Local churnalism and the BNP

Like Anne, I was very concerned about how the BNP family profile came to appear without a byline in the Bath Chronicle. As Anne said, the most obvious interpretation of the story being uncredited “is down to it coming from a press officer or agency of some kind.” Sam Holliday, the editor of the Chronicle, replied “This was not a PR written piece – believe it or not we don’t do that.” That seems to be true. However, the Chronicle does share content with its sister paper, the Western Daily Press. And that’s where this story originally appeared, written by Tristan Cork (edit 11 June 2009 to remove email as there is now no reason to contact Cork in light of further actions by the Chron) complete with the same photo and that horrible phrase “only lets white ethnic indigenous British people join as full members.” (I rang Laura Tremelling at the Chronicle to confirm this.)

Western Daily Press, BNP family

The copy has been partly rewritten – Cork’s original is even more extraordinarily uncritical, which caused great delight to the candidate on his blog, where he also noted that “Since then the story has been noticed by a press agency so expect to see it in a national paper next week.” This is churnalism in action, and it’s beautifully illustrative of the way that the repetition of stories without any additional reporting is destructive of political debate – and of how cheerfully political candidates will exploit that to avoid scrutiny.

Just a note: I’m not linking to the BNP candidate’s blog or naming him here, because I’m not personally up for hosting a debate with the BNP here on Paperhouse. I hope the comments will reflect that.

15 thoughts on “Local churnalism and the BNP

  1. I’m quite shocked that three candidates for a racist party can be portrayed as a family of plucky underdogs. The fact that the only real reference to the repugnance of their politics comes in the final paragraph (in spectacularly watered-down format) and is then immediately followed by the qualifying sentence “Its 12 candidates…have little chance of getting elected” is unbelievably lax journalism.

    I mean, I’m in genuine disbelief here. I was appalled that my local rag ran a large BNP banner ad (and told them so) – this is utterly inexcusable. Sam Holliday’s argument that they “try above all to be impartial and credit our readers with the intelligence to work things out for themselves” would be fair enough, if words weren’t being wasted on that ridiculously fluffy opening paragraph, and the mention of the kitchen table – how does reporting on their entirely irrelevant family life reflect any semblance of impartiality? Is Tristan Cork a BNP sympathiser, or just an unbelievably bad journalist?

  2. Well done Bish… you’ve just demonstrated the most inglorious trait of all.

    Don’t like the message? Then Shoot the Messenger!

    If you want a paper that prints story which rage furiously at the BNP, buy Socialist Worker. If you want a paper that rages venomously at the left, read Spearhead magazine.

    If you want to read a paper that attempts to be balanced, allow everyone a platform (however vile you believe they are) then your local paper is all that’s really left. Admittedly, it doesn’t mean reporters shouldn’t occasionally challenge them on the party’s policies, such as “why the hell don’t you want those lovely Gurkas to retire to England after they’ve served the British Army so well, other than the fact that they’re not white… go on, you wouldn’t mind if they were white south african farmers would you?”
    It does appear that mMore and more bloggers are starting to rage at local papers (having finished with the nationals) expecting them to work they same way they do. ie partisan.
    And I say that as someone who reads blogs across the spectrum daily with much joy, not as someone who hates them one little bit. (Well, except Iain Dale and Guido, of course.)

  3. Carl,

    I think the origins of “don’t shoot the messenger” have something to do with messengers reporting back from battlefronts with the news that the battle has been lost. Now, if he graciously enters the room and flatly “tells it how it is”, fine, you indeed shouldn’t shoot the messenger. If, however, he walks in, grinning from ear to ear, and tells the story of how the heroic opposition valiantly fought and succeeded thanks to God’s will and some terrible mismanagement by my generals, I dare say I’d be more inclined to apply my trigger finger in removing his brains from betwixt his ears.

    I have no problem whatsoever with newspapers (local and national) *reporting* on the BNP. I object simply to:
    (a) avoidable and unnecessary promotion of their cause, and,
    (b) the inexplicable (and unjustifiable, in my opinion) words spent depicting their representatives as ordinary family people doing their bit to help their community.

    Regarding (b), I have the same objections to journalists unfairly demonising BNP candidates. I’m not looking for a vicious attack on the people who choose to run for the BNP party (or their supporters) – I simply take issue with the choice to spend more time writing about their (noble, but irrelevant, in the context of the article) good deeds than highlighting the less-savoury ‘principles’ that their party promotes – all in all, I think their home-lives are essentially irrelevant, as in all matters of politics.

    So I guess what I’m saying is you missed my point entirely – and that may well be my fault for not being clearer (a common drawback of writing in the heat of anger) – but I certainly wasn’t arguing that there should have been no coverage at all of this particular story. In that sense, I suppose we agree.

  4. Bish

    Define “ordinary family” please… (I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed one to date!)

    You forget, these twonks truly believe they ARE “doing their bit to help their community”. The reporter isn’t there to say they aren’t… that’s what the rival politicos are for.

    A local reporter does have the unenviable task of reporting on people they don’t like, agree with, fancy, appreciate, love or anything else. During an election period it’s a right bugger not to be allowed to go “and here’s the local Tory standing for the seat of Upper Smidgeon and jesus H christ what a smarmy tossbag he is.. just look at those bloody cufflinks for a start”.

    The news editor, or the editor really do pick up on lines like that.

    And if they don’t you can bet every Tory-hugger will and complaints to the PCC will be made, and the Electoral Commission (or whoever does it now, I’m a crime reporter these days so I’ve left that shite behind) and they’ll turn up at the office, sometimes with banners and chants and you get shouted at and personally abused when you attend public meetings or the local supermarket to by cheap beer (“there he is… scum! scum! scum! bloody tabloid lefty filth!”)

    I’m not necessarily saying the report is right or wrong. But LOCAL papers who do not have a partisan stand do get put in the awful position of having to make the decision whether to allow all parties of all political pursuasions (yes, even Respect) an equal platform or going “oh bugger them… they’re arseholes and I don’t agree with their ideology”.

    For instance, while a reporter may personally loath Labour with a passion bordering on fizzing-explosion, they shouldn’t really write every article on the election which reveals the local Labour candidate as a filthy degenerate socialistic scumbag. He has to present him fairly, accurately, often allowing the lefty-hippie to speak using their own quotes and not out of context.

    Anything less and the reporter isn’t really adhering to the principles of journalism (which in my book is let the BNP speak … then hopefully they’ll screw themselves with their own bigotry if the sensible public don’t get to them first).

    Just shouting at the paper and going “oh look. the editor’s a friend of racists” is one step away from being Lord Tebbit and going “that bloody BBC, not bowing down again when they interview The Goddess Thatcher again… bloody typical of the Communist licence-fee-funded bastards!”

    And yes, I also suppose we agree.

    Much love, as always.

  5. Carl,

    I’m a bit confused by the above. You’ve basically reiterated your previous argument, entirely avoiding my point. Have you read the article itself? The journalist isn’t ‘adhering to the principles of journalism’ by opening the piece with the words:
    “They ferry THE MOST VULNERABLE special-needs children from home to school and back again, GOING ABOVE AND BEYOND their taxi driver role to provide an important service.” Simply removing the words I’ve capitalised (and amending the second half of the sentence, obviously) would be a step towards a more impartial tone, I’m sure you’d agree?

    I know full well they believe themselves to be ‘doing their bit’, and indeed in this particular respect, they’re doing a very good deed. But how does making that the opening to the article (bearing in mind it’s not even a quote) achieve anything beside presenting them in a good light? As I said in my last response, I’m not suggesting the journalist write a sleaze-piece that demonises the candidates, but I fail to see what aspect of these all-important ‘principles of journalism’ is being adhered to by writing an article along the lines of “These are really lovely people…and they’re all BNP candidates! (Which is a bit controversial)”

    The bottom line, in my opinion, is that writing a story which combines political PR with the candidate(s) entirely-unrelated, non-political community acts is – regardless of political affiliation – both sloppy and dangerously misleading journalism. Either the two aspects of the story should never have been combined, or else the details about the taxi firm should have been left until the end, and much less-loaded language used. A single sentence at the end would have sufficed – something to the effect of:

    “The next few weeks are obviously going to be very busy for the Simpkins family, who also run a family taxi service, which holds a contract with Wiltshire Council to take children with special needs to schools in Corsham and Chippenham.”

    That way, the facts are reported without any of the fluff. Do you see what I’m getting at here, or am I wasting my time?

    Regarding your comment about quotes and ‘letting them speak’, I entirely agree, but that doesn’t excuse using nonsensical BNP euphemisms like “white ethnic indigenous British people” without quotations – again, that’s lazy journalism.

    Finally, your opening comment about defining “ordinary” – please don’t let’s be silly. You know full well what I meant, and I can’t see how a 6th Form debate about the illusion of “normal” really helps the discussion here.

    PS – To Sarah: sorry for hijacking the comments here!

  6. This is not simply a case of shooting a messenger. This messenger decided to describe BNP candidates as caring. Balanced reporting my ****.

  7. Oh and as to the idea that they think they are helping their community, well, let’s start by defining community.

    I bet my definition is different to theirs. I wouldn’t be in it for starters.

  8. No worries, Bish. Carl, I think you’ve had answers to all the issues you’ve raised in my comments, and while I appreciate your insight as a working local journalist, I’m not convinced you’ve approached this conversation in the best possible way. Maybe a less defensive attitude is the way to improve local papers and revive circulation? It’s worth a try, anyway.

  9. Bish – I didn’t go to 6th form.

    I do agree with much of what you and Sarah say. And the editor of the paper also did in the other thread.

    What irks me is how quickly blog comment threads get into the “tcha, typical local paper, not doing what I want them to do”.

    Some of the rules which the NCTJ encourages trainee repoters to learn do seem to emphasise local reporters not putting their own opinion into a story. You’re expected to tell is straight and if you want to have a go at someone/thing, you’re meant to find someone else to provide that quote.

    I would LOVE to be able to write in the way bloggers do in my paper, but it just doesn’t work that way. It wouldn’t get past the subs.

    That’s not necessarily a failing of the reporter and to be honest, until the reporter is given a voice here, to explain and if necessary apologise, I’m not of the “you’re unprofessional and inept at your job” gang.

    Perhaps urging papers to do an “open debate” series rather than just raiging at them all for one article would be a more constructive (and fairer) way forward, as I’ve suggested in another thread?

  10. At my paper, the sub-editors write the headlines, often to the despair of the reporters.

    It could be the same at this paper.

    Nowhere in the article does the reporter describe the family as caring. Only in the title. If I’m blind to that, someone please point out the word I missed.

    Anne, ever thought you could be directing your ire at the wrong person?

  11. This bit: “the most vulnerable… above and beyond” The word “caring” in the headline accurately reflects that part of the copy.

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