18 things I learnt about being a council reporter which I hope still apply today

About three years ago, when I first started this blog, I wrote ’10 alternative rules for covering court’ which still proves to be a popular post today. Not bad for someone who rarely covered court! Council was more often than not my beat, so here, slightly tongue in cheek, are 18 things I learnt about covering councils and local politics which might be useful to someone out there…

1. Meetings do matter

The last Labour government may have done all it can to wreck public accountability in local government by scrapping ‘old-fashioned’ committees in favour of ‘streamlined’ cabinets which nod through decisions with the real discussions taking place away from public view, but meetings still do matter, especially ‘overview and scrutiny’ committees.

The truth is that it takes a ruling group to believe in democracy for overview and scrutiny committees to have any teeth, but that doesn’t stop very interesting discussions taking place there. Disaffected opposition councillors often ensure that these agendas cover issues which matter to people and even if the ruling group reject what they say, they are still a source of good stories.

The council I covered for longest was Blackburn with Darwen. Cabinet meetings felt as though they were carefully scripted, but the overview and scrutiny often put officers and councillors on the spot. Good lines followed.

2. Arrive early, stay late

Arriving before a meeting and hanging around beforehand is a good way to get your face known. The more your face gets known, the greater the chances of people slipping into conversation with you. And my experience is that is most likely to happen after a meeting, especially a meeting which has excluded the press and public to discuss secret stuff. Reactions straight after the meeting are always very interesting.

3. Why are they telling me this?

When someone tells you something ‘off the record’ it’s always worth asking – even if just to yourself – why they are telling you the information. What’s their motivation? The answers you come up with could be crucial to how you play the story.

4. Watch out for the rent-a-quotes

Every council has them and I used the ones I had to excess, over and over again. In hindsight, although it made my job easier, it probably didn’t really help the credibility of my stories. Readers aren’t daft – they know the faces they see every day and get sick of them.

5. Forget the political intrigue most of the time

If there was one thing which is wrong with national politics, it’s the obsession with personality over politics. Such tittle tattle can exist at a local level too, but generally, I found, readers don’t really care who is plotting over who – they’re local councillors at the end of the day.

6. Find out about the random, one-off committees, forums and ‘quangos’

Every area has peculiar off shoots of local government which, while not directly electable, do need to try and be publicly accountable. From the passenger transport authorities in metropolitan areas to bespoke regeneration bodies set up to improve town centres,  these organisations will operate their own rules on access to information but are well worth monitoring. The Association of North East Councils was one such body when I worked in the North East, while the Rossendale Together Barnfield Partnership appears to be responsible for improving a town centre near me,

7. Befriend the unions

If there is one area where the trade union movement is perhaps as strong as ever, it’s within local government. Trade union reps can be a brilliant source of information for a potentially huge readership – council workers, especially as the cuts keep coming.

8. Parish councils

Often overlooked but worth getting to know if they are in your area. As well as providing good on-the-ground contacts, the issues they often cover tend to be of interest to people. Their minutes can be ready-baked sources of nibs, but that’s just the start. The worst barracking I received as a reporter was at Whalley parish council in the Ribble Valley for the ‘media’s coverage of the parking situation’ in the picturesque town, while my favourite tale from a parish council was down the road in Longridge, where councillors reacted badly to my coverage of their discussion of the town’s coat of arms after one of them complained the animal on the coat of arms was ‘too camp.’ The council responded to my article by giving quotes to the local Longridge News, which in turn referred to me as ‘a tabloid reporter from Blackburn.’

9. The murky world of the website

Councils can all manner of stuff tucked away on websites, and these can be a rich mine of stories. Particularly worth looking out for are the weekly lists of planning applications, and the ‘key decisions’ – decisions which can be taken by a cabinet member or councillor in charge of a specific area of the council without needing to get full approval from cabinet. One council I covered used to let councillors wave through decisions worth up to £250,000 through like this – so long as it didn’t involve more than one council ward. Decisions which need to be taken in the future also tend to get on there as well, regardless of whether they go to committee or are made as a ‘key decision’.

10. Don’t always go for the press bench

Sitting on the press bench normally guarantees you a good view of events, but sitting up in the public gallery can sometimes be better. Two reasons for this: The first is that if the councillors can’t see you, they are less likely to grandstand in the hope of getting a comment in your story. At Blackburn with Darwen Council, a councillor once asked me to leave the meeting for 40 seconds if a certain other councillor got up to speak for a third time. That councillor had a point – the other one had the capacity to add 20 minutes to a meeting without actually saying anything remotely quote-worthy.

The other reason is that if you’re in the public gallery, and maybe not that visible, officers can be more likely to be more open. With so many councils insisting that council officers only speak through quotes from the press office (it’s not like they’re public servants or anything, is it?) one of the few opportunities to hear them speak is when they appear before councillors at meetings.

11. Sweat the small stuff

As a result of so few councillors holding so much power in local councils these days, there are many more disaffected backbenchers than there used to be. Spending time covering the things which help them get on with their constituents can pay off when it comes to getting information on bigger stories. It’s also this ‘small stuff’ which reminds your readers that you’re covering the stuff which matters to them.

12. What’s it worth?

Even the smallest of councils spends huge sums of money. The odds are they are the largest employers too. Eye-watering amounts of money are documented on every council report. It’s worth always working out how much something costs each council tax payer. It’s easy to work out – the council’s annual budget setting report (the one from which we learn council tax rates) tells us three important things: The amount the council needs to raise from council tax, the number of homes it taxes and the Band D council tax rate – this is the one generally treated as the average.

So if Blackpool council needs to raise £100million from council tax payers a year from 100,000 homes and the Band D average is £1,000, and announces a plan to save, say £2million a year from turning off lightbulbs, we can say that the saving would be the equivalent of saving each household £20 a year off their council tax.

Likewise, if the council plans to spend £5million on something like new flooring for its offices, it’s reasonable to say that the cost equals 5% of the amount it takes in council tax revenue every year, or £50 per Band D home. That’s when council finances start to hit home.

13. Don’t dramatise politics for the sake of it

I covered hundreds of council meetings as a reporter, and I’m struggling to think of one which was dramatic in the true sense of the word. Even when Lancashire County Council was voting to close over 30 OAP homes and leave old folk to fend for themselves, sorry, move into private care homes or returned home to be visited once a day by an in-a-rush carer, I don’t remember any drama. There was booing from the public gallery, sure, and it was a very sad day, but was it dramatic? No. And procedural decisions are never dramatic. I read that a decision to remove something from the agenda of a parliamentary select committee hearing was a ‘dramatic move.’ Not unless the chairman broke down, wept and then punched someone it wasn’t.

14. Get to know the Mayor … and write about what they do

I’ve never understood the fascination with Mayors. They are just councillors who swap the right to vote on things and be political (in public) for a year for a fancy robe and a nice chain. Yet say what you want about the decline in civic awareness, people still love the Mayor. Maybe that’s due to them appearing on the X Factor final every year if they have a local contestant. That’s never embarrassing to watch, is it? Anyway, I learnt early on that a) Mayors like to talk about their Mayoral year, b) People like to meet the Mayor so the Mayor gets invited to lots of stuff, which is a good way of making new contacts and c) Pictures of the Mayor doing said things can help you find picture stories very quickly.

And if you can, go to the Mayor’s annual ball or fundraiser. It normally guarantees a good contact when they do become political again, and it’s a good chance to meet folk who otherwise wouldn’t dream of becoming contacts.

15. Play your part in ensuring democracy is seen 

Many councils film their meetings, so if you can’t attend, you can at least watch what happened. Embed it if you can. If you are there in person, you should be able to film or record it. If filming isn’t your thing, liveblogging it as you go is a great idea. Councillors are the first to complain about low turn out at elections, so they should be all up for you ensuring that people are seeing things being done, preferably as it happens.

16. Blog like Bartlett

I’m sure I’ve mentioned Liverpool journalist David Bartlett’s brilliant blog, Dale Street Associates. It’s a brilliant mixture of background information, political tittle tattle and opinion from all sides. At times, it’s been such a raw read at the town hall that the council has blocked access to it, I’m told.

17. Find the whistleblowers – and make it easy for them

A bit like the rule of asking why councillors tell you stuff, it’s worth applying the same to anonymous tip offs. For me, my best anonymous source would send me stuff through the internal mail from the council to the paper I worked on (it was cheaper for the paper to be on the internal mailing list than for the council to post stuff with Royal Mail). These days, it’s a bit harder – and many are worried by a digital footprint they might leave.

So having a clever place for people to send you stuff anonymously is always a good idea – and a blog which allows comments anonymously is the best place to start.

18. Never forget dog fouling

Seriously. Few issues prompt a response like dog fouling. It’s been ever thus in local newspapers and the same applies online too. It’s for that reason that, like cockroaches, dog poo bins will survive any apocalypse of council funding – it’s just too dangerous for any politician to remove them.

Really.

7 comments

  1. In my opinion, and for my purposes, this is the best post you’ve ever done. Bookmarked and tweeted.
    What was your impression of Graham Burgess? (Ex Blackburn & Darwen CEO, ex UNISON full time officer, current Wirral Council CEO) :)

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I knew Graham when I was at Blackburn and to me he’s exactly the sort of guy you want to be working with at a council, from a journalist’s point of view. Honest, accountable, responsive – and doesn’t hide behind council corporate speak.

  2. Good post. I think I will refer to you as “a tabloid reporter from Blackburn” from now on.

    Couple of things I’d add:

    Don’t forget the background
    Too often council stories assume the reader has followed every twist and tale of said “drama” at the council. When actually someone might have been on holiday for a fortnight. Timelines, backgrounders, fact panels, google maps (for online/planning), help bring stories to life more, add context and also make more interesting and entertaining reads. When covering long-running issues I used to have a sidebar/timeline saved and keep updating it each time when it went in print, it helps whatever headline/lead in you’ve got on the story make more sense and explain the importance.

    Get ahead on what’s coming
    Planning list and licensing lists should be bread-and-butter, getting the heads up on the historic building being turned into a Wetherspoons on a street already saturated with drinking establishments is always a good one.

    Don’t just cover the bad
    Councils do a lot of good, and a £10m investment or what have you deserves pushing. I’m not saying cosy up to the press office, but I think readers appreciate it when it’s not all just council-bashing (obviously if they are doing something wrong, then bash away!). If the council are spending £1,000 on cleaning up a grotty street (after checking it’s value for money) there’s no harm in covering it.

    Using tech to sift
    RSS feeds are the best way to stay on top of council docs, otherwise you have to keep going to the relevant pages and hoping there’s something new or relying on yourself to wade through 227 new PDFs. Most council websites have to have RSS feeds now, for powering websites like fixmystreet/openly local, so for Preston I use these which show all new agenda items, meetings, decisions (and importantly when an agenda item has been added to an existing agenda, a clever trick councils often do for something controversial)

    PCC: http://preston.moderngov.co.uk/mgWhatsNew.aspx?XXR=0&DR=06%2f11%2f2013-13%2f11%2f2013&ACT=Find
    LCC: http://council.lancashire.gov.uk/mgWhatsNew.aspx?XXR=0&DR=06%2f11%2f2013-13%2f11%2f2013&ACT=Find

    It’s like having your own personal council activity newswire (although that sounds more exciting than it is) but you can then pick up the phone/email councillors for background or comment. And a lot of the time they are surprised I’ve seen the report because they haven’t spotted it themselves yet.

    Diary stuff
    If you’re off, make sure someone else is covering that planning meeting/sub committee or at least aware of it. Council coverage shouldn’t just stop because you’re off skiing in Austria (etc etc).

  3. Great guide, David. Re. 18, dog fouling, add bins as well. Bin collections, changing their frequencies, introducing wheelie bins, bin strikes – all prompt rich comments and letters from readers.

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