SubScribe: May 2013 Google+

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Mail should put up its hand over Lucy Meadows

It's time for Littlejohn to show remorse - and if we think coroner's attack on the Press was out of order, then we still haven't learnt our lesson

Admitting that you were wrong can be unpleasant. Admitting that you have done something bad can be terrifying.  Remember staring at scuffed sandals rather than at the teacher who 'could wait all day' for some hapless culprit  to put up their hand?

Newspapers don't like admitting it when they get something wrong. Most have a corrections and clarifications slot, but this is for misspellings of names or inaccurate historical dates. When they get something seriously wrong it generally goes upstairs to the lawyers, who will wriggle a bit and haggle a lot until money changes hands and suddenly it all goes away.

Newspapers almost never admit it when they have done something bad. Something that hurts real people, causing them to lose their jobs, their families or their lives.

So it was always going to be instructive to look at how the Daily Mail reported the Lucy Meadows inquest today.

Lucy Meadows was a transgender primary school teacher who killed herself in March after one term of living as a woman. She was 32.

In a suicide letter addressed to the coroner, Miss Meadows wrote of her sorrow at the deaths of her parents, grandparent and a friend. She had debts. She loved her school and her job, even though it was stressful. She had issues with her trans. But, she wrote, she was dealing with all of these. She was rational and had decided that the path she had chosen was the right one for her. 'I have simply had enough of living.' She blamed no one and, indeed, thanked friends, family and colleagues for their support, concluding 'I wish you all the best.'

The letter is extraordinarily touching and generous, and you might expect the local paper to run it at greater length than I have here. As for the nationals? Probably not,  a nib at most.

Except that Lucy Meadows had become a national figure, largely thanks to some loose talk in her home town, which inspired a Richard Littlejohn column in the Daily Mail.

The school had announced at Christmas that a male teacher would be returning after the holidays as Miss Meadows. This had been explained carefully to the children and parents were told via the staff comings and goings section of the school newsletter. Some took exception to the low-key approach, others fretted about how their children would deal with such a concept.

The new term was never going to be easy for Miss Meadows or her pupils. But it was made unnecessarily difficult by the fact that her story was picked up by the national Press and, in particular, by Littlejohn.

Miss Meadows told friends that she had taken to going to school early, leaving late and using her back gate to avoid the press pack waiting for her outside. As her letter to the coroner shows, she was struggling with various problems, and twice attempted suicide in the early part of this year.

It is Littlejohn's job to be controversial. It is not his job to pick on ordinary members of the public, particularly at a time of extreme vulnerability. His column, published in mid-December, was a disgraceful bigoted rant about something he clearly did not understand. On January 3 - the first possible date after the Christmas shutdown - Miss Meadows reported him and the paper to the Press Complaints Commission, accusing them of inaccuracy, harassment and invasion of privacy.

Letters went back and forth between the Mail and the PCC, and on March 11 the paper offered to take the Littlejohn column down from its website. It did so the next day. Exactly a week later, Miss Meadows killed herself.

Michael Singleton. Photograph: Lancashire Telegraph

Yesterday the coroner Michael Singleton tore into the paper's attitude to the complaint:

'Having carried out what can only be described as a character assassination, having sought to ridicule and humiliate Lucy Meadows and bring into question her right to pursue her career as a teacher, the Daily Mail's response was to offer to remove the article from the website.

It seems to me that nothing has been learnt from the Leveson inquiry or subsequent report. 
Lucy Meadows was not someone who had thrust herself into the public limelight. She was not a celebrity. She had done nothing wrong. Her only crime was to be different. Not by choice but by some trick of nature..and yet the press saw fit to treat her in the way they did.

Had it been in the note she left to me of any reference at all to the press, I would have had no difficulty in summoning various journalists and editors to this inquest to give evidence and be called into account.'

Mr Singleton also told reporters at the hearing: 'To the Press I say Shame. Shame on all of you.'

Such a pronouncement seems odd, given the evidence to the hearing and the letter, which indicated that there were many factors at play and that the press intrusion was not the overriding one. It was also slightly strange to hear him say that he had been looking into the background of press coverage, which he found appalling. I was not aware that coroners went digging for evidence behind the scenes before an inquest.

But while the coroner's behaviour and remarks may seem maverick, that does not mean he was wrong in his assessment.

Today the Mail  reported the inquest at length, as its page 10 lead. It is a masterpiece of Mail writing with its self-interested emphasis, juxtapositions and omissions.

The first paragraph, for example, makes sure that we know that  three months elapsed between the story appearing in the national papers and Miss Meadows's death. Littlejohn is not mentioned until the last sentence of the 22nd paragraph.

The absence of any mention of the media in the suicide note is emphasised, as is a therapist's evidence that Miss Meadows was more distressed by the death of someone she loved than by the press coverage. That, she said, had been easier to deal with than she had thought.

We are told twice of the previous suicide attempts and twice that Miss Meadows had thanked the PCC for the way her complaint had been amicably resolved.

Yet there is no room for the coroner's remarks about Littlejohn's 'character assassination' or the fact that he would have hauled the paper into court had Miss Meadows made any reference to the press in her letter. Only the middle paragraph of the passage in blue above makes it into print.

And even to the end, the paper refuses to accept that it might have any cause for contrition.

A spokesman for the Daily Mail said last night: "Richard Littlejohn's column emphatically defended the rights of people to have sex change operations but echoed some parents' concerns about whether it was right for children to have to confront such complex gender problems at such a vulnerable young age. Among the many reasons Miss Meadows gave for taking her actions, none blamed the press coverage."

We are familiar with the notion of bereaved families speaking after an inquest, but it seems quite inappropriate for a newspaper to give itself the right of reply in the body of a news report. Reader comments were swiftly switched off the Mail's website, but here are a few that made it before the cut:

To be fair, a number of people have felt the coroner was out of order in his remarks, and the Mail was not alone in seeking to absolve the Press of responsibility. Press Gazette's inquest report attracted a string of comments from journalists accusing Mr Singleton of following his own agenda and  grandstanding.

I suppose we are supposed to take this uppercut from the coroner on the chin but he seems to have jumped on the 'blame the press' bandwagon...Mr Singleton seems positively disappointed that there was no reference to the press in the suicide note... It could be that the media coverage simply wasn't the significant motivating factor he'd have liked it to be.

This guy has decided from the outset the angle he is going to take and...focused on the very thing that will maximize the headlines this inquest will receive...What Lucy's friends and family did not need was a diatribe from a man who was clearly not going to allow his moment in the limelight pass him by.

This coroner's comments are simply outrageous. Where was the evidence of press abuse?

In fact, Mr Singleton did not blame the media; he delivered his verdict and then expressed his opinion on the conduct of the Press because he regarded it as a matter of such public concern that it needed to be referred to the Secretary of State. He did, however, weaken his own position with that final sweeping 'Shame on all of you'.

As SubScribe wrote in a  previous post, Death of a Teacher, Littlejohn didn't kill Miss Meadows; she wasn't hounded to her death by the Press. If her story had never been reported by anyone, she might still have taken her own life. But she'd have had one less cause for unhappiness.

To reject all responsibility is like a mugger saying 'I may have stabbed him in the stomach, but he died from heart disease, so I did nothing wrong.'

Littlejohn did a bad thing. He brought pain and suffering to someone he had never met and who had never done him any harm. The Mail has today done another bad thing by refusing to acknowledge its part in this tragic story and in its gross misrepresentation of the tenor of the offending Littlejohn column.

They should both be looking to their feet.

Postscript: The Mail might also examine its conscience today over the use on page 4 of the famous picture of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in their Manchester United shirts. 
The photograph  illustrates a factbox about new rules on who can work in care homes and schools. One of Ian Huntley would have been more appropriate - though less attractive.
The Soham girls' families have specifically asked the media to stop using the photograph so that they can reclaim it for themselves. It is, after all, the last image of their children.
Is that too much to ask?

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Let our leaders have their holidays in peace

The chillax crisis: Cameron is perfectly capable of picking up a phone - these are just the politics of envy


How was your bank holiday weekend? Hours in traffic jams? Soaking up the sun in the garden? A last-minute getaway to the Continent? Or were you stuck in the office?
And today? Are you back at work or slowly getting used to being with the family over half-term?

If the latter is the case, then good for you. You clearly have your work-life balance sussed. And that, as  the press frequently tells us through social surveys, pseudo-scientific research and opinion columns, is essential. Not only for our own well-being, but for business and the country as a whole.

What hypocrisy!

Our newspapers are brilliant at prescribing desirable approaches to work, health and homelife - but they are scathing should any leader in any sphere follow such advice. (Just as they pontificate about business practices that they wouldn't dream of adopting themselves.)

It is unlikely that any national newspaper editor was in the office on Sunday to oversee the production of yesterday morning's papers. Yet we can be sure that there will have been a series of telephone calls through the day to monitor progress - with the duty editor before morning conference, update chats with the newsdesk, discussions about picture choices through the afternoon, thoughts about the splash heading come the evening. They may even have been looking at the paper through a remote online connection and be emailing thoughts about every page as it developed.

See, it's quite simple these days to run the show from a distance. Unless, it seems, you happen to be the Prime Minister. In which case you clearly have no access to telephone, internet, homing pigeon or cleft stick.

Journalists have to work on bank holidays - even, thanks to Rupert Murdoch and the Wapping revolution, on Christmas Day. It is not a popular shift. Maybe this has something to do with newspapers' churlishness when anyone in the public eye dares to imagine that they are off duty.

The paparazzi were ahead of this game and Diana, of course, was the universal target. OK, she knew she would be snapped when she was walking out from the Chelsea Harbour Club, bottle of water in one hand, mobile and keys in the other. But as a mother, she didn't want the young princes harassed and so in a desperate attempt to earn some privacy,  the Waleses made a pact with the devil in the 80s.  The family would pose for photographs at the start of their holiday if they could then be left alone.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

It wasn't. It just established an awful tradition.  Before too long, politicians were also submitting to the First Day of the Holidays photocall. Yet the paps kept snooping with their long lenses and found that they now had a  market not only for a topless princess, but also for unflattering pictures of Cherie Blair's backside.

The Blairs in Tuscany. Photograph Daily Mail

Tony's penchant for exotic freebies brought the next development: the annual vox pop on where MPs were to spend their summer holidays. While the rest of us browsed through package tour brochures or planned the usual camping trip to Norfolk, ministerial aides would be poring over maps to find a destination that would send the right message. Never mind 'getting away from it all with the family', the holiday decision had become a political statement. And it was always wrong. (Unless you were Margaret Beckett, who was first teased, but later applauded for sticking with her caravan.)

In 2008 Gordon Brown and his family went to Southwold for a couple of weeks. They strolled on the beach, did the maize maze and visited Dingly Dell Pork. But it didn't really seem Gordon's kind of thing - perhaps the business suit  was the giveaway. We later learned from Andrew Rawnsley's biography that the holiday had been Sarah's idea,  to show that our dour man-of-the-Manse prime minister was in touch with Middle England - which he wasn't.

Brown chilling on Southwold beach. Photograph: Daily Telegraph

By now the holiday charabanc was veering out of control and we poor readers have been subjected to a bronzed Putin riding bareback, Nicolas and Carla frolicking on the shoreline and Angela Merkel  hill-walking. We have also, incidentally, seen the designs all these people choose for their Christmas cards.

Do we need to know any of this stuff? Isn't it time to give the people who run the world a break? Still you have to admire the chutzpah: in March the Telegraph ran a couple of photographs of Frau Merkel in her bathing suit with an accompanying story that read

Mrs Merkel was caught by the cameras as she had a private dip while holidaying with her husband at Hotel Miramare on the island famous for its thermal baths off the coast of Naples.

Yes, very private. Funny how often such pictures have captions that say the victim is 'enjoying a private moment..'

The headline and blurb on the web version of the story had a familiar ring:

Angela Merkel fails to escape eurozone crisis on Italian holiday 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have donned her bathing costume for a little relaxation on the Italian island of Ischia, but she has failed to escape the heat of the current eurozone crisis.

It is an immutable law of journalism that if a politician dares to go on holiday, they will be leaving behind a crisis. It also follows that there will be someone, somewhere willing to say that they should be back in the office, overseeing everything.

And so to Dave. Whatever you think of him as a prime minister, he hasn't had much luck with his holidays. He's constantly mocked for being an out-of-touch toff,  but then we jeer when he queues for a Ryanair flight.

His holiday wardrobe is scrutinised and his liking for navy blue T-shirts dissected - along, of course with Sam's outfits. Where would we have been if the Mail hadn't been on hand in Cornwall last August to tell us: 
The Prime Minister's wife wore a coat to keep warm as the sun failed to make an appearance for the August bank holiday 

Yesterday the paper's fashion focus was on footwear - Dave got it right for once with his flipflops while Sam chose strappy sandals over the white Birkenstocks she wore when they were in Ibiza a couple of years back. But the sartorial appraisals were a sideshow. The main issue was should the Prime Minister be in Ibiza at all, given the terrorism crisis - there's that word again - at home.

One person had no doubt on that one:

The Sun took a similar view in its splash:

David Cameron sips coffee on a carefree holiday in Ibiza - while back home the grieving family of soldier Lee Rigby visits his murder scene. 
The PM and wife sam relaxed at a beach-front bar on the Spanish isle yesterday.
In stark contrast, Lee's estranged wife Rebecca - mother of his two year old son Jack - wept as she clutched a Peppa Pig cuddly toy with a t-shirt proclaiming: 'Daddy's little buddy.'

The report goes on to quote one Labour MP - John Mann - and a couple of tweeters saying how outrageous it was that Cameron was not at work.

Melissa Kite went further on the Guardian website with a piece headlined 

David Cameron's relaxation may be his downfall 

The prime minister's sunshine holiday at a time of national crisis can only add to the Tory right's simmering resentment 

While one does not want to be begrudging, or insinuate that the PM does not deserve downtime, it is only stating facts to point out that not having had a holiday since Christmas is not exactly the definition of hardship these days...
But let us assume it is unfair to attack the prime minister for being out of touch because he can afford to take a family of five on a half-term foreign break. What really niggles is the rest of their explanation. It was all right for the PM to go on holiday days after Lee Rigby was murdered, the aides argued, because Cameron "had urged everyone to carry on as normal". 
To my mind, there is something vaguely distasteful about this. Downing Street should not be trying to make a virtue of a trip that really has nothing to recommend it apart from personal enjoyment. A still more potent puzzler is why Cameron is able to chill out on a beach this week. It seems that no matter what happens, be it European Union revolts or terror attacks, the briefing from No 10 is always the same: "The prime minister is relaxed."

 So we don't want a Prime Minister who is able to relax? Much better to have someone who is a bundle of nerves and can't sleep for worrying about the economy, Europe, gay marriage, let along the thought of a new terrorist threat?

In common with the Sun and the Mirror, the Telegraph splashed on Cameron being under fire - but from a different angle: for prematurely visiting MI5 to praise spies for their efforts, though it linked Woolwich and Ibiza for its front page illustration. 

The Times, Express and Independent all reported that the Camerons were on holiday, that Dave was still 'in charge', and all carried the obligatory note of disdain from at least one Labour MP. John Mann found voice in the Mail, Sun, Times and Telegraph, while Sarah Champion had her say in the Mail and Express

The one person quoted in every paper was Nadine Dorries, the 'celebrity' Tory who has recently been allowed back in from the jungle. It was ridiculous to condemn the Prime Minister for taking time off, she said. "I actually want him to be refreshed. We have got the internet, we've got mobile phones. I think he is entitled to a holiday.' 

It comes to something when Nadine Dorries shines out as a beacon of common sense. 

For heaven's sake. David Cameron is the father of three young children. When they are on holiday from school, they need him to be around as much as possible. As a former colleague tweeted at the weekend: 

Spot on there, Richard. On both counts. 

I want to know that there are people in control of the country. And I feel happier to know that the top man is away but contactable than I am seeing the likes of John Prescott and Peter Mandelson rushing around shouting 'I'm in charge' like Bruce Forsyth.

I do not need to know where the Prime Minister takes his family on holiday - unless it is in Assad's palace or on Patpong road. Nor do I care how many ministers are reluctantly supporting the British tourist industry. And I certainly don't need to see pictures, whether papped or posed. 

Just give us all a break.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Why local newspapers have to change

Montgomery is right to ditch the traditional model,

but crowd-sourcing may not bring the results he wants

Listening to newspaper veterans trying to use digispeak can be as toe-curling as hearing grandad rap with a 15-year-old. The words don't sit easily on their tongues. But listen we must because they are trying to get their heads round the future. And that is bloody hard.

David Montgomery has scared a lot of people with his latest pronouncements about Local World, his stable of  more than 100 local papers. Embracing the jargon of the internet age, he has painted a futureworld where editors will be 'directors of content', journalists will be 'harvesters of content' and 'much of the human interface' involved in local news publishing will disappear.

Montgomery has a history of scaring people, having taken a scythe to much of Fleet Street over the years - a consistent cold-blooded cost-cutter, as Roy Greenslade described him. Now he has turned to the regional press, and his evidence to the Commons culture, media and sport committee this week sent many running for cover. The 'middle ages' model of a reporter going out on one story a day and returning to the office to write it up was highly wasteful and unsustainable. Journalists would have to develop new skills and take more responsibility for publishing their work in print and online.

To use such language is bound to be frightening in an era when every news organisation is cutting so hard that papers are  produced by one woman and her cat working from the local library.  'What more does he want us to do?' you can hear reporters cry. 'We're already manning reception, taking photographs and sweeping the floor when we should be getting stories.' Meanwhile subs crouch  under the table as they are once again identified as an endangered species.

There are economic truths that have to be acknowledged and dealt with. Traditional news operations are struggling and will continue to struggle until they not only up their game, but change it.  The first thing they have to learn, God help us, is to communicate - and that means listening as well as talking.

For the past five years, journalists in every kind of newsroom have heard nothing but cuts and job losses, coupled with demands that the survivors work on more and more platforms. The writer has to report, analyse, stand in front of a video camera and then tweet repeatedly. The sub has to prepare the resultant copy for print, web, tablet and mobile (often using four different pieces of software). Everyone feels overworked and under-appreciated. Everyone is fretting that quality is slipping. And the declining circulation figures are there for all to see.

Montgomery's vision for his Local World group may be scary. But at least it's a vision. And at least he is trying to communicate it - the trouble is, he isn't doing that very well. And his hard-man record does him no favours. What he is saying is that local newspapers are important (as SubScribe wrote last year) and that they can become profitable,  but that they have to be run in a different way.

David Montgomery, Photograph by InPublishing
If we stop and think about this calmly, it is only common sense. You can't keep piling extra work on a dwindling staff without reorganisation. But it has to be thought-through reorganisation, not simply random mergers of departments, editions, papers as is happening now. Managements at all levels have given the impression that the only tool they are capable of using is the knife, and subs fear that they are next for the chop. It's hardly surprising that you hear old hacks moaning 'They got rid of the typesetters, the printers, the proof readers, now they're going to get rid of us.'

The entire structure and hierarchy has to change, and once managements have decided how they are going to do that, they need to explain their strategy to their staff and win them over. Then they need to make sure they are making the most of the talent at their disposal. That news sub might be the world's expert on a certain genre of music or local archaeology or have a quirky writing style that would benefit the paper. Just because he spends his days with his head down correcting reporters' grammar or spelling doesn't mean that's all he knows or all he is fit for. It seems to me extraordinary the way newspapers cavalierly discard people with much to offer solely on the basis of the chair they happen to be sitting in when the cuts come.

Montgomery is telling us that it is impractical to continue with a system where half a dozen or more people handle a story from its inception to its appearance in print or online. He says we have to trust senior people to publish their own copy and, by extension, that means making sure that the people we hire are trustworthy. He is acknowledging that, for subs in particular, a lot of the work is drudgery and that is what he says he wants to remove. If reporters know that the words that appear under their byline are going to be their words and not a version checked and polished  by someone else, they might take more care over their stories and do their own name checks.

But Montgomery is going further than this. He wants to see a 20-fold increase in the material produced by his titles. That can  be achieved only with radical reorganisation, so this is where the 'harvesting of content' comes in. Essentially he is talking about crowd sourcing - getting the customers to produce the content for nothing and then selling it back to them. Smart business model, eh? There will still be journalists out in the field getting what we would consider 'real' news stories, but those in the office will be marshalling material that he expects to pour in from all quarters.

Steve Auckland, Local World's chief executive, explained to Press Gazette: 'What we want is a 20-fold increase in content on our sites. We can't do it by increasing the number of editorial staff, what we have to do is get lots more user-generated content. So our sports reporter will report on the game and provide analysis and comment, but there will be lots more content coming in from what the fans think about it. So journalists will be curating as well as supplementing that with their own comment.'

Another bit of digispeak there - curating. It's probably the most appropriate word in the new language if you think of an art gallery or museum working out how to present many different pieces so that the visitor can make sense of them.

Other groups are already on the same path. Jo Kelly, Trinity Mirror's regionals communities editor, explained  her strategy at the News Rewired digital journalism conference last month. And just to prove there's nothing new under the sun, it turns out to be  a reheat of the old bonny baby competition; think microwave rather than a covered plate on top of a steaming saucepan.

Readers are encouraged to submit themed photographs, such as snowmen or garden gnomes, to fill in forms nominating the best mum in the world or the most outstanding teacher, to contribute specialist columns, to indulge in a bit of nostalgia and to tweet or share their thoughts about the paper on Facebook.

Ms Kelly displayed examples of how such an approach had filled whole pages - indeed eight pages of pets dressed up as Father Christmas. It may well do, but whether this is quality 'content' that anyone beyond the people taking part would want to buy is a matter of opinion.  A more positive aspect was the development and involvement in local campaigns that mattered, such as one that invited mothers to send in pictures of their newborns as part of a fight to keep a baby unit open. But even that isn't new; local papers have always been at the centre of such issues.

Montgomery says he has been inspired by the recent revitalisation of Norway's local media and their sense of community. In an interview for InPublishing, he told Ray Snoddy that he had been dismayed that one of the dailies now owned by Local World did not seem to reflect the character of  the distinctive city it served.  'If you look at the Norwegian online sites you will be able to smell the salt air - the characteristic community is built around fishing tradition or farming or technology. You sense there is a community there and the old news agenda dictated by news editors the length and breadth of newspapers is not relevant any more.'

Fair enough. Lots of people are talking about the need to be hyper-local. The problem is, they don't seem to be putting that into practice, especially when papers are being swallowed up by groups that get ever bigger and farther removed from the communities they are serving. How this tallies with the hyper-local ideal is hard to see.

Newsquest, Johnston Press and others have introduced templated websites and newspaper designs. So much for individuality. In a way it's rather like our high streets (they all have M&S, New Look, Vodafone, Greggs, but you're served by someone with a different dialect depending on where you live), but of course  they are dying too.

Now Local World is treading the same path. A transformation team has been set up (yes, more jargon) and Auckland will be monitoring the activities of the papers on screens from London. The Derby Telegraph, Cambridge News and Exeter Express and Echo were in the vanguard of the operation and others have started moving to new websites. They are identical in appearance - though not, obviously, in content. It isn't encouraging. Particularly when there is an advertisement slap bang over the big picture that leads the site.

There's nothing wrong with asking readers to contribute to your output. Readers used to fill in wedding and obituary forms when I was a junior 40 years ago, the difference now seems to be that there will be no one to rewrite the amateur's efforts. Stringers would  file the village news, but again no one will have time to see if there are real stories buried in the WI raffle reports.

As for a sense of community, think who would be the first to dash to the laptop if a site were set up in Ambridge. Does Lynda Snell really represent that community? It is hard to get people involved these days. Guides, Scouts, village hall committees, parish councils, youth clubs and over-60s clubs are all  perpetually appealing for volunteers to help them keep going. The result is that it always seems to be the same people who run the show. There is a danger that an activist minority will end up with the loudest voice - and that may not result in a paper or website that people will want to read. I hope I'm wrong.

Independent web publishers are already getting in under the radar. The News Rewired conference heard from two entrepreneurs who were challenging local papers which they felt were not doing their job properly. Stuart Goulden, founder of One&Other in York, proudly told the session that he didn't employ journalists 'because we're storytellers'. I've no idea what he meant, but his formula is successful - if you measure success in financial terms. His website is attractive and easy to navigate. Pushing the news button brings up teasers for stories about a beer festival, a theatre usher who has worked at the same place for 40 years, and plans for a national cycle race in the city. The most recent appears to be from April 25.

Another speaker was James Fyrne, who runs the SoGlos site. This again is attractive and definitely focused on culture, offering guides to upcoming events, films, gigs and shows, as well as reviews of  hotels, restaurants and pubs. Fyrne does employ trained journalists, but not all the writing is brilliant. He has, however, fully grasped the importance of finding a niche and serving it.

What is sobering is that all this is happening in what should be a period of celebration for our traditional regional papers.

Last week was the Newspaper Society's Local Newspaper Week, with press freedom the central theme. It started with publication of a survey that concluded that about half of regional paper editors thought the Leveson inquiry had had a negative effect on their relationship with their readers. A number of papers ran features highlighting how they could give impetus to local campaigns or carried leaders on how they shouldn't be tarred with the phone-hacking brush. These are issues of huge importance to society as a whole, but whether they are likely to move the readers of the Basingstoke Gazette is another matter.

The Newspaper Society's website tells us that Britain has 1,100 local papers and 1,600 associated websites. About 300 editors are registered on the society's database and it was those editors who were invited to take part in the online survey. Thirty-seven replied.
The Local Newspaper Week page meanwhile trumpeted the 'high-profile' supporters of the week. There were four: Lorraine Kelly, Boris Johnson, Lord Hunt and Lord Judge. This hardly shouts credibility.

We know that regional proprietors are concerned about the cost if they are required to conform to the Leveson regime, but this was feeble propaganda that is unlikely to have done anyone any good.


Far more encouraging were the Regional Press Awards, which demonstrated that the campaigning spirit and creative flair still flourish. Let's hope that whatever the future holds for the local press, editors are able to continue to produce papers like these.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Going overboard for Fergie's farewell

Sir Alex is no saint and he's not dead, so why the brouhaha?

When everyone else thinks one thing and you think the complete opposite, chances are they are right and you're wrong.

Well, SubScribe is sorry, but this morning our entire national press was out of step.

Sir Alex Ferguson announced yesterday morning that he would be retiring as manager of Manchester United to take on a new role as director and club ambassador. This had been widely trailed, but the confirmation still generated 1.4 million tweets in the space of an hour, filling eight of the ten 'trending' spots.

It has been pointed out that Ferguson is the most successful British football manager so far, averaging more than one big trophy per season over his 26 years at Old Trafford. Well done, him.

But winning grotesque lumps of silver for a commercial enterprise - especially when you have a virtually bottomless purse to call on - has yet to become a route to beatification.

It certainly doesn't seem to be a more important matter than the Queen outlining a government programme ravaged by UKIP's performance in the local elections; nor, I would venture, does it match the death of Margaret Thatcher in historical significance.

Yet this morning the Ferguson retirement killed almost as many trees as the Iron Lady's death. Every daily newspaper, bar the Express, lost touch with reality in a race to be the most obsequious. And the surprise was that the tabloids were more restrained than the so-called serious papers.

The Mirror had a 'pull-out supplement', the Sun a 'souvenir edition'. The Mail gave over its 6-7 spread and a comment page in addition to its '12-page Sportsmail tribute'.

Moving on to the heavy guns, the Independent was quite restrained with two news spreads and nine pages in sport; the Telegraph ran a page 1 picture and a leader in addition to its '16-page souvenir special'. The Times confined itself to a puff and a leader at the front of the book, but then went all out with half a dozen pages in sport and a 12-page  'Man who changed the game' tribute. Finally, the Guardian had a front-page-picture, a puff, 2-3 spread and a 20-page 'Farewell to Fergie' supplement.

This is daft.

The Knight of the Hairdryer is one of the most successful people in the country and clearly has great leadership skills. He has a huge following of both admirers and detractors. But he is not the second Messiah, he is a football manager. He is 71 and he is retiring. He has not died - and even if he had, the national newspapers' response would still be over the top.

People have anecdotes about him to share. They can do that in the pub or in specialist magazines or on the web. Of course mobile phone jokes will spread like chickenpox and ad men will rush out their specials. Currys has offered a discount on hairdryers; Nando's and Kentucky Fried Chicken both had the idea of staying open five minutes longer than usual in tribute. That sort of thing is fun,  appropriate. Twenty-page supplements of people saying they remembered this or that about him, intertwined with statistic after statistic are not.

Ah, I hear you say, but he has brought money into the country; Manchester United is the most successful and famous club in the world. That may be, but it is still a football club. And football is still a game.

Sir Terry Leahy retired as chief executive of Tesco two years ago. He was a Tesco man all his life, joined the board in 1992 and took the helm five years later. By the time he left the company after 30+ years, it had become Britain's biggest retailer with something like £1 in every £8 spent in this country going to his shops. Like Sir Alex, Sir Terry won hats full of awards and had brought millions, probably billions into the country. When he left, there were no editions.

But he wasn't a national treasure, was he?

Fair enough. What about 'Sir' Terry Wogan, who retired from his Radio 2 breakfast show in 2009? OK, so he didn't retire from broadcasting, but nor has Ferguson retired from football. Wogan is by far Britain's most successful and popular entertainer in a generation; he works for himself and he works for charity. He stuck with the Eurovision Song Contest for more than a decade - which is more than anyone should be expected to do - and has hosted Children in Need since its inception in 1980.

He has been a chat show host, a quiz show host, a pro-am golfer and a best-selling writer. When he retired from the Radio 2 show, the Times ran an Auden pastiche as its third leader:  'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone; Terry Wogan is abandoning his microphone'. But there was no pull-out tribute.

People do serve assorted enterprises and employers for a quarter-century or more, and they are rewarded with suitable mementoes from colleagues and admirers. Sir Alex deserved more than a gold watch and a speech from the chairman. The country as well as the club wanted to mark the end of an era.  But today's sycophantic chorus was beyond anything.

Ferguson isn't even a hero. He's a foul-mouthed aggressive belligerent who bullies those who don't behave as he wishes - the boot aimed at Beckham's head, the dissing of referees, the gamesmanship in trying to prolong matches when the scoreline doesn't suit.

Most of the jolly 'I remember when Sir Alex...' stories today were of how he had been crossed and made his anger felt. To have suffered the hairdryer treatment was almost a badge of honour. There were few tales of kindness or generosity of spirit.

Pat Crerand, Sir Matt Busby and George Best of Manchester United
bringing the European Cup to England for the first time in 1968

Long service alone does not make an ambassador, as  Manchester United should know better than most. Old Trafford has bred some true ambassadors for the club and the sport: Sir Matt Busby, Sir Bobby Charlton  and that future knight of the game, David Beckham. Ferguson's achievements may have outstripped these three in terms of cups won and years served, but he has a way to go to match Sir Matt and Sir Bobby in terms of character, demeanour and fair play.

I'm not saying the papers should have played down Ferguson's announcement. It surely deserved several pages of coverage, commentary, analysis in every paper. He is a big player in public life and one of the most well-recognised names in the country.

But if you devote 12, 16 or 20 pages to the retirement of one man in a special section, where do you have to go when the really important stories break? Suppose there was another 9/11? What if a world leader were assassinated? What happens when Gorbachev or Mandela dies? The Mandela supplements are as well-prepared as those for Margaret Thatcher were. Would the death of such an international statesman be worth one, two or three Ferguson retirements?

This is why coverage today was bonkers.

Oh, and just in case you're thinking 'she's a woman, she doesn't understand football', SubScribe would like to point out that she was a Manchester United fan when Ferguson was still playing for Dunfermline and that the sport was the catalyst for a career in journalism.

That career may not have made SubScribe sweet or kind or generous or an ambassador for anything, but it did hone her common sense. And common sense says that today's press coverage was bonkers.

Even if the Sun's front was inspired.

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Did reporters do their job on Cleveland trio?

Too much speculation and too little research - or maybe we just don't care

1: Burger King where Amanda Berry worked; 2: last sighting of Amanda, 2003;
 3: last  sighting of Michelle Knight, 2002; 4: last sighting of Gina DeJesus, 2004.
Width of picture = c 400 yards. Map created from Google Street view

An athlete could cover the ground in less than a minute. A fast-food glutton would take much longer because there is just too much temptation along the way - two burger bars, a diner, a couple of pizza houses.

This is the 400-yard stretch of Lorain Avenue in Cleveland from which three young women were abducted in the early years of this century. They were, as you will know, discovered on Monday night at a house 'a few blocks away', where they had been kept prisoner and where one of the women gave birth to a daughter.

When such stories break it is difficult to get hard facts: the central characters and their families are unlikely to speak, the police selective in their dissemination of information. But there will always be bystanders willing to chip in with 'I never suspected a thing' or 'I always thought there was something odd...'

In this instance, TV reporters hit paydirt with the loquacious Charles Ramsey, the man who heard a woman scream as he walked down the road, broke down the door and found himself a hero. Animated and with a colourful turn of phrase, Ramsey was the star of the show for most of Tuesday, 'the best television interviewee ever'.

The man certainly has charm and had he not responded to Amanda Berry's cries, the women may well have remained incarcerated for another decade But there was something jarring about the coverage of his interview, something of the 'poor, black man doing a funny turn' that made for uncomfortable viewing.

This disquiet was compounded by chatter about his becoming the latest internet sensation, taking it almost as read that Twitter acclaim is now the ultimate accolade. (It has since become clear that two other neighbours - neither of whom spoke English - were also involved in the rescue, see this report from Josh Levin) Still, Ramsey had a proper story to tell and that was enough to keep everyone happy until more details of the women emerged.

Charles Ramsey's description of how he rescued Amanda
 made him an instant star. Photograph: Radio Times
But the details didn't emerge. Anthony Castro, son of the owner of the house, talked about his violent father, how areas of the house were kept locked and and how badly his late mother had been treated before she moved out with their children. And of course there were the neighbours with their conflicting tales.

Reporters gobbled down and regurgitated every word that landed on their plates. They were rewarded with almost as much space as that devoted to speculation that Sir Alex Ferguson was about to announce his retirement.

So with a full 24 hours from the escape to press time in London, what did they have to tell us that we hadn't already learnt from the internet or the TV news? Precious little.

Amanda, right, reunited with her sister Beth
Looking at all the coverage since Ramsey broke down the door (which is why this blog is a day late), this is what we know:

Michelle Knight, 20, disappeared from near her cousin's house in August 2002. Her grandmother said police and social workers had concluded that she ran away after her toddler son was taken away from her, but her mother, Barbara, continued to search and handed out fliers on Cleveland's West Side. She told the police some years ago that she was convinced she had seen Michelle being dragged along by an older man at a shopping mall, but the woman had not looked around when she called her name. Barbara Knight now lives in Florida and has had another daughter since Michelle's disappearance. Michelle is still in hospital. She is said to be the most frail of the three captives, but that her condition is 'good'.

Amanda Berry vanished the day before her 17th birthday in April 2003 on her way home from work at Burger King. Her mother died from heart failure, aged 44, three years later. It was Amanda who called out to Ramsay on Monday, emerging from the house with a six-year-old daughter called Jocelyn. She was reunited with her sister Beth in hospital on Monday and the three are now at Beth's home.

Georgina DeJesus, 14, was last seen by her friend Arlene Castro on their way home from the Wilbur Wright Middle School in April 2004. They had stopped at a payphone to call and ask Arlene's mother if Gina could go back to her house. The answer was no and the girls parted. Arlene is the daughter of Ariel Castro, owner of the house where the women were imprisoned. She told her story in a documentary called America's Most Wanted in 2005. The documentary linked Gina's disappearance with Amanda's a year earlier. Gina went home to her family yesterday.

Ariel Castro, 52,  appeared in court today, charged with four counts of kidnapping (one relates to Jocelyn) and three of rape.
A school bus driver who plays bass in a salsa band, Castro is the owner of 2207, Seymour Avenue, Cleveland, where the women were found. His wife Nilda, who died last year, had moved out with their two daughters and son in 1996.
The police had twice called to see Ariel Castro at the house, which he bought in 1992: when he reported a street fight in 2000 and when he left a boy unattended on his school bus in 2004.
His brothers Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50, who were arrested with him, have not been charged and police say there is nothing to suggest that they were involved in the abduction or imprisonment of the women.
Onil lives alone and Pedro lives with their mother, Lillian Rodriguez, 71.

2207 Seymour Avenue. Photograph: Belfast Telegraph

After that it is all speculation. One neighbour claimed to have called the police after seeing a naked woman on her hands and knees in the garden of Castro's house. This later turned into someone having seen three naked women on all fours being led by three men on dog collars and leads around the garden. Another man who lived three doors away said he had heard a piercing scream that prompted him to call the police.

Some neighbours spoke of a little girl looking out of the attic window, and still more of Jocelyn having been in the park with Castro on Monday morning. He would apparently take her out early in the morning when there would be no one to see them. Still others spoke of the little girl making frequent visits to Mrs Rodriguez, whom she called Grandma. At the same time 'police sources' were saying the child had never been out of the house in her life.

After the arrests, there was an immediate assumption across the media that the three brothers had been 'in it together', almost as though there was a woman each for them, and so followed lurid tales of drunkenness - 'Pedro guzzled a pint of rum in two shots' - and how 'creepy' and 'seamy' they were.

Chains and ropes were found in the house, giving rise to claims that the women had been kept tied up or tortured. Several papers quoted police sources as saying that there had been multiple pregnancies over the years and that there had been five miscarriages because the women were malnourished and/or beaten. Headlines were similarly lurid:

How Castro brothers fooled everybody during decade of dungeon kidnap horror

There is clearly a huge appetite for such a remarkable story, but that doesn't mean we should feed our readers tittle-tattle. The paucity of detail about the hostages' lives in captivity should not have been the signal for a diet of hearsay; it should have inspired reporters and newsdesks to carry out their own research. Instead we gave our customers a cuts job on previous cases, Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Fritzl among them. But Jaycee's words of wisdom about what the women would face after the initial jubilation of freedom were almost lost in the melee.

The spotlight also fell, inevitably on Madeleine McCann. The Times even ran a leader saying  the Cleveland case proved that miracles could happen and thus raised some hope that Madeleine or Ben Needham might yet be found alive. This notion was put forward without any recognition that people who kidnap three and four year olds are not of the same mindset as those who snatch teenage girls.

Only the Mail put together even the most basic map. The Times asked Dr Mark Porter to write about the women's health. The Guardian's Colin Freeman produced the most thoughtful 'how could it have happened?' piece. He looked more thoroughly into the previous cases, Stockholm Syndrome and the simple logistics of  keeping four people locked up. How could a man ostensibly living alone feed, water and guard them without anyone noticing extra bags of groceries being taken in or rubbish being taken out.

Outside of the mainstream media, Fleet Street Fox used her blog to raise the point that we should be worrying about what Cleveland means to the rest of the world  as well as cheering the women's liberation. Until the Fritzl case no one would have believed anything like this could happen, now we must ask whether there are many more undiscovered prisoners. And remember, all of these high-profile cases involved white girls; nobody ever seems to care as much when a black child goes missing.

On the reporting side, there was too much vagueness:  Michelle 'was between 18 and 20' when she vanished. The women were kidnapped 'a few blocks away' from the house in Seymour Avenue. There was no proper geography and no sense of place. It was almost as if those previous cases had engendered the feeling  'been there, done that. It's just a couple more women this time'.

But where were the basic facts? Where do the women's families live? We've seen pictures of Amanda and Gina being welcomed home - but where? In Cleveland or in another state? Round the corner from Seymour Avenue or miles away? Of course reporters shouldn't be hassling the women or their families, but there are some glaring omissions. Why do we know so little about Michelle Knight (and that includes the authorities)?

1: Wilbur Wright school, 2-5: see top map, 6: 2207 Seymour Avenue; 7: Ashley's great uncle's house;
8: Ashley's home. Width of map = c 3.5 miles. Map created from Bing Maps
We know that all this took place on the West Side, but what does that mean? Is that an affluent area, middle class or down-at-heel? Where do people work? Is industry thriving or devastated by recession? What have we been told about the city itself, its population, the rich and the poor, the locality?

A quick look at a map reveals that Seymour Avenue is near the cemetery and closer to a big motorway interchange than most people would care to live. A little more surfing tells us that the Castro house was built in 1890, has eight rooms, including four bedrooms, one bathroom and a detached garage on a plot of about a tenth of an acre. It is probably worth about $95,000.

Where were the colour pieces to show that real reporters had turned up and taken stock, the 'Standing at the Snow Street sign outside McKenna's Irish pub on Lorain Avenue with the traffic racing by, it is easy to see how everyone would be too busy to notice a slight teenager climbing into a car...'

Did anyone go to Lorain Avenue, to the school, walk the route Amanda or Gina would have taken home? Ah, but how could they? We don't even know where the girls lived.

How many people go missing in Cleveland, in Ohio, in America every year? How many turn up safe? What are the police procedures in such cases? What steps,  if any, should parents take to protect their children and how soon should they panic if they don't turn up where they are supposed to?

The spot where Gina was abducted.
Photograph: Google Street view

The police are taking flak for failing to put enough effort into the search for the girls, but the criticism is of the 'they should have done more' level than any forensic examination of what they did do and what they might have done better. Even the 2005 documentary that showed the police linking the cases of Gina and Amanda was vague as vague, the one precise detail coming courtesy of a police dog that picked up Gina's trail at the payphone and  lost it at the Snow Street sign.

Michelle Knight's mother may have been convinced that she had not run away from home, but she wasn't even on the Ohio missing persons website. Who took her off? There is clearly a sad story in the background from beyond the kidnapping - the separation from her son.

Ashley aged 14
Ashley as she may look now
And most important of all - now - where is Ashley Summers?

Ashley was 14 when she disappeared in July 2007. She lived about a mile from Lorain Avenue where the other girls were snatched - but her family say she went missing from her great-uncle's home in Holmden Avenue, some half a mile from 2207 Seymour Avenue.

The police had linked Ashley with Gina and Amanda - and the use of cadaver dogs at the Castro house may be seen to suggest that they might have thought she was there, too, whether dead or alive.
Her case has been pursued by the local papers and by her step-grandmother, Linda Summers, particularly through the websleuths forum.

Cleveland police have 96 missing people on their files. They might now put Ashley at the top.

Some facts
  • Ashley is one of 96 people currently on Cleveland's missing persons list. They range in age from six to eighty-five and half  were minors when they disappeared. 
  • About 2,300 people are reported missing in America every day and the vast majority are found quickly. 
  • Kidnappers fall into three categories: family (49%), acquaintance (27%) and stranger (24%). 
  • Teenage boys are most usually responsible for acquaintance kidnappings, which tend to be linked to sexual assault. 
  • Teenage girls and school-age children are the most frequent victims of stranger kidnappings, which often involve being lured into cars within a quarter of a mile of home.
  • Four out of five children reported to the FBI's national centre for missing and exploited children are ultimately found alive.
  • 74% of murdered children are dead within three hours of being abducted.
  • The FBI had 85,820 active cases of missing people at the end of 2010, the last year for which figures are available.
  • 692,944 new cases were reported and 703,316 were removed from the register.
  • Of the new entries, 531,928 were under 18, of whom 288,213 were female.
  • 314,117 were white or hispanic; 187,564 were black; 10,025 Asian; 7,524 Indian and 12,698 of unknown race.

Sources: FBI's NCIC Active/Expired Missing and Unidentified
Analysis Report;

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.