Archive for January 2010
The best thing to happen in music over the past few months? The reforming of late-90s/early-00s band Drugstore, fronted by the wonderful Isabel Monteiro.
Best known for El Presidente with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke’s, Isabel’s beguiling live presence (and ever-present bottle of red wine) always guaranteed some wonderful shows. They faded away seven or eight years ago, but returned for a show at Dingwall’s in Camden in September while I was wandering around North America. Now they’re down to play the ICA (assuming it stays open) in May, and Isabel is tweeting like crazy. It’s great to have her back. Clips of them are few and far between on YouTube, and they barely feature on Spotify, but above is their set from Glastonbury in 1995.
Sorry for the lack of exciting updates this week – attention’s been elsewhere, and I’m sure you’ve more exciting things to read than another whine about bins. But I did trot down to Woolwich Town Hall on behalf of greenwich.co.uk to see what was going on at Wednesday’s council meeting.
As you’ll see, Greenwich Time came up, getting a lashing from opposition councillors while the council leader attempted to give the News Shopper a lashing. Except he managed to get the publisher wrong, criticising Kentish Times publisher Archant when its rival Newsquest produces the Petts Wood-based paper.
Unfortunately… the News Shopper wasn’t there to hear itself criticised in the meeting. Its rival, the Mercury, was represented, but despite launching an attack on the council in last week’s paper, it didn’t show to see if anybody made any political capital out of it. Bearing in mind that it’s accepted journalistic wisdom that council meetings and courts are the bedrock of what a local paper should do, it does undermime its attack on Greenwich Time if it isn’t going to follow up the story by attending a council meeting.
I still agree with what it said, but the News Shopper has to raise its game and actually attend these meetings if its attacks on Greenwich Time are to maintain their credibility.
The sad thing is that it is not hard to go to a council meeting and get stories out of them – almost all the things discussed there have direct relevance to the lives of the people of Greenwich borough. Commuters who use Blackheath station may be pleased to hear that councillors spent half an hour discussing the recent cut of services there. There was some roundabout discussion about ice and grit from the snow, and how the council coped with that and its decision to prioritise gritting roads over pavements. There’s a nice story about a 13-year-old getting the council to consider building a skate park in Eltham, a petition about a dangerous road in Eltham (Court Road, should you be interested), fears expressed about asbestos and the Ferrier Estate demolition, and there was a full-blown row about second homes and empty council housing. And a few digs at Bexley, as is traditional. Together with the stuff chosen for greenwich.co.uk, that’s a fair chunk of the paper written.
The News Shopper isn’t the only paper to come up short – the Mercury’s stablemate, the South London Press, didn’t show at the last Lambeth Council meeting – despite the paper being a bitter critic of that council’s house newspaper.
Getting to the nub of how things are decided in Greenwich borough is a tough one. I’ve been directed to council meetings via a fire escape in the past, and the supply of papers to help residents follow council meetings is erratic to say the least, with questions not being published online or being placed in the council chamber. Proper coverage by both our local newspapers would be a step forward, but it’s not one they seem to be willing to take.
Incidentally, Lewisham Council voted on Wednesday to investigate the possibilities of webcasting and podcasting its meetings (a Green motion but one that seems to have had cross-party support). I think it’s a great idea. I hope Greenwich councillors are taking note.
I’d like to take that further – ever seen the BBC’s Democracy Live? It’s a wonderful invention, but seems limited by focusing on national and European government – even the London mayor’s question time isn’t featured live. (It’s little known, but you can also watch all parliamentary committees live on, well, Parliament Live.) It’s never going to beat Coronation Street in the ratings, but if local councils and the BBC could team up, so you could watch your own councillors in action, it’d be a great contribution to democracy.
And who knows, it might even help local journalists cover these meetings too. It saves waiting for the bus outside Woolwich Town Hall in the rain…
Here’s how the bin men left my street after their weekly visit.
Pavements blocked? Check…
Awkwardly dumped wheelie-bins? Check…
Making life hard for people with buggies? Check…
Rotting teabags scattered over the pavement. Check!
Not really fitting of a “royal borough”, eh? And this was after the pavements were blocked by full-up wheelie bins all afternoon. I called Greenwich Council to have a word and hopefully they’ll come back to finish the job off properly (sweeping the mess up, as opposed to kicking over the wheelie bins and making more of a mess). Maybe they’ll even do it right first time next week. Here’s hoping, eh?
So, who saw Rock & Chips last night? I wandered down to the Pelton Arms, which played the Nags Head in BBC1′s Only Fools and Horses prequel, where it was being shown specially. Big cheers broke out at the sight of Caradoc Street in the show, and of the pub itself… but the landlord hadn’t connected the TV to his PA system and was left feeling a bit of a Rodney. Hey-ho.
As a result… I haven’t actually watched it, but what I saw looked impressive. I’m getting increasingly keen on the Pelton as well, where the staff seem to be cracking the nut of how to attract a younger crowd without diluting the feeling of being inside a proper pub. I’ll have to catch up with Rock & Chips on the iPlayer, and I hope to catch up with the Pelton again soon, too.
As a wiser man than me said, “Where’s the ‘come and get your free money’ headline, eh, eh??”
Incidentally, the boss of the firm which prints Greenwich Time has been, er… slagging off council newspapers. “The abuse of taxpayers’ money to peddle council propaganda dressed up as journalism is an outrage which must be stopped.” I look forward to Sly Bailey ending Trinity Mirror’s contract to print Greenwich Time, then. Proof that not all is simple in this debate.
I’m posting this because 1) it’s brilliant, 2) Lucky Soul are mates of mine, 3) this blog has been so dry this week it needs livening up, and 4) I went to see the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll yesterday and it was great, and I’ve run out of time to wax lyrical about it, and 5) this blog needs some more music.
Oh, and it reminds me how I really want to stow away on a sleeper train and go to Berlin. Soon.
With apologies to those who are bored to tears with the subject, I’d like to return to local council newspapers again. Sooner or later, a government – either this or the next one – is likely to act on these. Too many arguments on the internet concentrate on the black and white extremes, and not the shades of grey in the middle. This post is an attempt to address those shades of grey.
There’s also been some coverage of this yesterday, with Trinity Mirror boss Sly Bailey attacking what she called “mini-Pravdas” at the Oxford Media Convention. But while Sly Bailey bleats now, it was her own Trinity Mirror which moved one of Greenwich’s local papers, the Mercury, out of its Deptford HQ, in the heart of its circulation area, to far-off Streatham. (The Mercury is now owned by rival group Tindle.) Sly Bailey has only herself to blame if local councils feel her local papers aren’t covering them properly.
Nick Baines, the Bishop of Croydon, no less, responded to her thoughts on his blog:
Local newspapers are in serious decline. This is bad news in itself. Local newspapers have traditionally offered the local population scrutiny of local authority decision-making and spending. They have served the public as guardians of accountability by covering the detail of council meetings and committees and telling the community what is going on and identifying the right questions to ask of their elected representatives.
But this is no longer the case; the world has moved on. My own experience of local government coverage is that only negative stories play – that there is a less-than-intelligent and often ill-informed editorial bias brought to bear on stories involving the local authority. Many public servants simply feel that they are constantly fighting a losing battle in serving their local communities and that any effort to build up the positive image of a local community is undermined by insistent negative image-making.
But, unfortunately, in Greenwich, we can see that this has gone way too far – Greenwich Time is little more than a vanity publication for the council leadership, and as we saw yesterday, is happy to play fast and loose with statistics to paint a rosy picture of life in the soon-to-be-royal borough.
And yes, the situation isn’t helped by weak local newspapers. Twice in the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of covering full meetings of Greenwich Council for greenwich.co.uk. There’s usually someone on the press desk in the town hall chamber – but not once have I seen a story from any of those meetings appear in either the Mercury or the News Shopper. But even with greenwich.co.uk’s restricted catchment area, there’s been at least four short stories out of those meetings. If the News Shopper is serious about its campaign, it should send someone along some day. I could do with the company. Perhaps, of course, the papers can’t afford to send a reporter along any more. Which presents us with a nuttier problem to get our teeth into.
Scrapping or outlawing council newspapers isn’t going to solve the problem in areas where malnourished local papers are failing. Even if councils are compelled to place their advertising in them once again (once upon a time, Greenwich Council had to put all its planning notices in the Mercury), it doesn’t necessarily follow that the newspapers’ proprietors will put that cash into journalism. If a firm like Trinity Mirror cut back on its local papers while the economy was good, why should it be trusted with public funds when the economy’s rotten?
So, I suggest a few guidelines be introduced. A code of conduct, perhaps. Local councils should only be allowed to publish local newspapers if…
- They are governed by an independent editorial board, to maintain impartiality. Perhaps local councillors of all stripes should nominate trustees, maybe other local bodies – and other local media interests – should get involved. No council leadership should ever be able to dictate what goes in and what stays out of these papers. To safeguard impartiality, perhaps these boards should represent more than one borough – so, for example, the same board could oversee local papers in both Labour Greenwich and Tory Bexley. I bet both councils would love that.
- They should not publish more than once a fortnight unless there is a clear and demonstrable case of market failure. Nobody needs to hear from their local council every bloody week. But if local papers are asleep on the job, or unable to cover basic editorial jobs, or if their proprietors are taking money out of journalism and into their shareholders’ pockets, then a council may feel the need to take action – subject to the newspaper being under independent editorial control, as mentioned above.
- Space must be allocated for a variety of political and editorial viewpoints. All the political groups represented on the council must have access to the pages of the local council newspaper. If a council leader has a column, why shouldn’t an opposition leader? If a councillor of another party has a bright idea, why shouldn’t he or she get it in to the council’s newspaper? And what about parties not on the council, or outside pressure groups?
- Any council newspaper must offer training to young people or any other local wanting to pursue a media career. Of course, as we’re all finding out, there’s not much money in journalism – but thousands of young people want to do it. East London Lines is a project set up by journalism students at Goldsmiths College to follow news in most of the boroughs on the revamped rail route from Dalston to West Croydon. Is this a pointer to the future of local news? Why shouldn’t a council offer something similar? Perhaps there’s even a role for the likes of the BBC in this, developing offerings for TV, audio and the web while training new talent.
Those are four ideas. Maybe we’ll end up seeing local councils contributing to local newspapers (but without being able to influence them), or vice versa, and non-profit partnerships emerging. But I think the point needs making that just because Greenwich Time is a fraud doesn’t mean local council newspapers are automatically evil. I don’t think they’re going to go away, and if they’re not going to go away, they need to be harnessed into a force for good. But has anyone got the guts to take them on?
FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! Actually, the only thing that’s surprising about this week’s News Shopper front page is how long it’s taken one of the borough’s two freesheets to lay into Greenwich Council’s weekly dose of propaganda on the tax, considering it’s nearly two years since a relatively harmless info sheet suddenly got ramped up into a weekly psuedo-newspaper.
A Westminster debate last week, however, has spurred it into action.
Liberal Democrat MP Paul Burstow told the debate:
Greenwich Time, which is delivered 44 weeks a year to every home in the borough. Again, it mimics the format and content of a local paper. Its cost is £708,000 a year, of which at least £532,000 is borne by local taxpayers. Before it goes to print, every page is checked and approved by the council leader. The council claims that it is not trying to put the local independent paper out of business, but it has adopted the practice of holding back stories for exclusives for its own paper.
If we head west, we find that a similar story applies to Hammersmith and Fulham. The council’s h&f news, which is distributed to 75,000 homes, is a perfect example of what I wanted this debate to be about: pseudo-newspapers. It has lots of news, a 12-page property section pull-out, crosswords and a sudoku, a what’s-on section, advertising from local businesses and even a gardening section. Its counterparts in Tower Hamlets and Greenwich and all such publications are written to look at the world through the tinted glasses of the ruling party of the council.
It’s worth pointing out that while Greenwich is a Labour authority (as is Tower Hamlets), Hammersmith & Fulham is a Conservative one. Mr Burstow also criticised a “newspaper” put out by Waltham Forest – which is jointly run by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. They’re all at it if they think they can get away with it, it seems. It remains to be seen if this government (or the next) will take action.
You know what I think of it, of course, and there’s remarkably similar views expoused by some washed-out fellow with ginger hair on page 3. Reaction to my barnstorming of local newspapers across Greenwich and Lewisham was instant, with one pal instantly offering to take a better photo of me. That’s what friends are for.
Of course, there’s sound political reasons for disliking Greenwich Time, and with an election coming up it’s going to come under great scrutiny. But as a journalist I believe that weekly council newspapers, heavily funded and packed out with features, sports and TV listings like Greenwich Time, stifle free speech and put at risk independent journalism. Now, I don’t think the management of the News Shopper or its rival Mercury over the past few years are entirely innocent in this – indeed, I hope this campaign marks an end to the News Shopper deciding to splash with the witterings of psychics instead of actual, proper news which affects the people it claims to serve.
But happily for the News Shopper, the latest Greenwich Time only goes and proves its point…
Violent crime is falling in Greenwich, the paper trumpets, and up pops council leader Chris Roberts to take credit for it in the huge pull-quote below the headline. He’s actually quoted before police commander Richard Wood in the story. Quoting figures from April 2008-January 2009, and April 2009 to 3 January 2010, it claims that “gun crime” has been cut by 18.6%. The story comes from this Met Police press release.
Except that if you look at the Met’s own crime figure stats, they tell a different story, with a 55% rise in “gun-enabled crime” in the year to November 2009.
Now, the definition of “gun crime” and “gun-enabled crime” may well be different – the latter definitely includes fake firearms, for example. But the figures so approvingly quoted in Greenwich Time are for a different time scale – somehow counting “gun crime” Why was this? Of course, any proper journalist would have queried why, for example, “gun crime” between the months of January and April was not counted in the figures. I’d certainly hope that the journalists at the News Shopper and Mercury would. Indeed, it was a proper journalist who pointed out the disparity to me in the first place.
But Greenwich Time is not “proper journalism”. You’re not going to question the handouts you’re given to tart-up into a punter-friendly news story – after all, you’d be denying the leader of the council his regular appearance on the front page if you knocked the story down. Unusually, the crime splash did not even carry a proper byline, just “by GT reporter”. Are they worried about the veracity of the story?
Changes in technology mean that local journalism now comes in different forms – traditional newspapers, local websites, opinion-led polemics, blogs. All of which struggle to make money. But all of which can add something to people’s lives. Greenwich Time does none of that. It uses your money to crowd out the competition and stifle free speech and innovation. It’s deliberately designed to mislead.
In short, it’s a fraud. And like all frauds, the sooner it’s stamped out, the better.
(UPDATE 1.45PM For the defence, I present an insightful post by Nick Baines on the genre in general: “When you feel you are being misrepresented by not-very-good journalists at local level and find yourselves never put in a positive light for public consumption, what do you do? Just sit back and accept it? Or proactively tell your own story?”)
When it’s a Saturday service on Southeastern, apparently.
Crayford blogger Paul has been assiduously chasing the train company on Bexcentric since it started pulling train services in advance of the snowfall of two weeks ago.
Paul’s efforts have been typical of what’s been a combined effort to find out just what the hell Southeastern have been playing at. While mainstream media outlets ignored the story, Londonist got the ball rolling with a post on its “epic snow fail“, followed up by journalist Tom Royal, then by Bexcentric, with a bit from me in the middle about the mayor’s role. Increasingly, if the media ignores south-east London, south-east London just has to find stuff out for itself.
Anyway, Paul enlisted the help of his local MP, Bexleyheath and Crayford’s David Evenett, and has been involved in a dialogue with Southeastern for about a week. Unfortunately, he’s still no closer to finding out just why Southeastern slashed its train services in London when neighbouring firms attempted to plough on.
Firstly, it used the old chestnut of blaming third-rail electrification (as also used by Southern and South West Trains) , and passed much of the blame onto Network Rail. It included an odd line: “Following a conference call with NWR on midday on the 5 January it was decided to implement a revised timetable, based on a Saturday service on main line and metro routes from 6 January.” A Saturday service from Westcombe Park is six trains per hour, from Charlton it’s eight. Southeastern offered two trains each hour on those snowy days.
Then, it issued what looks suspiciously like a pre-prepared briefing which made much of the same points, including the whopper that “service frequencies were similar to normal off peak frequencies”.
And then, finally, a proper breakdown of some of the points Bexcentric raised.
“It is incorrect to suggest that no other operator serving the capital reduced its services in response to severe weather. Services operated by Southern, First Capital Connect and South West Trains were also affected.” However, Southeastern was the only operator to reduce its services before a flake of snow fell, and it was the only operator to cancel all evening trains.
In reply to a point about Southeastern’s metro trains being based at depots within London which were less affected by snow, the company replied: “A limited metro service did run during this period. However, you will appreciate that some services start in Kent and these were badly affected.”
And on the claim that what was on offer during those snowy days was a Saturday service… “The revised timetable was based upon a Saturday service. It did not seek to replicate it.”
On deciding to operate a full service on the Saturday, but not the previous three days when the company was liable to refund commuters: “We were advised by Network Rail’s weather forecasters that no further snow was expected and Network Rail advised we were able to operate a normal timetable that weekend.” Which was odd, because I remember a prediction for snow at 3pm that day. Funnily enough, it snowed at 3pm.
Refunds for lack of service are being dealt with on a “case by case” basis, it adds.
And finally… “A full review of how we and Network Rail dealt with the recent disruption will begin shortly. We would be happy to share the outcome with MPs and other stakeholders.”
If you pay tax in the UK, then consider yourself a stakeholder – after all, we paid it £136m in subsidy last year.
At Charlton station, you can still see how badly Southeastern managed the snow – where staff scrawled “FRIDAY 8TH” on a poster panel when they hadn’t received any new publicity for that day’s “emergency timetable” (which then stayed up for another six days). They’ve scraped most of it off, but you can still see the ink marks on the display.
So what now? Southeastern now says Paul should contact London Travelwatch with his complaints. However, my own experience of dealing with London Travelwatch was dismal, with a complaint about a lack of co-ordination of engineering works taking months to be answered, with the alleged “watchdog” blindly accepting a clearly dubious explanation fed to it by Network Rail.
Unfortunately, as a private company, Southeastern is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and nor is Network Rail, despite the fact it largely answers to the government. So as passengers – sorry, stakeholders – we’re unable to compel it to reveal what discussions the two firms had about south-east London’s rail service.
Perhaps the best hope lies with the London Assembly’s transport committee, which has demanded Southeastern explain itself, belatedly alerting BBC London and the Evening Standard to the story. While the one of the biggest lessons from this saga is that vital services like railways should never have been solely entrusted to unaccountable private monopolies in the first place, I hope the committee focuses on the future – for this will happen again, and resources should be made available so that Southeastern and its successors are unable to use the same sorry “it snowed in Kent” excuse for denying south-east London a train service.
As for passengers – it’s clear London Travelwatch simply isn’t equipped to be fight for their interests against political intertia and the interests of railway firms’ shareholders. It’s a great pity London passengers don’t have the equivalent of New York City’s Straphangers’ Campaign to highlight issues like Southeastern’s failings. Unless they wanted to start one up, of course…