Oh, for goodness sake, Frank – you are the Parish Clerk, not Alfred Lord Tennyson: how to do great politics coverage

I’m not the biggest fan of the Vicar of Dibley.

But it did produce some great lines.

One such cracker came to the fore at a training one-to-one with a reporter yesterday.

We were discussing the structure of a story on road safety, so the Vicar of Dibley was, of course, the natural next step.

Here it is in all its glory.

(Parish clerk) Frank Pickle: Perhaps you’d like me to read the minutes back to you, Owen, so you can catch up.

(Parish council chairman) David Horton: I don’t think that will be necessary. We don’t need to waste our whole evening because of Owen’s dodgy waterworks.

Frank: Shall I minute that?

David: No, thank you. Right…

Frank: Shall I leave a gap then?

David: Whatever you think, Frank.

Frank: Well, it’s not going to flow very well.

David: Oh, for goodness sake, Frank – you are the Parish Clerk, not Alfred Lord Tennyson. Right – I’m sorry everyone for that rather annoying interlude, but if we can move on to the question of the successor to Reverend Pottle.

When young reporters start out on a patch, their lives can bring them into contact with parish councils whose proceedings aren’t a million miles away from those devised by Richard Curtis to be decided by David, Owen and co.

Pretty soon they have to learn that they are not Frank Pickle, producing chronological minutes of turgid discussions.

While we may not want Tennysonian poetry from them either, the ability to write fluidly, engagingly and authoritatively about public affairs is a key skill for a journalist.

I stumbled across a quote recently which I retweeted, along with the message that it was fast becoming a new slogan.

From next week, I will be stepping up my revision support for reporters preparing for the NCTJ’s public affairs diploma exam – tackling topics from electoral reform to Europe and the health service to the House of Lords.

Their bible will be Essential Public Affairs for Journalists by James Morrison, whose introduction is a trip down memory lane to his days covering council shenanigans in North Devon.

It is only through fully understanding the way the world works that reporters can play their full part in that essential journalistic principle of holding those in authority to account.

And explaining the often-arcane workings of bureaucracy, politics and officialdom can help shine a light for communities looking for action, justice and support.

One of the most satisfying people development chapters of my life was to watch a reporter whose copy I once scattered on a table in frustrated disgust become a brilliant local government correspondent, carving through councilese to produce great and accessible exclusives on issues from transport to taxes.

So what are the secrets to engaging political reporting?

  • remember you’re writing for the people – not for council officials and politicians. ‘How will this affect real people?’ should be your guiding light. What the council wants to say and what people need to know aren’t always the same thing
  • resist jargon: it’s tempting to stick to what I have always described as the handrail of bureaucratic lingo. Banish Secretary of State, stakeholders, informing strategies and issues around from your copy
  • make good use of political assistants: they can provide useful background and can often be persuaded to time announcements in your favour
  • find rebel and rogue councillors who might be prepared to go off-message, leave interesting documents in electronic hedges, or ask useful questions
  • trawl websites for reports, checking on documents going to meetings, lists of answers to written questions posed at cabinet, and registers of decisions made by individual executive members. All manner of great lines can be hidden here, such as this Bristol Post story on the 91 different languages spoken in the city
  • forensically home in on what decisions are actually being made, and what they mean, and prepare for meetings so you know the likely scenarios
  • remember the length of a debate can be in inverse proportion to its importance. Just because councillors take two hours, it doesn’t mean you have to write 500 words. Classically, councillors will spend ages talking about minor expenditure on sheds and fences – because they all know how much such things cost, and then wave through multi-million pound projects in a few minutes
  • make the most of the documents which accompany planning applications, and diary regular trawls through new ones
  • use panels and sidebars to break up text, and to explain the background to issues
  • put statistics in context. The success of this story about a badly-signed bus gate in Bath depended on some basic maths which produced the line that a motorist was being fined every minute. Look for that sort of easily-appreciated insight
  • use the Freedom of Information Act, but don’t think every request is going to produce a great story
  • keep stories moving, keep looking for follow-ups that develop the decisions made by the David Hortons of this world
  • as I’ve said, develop good relations with politicians, press officers and assistants – but don’t be their friends (and particularly their Facebook friends). It’s an ancient cliche, but I was never more comfortable than when every party was accusing me of being biased. Integrity and independence are everything here – but that doesn’t have to mean blandness.

In the end what we’re looking for is – like David Horton’s stuttering colleague Jim – to turn the no, no, no of readers disengaged from their communities and the political process into the yes of coverage which makes a difference.

Why shooting of 24-year-old reporter strikes a chord thousands of miles away

It’s been a gut-wrenching 24 hours for journalism.

The horrific shooting of a TV reporter and her cameraman was thousands of miles away on another continent – and one where such tragedies are far from rare.

But the deaths of WDBJ7 reporter Alison Parker and her colleague Adam Ward strike a real chord on this side of the Atlantic.

Her face – full of optimism and apparent joy de vivre – has haunted me today, just as the words of her boss – “I cannot tell you how much they were loved” – have touched me.

She was 24 – the same age as several of the reporters that I see in our offices every week.

It’s a great age for a reporter: you may well have qualified as a senior journalist, perhaps have moved from a weekly to a daily paper, and be likely to be in possession of vital confidence and life experience.

The horror of the shooting has been aggravated today by the coverage in some of our nationals – especially The Sun.

I feel sure they will have justified the picture of Vester Flanagan shooting his colleagues by the need to raise awareness of gun crime.

I would argue that the Sun’s use of the tease line ‘Watch the chilling video at…’ tells a rather different tale.

I couldn’t put it better than this chap did on Twitter……….

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I’ve been thinking a lot about journalistic ethics recently, prompted by another tragedy – the air disaster in Sussex.

I wondered how long news organisations would use footage of the crash itself as the victims turned from nameless statistics into fully-formed dads, partners and employees.

For these images must have a shelf life, a cut-off point when their use becomes gratuitous – just as the continued use of the picture of the two victims of the Soham murders became gratuitous.

There are times when our industry’s moral compass is actually ahead of our readers.

I’ve been heartened in recent days to see a real debate about the media’s role in reporting various aspects of domestic abuse, with concern over revenge porn not being covered by sex offence anonymity legislation, and news that a weekly paper is liaising with a charity for victims over whether to name them in court cases.

But the fronts of four national papers today show just how far we still need to go.


While we are remembering journalists who are no longer with us, I should mention the death of
Don Mildenhall, a former editor of the Western Gazette in Yeovil.

I never knew him, but I know plenty of people who did – including his daughter Sarah. They speak of a gentleman journalist who represented everything that I love about community journalism.

I’m at the Gazette today, where it’s good to see preparations are being made to do him extensive justice in next week’s paper.

Kitchen porter feature had the recipe for the best writing

I’ve been talking an awful lot about kitchen porters in the last couple of days.

The world of that culinary Cinderella is not one I knew much about until Sunday night.

But, thanks to one of the best pieces of newspaper writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent weeks, I now know a great deal more.

My guide to this uncomfortable underworld was Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who did a shift as a kitchen porter for a feature in its food magazine.

It is a splendid piece, and I have been using it to reassure myself and my colleagues that there will always be a place for great writing – even in this attention-span-of-a-gnat digital age.

Let me share Rayner’s wonderful intro…

I am standing in another man’s shoes, and those shoes are moist. It’s nothing to do with the other man. Most of me is wet by now: there is sweat running down the small of my back and dripping down into my eyes; my trousers are clinging to my thighs, and the pads of my fingers have wrinkled, as if I’ve been in a bath too long, which is curious given they are inside elbow-length black rubber gloves. But the water they are plunged into is so hot my hands, like everything else, are sweating. I am pulling a shift as a kitchen porter at The Ivy, and I am quickly coming to a stark conclusion: these are shoes I am not fit to fill.

What he does here is something to which all writers should aspire.

What he does here – and it’s a message that I have been driving home to reporters, one copy clinic at a time – is paint a picture for people who weren’t there.

With that evocative and mildly disturbing first paragraph, Rayner sets a scene which plunges the reader straight into the humid heart of things.

But his writing goes on to tick every little box in the Wiltshire list of what makes great wordsmithery.

It’s warm, it’s insightful, and it’s personal while also giving a voice to other people – fascinating people.

It told me something I didn’t know, it piqued and then satisfied my curiosity, and – perhaps most instructively for those of us in the regional media – it shone a light on a hidden world.

When I talked to a reporter who was leaving her job recently, one of the things she said she would miss the most was the kind of privileged access we get to people and situations.

She was talking about the ability to speak to chief executives, police chiefs and MPs, but the ability to go behind other closed doors is just as important.

What other jobs, landmarks, sports, people or hobbies hide fascination behind their facades?

I was heartened to be told by an editor recently that her mission for the year ahead was to get the stories of more interesting people into her pages and onto her website.

The day before I read Rayner’s piece, my wife consumed – as she does every Saturday – the Guardian’s Family section.

It’s the only part of that paper she ever reads.

But she devours it – as do I – because it is packed with well-written tales of real people’s family lives.

There’s no cheap magazine sensationalism – just accounts of powerful chapters in people’s lives, told well.

As another reporter rightly told me yesterday, being entrusted to tell such stories is both a privilege and a huge responsibility.

It should also be a source of immense pleasure – both for the writer and the reader.

How can we make running a newsdesk the best job in the world?

I was talking to a reporter the other day about where her future might lie.

She had no clear idea – but she knew what she didn’t want to do.

“I don’t want to do newsdesk. Why would I?”

And she had a point.

Why would a young reporter want to get involved in running the newsdesk of a demanding multi-edition newspaper with a relentless 24/7 digital culture?

I’d like to think the answer was: Because it can be the best job in the world.

Taken as a whole, there were far more good days than bad ones in the 20-odd years that I spent running newsdesks in Swindon and Bath.

Admittedly, much of that work was done before the web developed from a glint in Tim Berners-Lees’ eye to the all-encompassing news and information provider that it is today.

But leading a team of reporters to orchestrate the most compelling coverage possible of a community was intensely rewarding.

Making a difference, shaping the agenda, helping the voiceless, and putting a bit of stick about – what’s not to like?

A very experienced editor once told me that the purpose of a newsdesk was to develop stories (actually he said tales because he was from up north) and to develop people.

That was around 15 years ago. But I can’t beat it as a slogan for what should be the beating heart of a newsroom.

The danger as the never-ending demand for content intensifies is that development of people and stories can be compromised – or even decimated.

I stressed the importance of stamina (as well as confidence) in a news editor in an earlier blog.

Rightly, many of the newsdesk people of today are more protective of their work-life balance than I was at their age.

And there’s a theory that the useful life of a news editor might be in single year figures, before burn-out sets in.

There’s also, while we’re at it, a theory that we may not need newsdesks in future – that journalists will be fully-rounded publishers, self-motivated and self-sustaining as they keep pushing out the stories.

While there is no doubt that autonomy can be incredibly powerful for journalists, the best journalism – like all the best work – is done in teams.

And those teams need a leader.

One of my priorities is to emphasise the key skills of a good news editor, to lift the aspirations of the role from shovelling to genuinely digging and from logistics to leadership.

To add to that confidence and stamina, a great news editor needs organisational ability, contacts of their own, the bravery and imagination to try new ideas which might fail, and a resilient sense of humour that cuts through lethargy, negativity and pomposity.

Above all else, they must be the conductor of the newsroom orchestra – energising flagging spirits, symbolising supportive teamwork, and coaxing the best out of every performer.

They won’t have Last Night of the Proms experiences every day, or perhaps even every week.

But it should be possible to get the flags out enough for the newsdesk to be a more enticing and rewarding option for our most talented journalists.

Do you need a degree to be a journalist?

As the father of a 16-year-old awaiting her GCSE results and a 21-year-old who’s just started his first job, there was one story which caught my eye this morning.

It’s a bit of a middle-class dinner party cliche, but a report confirming that most graduates end up in non-graduate jobs echoed a reality that I could already see in some of my own friends’ families.

But where does journalism fit in to that picture?

One of the things on my to-do list today is the completion of a report on the potential of an apprenticeships scheme in my neck of the woods.

Appropriately enough, one of the editors who might benefit went straight into the industry from school.

Of the 80-odd journalists I’ve given jobs to over the last couple of decades, almost all have had degrees.

But it’s never been something I’ve insisted on.

From a practical point of view, the three years of standing on your own two feet offer a great chance to showcase latent writing and newsgathering skills.

They’re also a time to reflect on what you really want to do, and to get some genuinely useful work experience.

But as I’ve said before, our reliance on what tend to be white, middle-class graduates can if we’re not careful skew our world view, and distance us from our audience.

The joy of apprenticeships – apart from the Government incentives – is that we can tap into a different demograph, and one which is already on our doorstep.

For papers in less salubrious parts of our empire, selling a trainee job to graduates used to cosmopolitan culture and stunning cityscapes can be a challenge.

This way, we don’t have to sell the town or area – the would-be journalist is already living there, with all the local knowledge and contacts that that brings.

If someone asks me whether they should go to university to get the best chance of becoming a journalist, I’d probably still say yes.

Call me an old romantic, but I am still inspired whenever I enter the world of higher education.

Universities at their best remain among this country’s finest assets.

But they can’t be our only source of recruits.

How to recruit the best journalist for the job

I’ve presided over ones which I’ve wanted to end after a couple of minutes, ones which I’ve enjoyed every second of, ones full of laughter, and ones where I’ve been genuinely moved.

All human life can be writ large at a job interview.

But how do we ensure that finding the journalists of the future is a productive joy rather than a demotivating chore?

I’m getting involved in interviewing for the first time in well over a year this week.

Luckily the job concerned is one that has attracted a clutch of high quality applicants.

And that can bring its own challenges, exciting though they might be compared to the ritual of finding the least-worst candidate for the newsroom.

These days, journalism interviews can require news organisations to sell themselves as passionately as the interviewee sitting in front of them.

That process, as I have said before in what is increasingly becoming an obsession of mine, starts with a truly enticing and persuasive advert, perhaps drawing on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Then must come a sifting process, where it can make sense to get an extra pair of eyes to help draw up a shortlist.

And make the most of any colleagues – perhaps on sister papers – who have worked with candidates in the past.

Increasing numbers of the papers I work with now either set a task or some pre-interview questions, or invite would-be workers in for a trial day.

Once that day comes, the key questions to which you need an answer include:

  • What do my colleagues make of them?
  • Will this person get on with the team?
  • Are they a radiator or a drain?
  • Would he or she win my confidence if I was a contact?
  • Have they done their homework on us and the area?
  • How sharp are their digital instincts and skills?
  • Can they prove their story-getting credentials?
  • How good are they likely to be at multi-tasking, and dealing with pressure or outside criticism?
  • Would I want this person next to me in a crisis?

We’ve all got our pet interview questions, some more surreal than others.

Here are some suggestions:

  • What would your worst enemy say about you?
  • What apps do you use? How do you get your news?
  • Give some examples of when you made contacts in a new area
  • How have you dealt with conflict in your life?
  • Talk about a hobby you’re passionate about
  • If you could interview one person, who would it be and what one question would you ask them?
  • What’s your biggest mistake and how did you learn from it?
  • If I rang your current employer now, what would they say about you?
  • How should we remember you when we’re deciding who to appoint?

After the interview, always take up references – even if you have to take people off the record to get the unvarnished truth.

One question that needs to be asked is ‘would you employ this person again?’

As always, the most important piece of advice throughout this whole process is to trust your instincts.

First impressions count.

If the person doesn’t look you in the eye, or their hands slip through yours when you shake, alarm bells should ring.

This is someone at their best.

If that best isn’t good enough, it’s time to look elsewhere.

Rules on social media need to move out of an analogue age

If someone makes an offensive or, worse, legally prejudicial, comment on a third party website about one of your stories, you’ve got nothing to worry about, have you?

Increasingly, the answer to that question is yes, you have.

A few months ago, I was fairly gung-ho over our ability to shrug off complaints about comments posted under our stories on Facebook.

But, several law refresher sessions and a few brushes with the judiciary later, and I’m not so sure.

Today, IPSO pulls another wooden block from the slightly chaotic jenga game of posting certain court stories on social media.

In a ruling that stops short of saying don’t do this, the regulator urges newspapers to think carefully about whether coverage of sexual assault court cases can be safely posted on their Facebook pages.

As Hold the Front Page reports, the ruling follows claims that a child victim could have been identified from comments posted by a punter under a Scottish paper’s court story.

The regulator’s concern is that Facebook might act as a forum which tempts readers unaware of the welter of legal restraints on court reporting to say the unsayable.

The law in many such circumstances now applies more equally to members of the public playing fast and loose with legal restrictions on social media.

But we in the media remain in the front line.

And it’s not just on sex offences and juvenile crime cases.

A number of editors have had to explain themselves to judges in recent months after potentially prejudicial comments have been posted under running court stories dealing with ‘safer’ crimes.

While once we might have been able to wash our hands over what our readers write on the external website that is Facebook, judges are increasingly holding editors responsible.

By publishing such stories on our Facebook pages, we are in their eyes effectively taking ownership of that space, and tacitly encouraging people to share, like – and comment.

At least one editor that I know no longer posts any running court stories on Facebook.

Others take the risk because of the huge contribution that Facebook can make in driving web traffic to what can be very compelling and engaging human interest stories.

IPSO’s intervention is helpful to a point.

But both it – and more importantly, the law – need to be clearer over exactly what is safe and acceptable.

Facebook is now by far and away the most important way of selling our digital wares.

But we are still operating under rules and laws from an analogue age.