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.

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