We need to defend and support a Free press in Liverpool

I have been pondering for some time about how councillors should relate to and where possible work with local journalists. My musings have been brought to a head by the news that the Council, through LDL, has registered a website called Dale Street News not to be confused with the venerable and independent blog site which contains this blog!

For reasons which should be obvious to some but appear not to be an investigative press is always more loved by opposition councillors than controlling ones. The reason is simple – as an opposition councillor I currently have few secrets to be prised out. Few decisions rest on my every word. Few courtiers glide up to me to ask for permission to proceed. My role is very similar to that of a journalist. To find out what is really going on and to examine what a controlling party is doing with a view to testing it and making it better.

Controlling politicians always know things that no-one else knows and they should do. Often decisions they make will affect lives or property prices or development opportunities. News of some things leaking out will be prejudicial to the city and its people. However, controlling groups often go too far and seem to want to over control the media particularly when the media finds fault with its actions.

So controlling groups always claim that the press is standing up for the ‘other side’ more than them. This is a remark I increasingly hear within Dale Street.

I have great sympathy with the press who have to do two things if they are to succeed;

  • Condense long, complex reports into between 300 and 600 words which the public will understand; and
  • Make it interesting enough so that people will want to read it and buy the paper!

This latter point invariably leads to an element of personality reporting. The great British public love spats, arguments, personalities, disputes, revelations. We know this from the way they watch shows like Big Brother and X Factor. A newspaper that presented academic, reasoned texts is a newspaper that will soon close for ever!

Within the Council we have experts on every aspect of the running of the council on the political side and many more on the professional side. Our journalists who probably number 10 if we include all the media have no such back up and have to be some sort of ‘expert’ in absolutely everything.

Their role in Liverpool is probably more important than in most places again for two reasons:

  • There are 75 elected Labour politicians within the Council chamber and only 15 in the Parties that ‘oppose’ them
  • The Labour Party makes no pretence at scrutinising what the Mayor and Cabinet do. We all saw the infamous note from the Labour Chief Whip reminding Select Committee Chairs that they are appointed by the Mayor and must do his bidding. I regularly go to meetings which are composed of presentations without any intervention, critique or criticism from the Labour Group. At the last Mayoral Scrutiny Committee no Labour Member other than the Mayor made any sort of intervention. When the one opposition member criticises something they are roundly accused of disloyalty to the Council or city.

I know that leading politicians regularly refuse to speak to some journalists, indeed another leaked document from Joe Anderson formalised this into a boycott of the Echo, now partially relaxed.

Politicians generally just need to grow up. I hope that the council do nothing with ‘Dale Street News’ which can only be construed as a spoiler to an independent operator. We have to learn to be big enough to take the rough with the smooth. We have to accept that what we think is important and worth at least a front page exclusive might not be perceived in that way by professional commentators. I have to accept as an opposition politician that the press are far more likely to use a negative opinion from me than a positive one as they seek to give balance to a story that will always be positive from the controlling side.

Is this too much to ask? We shall see!

About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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1 Response to We need to defend and support a Free press in Liverpool

  1. John Brace says:

    A very interesting post Cllr Kemp, however from 10th September (just two weeks ago) the definition of “newspaper” (see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/2089/made ) in the legislation broadened to include news agencies that sell reports to newspapers, newspapers themselves, broadcast media (radio/TV) and “new media” (online blogs etc).

    It’s still hard for anyone that runs a blog (even if you’re involved with print and broadcast too) to have the local Council take you seriously and at least here over the water on the Wirral (or other public body) even to provide a table to write notes on! The best at providing tables was the soon to be abolished Merseyside Police Authority as all seating in the room had a table in front of it (although there were barely five seats for members of the public). It is in fact essential to have there, as under their standing orders they ban recording their meetings, which ironically even includes taking photos of police officers receiving awards (perhaps understandable as they take photos themselves of this).

    Opposition councillors do have far more powers than journalists, as they have the right to speak at meetings. As to the “expert” issue, it can be a problem, but there are plenty of people in the media that had a career before journalism or we can ask outside experts (usually in return for using a quote of theirs). As to leading politicians refusing to speak to journalists, well that’s up to them. Some don’t like having a high media profile, others revel in it.

    Basically as a journalist you have to become an expert at recognising politicians by voice or back of their head, even with microphone switched off. By recognising voice, I mean recognise a voice while there’s a car revving outside, kids kicking a football against the window, somebody flushing the toilets in the room next door and the politician in question has forgotten to turn their microphone on. It certainly takes practice!

    As to the whole “balance” issue, that’s a judgement call that partly relies on editors/sub editors etc.

    The main issue is not just the above, but general workplace issues, it can be best to get some exercise before sitting through a long meeting that goes on for over three hours without a break. Planning and Licensing meetings are well known for going on for a very long time. The unsocial aspect of some LA meetings (in the evenings) doesn’t help with a social life either. Personally I prefer meetings that start and finish in the daylight.

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