Hedy Korbee is a journalist with 29 years’ experience in broadcasting. She has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Global TV, and CTV, among others. In September she moved to Birmingham to study the MA in Online Journalism that I teach, and decided to launch a website covering the biggest story of the year: the budget cuts.
Her experiences of local government here – and of local journalism – have left her incredulous. Since arriving Hedy has attended every council meeting – she notes that reporters from the BBC and ITV regional news do not attend. Her attempts to get responses to stories from elected officials have been met with stonewalling and silence.
This week – after 7 weeks of frustration – she discovered that the council had called a news briefing about their business plan for consultation with the public on how to cut £300 million in spending – and failed to tell her about it, despite the fact that she had repeatedly requested to be kept informed, and was even stood outside the council offices while it was taking place (and asked directly why TV crews were being waved in):
“At first, [the head of news] told me that it wasn’t a news conference but “a small briefing of regional journalists that we know”. [She] described them as five people, “local, traditional journalists” who were on her “automatic invite list”. She said they were journalists that the press office has been talking to about all aspects of the budget cuts and have “an understanding of the threads of these stories”.
“She also said they were journalists who have talked to Stephen Hughes before and “know where he is coming from”.”
Hedy’s experience isn’t an isolated case. Hyperlocal bloggers frequently complain of being discriminated against by local government officers, being ignored, refused information or left to catch up on stories after council-friendly local newspapers are leaked leads. The most striking example of this was when Ventnor Blog’s Simon Perry was refused access to Newport coroner’s court as either a member of the press or a member of the public. (UPDATE: A further example is provided by this ‘investigation’ into one blogger’s right to film council committee meetings)
On the other side are press offices like Walsall’s, which appear to recognise that the way that blogs use social media allow the council to communicate with larger, more distributed, and different audiences than their print counterparts.
The issues for balanced reporting and public accountability are well illustrated by Hedy’s experience of calling the press office seeking a quote for a story:
“[I] was told that Birmingham councillors are “important people” (I don’t know what that implies about “the public’s right to know”) and was told to simply write no comment. The refusal by the press office to deal with us has made it exceedingly difficult to cover all sides of the story on our website.”
In contrast Hedy details her experiences in Canada:
“City Council meetings are considered a valuable source of news and attended by most of the local media and not just two print reporters, as they are in Birmingham. Interested citizens show up in the gallery to watch. Council meetings are broadcast live and journalists who can’t attend can watch the proceedings on television along with the general public.
“It is acceptable behaviour to walk up to a politician with your camera rolling and start asking questions which the politician will then answer. If politicians are reluctant to answer questions they are often “scrummed” and wind up answering anyway.
“When major budget announcements are made by the federal government, politicians at every other level of government, as well as interest groups, hold news conferences to provide reaction. Quite often, they go to the legislative chamber where the announcement is being made to make themselves more readily available to journalists (and, of course, to spin).”
Have you experienced similar problems as a journalist? Which local authorities deal well with the online media? I’d welcome your comments.
UPDATE: A response from Birmingham City Council comes via email:
“A Birmingham City Council spokesperson said: “We have proven that Birmingham City Council takes blogging and citizen journalism seriously through the launch of the award-winning www.birminghamnewsroom.com online press office.”"
UPDATE 2 (Dec 16 2010): Sarah Hartley writes on the same problem, quoting some of the above incidents and others, and suggesting press offices confuse size with reach:
“Let the recently published London Online Neighbourhood Networks study enter the debate. It asked users of the citizen-run websites to identify what they regarded as their main source of local news. The result: 63% of respondents identified their local site as their main source.”
UPDATE 3 (Feb 23 2011): Guidance from the Local Government Secretary says that councils should give bloggers the same access as traditional media.