Sue Lawley (South Wales Echo) and Michael Parkinson (Barnsley Chronicle) but seemed to have left her inquiring mind at the door with this episode.
Hopefully on next week’s show featuring Arlene Phillips (Hot Gossip, Strictly Come Dancing etc etc) she’ll be less of a PR pushover.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Justice for dead drunks

At 1.50 on Tuesday afternoon in a room at New Bridge House, the drab offices in Chelmsford that double as coroner’s court, a weary line was drawn under the sad lives of Susan Evans and James Grimwade.
The inquest heard that police broke down the door of their home in Pennine Road, Chelmsford and found their bodies in the ‘unhygienic’ house. They had a history of heavy drinking and the coroner decided they died as result of chronic alcohol abuse.
But hold on a minute.
Two people found dead in the same house at the same time. How often does that happen? At the time of the deaths back in February we asked the police and the social care authorities what they planned to do about investigating the deaths.
We speculated on what might have happened. Suicide pact? Poisoning, either deliberate or accidental? Adulterated drink or drugs? Overcome by fumes from a faulty boiler? Perhaps even murder?
But no investigation was ever forthcoming. The ‘nothing going on here’ signs went up almost from the start and the despite our urgings no-one wanted to do anything.
We had the feeling from the outset that quite simply no-one was interested. But what if two people in their forties had been found dead in a house in, say, Beaulieu Park or Little Baddow? Would the authorities have taken a different view?
We feel that Susan and James have been badly let down, probably in life as well as death, and thrown onto an administrative scrapheap simply because of where and how they lived
We find it highly unlikely that two people would die at exactly the same time in the same place, addled by drink or not. At the very least they deserve a proper multi-agency investigation.
A ten minute hearing in front of a coroner with no witnesses called and no reports ordered is not good enough. Not for Susan and James. Not for anyone.
Taken from this week's Essex Chronicle editorial

Monday, June 08, 2009

A voice for Tragic Amber

“Thank you for your kind comments. Luke and I cannot believe that our Amber was taken away from us yesterday. Amber’s sister Melody is holding us all together and giving us a reason to carry on. Thank you.”
Jacqui Whyte, Otford

IT IS difficult – no, impossible – to imagine how you could ever recover from your own car accidentally running over your own child.
The story of ‘Tragic Amber’, who was crushed against a post by her mother’s car, happened on the patch of our Sevenoaks Chronicle. Our team has reported the accident sensitively and professionally, not intruding into what is obviously a very private grief.
But then up steps our website, sitting there with all the facts and also with an opportunity to share a comment.
Many readers did, leaving their own tributes on what has become an instant online Book of Condolence. And who leaves the poignant comment reproduced above? None other than the mum at the centre of it all.
This is not the time to start warbling on about how the web is beginning to grow into the complementary medium we all hoped. Let’s just say it’s given a voice to a community in a very troubled time and leave it at that.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Elections: My place in history

IT’S election day and we’re all atwitter about our coverage.
Our planning sessions have been all about laptops, mobiles, 3G cards and remote access but the fact remains that it still takes our dedicated team of editors and reporters to make it happen. Have a look later to see how they’ve done.
I got to thinking about my first election as a reporter, covering the count here in Chelmsford when Norman St John-Stevas (now Lord St John of Fawsley) won the seat for the second time in a year in October 1974.
I was excited to be asked by the local agency reporter to help out on the night and had visions of my quotes gobbled up and spat out by the Press Association and turning up in Nationals galore.
And how did I spend the crucial hour or so before the result was announced?

Camped out in the only phone box next to Shire Hall pretending to use the phone so no-one else could phone the result and so bagging us (or, rather, him) the premium paid for getting in first.
Dontcha just love journalism…

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Would you run this ad?

OUR HARD-WORKING advertising people asked if this ad was ok run in some of our titles.
I ummed and ahhed and, after a quick poll in the office decided it was good to go.
It’s not planned to run in the Kent & Sussex Courier, so ‘disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells’ can keep his quill pen dry but there was some disquiet in the equally leafy lanes of Surrey where it was thought some readers might not find it appropriate for a family newspaper.
Anyway, it’s still good to go and is on page 20 of this week’s Leatherhead Advertiser. Are you offended? Did I make the right call? Over to you...

Monday, June 01, 2009

Work experience, Talent and more work experience

WE HAD two people come in on work experience today. One had pestered me to get in and by lunchtime had written a page three lead and learned the intimate secrets of the tea rota.
The other went out on police calls with a reporter and upon returning to the office revealed that it “wasn’t for her” after all and duly went home. Even by my shameful standards of brutalising work experience people this was a first: lasting less than 90 minutes.
Moral of the story – pester the editor, and don’t go into journalism with a film studies degree.

AT OPENING time we’re on the trail of the Banjo Brothers – our own little piece of Britain’s Got Talent winners, Diversity.
My initial idea of going out with a video camera and getting the populace to audition on the streets for the dance group was met with the usual polite derision. But we then got lucky when we found out that Banjo junior was sitting his maths GCSE at one of our local schools while the rest of the troupe were being entertained by Gordon at No 10.
Hours later and we’re in for the first (and hopefully, only) interview with Jordan – especially as he talked passionately and eloquently without the help of a PR minder – and some great pix of him, his classmates and even the headmistress.
Yet again I marvel at the ingenuity, dedication and not a little self-made luck that makes local journalism such a fantastic game to be in. Just a shame we’ve got to wait until Wednesday to get it onto the streets.

WE’RE HAPPY to entertain the work placement officer from Mencap and end up taking on a young person with learning difficulties for a couple of hours every week.
What was more shocking was her revelation that she had approached more than 20 local companies with the same request and been shown the door.
I’m no more caring and sharing than the next man, but I was genuinely taken aback. Cue feature on what it means to give someone a chance and some tough questions to those who refused.

The tears, the fears, the jeers and the cheers

Apologies for the short intermission, but thanks to popular demand (bless you Steve/Tom) I’m back.
I will be blogging from my vaunted position as editor in chief and editorial director laying bare the tawdry inside workings of a newspaper. Stand by for the tears, the fears, the jeers and the cheers.
Please feel free to comment and make this a ‘conversation’ – just like we’re trying to do our million or so readers across the south east.
Check out my editor’s chair colleagues Keith Perch, editor of the Leicester Mercury and Steve Dyson, editor of the Birmingham Mail to see what they get upto. Perhaps I may learn a thing or two about doing it properly…