Why Grenfell council mustn’t be allowed to meet in secret

I’ll let you in on a guilty secret.

I quite like politicians.

I think most of them do what they do for the right reasons.

And I know that the vast majority of their critics would run a mile from getting stuck into the thankless, tireless, tedious work that makes up a huge proportion of a councillor or MP’s lot.

But my defence of these volunteer public servants – and my ‘put up or shut up’ instincts – only go so far.

And the Grenfell Tower horror has shown what happens when politicians – along with the whole apparatus of public services – are allowed to operate without sufficient scrutiny.

The shrunken regional media have to take some blame for that, as I said in a blog last week.

A lot of heartbreaking horses have bolted, but journalists are now tenaciously shutting the stable door against further tragedies, with some great examples of investigative reporting, including this from Newsnight’s Chris Cook.

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It’s been a torrid time for Kensington and Chelsea Council.

The local authority will be one place where one of the bucks from the public inquiry will have to stop. The chief executive has already gone, and others – elected and paid – may follow.

I feel for the council’s staff, who include a cousin of mine working in a completely unrelated field, and no one could condone some of the abuse that has come both their way and literally to the doorsteps of some councillors.

But the authority has scored a massive new own goal today by deciding to ban the press and public from a meeting of its ruling cabinet tonight.

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The council says it has taken the decision because of the risk of ‘public disruption’, and quotes an obscure standing order.

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The notice about the meeting (guardian.com)

Of course it’s a legitimate concern.

And doubtless the police feel they have better things to do than referee a council meeting packed with grieving relatives and neighbours.

But this is the thin end of a very worrying wedge.

Any council could argue that the presence of the public at its meetings could be disruptive.

In some ways, that’s the point. The public should be disruptive, up to a point. They should be allowed to challenge their elected representatives, to make them feel uncomfortable at times, and to remind councillors who put them there in the first place.

And whenever the press are barred from council meetings, deafening alarm bells should ring.  There is no public disruption argument that can be used here, so we can only assume the council simply – and shamefully – wants to avoid bad publicity.

The reason this is particularly worrying is that, 30 miles down the M4, in Theresa May’s own constituency, the local paper’s legitimate journalistic efforts are being trashed by her own party’s councillors.

In some ways, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead councillors’ abuse of the Maidenhead Advertiser amounts  to little more than what in football would be dismissed as ‘handbags’.

But it – and that other royal borough’s behind closed doors policy – are symptomatic of something which is more than just disdain.

It’s playing fast and loose with one of the pillars of our democracy.

The very best organisations – public and private – welcome the disinfectant of publicity and scrutiny.

We should push back against those who use the fig leaf of disruption to make life easier for themselves.

If Grenfell Tower was a result of anything, it was an appalling lack of scrutiny, and a complete failure to listen.

The council needs to put up with a night of disruption to show that a new day has dawned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The media and Grenfell Tower: the good, the bad and the ugly

Just over a week on from the Grenfell Tower horror, it’s clear there are goodies and baddies.

Top of the list of those who have emerged with reputations enhanced are, of course, London’s firefighters, and their impressive chief Dany Cotton.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn showed some deft touches with a timely visit that saw him comforting relatives and demanding action. The Queen appeared to make light of Theresa May’s security worries by visiting the area, and caught the mood of the nation with an unprecedented statement last week.

And the people of West London have shown jaw-dropping community spirit in filling in some of the huge gaps left by the authorities on the ground.

Which brings me to the groups who haven’t covered themselves in glory: the local council, whose chief executive last night resigned, Mrs May, the housing trust which runs the tower, the building inspection regime, a host of contractors, ministers stretching back many years, and a political culture that prized dogma and penny-pinching over safety.

So in which camp do we put the media?

Well, it has to be a bit of both, as this excellent Buzzfeed article on local people’s mixed feelings explains.

Journalists have been able to tell the full story of this utterly man-made disaster in a way that has woken this country from a complacent slumber: highlighting raw suffering, amazing bravery, incredible generosity and criminal negligence.

But there have also been spectacular errors of judgement.

We’ll have to let IPSO decide whether the Sun really did get one of its reporters to impersonate a relative , although the paper’s statement of denial has the ring of truth to me.

The regulator will also have to take a view on the 1,500 complaints it has received about a Mail Online story naming the man whose ‘faulty’ fridge is alleged to have started the fire.

Mail Online – not to be confused with any national newspaper with a similar name, by the way – has sought to defend itself by saying no one could reasonably draw the implication that it was blaming Britain’s worst fire for generations on the man.

There’s an answer to that, and it rhymes with ollocks. 

With no buy-in from the man – he told Mail Online he didn’t want to talk, there was absolutely no justification for naming him in these unprecedented circumstances.

There are many, many people who need to be named and shamed over Grenfell Tower. A taxi driver from Ethiopia isn’t one of them.

The backlash against the story may have been intensified by the way in which this tragedy has allowed thousands of people to see the media go about its work for days on end.

Journalists have been exposed to very public questioning and criticism of their methods and their work – and not just at Grenfell Tower, as the BBC’s religious affairs editor Martin Bashir found when covering the Finsbury Park mosque terror incident.

There has been no hiding place for journalists – and nor should there be.

Some of the Grenfell Tower coverage may have felt insensitive, but there is a far, far bigger question for our industry to address.

A very telling piece in Press Gazette suggests that not a single newspaper or local news site covered the extensive warnings by residents at the tower over fire safety.

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Never has the phrase read it and weep been more apt.

The theme is echoed in an equally sobering article by journalist Grant Feller, who once covered North Kensington.

As I said in a blog last week, this mind-boggling horror that leaves us running out of appropriate words highlights the overwhelming importance of political journalism.

It can be deeply unsexy, deeply time-consuming, and deeply analytics-unfriendly.

Even with that most crucial and increasingly rare commodity of time, it’s not easy to sift out the wolf-criers and the serial whingers, let alone to find engaging ways of making the important interesting.

But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that if journalists in West London had been allowed to spend more time making contacts, more time poring over detailed council agendas, and more time simply listening to real people, we might – might – not be where we are today.

I’ve spent too much time today poring over another document, the impressively wide-ranging annual Reuters Institute report on the media.

It looks at trust in the media, at the willingness of people in different countries to pay for their news (only six per cent in the UK do), and at the growing power of social media.

Essentially, it asks: What is the media for?

I tweeted this last week.

Belatedly, our politics is beginning to prove its worth at – when put together with the election result – what feels like a major turning point for our attitudes to austerity, deregulation and privatisation.

Now it’s time for journalism to prove that it, too, can learn the lessons of Grenfell Tower.

How to cover unspeakable tragedy

The sight of pizza always cheers me up.

But a picture of our favourite Italian food gave me particular joy this week.

The symbolism behind the delivery of the food to the Manchester Evening News is – to me, at least – profoundly touching.

The pizzas were ordered by journalists more than 3,000 miles away, in the American city of Boston.

Four years ago, those journalists at the Boston Globe were in the same situation as their British counterparts, covering an unspeakable terrorism outrage at the heart of their community.

Like Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford, I have been hugely impressed by the MEN’s coverage of its biggest story for a generation.

With a fundraising appeal which has raised more than £1.3 million for the victims’ families, superb writing by the peerless Jen Williams, sensitivity manifested in the decision not to use pictures of evidence at the scene, and finely-judged comprehensive coverage, it’s no surprise that we both used the same phrase: regional journalism at its best.

The Manchester atrocity has revived some fascinating debates.

The ethics of death-knocks – whether literal or via social media – have also been examined by Dom Ponsford, who defends their use.

A thread started by someone who had a particularly horrible time at the hands of the media four years ago has also been widely shared.

The handling of tragedy and trauma is, to me, one of the things that set the regional and national media apart.

The staff at the MEN will have to look into the eyes of the people – or the families of the people – they write about in a way that their national colleagues will never have to. It’s an accountability that can only make them be at their very best.

They’re also demonstrating the incredible role of the regional media – and I include local radio and TV in this, too – in binding communities together.

Their reporting has underlined the importance of remembering those who lost their lives in the attack as people – people who shouldn’t be defined by their victimhood, as well as reflecting astoundingly uplifting heroism and generosity.

I’d like to see IPSO taking a more proactive role in rare multiple-death tragedies like this.

And I understand that even the most sensitive note pushed through a letterbox can feel like salt in an open wound to some families.

But I agree with Dom that contacting bereaved families should never be off-limits, although I’ve blogged about how to soften the blow of such approaches and coverage.

It is about what Amita says. But it’s also about listening to your conscience.

The coverage has also reignited the debate about whether blanket coverage of terrorism incidents actually plays into the attackers’ hands.

It’s a debate started by Simon Jenkins in the wake of the Westminster Bridge attack earlier this year.

And it’s taken up in this piece on Poynter, which – despite its cack-handed headline – includes some interesting suggestions for tweaking coverage.

In the end there are no easy answers to getting the balance right between reporting on an extraordinary event and intensifying the suffering of people who have suffered enough.

But the way that the Manchester Evening News has risen to the challenge of covering death on its doorstep isn’t a bad place to start.

Why we shouldn’t let political parties buy newspapers’ front pages

My brother-in-law’s loyalty to his local paper isn’t exactly rock solid.

But he does it buy it from time to time – including, I’m glad to say, when I come to visit.

I say does. But it would be more accurate to say did.

He’s decided never to buy the Westmorland Gazette ever again.

Because of its front page.

News front pages ought occasionally to wind readers up: otherwise, what’s the point?

But this wasn’t news. This was advertising. Conservative Party advertising.

And it wasn’t just the Westmorland Gazette.

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The fake front page that angered my brother-in-law and many of his friends was mirrored in a number of other regional papers last week.

Buzzfeed’s incisive political editor Jim Waterson has analysed the areas chosen for this election advertising blitz, which saw four-page wraps enveloping the conventional newspapers, covering up those titles’ real front pages in territory where the Tories hope to cause major upsets.

One of these is the politically-active town of Kendal, where Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron’s Westmorland and Lonsdale seat appears to be in Tory sights.

It’s not gone down well, with more than 800 people signing a petition demanding the paper apologise for carrying the advertising.

There’s been condemnation from across the UK on Twitter, with an illuminating thread provoked by this tweet from Spectator editor Fraser Nelson.

 

In a blog Nelson suggests the practice of running such wrap ads is as much fake news as anything dreamed up by the lie machines of some American websites.

Ironically, that same – much-abused – phrase was used by the organisation that represents all the papers caught up in this row when the News Media Association was trumpeting the independent reliability of its member publications last week.

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The practice has been defended by the editor of the trade website Press Gazette, with Dom Ponsford arguing that titles cannot afford to turn down the business.

From a practical point of view, he’s right.

It looks as if the Conservatives will book more wraps between now and June 8 in a move that – because the advertising is generic – allows them to classify the spending as national (where the official ceiling is generous) rather than local (where there are more onerous limits).

Ad managers will be rubbing their hands with glee as the camera-ready ads catapult them towards their weekly targets.

Editors, I suspect, perhaps won’t be so happy.

For the last five years, they’ve had to roll over as wraps, partial wraps, takeover front pages and other wheezes play fast and loose with editorial space, with a mission creep that has rubbed out the red lines of old.

And they will be used to defending the sale of space to political parties inside their publications at times like these.

But what we’ve seen in the last week is something else.

This is Theresa May’s officials effectively buying the integrity and independence of regional titles which has been hard-won over decades and centuries – for the equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.

They know that many readers won’t see the ‘advertiser’s announcement’ caveat, but will believe the paper they rely on for an unbiased guide to life is suggesting they vote in a particular way. They know their message will be on display for several days on racks passed by thousands of people. And they know newspapers can’t afford to say no.

Dom Ponsford may be right that many of those now complaining about these wraps rarely buy the papers concerned.

But some, like my brother-in-law, do. Or, as I say, did.

It’s undeniable that papers need all the advertising they can get.

But they also need readers.

So they better hope money doesn’t come in one door only to disappear out of the next.

In the words of the investor, public speaker and entrepreneur Amy Rees Anderson: “Success will come and go, but integrity is forever.”

 

‘Be the best you can be’: the fight for press freedom starts with us

They say you should never meet your heroes.

And so perhaps it’s just as well I had to make a sharp exit from an event which featured former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger last week.

But before I dashed across Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire to show my face at a students’ night out pub quiz, I did get to hear from the man I believe to be one of the bravest journalists around.

Rusbridger was one of the guests at an event at Oxford University to launch an annual guide to the state of media freedom produced by the Campaign to Protect Journalists.

It wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, what with Syria, Bangladesh, Kenya, Trump’s USA – not to mention the UK, and the threatened Espionage Act plus the threatened Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

There were no easy answers.

But Rusbridger said his best advice was for journalists to be the best they can be.

He made the crucial point that we would never make progress on press freedom unless the public was on our side. And that wouldn’t happen unless journalism was a public service as valued as one of the emergency services.

There will be journalists who say it’s all very well for him: the business he once ran was cushioned by its trust status and Auto Trader sell-off cash. He’s never run a small regional newsdesk with the jagged edges of Chartbeat analytics graphs piercing his eyeballs into the wee small hours.

There may be grains of truth in that.

But Rusbridger was a digital pioneer who also showed the sort of courage – particularly in the face of intimidation by the tabloids, politicians and the intelligence services – that other editors only write about.

So as far as I’m concerned he knows what he’s talking about.

And it’s not just him who’s urging the media to put credibility, integrity and the hunt for the truth at the heart of all that they do.

A cracking speech by the comedian Hasan Minhaj at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that Donald Trump failed to attend warned the press corps they had to ‘be on their A-game’ in the face of their president’s blustering bullying.

 

But we can’t do it alone.

By far the best contribution to the media website Press Gazette’s campaign to get more funding for journalism from Google and Facebook has been a well-worded submission to a committee of MPs from ITN.

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It accuses Facebook of promoting virality over veracity, and both of profiting from the labour of others.

So it’s good to see Google taking action to ensure that searches don’t throw up links to websites that make up stories.

These things matter at the best of times.

But they matter in this country more than ever now that we are – from the dissolution of Parliament tomorrow – firmly in election campaign territory.

The biggest advertising spend by our political parties is expected to be on Facebook, so there is understandable concern at the versions of the truth that will course through our newsfeeds in the next few weeks.

But there is a glint of hope.

It’s on the other side of the North Sea in a country with a population which is just eight per cent of the UK’s.

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Over in Norway, a subscription system which has grown out of a very workable registration regime appears to be paying dividends.

Putting the genie back in the bottle for a regional journalism paywall here is the stuff of deluded dreams, unless we’re going back to the editorial staff numbers of the late 80s.

But, as the News Media Association launches its own offensive to fly the flag for regional journalism integrity, there is for once some warmth from Scandinavia.

What the Norway Way seems to show is the power of ‘better journalism’: real, thoughtful, relevant reporting, which puts communities and people first.

Just feast your eyes on this, from the man in charge of Amedia, the wonderfully-named Pal Nedregotten:

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We can make it easy for people to have a fragile, unhealthy relationship with us, feeding them brightly-coloured sweets and then wondering why they get hyperactive, sneering and fractious.

Or we can – as Alan Rusbridger suggests – strive to serve up a slightly more balanced diet.

One that provides greater, longer-lasting nourishment, on which relationships can be built, and credibility sustained.

And one that means we have the stomach for the vital battles for press freedom that lie ahead – whether around the corner or around the world.

Katie Hopkins’ sorry tale shouldn’t change our libel laws

When Sir Elton John released Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word, Katie Hopkins was just one year old.

I clearly remember hearing it for the first time, as plain old Elt, as he then was, larked around with Morecambe and Wise on their Christmas special.

I can only think that poor old Katie was already tucked up in her cot by that time, finally quiet for once.

Certainly the song’s message hasn’t resonated with her four decades later.

Her refusal to apologise to food blogger Jack Monroe yesterday cost her £130,000 – and counting.

The odious Hopkins was successfully sued for libel by Monroe over Twitter comments suggesting the blogger supported the defacing of war memorials.

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Rather predictably, Monroe’s victory has meant she is now having to fend off accusations that she is somehow stifling free speech.

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Well said, Jack.

And then there is another debate. Over whether remarks made on Twitter should be taken as seriously by the law as those contained in permanent, considered news articles.

Media law trainer David Banks doesn’t think so.

In an interesting Twitter thread, he argues that it is an “obscenity” that Hopkins should now be facing a bill of what might end up at £300,000.

Not everyone agreed.

Warning: Some Rude Words On Their Way.

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I wouldn’t of course put it so forcefully as travel journalist Mr Whitley.

But I do agree.

If I stage a fireworks display for my family in my back garden and a stray rocket sets a neighbour’s house on fire, I’m no less culpable that the organiser of a public extravaganza at the local football ground.

There’s no difference to me, particularly when people like Hopkins have such huge numbers – nearly 700,000 – of followers.

So, no, the libel law shouldn’t be changed.

And yes, Ms Hopkins should pay up.

That’s the cost of making damaging and unsubstantiated accusations. And of not saying sorry.

 

Endeavour and the case of the Messy Press Regulation Plan

 

 

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I do love a bit of Endeavour.

The Observer called it ‘the best crime drama of the week’ – a big claim when Sherlock, No Offence, Prime Suspect and the brilliant Unforgotten are also on parade.

But last night’s opener for a new series was two hours of class.

One of the many pleasures of the 1960s drama is its depiction of the journalists of the Oxford Mail.

Admittedly there was a clichéd dig last night, with a reporter with Fleet Street ambitions nicking DC Morse’s notebook to help her with her triple murder splash.

But there is also the rather more nuanced character of Mail editor Dorothea Frazil.

She would have been a pioneer at that time, with journalism still very much a male-dominated profession.

And she also spends more time out of the office than most editors would have done 50 years ago – and than many do now.

For, if the truth be told, a lot of editors keep a pretty low profile.

For a job which theoretically calls for the larger-than-life qualities of character, leadership and confidence, some of the ones I’ve come across over the years have been shy and retiring.

Not this week, though.

You can’t move for editors in their papers and websites at the moment.

Every day, my Twitter feed brings me a new editor having his or her say in first person pieces filled with doom-laden warnings about the future of an independent media.

I opened my copy of the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald last week to find my old friend Gary Lawrence peering out at me, and asking me to imagine life ‘without my Gazette and Herald’.

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I couldn’t, Gary. I just couldn’t.

From Yorkshire to Sussex and Devon to Maidenhead, where Theresa May’s local paper devoted its front page to the issue, editors are all at it. And it’s not just them.

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The editor of the Sun, Tony Gallagher, and his counterpart at the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, have been busy, too, along with – God help us – Jeremy Clarkson and Rod Liddle.

Whenever any one of those four start pontificating about the importance of a free press, I reach for that quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.”

This tweet rather nails the Mail on this, I feel.

Never mind the butts, though.

There is a but.

And that’s that they all have a point.

What’s prompted this outpouring – which has also included heavyweight warnings from two of my journalistic heroes, Andrew Norfolk and David Walsh – is the continued threat of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

This is a piece of legislation which, if enacted, would force media organisations not signed up to a Government-recognised press regulator to pay the legal costs of anyone who sued them – whether those people won or not.

Campaigners from Hacked Off – set up in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that led to the Leveson Inquiry – claim that Government recognition for that regulator is no more sinister than the MoT test for your car.

They point to the existence of Ofcom as a very much alive Government-backed regulator which somehow allows broadcasters to get on with the job of holding power to account.

The very practical issue for the Government is that not a single significant news organisation has thrown its lot in with the one regulator which has been approved, Impress.

Hundreds of papers are signed up to IPSO, which will not be seeking recognition.

I’m afraid I took an instant dislike to Impress when I attended a conference at which two of its representatives talked rudely through the contributions.

I don’t like the fact that it’s funded by Max Mosley, either.

And I’m un-Impress-ed that it has failed to come up with any improvements to the tried and tested editor’s code of practice currently overseen by IPSO.

I admire the people who run IPSO, particularly its chairman Sir Alan Moses.

I’m concerned some of its recent decisions have lacked bite – from its acceptance of the odious Kelvin Mackenzie’s right to be obnoxious about Muslim newsreaders to its approval of the naming of young school uniform refuseniks.

But it’s in there, with its sleeves rolled up, dealing with knotty issues, day after day.

So we’re in a mess, with legal action from reform campaigners and the media alike, a Culture Secretary sitting on her hands, and an industry in financial crisis.

And when there’s a mess, there’s one place where one can always find solace.

Private Eye.

No friend of Fleet Street, in fact no friend of anyone in power, bless it.

But it is powerfully opposed to Section 40.

 

I don’t like the Mail. I don’t like its nasty, inward-looking, cynical outlook on life, or its lazy, stereotypical, writing by numbers news values.

I don’t like the thought that families whose lives were trashed by heartless journalists feel shortchanged.

But the reason Ofcom wouldn’t work for the rest of the media is that a free press has to be opinionated, campaigning, difficult, awkward and mischevious.

It’s an argument well made by Professor Tim Crook in a piece for The Conversation.

In the end, we must ensure that the law can deal with criminality – as it did with phone hacking, eventually.

In the end, we must ensure that IPSO can deal with inaccuracy and intrusion with speed and strength, and that it searches its collective soul to do more to enforce its discrimination clause.

And in the end, freedom of expression – and the ability of scores of regional newsrooms to do work inspired by the polar opposite of the motivation behind phone hacking – must prevail.

It’s a campaign that old Dorothea would be shouting from the Oxford rooftops.