Sunday, December 27, 2009

Newspapers today - with thanks to Charles Dickens

I don't know why (?), but this passage from A Christmas Carol reminds me of work at the moment! I read the book in early December and went to see the new Disney version just before Christmas - I'd recommend the book to anyone. The film was surprisingly true to the book, but for a couple of Disney moments where they inserted a Victorian 'car chase' and a roller-coaster ride! Nevertheless, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film.

Anyway, here's the original bit of Dickens:

This lunatic, in letting Scrooge's nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge's office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.

"Scrooge and Marley's, I believe," said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. "Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Scrooge, or Mr Marley?"

"Mr Marley has been dead these seven years," Scrooge replied. "He died seven years ago, this very night."

"We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner," said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word "liberality", Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

"At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, " I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."

"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.

"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Should we publish pictures of children in bus crash?

Today's horrific bus crash in Leicester left us worrying about privacy issues for what seemed like the umpteenth time this week.

You might think it would be fairly straightforward when it comes to covering a big public news item like a bus crash, but we spent some time looking at pictures and discussing the issues before making our decision.

In case you haven't seen or read the story, a double decker bus carrying more than 50 children and teachers ran into a low bridge in Lancaster Road, shearing off much of the top deck. In what really was a miraculous escape, nobody was seriously injured and by tea time, even the 10 people taken to hospital for treatment were allowed home.

The decision we were discussing was which pictures to use in tomorrow's paper. The Mercury's photographers arrived shortly after the emergency services and we had a large choice of shots. Many of them showed the bus and the damage, but there were also quite a lot of the children being comforted by various adults. The question was this: should we use pictures showing the faces of the children involved?

There is no legal reason why we shouldn't, it was more an ethical or moral discussion.

We turned to the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Conduct for guidance. There are three sections of paragraph 6 that might be relevant:
i) Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.

ii) A child under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.

iii) Pupils must not be approached or photographed at school without the permission of the school authorities.
However, we decided that none of these was really relevant, particularly as we felt the reference to a child's welfare was probably intended to cover issues around court cases rather than this sort of incident. We did not believe that the use of the pictures would in any way harm the welfare of the children. Add to this the fact that the children were actually from Nottingham and, therefore, unlikely to be recognised by anybody in Leicester and we made our decision to publish the picture you see on this page. We also discussed the tone of our coverage and as it was to be of a supportive nature, we felt this also made our decision easier.

It will be interesting to see how our readers react to our decision.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The very definition of optimism ...

Newsrooms have always been a place where gallows humour flourished. I admit I even enjoy - much to my wife's disgust - disaster jokes. I've always assumed it was a sub-conscious coping technique because we spend so much time looking at tragedy.

So perhaps it wasn't that surprising that on a trip to the House of Commons on Monday to listen to Peter Mandelson - that's the Right Honourable Lord Peter Mandelson to you and me - the thing that most stuck in my mind was a gag told by another journalist, rather than anything that came from the lips of the First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, Lord President of the Council ...

Whatever you think of Lord Mandelson, he is a consumate politician. He hasn't survived the scandals to go from Minister without Portfolio to Minister of Everything for no reason. That's why I wasn't that surprised at my reaction to his speech. I couldn't help thinking yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah ... Some might not agree - I might have missed something insightful or interesting, but I felt I'd heard it all before. I notice that Guardian media pundit Roy Greenslade, who was sat opposite me, didn't even mention the speech in his prolific blog the next day, preferring rather to talk about Marmite, Dubai, Singapore and New York. The full speech is here if you'd like to read it yourself.

Anyway, back to the gag ...

Actually, I need to do a tiny bit more scene-setting first. DMGT - parent company of Northcliffe Media Group, owners of the Leicester Mercury - released its interim profit statement at the end of last week. Although the group as whole exceeded the City's expectations, the figures for Northcliffe did not look great - profit down 67% on revenues down 24%. But for £50-million of cuts, much of it made up from the loss of more than 1,000 jobs, the company would have made a £30-million loss.

The Guardian ran an article based on an interview with DMGT chief executive Martin Morgan which began like this:
There will be more cost-cutting at the Daily Mail & General Trust's Northcliffe Media regional newspaper operation next year, with further job losses possible, the DMGT chief executive, Martin Morgan, said today.

Morgan said that Northcliffe Media – which has already shed 1,100 staff, about 25% of total headcount, in the year to 4 October – had perhaps weathered the worst of the unprecedented advertising slump but that more needed to be done.

"The drive for change and efficiency is continuing and we expect costs to fall [further] next year," he added, saying that further job cuts were "possible". "We will continue our reorganisation and re-engineering of the business. There has to be a continuing drive. We expect costs to fall again next year but the big cuts are behind us."
I guess the silver lining in that statement is that the big cuts are behind us, but it's why it is understandable that job security is still the number one issue for many of our staff in any one-to-one conversations I have with them.

And that gag?

What's the definition of optimism? A regional newspaper journalist ironing five shirts on a Sunday ...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

So that's why he had the office changed!

The following memo went out to all staff this morning:

Subject: Leicester Mercury - Keith Perch

Earlier this year in February, following Nick Carter’s departure, Keith Perch agreed to serve as Acting Editor of the Leicester Mercury.

I am delighted to inform you that Keith has agreed to remain in this position on a permanent basis. Thus, with immediate effect, Keith is appointed Editor of the Leicester Mercury.

We wish Keith every success in his new role and in taking forward the Mercury during this challenging time for local newspapers.

Michael Pelosi
Managing Director
Northcliffe Media Group

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Another day in the office ...

The day didn't get off to a great start ... out of the blue came an email to all staff from head office telling us that the company was continuing with its pay freeze, probably for the rest of this financial year (which for us means all the way through to next October).

I understand why the pay freeze is in place - we continue to face an incredibly difficult financial situation - but there's no hiding how disappointing it is for everyone. The pay freeze affects everyone including head office and local directors, but obviously it will be even more keenly felt by the lowest paid amongst us. ****!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An absence of malice

Our new writer, Simon Perry, has his first column, The Skeptic, in the Mercury today and turns his attention to a local shop which claims that if you give it £35 and a strand of hair, it will tell you what you are allergic to.

Simon calls himself a skeptic. What does that mean? Well, a dictionary definition looks something like this:

Skep -tic

1. a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.
2. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others.

I would say it was someone who would doubt a claim until they saw conclusive evidence to support the claim.

[Before you write and complain, I know that in this country we spell the word with a 'c', as in sceptic, but Simon prefers the American spelling (with a 'k') because it avoids confusion with 'cynic', which is, of course, a completely different kettle of fish.]

I like the way Simon thinks. His doubting and questioning is an extension to much of the work that we have to do as a newspaper and it's great to find someone else with the inclination and time to look into claims made in our local area.

It is a few weeks now since I first asked him to write for the Mercury and much of the time that has elapsed has been spent with us checking out Simon's writing with the lawyers. Here's how our news editor, Mark Charlton, put it on Twitter last night: 'You are a legal fXXking nightmare. But welcome 2 journalism.'

The problem for us is the libel law. It's not an easy law to deal with for newspapers because it puts all the onus on the newspaper to prove what it says is true. You might think that is entirely the right way round on the grounds that we ought only to print what we know is true, but that's the issue: sometimes you know something is true, but you can't prove it. We are pretty sure that the claims made in Simon's first column are both true and provable - it will be interesting to see how much more difficult that becomes with some of the topics he intends to cover over the coming months!

The other question that came up was the motives behind Simon's articles. The lawyers wanted to know that he was not driven by malice. Of course, he's not. As Simon puts it: An inquiring mind, an interest in the truth and an urge to prevent people being ripped off are my only motivations.

Why does that matter? Because if, at some point, we make a mistake - Simon gets something wrong and we don't spot it - we may have to rely on a defence against libel other than one which simply says that we got it right. There are circumstances where, even when we are wrong, we can claim protection against a libel suit. However, any such defence would melt away if it could be shown that either Simon or the newspaper acted maliciously.

That's not going to happen.

If you like what you read, you might also be interested in Simon's blog, Adventures in Nonsense, or perhaps turn out to one of the Skeptics in the Pub meetings in Leicester: next Tuesday (Nov 17th) sees Professor Chris French discussing the Psychology of Alien Contact and Abduction!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Where in the world?

We tend to pour moral outrage on to those parts of the world where people can be arrested, charged, tried and jailed in secret. Conversely we are proud of our own open and transparent judicial system.

Witness the widespread anger over attempts to prevent coverage of Parliament recently in the Trafigura case ... and yet, here in Leicester, if judges had their way, you might be surprised how often people were locked away in secret. As Editor of the local paper, I am threatened with jail if I report the cases.

Just in the past couple of weeks we have come across two such cases. In both, we have launched a legal challenge to the decisions of the courts to ban publication of details of the names of those charged and have won, overturning the decisions so that justice could not only be done, but be seen to be done.

In one case, we found ourselves in the ludicrous situation where the defendant had been named in the Mercury and details of the allegations against him had been published before a judge imposed an order banning us from publishing anything else. In other words, the man could have gone on to be jailed for many years, but you would never have known ... or equally unfairly, the man may have been found not guilty and would have had no way of telling the world that the allegations printed were unfair and that he was an innocent man.

We challenged the order immediately, but the judge dismissed our point of view and the trial went on in secret. By law, our reporter was allowed to remain in court, taking notes of everything that happened over the next few days but could not report it. Even more oddly, any member of the public could also sit in court listening to the case as long as they did not publish the details. Behind the scenes, we continued to challenge the order and even considered employing a barrister to take the case to the High Court - an expensive and time-consuming issue for us. In the meantime, we continued to send letters to the judge and, after a few days of stand-off, he unexpectedly relented and accepted our arguments about the importance of open justice and we were able to resume our coverage.

Why did the judge issue the ban in the first place? I would argue that it was because of a misguided belief that it would protect the victims of the crime, but we are experienced in covering cases in such a way that the defendant is named, but the victims protected. I've written about this before here.

UPDATED: I have removed the details of the next case because of a legal issue which I will blog about separately ... but we now find ourselves in the position where we would have to spend about £10,000 to challenge a court order made by a judge. It's an order we are sure is incorrectly made, but which the judge remains adamantly behind.

Earlier this week, I was asked to speak at a Common Purpose workshop. The title I was given to speak to was: Local media and its impact on the city and county. I knew they wanted me to talk about whether or not negative stories impacted adversely on the perception of the area, but I believe that is such a narrow view of our impact that I talked instead about the other ways we impact on Leicester.

And, this, ensuring we have an open and transparent justice system is just one of those ways. If we were not in court challenging the decisions of judges and magistrates, nobody would be. We would effectively have secret trials and people would disappear without explanation.

As I've said before, you'd miss us if we were gone.

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?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

No such thing as bad publicity ...

Today's Mercury carried a first column from BBC 5Live freelance reporter and Leicester City season ticket holder, Ben Jacobs, and, I guess, there's an argument that says any publicity is good publicity ...

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions on this little piece that appeared in the Daily Mail today:

Saboteur hunt at 5live

The BBC are mounting a top-level probe, using CCTV and computer information, to find who was responsible for tampering with an early Saturday morning 5live sports news bulletin featuring a pre-recorded Jacqui Oatley interview with Wigan manager Roberto Martinez.

The Martinez chat was interrupted by a voice saying '******* trumpet, ******* Stanley Clarke', which the Beeb hierarchy believe may have been inserted by a disgruntled employee.

Freelance sports reporter Ben Jacobs, who graduated from Oxford University with a double first in English Language and Literature in 2004, missed his BBC sports shift on Sunday having been told he was involved in the inquiry.

Jacobs' agent David Welch said: 'Ben is fully co-operating with the investigation but totally denies any involvement in any malpractice.

UPDATE: I've just found this YouTube clip of the outburst at the centre of the issue via the Biased-BBC blog. Don't listen to it if you don't want to hear swearing on the BBC!

Stupid errors invite criticism

Sometimes we make errors that are just plain stupid. I'm not sure anyone can explain it - it's not that we don't know the facts, it's just that a reporter, even an experienced reporter, simply gets it wrong and then neither the sub nor the proof reader picks it up.

We did it yesterday in our report on the switch-on of Leicester's Diwali lights. For some inexplicable reason the reporter got the location wrong and used the word Hindi instead of Hindu.

Online, our readers were quick to point out the errors:
LM, suggest you re-train/educate your staff or hire adequate journalists. The area is Belgrave Road, not Belgrave Gate..........and it is a Hindu festival (not Hindi) and the community is also Hindu not Hindi!

Good night, however I agree, Leicester Mercury do need to get a proof reader! Point One, its Belgrave Road, not Belgrave Gate as Belgrave Gate is over the Flyover. Secondly, its Hindu and not Hindi! Just small things makes a big difference! But yeah it was good!
I couldn't agree more. Small things, but makes a big difference.

To make matters worse, having spotted the errors in the paper, we then left them on our website even after our readers started pointing them out! I tried to correct them myself in the early evening last night (far too late), only to find that our web publishing system had ground to a halt and, try as I might for over an hour, I just couldn't make the changes. I tried again at 10pm without success and finally corrected the article at 2am this morning, adding the following apology:
Thank you for pointing out the errors in this article. They have now been corrected and I apologise that they were made in the first place and for the amount of time it has taken for us to put them right on the site.
Still, I can't help thinking the damage is done.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Libel article brought a smile to my face

About 20 years ago I had the privilege and pleasure to work for one of the great journalists' editors of the time, Mike Lowe.

Mike is a natural journalist and I've probably never worked with anyone as gifted at pulling together all the elements of a complex issue and then laying them out on a page in such a way as to give them impact and clarity. Above all, he had a wicked sense of humour which shone through his newspapers.

Sadly, he eventually fell out of favour with our employers and left the business.

But I read a fairly bland article today about a newspaper paying out damages to a politician and it reminded of one of Mike's very funny - if somewhat outrageous - responses to a similar situation.

The article on HoldtheFrontPage, a website aimed at regional journalists, included the following paragraph:

In its apology, the Observer wrote: "We accept that the allegations contained in the article were untrue and misleading and we apologise to Coun Jones for the distress and embarrassment our publication caused him. We have agreed to pay Cllr Jones a substantial sum in libel damages."

Of course, we have no idea what the term 'substantial sum' means. Is it £500? £5,000? £50,000? Or even £500,000? Almost certainly, the terms of the agreement include a gagging clause, forbidding either side from revealing the actual amount paid.

Mike always thought this sort of gag was totally unreasonable as the term 'substantial damages' can leave the impression that a big sum has been paid over when, in reality, the sum is often very small, much closer to £500 than £50,000. I don't want to give the impression that regional newspapers often libel people and pay out damages - it's actually pretty rare (the Mercury, for example, has not paid out anything in the eight months that I've been in Leicester).

But, back to Mike. We had published something inaccurate about a local councillor who demanded an apology and damages and a deal was agreed which included such a ban on revealing the amount paid out, but describing it as 'substantial.'

At the time, we published an item every day called 'word of the day.' This would take a word from an article in the paper and explain what it meant. It was usually Mike's way of explaining gobbledegook and was an interesting little feature.

On the day that we published the apology and the line about substantial damages, the word of the day was 'substantial' and it was defined simply as: £500!

As the councillor's solicitors later complained, it wasn't cricket. But it was funny.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Supermarket has the answer to newspaper problems

Eureka! I've stumbled across the answer to falling revenue problems for newspapers.

We're going to introduce a rule that says if you read the Mercury for more than, let's say, half an hour, you have to pay us an extra £40. It's genius - I'll do everything I can to entice you to read for longer and longer and as soon as you slip over the half hour mark, I'll thank you by whacking out the £40 charge.

This idea came to me yesteday after my wife was charged an extra £40 for spending more than two hours in Morrison's supermarket. They waited until a couple of days after her visit and then sent her a letter thanking her for being such a good customer and inviting her to send them an extra £70, or £40 if she sent it within the next 14 days.

I can't believe that I hadn't thought of it before. How can it fail?

Of course, Morrisons didn't call this a customer loyalty payment or anything like that. They called it a parking fine.

That's right - they sent my wife, and her friend who she met at the shop, a £40 fine each for being there too long. Putting aside the fact that I feel that there is some justification for fining anybody who spends more than two hours in a supermarket, it does seem an incredible situation, especially given that they have a cafe where they encourage you to sit down for lunch. Which is exactly what my wife and her friend did - they shopped and then had lunch.

By now, you're probably wondering where this rant is going.

To be honest, I don't care about the £40 fine. If Morrisons want to be that stupid, that's up to them. If I was my wife (which would be very odd), I'd contest it and I'd be amazed if they enforced it.

However, the thing that actually enraged me about this whole episode is the behaviour of the government department involved. Yes, that's right, a government department decided to help Morrisons track down my wife so that they could send her a fine!

It was, of course, the DVLA. It turns out that they are happy to pass on your personal data to just about any old Tom, Dick or Harry.

This is what it says on their website:
Regulations allow for the release of information from DVLA’s vehicle register to the police, to local authorities for the investigation of an offence or on-road parking contravention, and to anybody who demonstrates ‘reasonable cause’ to have the information. Regulations also allow for a fee to be charged to cover the cost of processing requests, but not for a profit to be made.

As a general rule, reasonable cause for the release of data from the DVLA vehicle register relates to motoring incidents with driver or keeper liability. These can include matters of road safety, events occurring as a consequence of vehicle use, the enforcement of road traffic legislation and the collection of taxes.
You might think that sounds fair enough - we are legally obliged to give our data to the Government if we want to drive a car in the UK and they might pass it on to law enforcement officers investigating offences.

But hang on a second - my wife didn't commit an offence and Morrisons are not a law enforcement agency.

It turns out that the DVLA will send your personal details to anybody who can show they have 'reasonable cause' and that, apparently, would include Morrisons if they thought you spent too long over your lunch. If you dig around enough on the DVLA website you will find their justification for this:
Improving car park efficiency DVLA data release from the vehicle register to car parking companies helps them enforce their terms and conditions. Without us those companies would have no alternative other than to use clamping (in England and Wales) and/or vehicle removal as a means of dealing with unauthorised parking. Such methods are massively inconvenient to the driver.
Ah, so it's all for own good. I'm sorry, but I don't buy that. I'm willing to bet that there would be no way that I could get the home address of the manager of Morrisons out of the DVLA whatever I felt he'd done to me - my wife spends too long over her coffee and they're happy to send out her personal details.

If you read my blog you'll probably know that access to information and the decision making processes of public bodies bothers me and so you won't be surprised to hear that I've written to the Information Commissioner challenging the right of the DVLA to pass on personal data in private disputes. I emailed the form this morning and await a response.

In the meantime, I've taken my own direct action. On the way to work this morning, another government department was stopping cars at junction 25 of the M1 to hand out a survey on road usage. Amongst the questions was a box asking for full details of where I'd come from (my home) - at the first opportunity I ripped up the form and chucked it in the bin. Note to Government: if you think I'm going to trust you with any of my personal information which you can't demand by law, think again.

Tragic death raised questions for our reporting

The fall-out from the tragic death of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter raised a couple of important questions for the Mercury news team yesterday.

The first surrounded the identity of some of the youths accused of being involved in the harassment that led to Ms Pilkington killing her daughter before committing suicide. As a rule, the Mercury, in line with the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct, does not name children under the age of 16 involved in crime. The law itself gives protection to juveniles appearing in court and they are rarely named. However, there are occasions when a magistrate or judge will decide that a child should be named, often as part of an attempt to protect the public.

The issue here was that there was no court case, but two boys and their older brother were named in national newspapers - one of them branded 'Street Rat' on the front page of the Sun. A local councillor was also raising a petition to have the family evicted.

You may be surprised to hear that our first reaction was not to name the family and particularly the two younger boys. But after some discussion we decided to do the opposite - to name the boys and use their photographs. What was behind the decision?

Primarily, it was because any pretence that these boys had anonymity was ridiculous. Everybody in the area knew the identity of the boys even before the national papers got involved. It was clear from our discussions with neighbours that they were well-known in the area and their links to the Pilkington case were common knowledge - not naming them would have made our article look very odd and would not have 'protected' the boys in any way.

The other question we faced was more difficult. Three other vulnerable families contacted us to say that they had been harassed in a similar way and felt that they had been left to suffer with little or no protection from the police or other authorities.

The issue here was that these cases are always much more complex than they look and there was no time for the authorities to go away and investigate what was being claimed by the families and give a reasoned response or challenge the 'facts.' For example, one of the families said they had called the police 'hundreds of times.' I'm guessing, but that's probably factually inaccurate and may be no more than a figure of speech.

So the question was: should we run these claims based on nothing other than what the families said?

We decided we would because it was important to point out that the Pilkington case was not an isolated incident and although we had nothing to corroborate the individual claims of each family, in a way they corroborated each other. In a general discussion about the way the police and social services should respond to such incidents, the detailed facts are largely irrelevant - what's important here is that there are several families who felt harassed and felt that they dud not get the support they needed.

The police themselves have admitted that they have changed the way they react to claims of anti-social behaviour. The Pilkington family's calls for help were dealt with as individual complaints of anti-social behaviour and received a fairly low-level response but since their deaths, the police have changed their policy to categorise repeated offences against vulnerable people as hate crime, which receives a much more serious response.

As is often the way in these cases, the inquest has taken some years to be heard and the response of the police and councils is invariably that they have changed. So while the coroner is very critical of the way they responded to Ms Pilkington's plight they say that they have learned the lessons.

That's why we not only decided to highlight that other families suffered at the same time as the Pilkingtons, but added a line to our article asking whether anybody is still suffering.

Poor response can lead to serious consequences

Newspapers are often accused of creating panic around health scares by the way they report deaths which become associated with vaccines or other treatment.

So, when news broke yesterday of the death of a schoolgirl in Coventry shortly after she had received the new cervical cancer jab, the Mercury thought long and hard about how to report it.
We were very conscious of the dangers of frightening people away from having the jab as every year more than 1,000 women die of cervical cancer and doctors say the new vaccination will cut that significantly.

We were aware that no link had been established between the girl’s death and the jab apart from the fact that she died soon after receiving it.

However, some jabs were suspended in Coventry and we turned to our local health authorities to offer some reassurance. Unfortunately, the response we got was disasterous. It offered no reassurance, but left major questions unanswered.

We were told: “Although we have had to cancel a small number of immunisation sessions at a few schools due to local circumstances, there are no plans to interrupt or suspend the national HPV immunisation programme.” We were given almost exactly the same wording twice from different senior people within our local health authorities - it was clearly an 'agreed line' and we even heard that it had come out of the Department of Health who were suggesting that all health authorities should say no more.

But what on earth were we supposed to make of that? What did they mean when they said that a small number of sessions had been cancelled due to ‘local circumstances’? They wouldn’t say.

Elsewhere in the country, health authorities announced that they had been instructed by the Department of Health to cancel sessions and check the batch numbers of their vaccines. They said that vaccinations would restart tomorrow.

But the damage is done. A poorly thought-through response to a single death which adds confusion and even the smallest reason to doubt what is being said will unsettle parents.

Of course, we have seen it all before with the MMR jab. Enough doubt was raised to persuade many parents to refuse to allow their children to receive the vaccination despite health authorities repeated statements that the dangers from measles and mumps were far greater than any danger in the jab.

So how did we handle it? Fortunately we have a very experienced health reporter in Cathy Buss and her article was well-balanced and all I can say is that it wouldn't put me off allowing my two daughters to have the jab.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mercury owners issue trading update

The Mercury's owners, Daily Mail and General Trust, issued a trading update today, with figures up to the end of August, a month before the end of our financial year.

It has been a torrid year for newspapers, but the update points to some improvements in the financials, both in terms of advertising sales trends and the profit outcome as a result of the cost cutting exercise which has led to 1,500 people losing their jobs across the national and local newspapers - this, of course, includes those who lost their job when the presses closed in Leicester and the nine journalists who were made redundant when we re-organised the way we handle the back end production of the Mercury. It has been a pretty horrible process, but it's clear from the figures that if the cuts had not been made, the newspapers would have found themselves in a pretty horrific situation by now.

For those who want to see the details, you can find them here on DMGT's website.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Do you know what's going on at the Curve theatre?

At the risk of being accused of being anti-Leicester and failing to support the regeneration of the city, I've got a question to ask.

What is happening at the Curve? What makes me ask that? The awful PR dull-speak that came out of the theatre this week announcing the departure of its chief executive, Ruth Eastwood. In common with other parts of the media, we received a press release (printed in full below) from Kate Gambrell, Freelance Media Consultancy (I would link to her, but if she has a website, I can't find it.)

In this, Ms Gambrell told us that Ruth Eastwood was stepping down later this month (next week?) "to take a break for herself and to focus on her future personal development." I guess, at least, that's slightly more imaginative than the reason given by politicians who nearly always seem to want "to spend more time with their family."

Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that it's just guff.

This opinion is reinforced the next day when a senior insider tells us that there have been long-running issues between Ms Eastwood and the chairman of the trust that runs the theatre, Mr Anthony Lawton. The situation was bad enough for the Ms Eastwood to issue a grievance against the chairman, although this was later dismissed by the board.

However, nobody official is going to add anything to the annodine quotes in the press release - if I was a betting man, I'd put money on the fact that this was because of a confidentiality clause in whatever deal has been struck between the theatre and Ms Eastwood. Has there been a pay-off? Well, you wouldn't think so if Ms Eastwood had resigned ... but look again - the press release doesn't say she has resigned, just that she is stepping down.

And this is where the PR starts to unravel in my mind. If she was going because she wanted to take a break and focus on her future personal development, that sounds as if she was resigning, in which case she should not be getting a pay-off.

If, on the other hand, she is going as part of a deal following the fall-out between her and the chairman, then the theatre is almost certainly paying her off and she's not going for the reasons given. Obviously we asked, but this is how we reported the response:
"A spokesman also said that because they were an independent organisation they had no obligation to release information they feel is commercially sensitive, such as details of any pay-off Ms Eastwood could get."
That provokes two thoughts. Firstly, if there was no pay-off, the spokesman would have said so. And, secondly - you can file this in the drawer marked: red, rag, bull - 'an independent organisation with no obligation to release information?'

Independent of the city taxpayers who forked out £35-million towards the cost of building the theatre?

And then there's the running costs - it's pretty obvious that the theatre is not running at a profit. But how much is it costing to run and who's paying that?

I was surprised at how little information I could find on this in the public domain. I found something on the website of East Midlands Arts suggesting it was paying upwards of £2-million a year, but I couldn't find anything else in the hour I spent searching, other than our recent article that said the theatre had applied to the national Arts Council for £750,000 to help it through difficulties caused by the current economic downturn. It's odd how little I could find.

Hence my question in the headline - do you know what's going on at the Curve? Have you seen the business plan? There was lots of talk of success in the press release, but measured against what? We were told that there have been 120,000 ticket sales in the first year. Is that good? Is that what they were expecting?

I'll be asking somebody at the office to put together an article detailing how the running costs are being paid ... so any help would be greatly appreciated.

PS I can already feel the establishment reaction to my questions. This is not a criticism of the Curve, it is simply me asking a question I ask often - how is public money being spent? Why won't the public bodies say how much they are spending and tell us why it is worthwhile? I'm all in favour of public funding for art, but I hate it when it is hidden away as if the authorities were ashamed of it.

Here's the press release in full:

Leicester Theatre Trust Chief Executive to step down

After leading Leicester Theatre Trust (LTT) through three of the most challenging and exciting years in the organisation’s history, Ruth Eastwood will step down as Chief Executive later this month to take a break for herself and to focus on her future personal development. During her tenure she ensured the successful completion and opening season of Curve, the city's new state of the art theatre.

Curve opened in November 2008 and since then the venue has attracted over 120,000 ticket sales for Leicester Theatre Trust productions (Lift Off, Simply Cinderella, In-I, The Pillowman, As You Like It, The Light in the Piazza and the large scale community production of His Dark Materials), visiting national and international work and shows produced by Leicester’s many vibrant community arts groups. Under Ruth’s leadership Curve has also hosted a range of conferences and commercial events including this year’s Arts Marketing Association annual conference.

Ruth comments: "I am immensely proud of what we have achieved over the last three years and the fantastic success of our first season in Curve. It has been a very exciting and very intense period and I now feel that as Leicester Theatre Trust gets into its stride and moves into its second year, I can take the opportunity to step back, take some time for myself and focus on my future personal development. The team at Curve has worked tirelessly and with huge commitment and dedication to make this wonderful facility really 'sing', it has been a pleasure and an honour to have led them on this amazing journey. I'd like to thank them all, the Board and our partners and wish Curve all the best in the future.

Anthony Lawton OBE, Chair of Leicester Theatre Trust said

“On behalf of the Board and all involved with Leicester Theatre Trust I would like to thank Ruth for her hard work in successfully leading LTT into a new era with a new cutting-edge building, her efforts have given the organisation at Curve a fine start. I wish Ruth all success and happiness in her future endeavours.”

Laura Dyer, Chief Executive, Arts Council England, East Midlands added

“We are sorry to hear that Ruth Eastwood has decided to leave Curve and we would like to take this opportunity to celebrate her great achievement in taking Curve through its build phase and completing its first season, which included some stunning work. Curve is poised to build on the strong platform she has helped to create and to meet the challenges of establishing itself at the cultural heart of Leicester, the region and the Country.”

Paul Kerryson Artistic Director, Leicester Theatre Trust added

“It has been a real pleasure to work alongside Ruth who has led the company through an immensely challenging and inspiring time. She has given magnificent support to the artistic endeavours of Leicester’s unique and wonderful Curve experience.”

Stella McCabe, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Communications, and Paul Kerryson, Artistic Director will lead the organisation in the immediate coming weeks supported by the Chair, Board of Trustees and senior executive colleagues. A further announcement regarding the recruitment of a new Chief Executive will be made in due course.


For further information please contact:
Kate Gambrell, Freelance Media Consultancy:

Monday, September 07, 2009

Lawyers win when common sense loses

Writing the comment column of a newspaper can be difficult, but sometimes it's easy! Below is the first draft of the comment I put together for tomorrow's paper where I rail against the lunacy that has settled on the rural village of Breedon on the Hill. I do think that the situation we find ourselves in literally beggars belief.

It's difficult to see how anybody spending their own money could possibly take the stance being taken by either side in the argument, but, as we see so often, when you're spending somebody else's cash, it is easy to let bravado take the lead. Each side blames the other and both claim to be acting in a reasonable manner - they're both to blame and neither is acting reasonably.

However, I do wonder how quickly it would be sorted out if the two sides sat down in a room with no lawyers or mediators present!
"Sometimes decisions involving public money beggar belief. The Mercury's recent revelation that the Curve theatre in Leicester cost many millions more than had been expected was bad enough. At least at the end of the overspend the city has a theatre, an asset which undoubtedly adds to the cultural ethos of the city.

But the ludicrous argument over the use of a school hall in Breedon on the Hill could end up costing taxpayers more than £6-million just to get to where we started! The two sides in the argument have become so entrenched in their positions that all common sense seems to have disappeared out of the window. It seems a fairly straightforward issue: the villagers paid towards the cost of building a school hall 50 years ago on condition that they would be able to use it, now the council wants to change the way it is used.

The council claims the use of the hall by villagers is 'impairing' the running of the school and raises child safety issues. It offered the villagers £92,000 towards the cost of a new hall if they agreed to leave, but the villagers said no.

And then things got out of hand. The villagers took the council to court and the case was due to have been heard this month. The council's legal bill was expected to be in the region of £567,000, the campaigners' £3.2-million. That's right: almost £4-million to argue in court over a village hall that could be rebuilt for a fraction of that amount.

Now the court case has been delayed by six months and, according to the county council's legal department, the costs could now go up another £2.4-million to almost £6.2-million. Of course, the costs would only be paid by taxpayers if the council lost. The villagers have some form of no-win no-fee arrangement with their legal team.

But that's not the point. The whole exercise is a ludicrous waste of time and money. The two sides need to have their heads knocked together and then they need to step away from each other and reach agreement. The council should not be gambling with taxpayers money in this way. It should make a reasonable offer to build a new community hall and the villagers should accept it and that should be the end of the matter.

Millions have already been frittered away on this ridiculous stand-off, but it would still cost less to build new hall than to continue with the case. The politicians need to step in and sort it out - clearly the only winners at the moment are the lawyers."

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Learning an Italian lesson

Travelling in Italy last month I was struck by the state of their roads which contrast markedly with the condition of those in Britain as a whole and LeicesterShire in particular.

The Italians seem quite happy to let even the most major highways fall into serious disrepair with most carriageways pitted and potholed far worse than anything we ever experience here. In lots of ways it's not a great driving experience - it's noisy and uncomfortable - and, I guess like most foreign drivers arriving in Italy, my first reaction was to curse the authorities. Actually that wasn't my first reaction: my first reaction was to slow down. You don't have much choice. Add the state of the roads to the fact that Italian motorways have much sharper bends than their British counterparts, and you cannot feel safe driving quickly. I'm sure there are lots of benefits to driving more slowly, the most obvious being the opportunity to enjoy the stunning scenery through Tuscany and Umbria.

However, once I'd got over the initial shock and was more used to slower speeds, it made me wonder why we are so obsessed with potholes in this country. Every year, the Mercury runs stories about residents complaining about the state of the road where they live, councils run hotlines to allow potholes to be reported and, if memory serves me right, Leicestershire County Council proudly attempts to fix all potholes within 24 hours of them appearing. The city council, which is much slower to react to the complaints, finds itself under pressure and at least once in the past 12 months has had to find extra cash to resurface affected roads.

But why? What is the real problem with potholes? Wouldn't the cash be better spent elsewhere? There's no doubt that we spend many millions of pounds in Britain keeping our roads looking like Grand Prix tracks - why doesn't the council simply say: No. I know we'd all be up in arms at first, but isn't there an argument to be made? Wouldn't we get used to it? The Italians appear to have accepted it.

I don't suppose it will be long before the health and safety experts point out that potholes cause accidents (do they?), but wouldn't this be offset by the reduction in speed? Isn't this similar to the argument about allowing parking on narrow streets - there are those who say it makes the road dangerous, but it also slows down traffic, presumably making the streets safer. What ever happened to that experiment where a city (in Germany?) took away all street markings as they felt it would make drivers and pedestrians more aware of their surroundings and, therefore, contrary to popular belief, make the roads safer? Wasn't it the Scandinavians who started to make children's playgrounds a little less safe on the grounds that it taught children to be more alert and careful ... and, therefore, more safe?

I'm sure this argument has now deteriorated into a ramble - probably full of potholes and proving the point that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing - but is there a discussion to be had on deliberately allowing our roads to fall into disrepair?

And one of the things that I noticed that the Italians did seem to spend a lot of money on was preserving the character of their towns and cities. It was clear that lots of money had been spent on restoring and converting for modern use the ancient buildings of Todi, Assisi, Perugia, Rome, Siena, Venice et al.

I guess when it comes down to it, it's simply a matter of priorities. And we choose to spend our money on potholes.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

How should we report hate crime?

Hate crime has been high up the political agenda ever since the authorities botched their reaction to the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993 and it can throw up interesting decisions for a newspaper when it comes to reporting.

In the early hours of yesterday morning, a number of anti-gay posters were put up on various walls and windows in Leicester city centre and around the railway station. The Mercury received calls fairly early on from people getting off trains and it was clear that the posters had been seen by lots of people.

I'm guessing the posters were timed to coincide with today's Gay Pride parade through the city and, on another day, they could just as easily have been racist or sexist and we would have been faced with the same decisions.

We talked first thing about how we should cover the story and agreed the following:
  • It was important that we covered it - the posters were very public
  • We would slant our coverage to reflect the general disgust at the posters
  • We would not repeat any of the words on the posters
  • We would not print any pictures which showed the words
  • We would run the article towards the front of paper
In the end, this is what we ran on Page 2 of today's paper.

However, the reaction in some quarters of the police was different. As you'd expect, they were treating this as a serious crime - they were already studying cctv images and had sent one of the posters off to be tested forensically to see if there were any clues as to the perpetrators - and we got a call from a senior officer who clearly thought we should not be reporting it.

There seemed to be two arguments against publication, the first of which, rather oddly, seemed to be that it wouldn't show Leicester up in a very good light! The second was the more predictable suggestion that our coverage would give 'the oxygen of publicity' to the posters, helping those who produced them to achieve their goal.

I don't understand the first argument. I don't believe that it sheds any light on Leicester at all. It simply shows that some pretty horrible person or people, who may or may not be from Leicester, did something horrible. Perhaps we shouldn't cover any crime? Was this worse than rape or murder? Actually, as we reported, what it actually showed was that many of the posters were ripped down by right-thinking people in Leicester.

I have more sympathy with the second argument, but I don't think that ignoring bad things and hoping they will go away is generally helpful. I'm pretty sure that the decisions we had already taken on how to handle the story negated any concerns and I don't think we did anything which would boost the standing of those who put up the posters.

I caught an interesting take on this argument on BBC Radio 5's phone-in programme earlier in the week when they were discussing football chants in relation to a CD that is being sold by Amazon which includes football fans accusing a well-known manager of being a paedophile. The Radio 5 line was clearly that this was disgusting and that Amazon should take the CD off the shelves, so to speak. And how did they illustrate this? Well, of course, they played the clip from the CD, named the manager and let everyone listen to the fans chanting the offending words!

UPDATE: On the Radio 5 show, the presenter read out a statement from Amazon saying that it would not remove the CD as that would be censorship and that the company believed in free speech - a claim that went completely unchallenged by the BBC despite its obvious absurdity. Does Amazon sell openly homophobic or racist material? I notice this morning that Amazon has in fact removed the CD from sale following a complaint from the football club concerned which pointed out that the chant was defamatory. However, Amazon adds: "We would not remove a product from our site because some, or many, people find it to be distasteful or otherwise objectionable. We believe it is censorship to make a product unavailable for those reasons."

Friday, August 21, 2009

The dangers of jigsaw identification

The Baby P case threw up some interesting points on who can and can't be identified during court cases, particularly those involving children.

Like most regional newspapers, the Leicester Mercury has a policy that says we won't name children involved in criminal cases as either victims or witnesses even if the law says we can.

There are clearly cases where we abandon this policy where naming the child may do more good than harm - the Maddy McCann case being the obvious local example. But we would also usually name a child where he court case involves the death of that child, which is why the Baby P case was so confusing.

Despite the fact that Baby P had died, the court oredered that he should not be named. Indeed, the court banned the media from naming anyone involved in the case and for those not closely connected, it was not immediately obvious why. At the time of the case last year, I was not editing newspapers and knew no more than any member of the public about the reasons behind the decision. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that it was because some of those charged with the neglect of Baby P were due to face further charges on an unrelated crime at a later date. The theory was that if they were publicly named and found guilty of causing the baby's death, they would find it difficult to get a fair trial for the later charges.

Now that those later charges have been dealt with, the names of all those involved in the Baby P case are in the public domain.

However, the naming of those involved brought up another issue - something we call jigsaw identification.

This arises when different media outlets give different pieces of information which when added together identify someone who the courts believe should not be indentified. The most common situation where this arises is where a family member abuses a child. Our policy, and that recommended by the Press Complaints Commission, is to name the adult involved without giving their relationship to the child. We might leave out other information which would give away the child's name such as their age, the number of brothers and sisters they have or, sometimes, the school they go to. This will often mean that very few details of the actual crime are given - which you may think is a good thing anyway in a family newspaper.

The problem then arises where another media outlet - perhaps a national tabloid - decides to put far more details into their story, but leaves out the name of the adult. At this point they may well include the fact that the crime was committed by the father and give the age of the child. You can see that by putting the two reports together, it is easy to identify the child involved.

This tends to be much less of an issue nowadays as most news organisations will stick to the PCC code of conduct and, therefore, everyone will name the adult and leave out the details.

However, it appears that in the Baby P case, one of those involved - who was named by some newspapers, including the Mercury - has committed unconnected crimes which certain other papers decided to detail without naming the person concerned. That makes it very difficult for media outlets. We didn't make a choice in this case - we named the person as the other crimes were unconnected and we were not aware of them. My guess is that most other newspapers were in a similar position, but the one or two which did know about the other crimes put us all in a position where we may have, unwittingly, identified a child victim.

I think, fortunately, in this case, it is unlikely that anyone will put two and two together, but it does show how easy it is to fall foul of the law.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dismissed with a wave of the hand

That's it. With a disimissive wave of his hand, Leicester City Council's Director of Legal Services has consigned our concerns about openness and transparency to the bin.

Like an exasperated Victorian parent faced with one question too many from a recalitrant child, the director has answered: 'Because I say so.'

He repeats his assertion that there is no unlawful blanket policy of taking discussions of certain sorts of financial information into private and refers me back to his original letter without dealing with any of the details we put before him.

'At the Cabinet meeting on 3rd August, when your reporter was present, I explained clearly the presumption that all business must be dealt with in public unless there are good reasons why information in a report should be dealt with as “exempt” and that the public interest in maintaining a statutory exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing information.'

And so he did. But, once again, he doesn't explain how the 'balancing' act between openess and privacy was done. That, in my view, is because it wasn't.

It would have been quite easy to set it out with a list of the things which were said to be on the side of openess, followed by a list of the those which demanded secrecy and an explanation of why. But it's not going to happen. The director has spoken.

So, is that it? Well, possibly not. As I mentioned before, the leader of the city council, Councillor Ross Wilmott, also wrote to me and although he said much the same as the council's legal advisor, he did at least offer to meet with me to discuss the situation. I've accepted, suggesting that we meet one to one. Councillor Wilmott is, of course, the key to all of this - as leader of the council he could easily persuade those around him to be more open and I will take the opportunity to ask in detail the questions we have already raised in the hope of persuading him that the decision on Bowstring could have been taken more in the open and that, in future, a more rigorous questioning of reasons given for meeting in private might lead to more transparency.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Council letter filed in drawer marked: You would say that, wouldn't you?

Surprise, surprise! I'm hearing rumours that the city council's reaction to our complaints that they are too secretive is to ... become even more secretive!

Apparently, the council has now reduced the number of people who get to see confidential documents so that even fewer people are in a position to question what they are doing and how. I don't know who has been removed from the distribution list or why as, obviously, the council isn't publicising its decision!

Below is my full response to the council's letter outlined in my previous post, showing why:

  1. The Bowstring Bridge decision should not have been taken in private
  2. The council's hysterical claims around the damage we did in reporting what happened was just that - hysterical
  3. It's rubbish for the council to claim that they were not making a decision to knock down the bridge last week.

WARNING: If my last post sent you to sleep, skip this one! It goes into even greater detail as to what we don't like about the council's position!

Dear Mr. Nicholls,

I have been provided with a copy of your letter dated August 5th to our solicitors, Foot Anstey. I have filed it in the drawer marked ‘you would say that, wouldn’t you.’

It seems to me that you seek to find the most obstructive reading possible of the Local Government Act 1972 to prevent public access to Council meetings.

Furthermore, I would point out that simply making statements does not make them true.

Let us first deal with your assertion that the council does not have a blanket policy which automatically excludes certain forms of exempt information without first considering the public interest test on each occasion. Whilst it may be true that the Council does not have an explicitly stated policy to such an effect, the council does, de facto, operate such a policy as evidenced by the following points:

  1. As you yourself point out, the Act requires that the Council consider, in all the circumstances of the case (my emphasis), whether the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information. This clearly requires a balancing act, a consideration of both sides of the argument – the benefits of confidentiality and the benefits of openness so that you can decide in each case whether or not the balance comes down in favour of openness. The advice to the cabinet on Monday – and indeed your statement in your letter – simply lists those points which you believe make it against the public interest for openness. Where were the Councillors advised of benefits to be had from public discussion in this case? They were not. So how could the councillors, in all the circumstances of the case, make a decision? They could not. They made the decision based on some of the circumstances, ignoring all those which may have swung the balance in favour of openness.

  1. This is always the case at all meetings of Leicester City Council and its committees. Councillors are always told that a report is marked not for publication because it contains exempt information as defined by Part 1 of Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972 – they are never told the meaning of the legal requirement for them to consider the public interest test. The contra arguments, those in favour of openness, are never listed on the documents.

  1. My Political Correspondent, Martin Robinson, has attended hundreds of meetings under the auspices of your authority and has never once heard a discussion around the public interest test in which the authority has spelled out the benefits of openness so that councillors could carry out the public interest test taking into consideration all the circumstances of the case.

  1. I have studied dozens of sets of minutes and cannot find a single instance where councillors have decided that the public interest test comes down in favour of openness – this, I would suggest, is because councillors are not asked to perform the public interest test taking into account all the circumstances of the case. See above, they are given one side of the argument.

  1. The current chair of the scrutiny committee told me that he cannot ever remember having had the public interest test explained to him: ‘I cannot remember it though it may have been mentioned. If it was it was a very low hurdle to get over.’ I asked him whether he was talked through the test on each and every occasion that he agreed to put something into the private part of a meeting as is required by law. He replied: ‘Definitely not.’ I further asked him whether or not he was ever advised on the benefit of hearing any such item in public as opposed to in private. He replied: ‘Definitely not.’

  1. Former council lead on resources, Councillor Peter Coley, told us that the public interest test was explained on a few occasions ‘most usually as part of a wider discussion instigated by ourselves.’ He further states: ‘Officers did not specifically talk me through the test on every occasion that it was suggested an item should appear (in private), but would nearly always offer some justification for wanting an item heard in private. On the odd occasion when it was not clear why an item should (be heard in private) then I would challenge the reasoning and the officer would provide a rationale which sometimes led to discussions as to whether the public interest outweighed the given reason to hear an item in private.’ He added that on ‘a number of occasions’ the then council leader would challenge the officer’s decision and the public interest test would be carried out. In other words, as a matter of course, there was no public interest test and it only happened on the occasion that a councillor challenged an officer.

It is clear that there is no evidence whatsoever of the Council collectively or its officers /councillors individually carrying out the public interest test and taking into account all the circumstances of the case. There is plenty of evidence of them failing to carry out the test, including your own description of what happened in the meeting that we challenged on Monday.

Moving on to your assertion that our publication of leaked material has seriously undermined the council’s financial and business position. This statement is made without evidence and I do not accept it.

Let’s look at the figures we ‘revealed’ and consider how they might undermine the council’s position.

Our articles have detailed only four figures:

  • A cost of ‘up to £472,000’ for demolishing the Bowstring Bridge
  • An initial payment from DMU of £1 for land
  • Two further payments of £250,000 and £500,000 by DMU as the project progresses.

The first of these figures – the ‘up to £472,000’ to demolish the bridge – appears to be the one that is causing most concern to councillors and would appear to me to be the only one which you might claim ‘would have the potential of unnecessarily enhancing public costs.’

But this figure has been in the public domain for several years – placed there by the city council. In November 2007, a senior councillor was quoted in the Leicester Mercury as having said it would cost about £500,000 to demolish the bridge.

Furthermore, the authority has consistently quoted publicly in its Corporate Capital Plan that the cost of the demolition would be £466,000.

See, for example, the meeting of cabinet on January 27 2003, agenda item 172:

5.2 Duns Lane
(Bowstring Bridge) £466,000

Further surveys are being carried out, but the likelihood is that the bridge will need to be demolished for Health and Safety reasons.

Again, see the minutes for the meeting of the economic development and planning scrutiny committee on March 22 2007, agenda item 125

3.23 Duns Lane
(Bowstring Bridge) £466,000

This will need to be demolished for health and safety reasons.

Although I have highlighted two occasions in which the authority has put this ‘confidential’ information into the public domain, the figure appears in the publicly available papers of dozens of meetings over the past few years. Indeed, the confidential papers of Monday’s meeting recommend that councillors agree for the immediate release of funds ‘allocated in the capital programme for 2009/2010 to undertake the demolition of the Bowstring Bridge.’ So, what the councillors agreed to do was to spend up to the amount contained in the publicly available document.

I think it is fair for us to repeat our suggestion that it is rubbish that our ‘revelation’ of this figure might cost the council – and taxpayer – money.

In further statements issued to the Mercury since the meeting, it is clear that the council was already well on with the process of selecting contractors to demolish the bridge. We have been told that demolition is due to start ‘around September 21’, a little over six weeks away. This suggests that considerable preparatory work has already been done in terms of the procurement process as it is difficult to see how else a tendering company would have time to undertake the appropriate level of due diligence, come up with a quote and get their workforce into place is such a short timescale. It is difficult to believe that a company that far down the road would not already have seen the publicly available estimate of £466,000.

This statement does, however, conflict with another given to us by the council which says that notice to quit was given to the occupant of the arches last week – before the decision to go ahead with the demolition was taken – and that the arches would be vacated by the ‘end of September’ and ‘we are hoping to start demolition work as soon as possible after this time.’

It is clear from this latter statement that public discussion of this point would have no affect whatsoever on the outcome.

The other three figures contained within our reports relate to the deal you have negotiated with DMU – they have already seen these figures and agreed to them. It is difficult to see how our reporting of them could damage the deal in anything other than a hypothetical way, underlying our assertion above that a proper consideration of the public interest test may well have led to a decision to hold the discussions in public.

Finally, I come to your claim that: Further, it appears [the newspaper] has misled the public into thinking that yesterday’s decision was to demolish the bridge, whereas authority was given by Cabinet as long ago as July, 2005.

(We will put aside the fact that you emailed the letter to our solicitors on Wednesday, which suggests to me that you wrote it on Tuesday but needed to get it signed off by your senior colleagues and/or political masters, thereby delaying it by 24 hours).

As far as I am concerned, your claim that the meeting on Monday did not approve the demolition of the bridge is the sort of political double-speak that leads to people not trusting politicians.

It is true that cabinet did approve the demolition in 2005, but, in each year since then, the bridge has not been demolished. The decision in 2005 was taken because council officials said the bridge would ‘fall down within a year’ if it was not demolished. It had nothing to do with a potential deal with DMU so, while a decision was taken in 2005, in each year since then, the council has decided, by default through its actions, not to demolish the bridge. On Monday, a decision was taken that would lead directly to the demolition of the bridge – councillors finally agreed to spend the money they had set aside to knock it down.

Furthermore, the report to committee in July 2005 makes it clear that a decision to demolish the bridge had also been taken on January 9 1997. ‘Eight years have now passed since the original decision was taken to demolish the bridge,’ the report in 2005 stated. Yet despite this decision, the July 2005 meeting ‘decided’ again! Now another four years have passed, but this time the council says the decision did not need to be taken again.

However, it is clear that the bridge could not be demolished without the decision taken on Monday as this was the point at which councillors agreed to spend the money.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that in the years since 2005, officers and members of the council have been confused about whether or not the bridge was to be demolished. There are numerous reports in our newspaper where senior councillors, especially Councillor Patrick Kitterick, are quoted as using terminology which implies that the bridge may not be demolished. Specifically in March 2008, Councillor Kitterick said that a temporary stopping order on a footpath over the bridge was being applied for to give the authority more time to ‘make a decision about the permanent stopping order.’ If the bridge was definitely being demolished, why did the authority need more time to make a decision? If it was definitely being demolished, the council definitely needed the permanent stopping up order. In October 2007, Councillor Kitterick said: ‘Development plans are being discussed with DMU which may involve the bridge being removed. Nothing has been settled yet.’ In September 2005, council finance spokesman Councillor Pete Coley said: ‘We’re keen to look at every viable suggestion that could save the bridge …’

It can be seen that senior councillors were of the opinion that the bridge might not be demolished even after the decision of 2005.

And they were not alone.

Council officers also seem confused as to the status of the decision:

In a report to the meeting of the cabinet on March 13 2006 – several months after the ‘decision’ council officials put the following line into a document outlining the council’s corporate capital programme:

3.28 Duns Lane
(Bowstring Bridge) - £466,000

Further surveys are being carried out, but the likelihood is that the bridge will need to be demolished for Health and Safety reasons.

The same report had been sent to the cabinet meeting on March 2005 – before the ‘decision’ of July 2005 – indicating that council officers did not see that the situation had changed.

The same report also went to the full council on March 16 2006, indicating that neither members of the cabinet nor the full council saw anything wrong with the official’s appraisal that it was likely the bridge would need demolishing – this again is several months after the decision which you say was final from July 2005.

By the meeting of economic development and planning scrutiny committee of March 22 2007, this has changed to:

3.23 Duns Lane
(Bowstring Bridge) - £466,000

This will need to be demolished for health and safety reasons.

Presumably something happened during that 12-month period? If the surveys referred to in the meetings of March 2006 had found that the bridge was not in danger of falling down, would it have been left standing? If not, why did council officers consistently say only that it was ‘likely’ the bridge would be demolished? How is a member of the public or press supposed to interpret that? Surely, if you are correct about the status of the ‘decision’ taken in 2005, the health and safety surveys were irrelevant – the bridge was being demolished. Why was the council spending further money on surveys to decide whether or not the bridge needed demolishing?

Finally on this point, we have several articles in the Leicester Mercury in which De Montfort University, when speaking about their planned £6-million development of the site (it’s interesting that this figure can be given in public without endangering the procurement procedures of the university) have said repeatedly that they would not comment until the fate of the bridge had been decided. This they continued to say long after the July 2005 ‘decision’.

All in all, it is clear that while a ‘decision’ was taken in July 2005, nobody at the council – members or officers – nor anybody outside the council (DMU and campaigners) thought it was a final decision. The decision on Monday was the one which sealed the fate of the bridge.

Despite all of this argument about the rights and wrongs of your actions under the law, the most depressing aspect of the issue is that the council claims to believe in open and transparent government and yet continues to look for the harshest possible reading of the 1972 Act to meet in private.

You should know that I consider the final paragraph of your letter to be nothing but a thinly veiled threat to this newspaper, by which you attempt to restrict our right to independent reporting of the Council’s affairs. It will not succeed. We will continue to reveal, at every opportunity, the hypocrisy of a council that says it believes in open and transparent government, but ignores the very law introduced to give the public rights to see decisions being made.

Finally, being aware of your professional obligations, I confirm that you may henceforth correspond directly with me; there is no need for you to write to Foot Anstey, or copy them in on correspondence.