May 24th 2011
“It is not possible to bribe or twist
Thank God, the British Journalist.
But given what the rogue will do
Unbribed, there`s no occasion to!”
My antipathy towards the printed word press is a matter of record, revealed through the columns of the “Westminster View” with a monotony that must by now be becoming tedious. “It takes one to tell one”, I suppose. I carried my National Union of Journalists` Union Card with venom for many years and practised my own black arts along with the worst of them. There is nothing more sanctimonious than a poacher turned gamekeeper, a given-up smoker or a reformed drunk and an ex-reporter is most likely to be all three!
I will own up, though, to a residual affection for those who, years ago, beat me about the head with the Kemsley Manual of Journalism. Without those far-off, wizened and cynical old hacks, out to grass in the backwaters of local radio and newspapers, we whippersnappers would never have had the opportunity to make our mistakes and to learn our vile trade away from the glare of the lights and in relative obscurity.
It was to BBC Radio London, then in Hangover Square, that an out of work actor with a wife and infant to support and some rudimentary microphone skills gravitated, first, in 1972. Taken in hand by a former Newcastle Journal reporter who had travelled to BBC Local Radio via the editorship of Coal News I learned in the school of hard knocks what local journalism was all about. Nearly forty years on I have woven a path through network radio and television to the dizzy heights of a fortnightly column in the Thanet Extra and Herne Bay Gazette and monthly scribbling in outlandish publications patronised by ex-pat UK citizens and a Macedonian University Professor seeking to brush up his English Politics ( God knows what his students must get taught!)
Like most back bench politicians I also find that I have an uneasily symbiotic relationship with my own local papers, radio and television. Cabinet members and Opposition front-bench shadow Ministers are sought out, daily, by the national media and occasionally even the rest of us may snatch a ten-second dial-a-quote soundbite on the BBC or ITV news. It is, however, the local outlets that really need our input and that, in turn, afford us the screen time, the airtime and the column inches to express, to those that elect us, our opinions. “They” think that they are doing us huge favours. “We” think that they need us to help satisfy their voracious appetite for material with which to fill space. Somewhere in between lies a truth.
I am left to wonder, though, how tomorrow`s reporters are going to cut their teeth. BBC local radio is threatened with decimation as the management propose to replace the locally produced daytime programming with an infill of Radio Five Live “to save money” while continuing to squander license-payer`s money on the transfer of the coverage of Hampton Court and Chelsea Flower shows to production offices in Birmingham and the Blue Peter Garden to a rooftop in Salford. Local newspapers and FM radio stations, often from the same stable, are struggling in the teeth of a recession that has impacted upon their advertising lifeblood and is coupled with the competition from on-line news services. The old, bold and costly editorial teams are too often replaced with cheaper, nastier and less experienced junior staff who believe, collectively and severally, that they are just one local scoop away from being the next Kelvin MacKenzie or Jeremy Paxman. How, in this climate, does a young aspirant get to learn the crafts of interrogation, accuracy and impartiality that are the making of a real wordsmith? Who is there left to take them to one side and with a gentle clip round the ear tell them the difference between muck and brass?
Does it, given the plethora of news outlets now available via satellite and electronically, really matter?
I am hopelessly biased, of course, and ludicrously romantic about my own most fortunate baptism of brimstone, but I think it matters enormously. Local newspapers and local radio still have a very great deal to offer to local communities. It is the parish-pump gossip, the tittle-tattle of the village shop, the local advertisements for all manner of sometimes dubious services that run cheek-by-jowl with the columns of hatched, matched and dispatched and the notices of village fetes and whist drives and announcements of dire planning applications that are, paradoxically, the bedrock of the Big Society. Take away localism and you are left with a metro-centric, harsh and unkind view of life that is all too often lacking in charity or concern and that bears little relationship to life as it ought to be and could be lived.
The surviving local papers and those that write and edit them are an endangered species. They need and deserve support. “Use it or lose it” used to be the slogan when we still had rural post-offices and bus services. For the local press it is, I suspect, now a case of “Buy or they die”.