The Bath Chronicle: even better news

Sam Holliday’s column in the Bath Chronicle this week is the shining opposite to the report that originally got me all exercised: it’s thoughtful, impassioned – and best of all, it’s drawn from a hustings meeting he attended and reported on himself. The BNP candidate appeared alongside representatives of the English Democrats Party, Libertas and the Christian Party, but protests outside the venue stopped most of the participants (and the audience) from getting inside.

Holliday’s reflections on how well the debate and protest served democracy are excellent on their own. But the last section is strong stuff:

As for the BNP, well, it just left me deeply depressed. Unlike many of the protesters, I did hear the debate (because I believe you have to hear what people say before judging them) and the moment the party’s spokesperson tried to claim he wasn’t a racist but called black people “Negroes” was the moment I realised this party is wedded to racism – despite the fact that many of them now wear nice suits. Negroes is the language of the American Civil War and not 21st century British politics – and I felt chilled and angry.

BNP? Beyond Normal Politics.

Newspapers can afford to be partisan about the politics of hate, just as Holliday is here. It’s impressive journalism, and it’s put me back in the paper’s circulation figures.

Update: Tristan Cork (the reporter who turned BNP ideology into editorial in the first place) has a column up on the website which I should have noticed before: it seems to begin with self-justification but ends by telling you everything he missed out first time around.

Good news

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.

Anton Vowl explains just how indefensible this approach is:

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.

My local paper’s racist friends

Edit 11 June 2009: the Bath Chronicle has resolved this issue. Please see this post on the further reporting that has been done.

They shouldn’t take the BNP’s ads, but how should papers report on the BNP? They’re a legal political entity (inexplicably, but there you are) and a matter of interest to your readership – both good arguments for publishing stories about them, and that’s before you get into the idea that it’s better to address their arguments publicly than drive them underground. So, let’s say you’re an editor with news items about the BNP’s council election campaigns and the controversy among the mainstream parties about how to engage in debate with a racist organisation. What are you going to do?

Well, how about definitely not doing what this week’s Bath Chronicle did on page nine:

"Mum, dad and son to stand for BNP"

Top story: “Mum, dad and son to stand for BNP”. Bottom story: “Meeting change to avert MEP hopefuls’ walkout”. Not featured: any response to the BNP’s policies, although the top piece helpfully informs us that the party “only lets white ethnic indigenous people join” – a catagory so meaningless it’s surely come straight from the BNP handbook.

From this page of newsprint, you’d get the impression that the BNP is some sort of loveable family concern squaring up to the grey suits of mainstream politics with a bit of underdog spirit. If you’re going to read about the repatriation policy or Nick Griffin’s criminal record, it won’t be in The Bath Chronicle. Sam Holliday, editor of the Chronicle (edit 11 June 2009 to remove email, as Sam has resolved this issue) has decided that his readers need to be informed about the jolly face of the BNP and not their despicable principles. The writer of the “Meeting change” story, Laura Tremelling (edit 20 May 2009: Laura would prefer that her email not appear here, although it is published in her byline in the paper) has spoken to representatives of Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Greens and either not questioned them – or not quoted them – on the specific reasons they refused to share a stage with a BNP candidate.

That’s lousy journalism anyway, barely adequate to the coverage of a flower show. But when the subject is the BNP, it’s lousy, tacitly racist journalism. I don’t have a local paper anymore.

Edit 20 May 2009 to clarify that Tremelling is only responsible for the “Meeting change” story. The family profile is uncredited.