If people are doing an impossible job, is it possible to hold them to account?
I’ve always seen the regional media’s role as that of a critical friend to their community’s leaders.
As I’ve said before, although journalists and politicians may feel they can get along without each other very well, the people they serve need them both.
Getting the balance between criticism and friendship right is hugely difficult.
But not quite as difficult as trying to square the circles involved in running local government services at a time of unprecedented financial challenge.
One of the many tragedies of Brexit is its destructive dominance of the bandwidth of the national media – and of Westminster and Whitehall.
Time, effort and expertise are being wasted on a deliberate, conscious act of national self-harm at a time when the fabric of our society is already under attack from biological and demographic forces which can only be tackled with stability and unity.
The Government has pledged to apply a giant sticking plaster to the NHS without any convincing commitment to solving the increasingly huge elephant in the emergency room that is the UK’s social care crisis.
Any local authority that runs adult social care services is in trouble.
A Guardian journalist who has done more than most to talk to real people in real places to inform his writing, John Harris argues that the crisis of diminishing Whitehall support for local government is now destroying communities. And he’s right.
He says the destruction of council services which are a lifeline for the most vulnerable people in society has been underreported. And if he’s talking about the national media – consumed by refracting their own light on Brexit – he might also be right.
But the links in John’s report point to work across the regional media which is attempting to shine bright lights into these dark areas, day in, day out.
They find themselves trying to hold to account people who are losing control, people doing an unenviable job, with hands tied by a government that is the latest to fail to find an honest and constructive answer to the challenge of an ageing population.
Honest and constructive.
There was undoubtedly a lack of honesty and constructive thinking when Theresa May launched plans to shake up social care funding just over a year ago, with a much-needed debate reduced to election name-calling which set back progress both on funding – and on the alleged unfairness of the current system.
It’s the sort of issue that to my mind was made for the emerging – and very welcome – process of constructive journalism.
It’s a principle championed by Mark Rice-Oxley, special projects editor at The Guardian, who spoke inspiringly at this week’s Newsrewired conference.
But there can also be a perceived lack of honesty at a local level, too, that may dissuade journalists from taking that constructive approach.
I’ve always thought it smacks of whining desperation when organisations such as the News Media Association protest at BBC expansion, or the withdrawal of public notice advertising – or the so-called Town Hall Pravdas.
And I don’t think the sacking of one of the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporters in Yorkshire amounts to sinister censorship – as far as I can see, his previous axe-grinding should have ruled him out of the running for the job. Even if he was, as has been suggested, the only person to apply.
But I do understand the frustration of journalists attempting to hold elected power to account – never mind find empathy for the need to save money – when councils gloss over problems in their own news communications.
In a city I know well, there is anger among local journalists at the local council’s attempts to put a brave face on overrunning flood defence works.
The Exeter Express and Echo and the Devon Live website recently highlighted the annoyance of traders at the city’s landmark quay over the work by the Environment Agency which has missed its deadline by around 18 months.
Cue the next edition of Exeter Citizen, the city council’s free newspaper for local council taxpayers.
Local reporters have claimed the picture of busy activity may well be up to five years old.
I don’t know. But I do know that it all builds suspicion and resentment – the polar opposites of that honesty and constructive thinking.
A report out today highlights the increasing importance of social media strategies in local government communications. Councils need to have their own voice – and some, like Doncaster Council – are outstanding at it.
But that Local Government Association report also recognises the need for openness and transparency.
The best public organisations know that letting the light in, supporting the disinfectant of scrutiny, can only improve performance.
There’s a clue in that inspired Doncaster Council tweet.
We’re all disappointed this morning that our dreams of seeing England in a World Cup final have been dashed.
We can see some problems that need to be solved.
But we can also see a group of honest folk working hard to solve them – and to connect with a real world of worry, confusion and occasional hope.
That doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s the result of honesty, openness and constructive thinking on the part of both reporter and reported.
There are councils which could take a leaf out of Sir Gareth of Waistcoat’s pitchside notebook.