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Clancygate: impact of change on local news media

Clancygate: impact of change on local news media

🕔14.Sep 2017

One of the more worrying features of the climax of Clancygate is the way in which the Council’s official statements — both that from the Interim Chief Executive and from John Clancy himself — attacked the ‘”frenzied” media coverage of the affair. Kevin Johnson penned a robust defence of the media position in his piece — ‘Council in Crisis? Blame the media!’ — but the issues raised are worthy of further  consideration, writes Andy Howell.

Both statements were clearly drafted by the council’s communication team who seem once again to demonstrate a worrying lack of understanding of how they should be using local media to communicate with citizens.

From the turn of the new Millennium the local news landscape has changed dramatically.

Local newspapers must operate their news operations on a shoestring and increasingly media commentators worry about the ability of the local press to hold local public services to account. Of course, new forms of local media operations have sprung up to fill this gap utilising both the power of the web and social media to get their message across with remarkable speed and effectiveness.

As you might expect in a conurbation of almost 2.5 million people we now have several long-established new media operations that follow the council and other agencies. Both the Chamberlain Files and News in Brum were both formed with a view to meeting the challenges of the new media landscape and they are joined by Paradise Circus and others who seek a greater transparency and accountability in our city.

The big challenge for these new operators is whether they can add thoughtful analysis and dogged persistence to their ability to disseminate their messages with speed. Rather than condemn the media coverage of Clancygate, the council would be better advised to recognise that the new local media scene is proving that it can step up to the plate when the need arises.

When I entered local politics in the early 1990’s it was impossible to avoid local journalists. Not only did both the Birmingham Post and the Evening Mail have municipal editors but they also had specialists that covered education and social services. Business editors regularly followed economic development, planning and economic development policy in the city. Also, back then, local TV and local radio regularly devoted more time and resource to their coverage of local governance and the public sector.

The local news media was often frustrating to deal with but you ignored them at your peril. They had the ability to make or break politicians, champion difficult issues and to develop long running campaigns, all of which ultimately impacted on local elections. Developing a positive working relationship with the local media was one of the key skills of local politicians.

Back then the council recognised the importance of its communication operation. The legendary Myra Benson (then head of communications) constantly impressed upon councillors and senior managers the realities of the local media. Working in a council with a daily newspaper, she pointed out, was very different to working in a place where there the only coverage was a weekly free sheet. A senior politician in Birmingham could expect more regular media exposure than even the city’s MPs.

Myra and her team also fostered a respect for local journalists. I remember one occasion where the local press was campaigning against a rise in councillor’s allowances. Many in the council found the coverage to be unfair but Myra quietly reminded us that journalism was a low paid occupation. For those covering our affairs the sums in question were very significant. We were not allowed to forget the importance of the local media or to be insensitive to their concerns.

Today things may appear to be different but Clancygate has shown that the key relationship between the local media and the council is as important as ever.
Over at the Birmingham Mail Editor-in-Chief Marc Reeves deserves real credit for the way he has marshalled limited resources to cover this council crisis. Of course, one or two of the Mail’s headlines had a bit of the tabloid about them but local government correspondent Neil Elkes (main picture) was properly empowered to provide detailed coverage of the crisis. The Mail showed that it is still up the task of dealing with the big, local issues.

The Chamberlain Files, of course, covered the developing story almost in real time. Not only did ‘The Files’ break stories with speed but it dissected the disparate messages emanating from the Council House with forensic precision, each day posing the hard questions which demanded real answers.

The council’s attack on the local media makes me wonder what kind of parallel universe its media operation lives in.

Throughout the crisis I suspect both the Mail and the Files had daily off-the-record conversations with Labour councillors on both sides of the Clancygate divide. They would also both have received unattributed briefings from council officers. The email trail which finally proved to be John Clancy’s downfall must ultimately have originated from the Council House — they seemed to leak information with great enthusiasm. It seems odd that people who were so keen to use the local media to cover their side of the story are now so bitter about how their actions have been interpreted.

We should all be aware that the news operations in Birmingham — despite still adapting to these new times — are displaying a greater sense of collective maturity. Conventional press and new media operations work together, comparing stories and triangulating their information and leads. We are seeing the development of new media community in the city and, frankly, citizens should be grateful for it.

For the last couple of years many local media commentators have been dismayed at how poorly the council has managed its communications throughout the ‘improvement’ saga. It would be easy to dismiss the “frenzied” comments as throwaway remarks but it suggests to me that the role of communications needs to be reviewed with the same vigour as, say, child protection policy or financial management.

It sometimes seems that the media professionals in the council are only interested in getting out their own press releases, or focusing on the more limited nature of ‘political spin’. In times like these the council’s communication operation should be an important tool in developing a deep, mature and ongoing debate with its citizens.

The attack on “frenzied” local media is both disingenuous and lazy.

The ‘frenzy’ was an internal frenzy of the Labour group and the council. I for one am grateful for a local media which not only cover the highlights of a story but digs deep to reveal the real nature of dispute and argument.

Clancygate shows that our local media is adapting to the new world and demonstrating a real ability to represent the best values of tough and fair local journalism. Our city will be all the better for it.

Andy Howell is a former deputy leader of the Birmingham Labour group and Birmingham city council. 

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