Could student-run news sites challenge the regional media?

It’s on days like these that I remember what a very senior editor said to me when I told him I was becoming a university lecturer.

“You know what the three best things about being a lecturer are, don’t you? June, July and August.”

And there’s an extent to which he’s right. I’m working today. But from home. I started at about 9, after taking my car to the garage, and I’ll knock off around 4.

When I was a news editor, my typical Tuesday would have seen me getting into the office at around 6am and leaving 13 hours later.

I still put in some 12-hour days, but they’re few and far between, and they usually involve some sort of trip. Mostly I’m a 7.30 to 4.30 guy these days.

So I acknowledge that the relationship between the media industry and our area of academia can be like a bad marriage: characterised by suspicion, jealousy and arguments over divisions of labour.

We don’t always help ourselves, and I occasionally cringe at the holier-than-thou ‘research’ outputs of one or two of my journalism department counterparts from around the country.

But I do my best to be a friendly face in as many newsrooms as possible. I’m visiting three next week (including that editor’s), and I’m working in a fourth later this month.

Essentially, we’re on the same side here. We’re fighting for good journalism.

So how can we improve relations still further?

Former editor Neil Fowler knows what he’d like to do.

In a piece for InPublishing, he’s floated the idea of universities incubating new not-for-profit news organisations.

Students would be the journalists, providing output for a printed weekly, a website, TV and radio, with a paid manager and potential for commercial advertising.

It’s an intriguing idea, and one which provokes conflicting thoughts.

One is that organising students can be like herding cats.

But no matter.

Another – and the one that has so far been the main stumbling block for Neil’s idea – is that it would require courses like ours to be delivered in two rather than three years, and for students (and people like me) to give up some of those long holidays.

We could go down all kinds of fascinating side streets debating the pros and cons of two-year degrees – and this Guardian Higher Education Network piece is a good start for that.

But it’s far from simple.

The success of the relatively new Cambridge Independent weekly suggests that launching a new print product might not be completely barking mad.

You’d have to pick your location well, though. Certainly in our neck of the woods, the market is pretty crowded. And TV and radio? I’m not so sure.

But there is something in what Neil says.

The one thing that is crystal clear to me is that the regional news organisations that are most likely to survive are the very local, and the very small.

The continued expansion of the Bristol-based Voice publications – which now involve a couple of friends of mine – makes a compelling case for universities to do more to encourage entrepreneurial journalism.

It’s something we do reasonably well, but there must always be room for improvement.

I can see a role for universities in supporting second and final year students in setting up their own website or websites.

But they must be organic, slightly anarchic – and real. They must reflect passion.

As one of my Twitter heroes, Dr Dave Harte of Birmingham City University, has found, running hyperlocal news sites can be a labour of love.

And they must be sustainable – either growing into independent businesses, or being handed down between year groups.

There’s no doubt that developing business nouse isn’t seen as a top priority by too many university journalism departments.

More and more of our students are going to be working for themselves in future.

Neil Fowler’s idea could just be a very useful reminder that we need to prepare them for that.

 

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5 reasons why I’m not looking back to a golden age of journalism

There’s a feast of enticing TV on tonight: Game of Thrones, the final of Love Island, Harry and Wills talking about their mum on ITV1 – and the final episode of the compelling Ripper Street.

But I’ve already been gripped by a captivating piece of programme-making.

I can’t imagine that the audience for A Day in the Life of the Coventry Evening Telegraph troubled the ratings scorers when it was shown on that city’s cable TV channel back in 1991.

I never worked there. But the 33-minute documentary took me straight back to the newsrooms which were my second homes in the 80s and 90s: in Exeter, Torquay, Swindon and Bath.

They were the scenes of some great times, and had an atmosphere – smells, sounds, sayings and systems – all of their own.

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They also had sales figures and editorial staff numbers that would now be the stuff of utter fantasy.

But would I like to turn the clock back 26 years? I’m not so sure – and here’s why.

1. All those men in white shirts

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Blimey, we were corporate and male, then, weren’t we? I didn’t see a single woman in conference. With the exception of crime reporter Sue Lary, and a shot of a woman in paste-up, it was pretty much wall-to-wall blokes. And men in white-shirt-and-boring-tie combo, in particular. The BBC’s gender gap problems are a woman vicar’s tea party compared with this lot. Thankfully, we’ve moved on in the last two and half decades. And leaving aside the fact that there are now women in editors’ chairs in every part of the country, we’ve also relaxed our dress codes away from that Man at C&A look.

2. All that faff

I don’t know how long that conference would have gone on for, but I suspect it was more than half an hour, tying up half a dozen of those MANagers. And I suspect there was another set-piece meeting later in the day. If they were anything like the ones I took part in, they would have gone into tedious detail and featured intense debate about whether a picture should go on page 17 or 7. And then there’s those production processes. Of course it was desperately sad when long-serving employees lost their jobs, but an awful lot of those jobs involved just carrying pieces of paper or metal around. So one can mourn the loss of a whole vocabulary of titles, production areas and skills, while being grateful for technology that saves both time and money.

3. All those offices

When I started on my first newspaper in Exeter in 1985, the editor was dozens of yards away down a corridor. In his office, mostly with the door closed. Lord knows what he did all day. Little more than 20 years ago, the editor, deputy editor and associate editor of The Bath Chronicle all had their own offices. Managing directors were people you might see once or twice a year, and who wouldn’t know your name. Now, I only know one editor who spends more time in their office than out in the newsroom – and many editors don’t even have an office. They lead from the front and have to eyeball their staff pretty much all the time. Which is as it should be.

4. All those Yellow Pages

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And fax machines. And spikes. And post to open. All that paraphernalia of the pre-internet age, when the only way to track people down was by using a phone or a door knocker. When you could miss a splash if the post was held up, and when investigative research relied on public libraries and the occasional bundle of papers in a hedge. And, of course, when if a story broke at 3pm, you’d have to wait until the next day before you could tell anyone.

5. All those laurels to rest on

There’s a comment from then Telegraph editor Neil Benson that really sticks in my mind.

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Asked whether bad news sells papers, he acknowledges that it might boost his sales a bit.

But he says the paper sells 90,000 copies a day ‘more or less irrespective of what’s in it.’

Oh happy day. Oh happy day when, in a city of 300,000 people, you achieve something close to total penetration, no matter what you did. When you have to beat a radio station or two, and your two regional TV newsrooms, but never have to worry about people-powered news websites, or Twitter, or football clubs cutting you out of the equation altogether.

I’ve argued strongly before that the reporters of today have to work far harder than I ever did, 26, 16 or six years ago.

And I think the discipline of having to cope with a multimedia, transient, hypercritical audience means our journalism is better. I know much of the writing certainly is, having seen some of the tortuous rubbish that passed muster in my youth.

The Good Old Days?

So, while it’s tempting to hark back to those so-called good old days, I’m resisting the urge.

On the surface of it, life in those packed newsrooms producing papers snapped up by entire communities feels like a golden age.

But the joy of journalism can be as real now as it was 26 years ago, with new ways of telling stories, and new platforms to reach audiences undreamed of in 1991.

And there’s certainly never been a greater need for what we do.

 

 

Raise a glass to Ray – but let’s raise our game, too

I was going to have a right old go at a national treasure today.

A lovely old man in his 90s with a seemingly inexhaustible zest for life.

One who’s never done me any harm whatsoever.

But my conscience got the better of me.

Don’t get me wrong, I do admire Sir Ray Tindle, founder of the 220-title local newspaper empire that bears his name.

I am much taken by his optimism, his longevity in the face of illness, his dedication to cravat-wearing, and his cavalier attitude to web design.

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I love the way he started it all with his £300 wartime demob money.

And most of all, I am impressed by his relentless obsession with the idea that life is local, that newsrooms should cover the minutiae of identifiable communities’ lives.

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And yet, when I saw coverage of his handover of power to his son Owen, I couldn’t get a horrible geographical thought out of my head.

The pictures don’t help, either.

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The picture of the handover used on Hold the Front Page

I’m desperate to know what’s in those packages on the desk, for a start.

But have a read of this…

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Really? Did he say those words out loud? In Britain, as opposed to, say, a country that’s just above South Korea?

It’s all a bit weird.

But let’s give the new Supreme Leader, sorry chairman, a bit of credit.

For Young Mr Tindle did come out with a genuine gem.

“We will go forward into the new era of local media, keeping things beautifully small and beautifully local.”

Which is a lovely thing, as my fellow blogger Steve Dyson has said, in a piece which also celebrates my friend Richard Coulter’s Voice titles in and around Bristol, and the recently-launched Cambridge Independent.

My concern when it comes to the Tindles – and this is why I was going to pile into an elderly national treasure, is that their company’s dedication to realistic pay and training hasn’t always been obvious.

I’ve taken on enough reporters from Tindle titles over the last couple of decades to get a fair insight into the step change that moving to a bigger group involved on both those scores.

But, looking back at below-the-line comments on a host of Hold the Front Page stories about Tindle, it’s clear that Sir Ray engenders great loyalty among his staff, who say time and again, they’d rather work for him than anyone else.

So, like his, my glass is going to be half-full.

Because he is right about the need for truly local journalism.

The journalism that looks people in the eye, that rubs shoulders with its audience, and which has a recognisable human face.

Yesterday’s Rewired conference on cutting edge journalism featured a fascinating session that was very much back to the future on representative media: essentially getting out and doing face-to-face reporting.

Because here’s the thing.

If we’re going to build a future for journalism, it’s going to have to be local, and it’s going to have to be out there, breathing the same air as our audience.

I was very taken today with a piece on American journalism from columnist Ross Barkan.

He was writing about Trump and the erosion of trust in the US media, but his message is just as relevant on this side of the Atlantic.

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‘We can hate most what we don’t know.’

There’s a truth that goes far wider than the future of journalism there.

But for now let’s cling on to that thought.

The more we know the people we write for or broadcast to, and the more they know us, the more likely it is that journalism has a sustainable future.

 

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.

A mission for all journalists: to make politics matter

I was an expert for five and a half hours on Friday morning.

An expert in pretending to know what I’m talking about, that is.

Just a few hours after promising my wife that it was merely a case of whether Theresa May’s  landslide was just over or just under 100, I was BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s political pundit. Explaining why she’d dismally failed – both to achieve the majority she sought, but also to live up to my predictions and those of the pollsters.

Having missed the signs that May would be humiliated, I had another look into my crystal ball for my BBC friends: this time going to the opposite extreme.

“Ok, Paul, cards on the table,” invited presenter David Smith. “Will she still be PM by the end of the day?”

“No,” I confidently proclaimed.

Of course, she’s still at Number Ten, if only because no one else wants the job of dealing with the mess she’s created.

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Like Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow, who masterfully seized on the phrase used against his Game of Thrones namesake, I clearly know nothing.

And perhaps one of the reasons I know nothing is that, despite living and working with young people, I underestimated them.

What was crystal clear from the polls was that, for Labour to progress, Jeremy Corbyn had to get young voters into polling stations.

Now, I am ridiculously fond of the young people who I teach, and who can amaze me with their work ethic.

But getting large numbers of 19-year-olds to be at a particular place at a particular time can be challenging.

Corbyn, however, has special powers. He was relying on a generation not famed for its reliability – and it almost worked.

The polls that predicted a May landslide did so because they assumed – understandably – that the youth turn-out would remain stubbornly low.

In actual fact, although the much-touted 72 per cent youth figure was a red herring, more reliable research by YouGov suggests the turn-out for 18 to 24-year-olds would have been 58 per cent: up from 43 per cent in 2015. There was also an unexpected decline in the turn-out among older people, and a 30something age group swing to Labour.

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Not only did the youngest voters turn out in greater numbers than ever before, they did so with greater purpose.

This was the Brexit Backlash. A generation which for the first time in modern history will be worse off than its parents making a choice that was both selfish and unselfish, responsible and irresponsible. Yes, they had an eye on tuition fees, and yes, they don’t really care where the money comes from. But this was also a vote to turn the tide of the erosion of precious public services. And this was payback time for June 23 last year: a day when millions of older and supposedly wiser voters participated in the biggest and most self-indulgent act of self-harm this nation has ever seen.

There were other things that those young voters didn’t care about: the right-wing media being one.

In a beautiful phrase in its leader column on Sunday, The Observer said the Daily Mail was ‘left firing analogue bullets in a digital age’.

And this time it wasn’t the Sun wot won it.

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This, I think we can agree, was the last death rattle of tabloid influence on general elections.

Some of the more thoughtful political journalists have admitted they were woefully off-target with their pre-election analysis.

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And there’s a good piece from Grant Feller accusing media commentators of being out-of-touch, middle-aged, males. To which I reluctantly plead guilty.

My favourite regional political journalist, the wonderful Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News, has also been mildly berating herself, despite she and her paper having the Manchester Arena horror to deal with mid-campaign.

With wise words on the need to reinforce political journalism’s value and credentials, Jen says at the next election, she wants to ‘spend ages and ages talking to voters.’

At the opposite end of the country – in my home city of Plymouth – is a man who comes a very close second to Jen, The Herald’s Sam Blackledge.

When he wasn’t writing brilliant blogs about Theresa May’s hollow soundbites  he was making it his business to talk to voters all over his city.

I’m more than 100 miles away, but my Facebook and Twitter feeds kept me in touch with the thoughts of people from all corners of my homeland.

In Plymouth, as in Manchester, every vote counts. The wafer-thin majorities with which people staggered to victory last Thursday must surely prove that – despite the unfairness of the first past the post system.

As journalists, it’s our duty to find out what people in our communities are saying and thinking, and to feed our journalism with these new insights.

The Grenfell Tower horror shows what can happen when we take our eye off the detailed political ball. Those tedious regulations, planning conditions, meeting minutes? They might be dead boring, but it turns out they’re a matter of life and death, too.

Politics matters. 

The challenge for modern journalism is to help people see that – and to ensure that their voices can be heard.

Politicians meet their media match

It’s a scenario familiar to many regional journalists.

On a day when you expected to be live-blogging the traffic, suddenly you’ve got two minutes with the Prime Minister. In an hour’s time.

You go into crowdsourcing overdrive.

What the hell are we going to ask her?

Maybe there’s an argument for having the equivalent of a fire drill for these eventualities, or of having some questions encased in glass that you have to break in such election emergencies.

For my friends at the Plymouth Herald, Somerset Live and The Bath Chronicle, this was their reality yesterday.

And – on the day that she decided not to take up Jeremy Corbyn’s kind invitation to join him at the BBC’s Election Debate – Theresa May found that my friends weren’t in a mood to be taken for granted.

Mrs May was last night accused by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood of running scared because her ‘campaign of soundbites was falling apart.’

Certainly that campaign failed to impress my pal Sam Blackledge, chief reporter and political correspondent of the Herald, who had a morning meeting with Mrs May at the city’s fish market.

It was an appropriate location for an interview in which she was as slippery as a Cornish cod, and showed about as much life as the catches landed around her.

Sam – in a first person piece that has rightly been well aired in the last 24 hours – described his empty encounter with the Premier as ‘three minutes of nothing.’

The sort of speak-your-weight machine responses he got from Mrs May are far from unusual.

But it’s rare for regional reporters to point out the Prime Minister’s New Clothes in such circumstances.

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So, well done to Sam, who has also been bravely fighting off claims of bias in his coverage of the general election in my home city.

The sort of lazy nonsense that Sam has had to put up with – and I’m talking accusations of bias now, not Mrs May’s blandalism – will be familiar to all political journalists, not least those at the BBC.

It was good to see Jeremy Corbyn defending reporters this week, after his bruising encounter with Woman’s Hour – and his colleague Diane Abbott’s dismal performance on LBC.

There’s been a spirited debate on whether being across the numbers in your manifesto really matters.

And sometimes the pub quiz-style questions can jar.

But I was very taken with this piece by Ian Leslie on why journalists are right to expect politicians to know some of the detail of their policies, drawing on the powerful example of rock star David Lee Roth.

He deliberately asked for M&Ms in his band Van Halen’s gig rider – but with the brown sweets taken out, just to test the venue’s attention to detail.

When you add in the contribution of Krishnan Guru-Murthy in challenging Brexit Secretary David Davis on his party’s wilful misrepresentation of Labour’s immigration policies, I think we can agree that it’s been a good week for the media.

I’ve always been keen to see the best in politicians: people doing an often thankless task, usually for unselfish reasons.

But at election time, it’s right that our dealings with the political classes should be laced with a great deal more cynicism.

We should ask the questions that politicians won’t want to answer – and publicly call them out when they don’t.

In the early stages of the election campaign, it was clear the two main parties wanted as little to do with journalists as possible.

Now that they’ve been forced to deal with us, you can understand why.