Bad reporting is always regrettable for the good reporting it replaces. In the case of the Bath Chronicle and the Western Daily Press’ BNP family story, though, something much worse happened. Poor journalism led to the papers publishing editorial that obscured the politics of electoral candidates and presented three proponents of racist policies as “caring” individuals. The BNP candidate was so happy with the initial report that he celebrated its appearance on wire services: essentially, the reporter (Tristan Cork, who hasn’t replied to my email) has written the equivalent of a press release for the BNP, and done it at the WDP’s expense.
Let me explain to this newspaper editor why the BNP thinks the press are against them. They think that not because they are paranoid fools – although that may well be true – but because it’s true. Why? Well the press are against the BNP because the press is composed of human beings, most of whom are intelligent and rational people, most of whom despise fascism, racism, prejudice and hatred. It’s not a liberal-left leaning of the local press; it’s not some New Labour plot to infiltrate newspapers with lefties. No, most right-wing people hate the BNP too, and quite rightly so.
I was really pleased that Sam Holliday, editor of the Bath Chronicle, turned up in the comments to my post about his paper to defend his work and debate journalism – and even more pleased when he went to and reported on a debate between council candidates (and managed to get all the quotes in quotation marks this time). The report is a strong example of what local news can do well: it involved going out to the meeting, breaching the protest to get inside, listening to the debate and (I would guess) taking shorthand notes as it went along. That’s an evening of the editor’s time at least, and the story the paper gets is only obvious after the work’s been put in.
That sort of reporting costs resources. I can’t comment specifically on the Chron, but in general resources are not that abundant on local papers. And the “Mum, dad and son to stand for BNP” story was cheap in comparison. The Chronicle acquired it from a sister paper (the Western Daily Press). Copy and picture arrived intact, and all it took was a little editing and a new headline to get it on page nine of the Chron. Even for the WDP, which sent a reporter and photographer to meet South-West Family Racism, this was bargain journalism: maybe an hour out of the office for Tristan Cork, and the piece to be written determined in advance with no requirement for additional reporting. The most budgetarily-constrained editor can probably justify that as a way to fill half a page.
But what Tristan Cork produced barely qualifies as reporting. It told me nothing I couldn’t have found out direct from the candidate’s own blog. It was empty puffery, without journalistic merit and without any value to the reader who wants to be better informed about their local area. In fact, the only group it served was the BNP, by haplessly reinforcing the “People like you” line from the BNP’s election literature and letting racists who don’t like to be called racists luxuriate in their bigotry.
Papers that print stories like the “Caring family” one are failing. Not just morally, but financially: in Media Week, Sue Unwin of MediaCom (a company which organises ad campaigns and places press spots) calls the Telegraph expenses scoop
magnificent evidence of the importance of newspapers and proper journalism. […] It is clear that whatever the commercial outcomes of the transition from paid-for newsprint to free online content, we cannot expect to continue to live in a democracy without proper journalists dedicated to annoying the elected members of Parliament.
That’s a person who’s responsible for placing the ads that pay for the papers saying that journalists should be scrutinising politics. Not recycling press releases, and not inadvertantly writing them, but showing up and asking questions. I hope Sam Holliday’s hustings report is the beginning of more coverage like that – because it’s the sort of journalism I want to see, and because it’s the only sort of journalism that can justify the continued existence of the local press.