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How long does it take new public servants to get bored with FOI?

When the government decided the country’s police forces needed elected police and crime commissioners, the argument centred on the importance of accountability – we, the public, needed to know we could vote on how well the police were run.

Two years on, and with many crime commissioners now in place after winning elections which attracted turnouts as low as 15%, it would appear the idea of accountability is starting to slip – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information.

Whereas the democratic process allows you to hold someone to account just once in a period of time, FOI enables you to hold a public authority to account at a time of your choosing, on a specific subject of your choosing – something the office of the Hertfordshire police and crime commissioner clearly finds irritating.

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Why the only future for football reporting is a ‘fan first’ future

On the day after Sir Tom Finney, the Preston North End legend and a player widely regarded as one of the gentlemen of the game, died BBC Radio Five Live broadcast its Saturday sports coverage from Deepdale, the home of North End.

It was a touching tribute to one of the greats of the game who earned his reputation in a different era of football. That point was summed up when the story about a transfer which never happened was discussed on air.

Sir Tom was wanted by Palermo, the Sicilian side, in 1952 and reports suggested they were prepared to offer Preston £30,000 for his signature, pay Sir Tom much more than he was earning in Preston, throw in a villa and pay for travel between Italy and Preston for his family.

The story goes that then-chairman Nat Buck quashed the deal, saying: “If tha’ doesn’t play for us, tha’ doesn’t play for anybody.” On hearing the story, Five Live presenter Mark Pougatch made the point: “So different from today, it was a time when the administrators ran football.”

Yet in an era when player power clearly does have the upper hand in football, certainly in the top two leagues, journalists and local media can often find themselves at the mercy of excessive demands and expectations of football club administrators in guise of media management. That, in turn, runs the risk of damaging the most important relationship of all: Our relationship with fans.

From insisting all player interview requests go through the club or only making the manager available for one interview a week, to insisting that all news is broken on the club site first and or placing digital embargoes on content which don’t apply to print to ensure the clubs have online exclusives, the demands from many football clubs are little short of draconian.

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Why Government needs to look at itself before accusing councils of lacking transparency

Westminster – stuck in time?

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has a similar relationship with councils to the one former education secretary Michael Gove had with teachers.

For some reason, that keep-on-kicking approach Gove adopted with the teaching profession appears to have cost him his ministerial brief in the recent reshuffle, while Mr Pickles gets to, well, keep on kicking.

Many of the things Mr Pickles has pushed on have been welcome: The crackdown on local government propaganda newspapers, insisting councils must allow filming of meetings, and the publication of data on spending over £500. But the devil has often been in the detail of Mr Pickles’ headline-grabbing initiatives.

Several renegade councils continue to publish newspapers in spite of much hyperbole, the ability to film democracy in action is far from guaranteed and spending data is produced in many differing fashions and tells you little about what a council is actually buying. (more…)

Why local journalists need to make sure substance wins out over style in the General Election

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Parliament – how connected with the real world is it?

With a general election only 10 months away, attempts to set the battlegrounds are coming thick and fast from those with the most to gain from next May’s vote – the Westminster politicians themselves.

The Conservative Party is determined that the election debate focuses on the economy, an area polls continually show the Tories pull ahead on. Labour, up until now, has pushed a ‘cost of living crisis’ argument, one which will probably carry significant sway regardless of what economic indicators tell us.

And Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, has also tried to steer the pre-election debate away from image, promising he won’t seek to lead a campaign on low-substance photo opportunities alone, but on issues which matter to the electorate:

What do we really need in our leaders?

And the answer doesn’t actually start with the politicians and how we look.

That’s the thing about photo-op politics: it is about us and not about you.

 

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Mapped: Front pages inspired by the Tour de France in England

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THE Tour De France’s Grand Depart was big news last week – showing off parts of the UK at their very best to a global audience of millions.

Once in a lifetime events are the sort of challenges newsrooms everywhere love rising to, so, a week after the Tour, he’s a selection of the front pages the Tour generated as it passed through Yorkshire, spent moments in Greater Manchester, and an afternoon between Cambridge and London.

You can either view them on the maps below by clicking the icons, or look at a gallery at the foot of this post.

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What Staffordshire County Council’s breakdown of FOI applicants tells us about the authority

The Staffordshire Hoard was a huge find in a field near Lichfield. Staffordshire County Council is less keen on the information treasure hunters daring to use FOI to hold it to account

Staffordshire County Council’s decision to ‘name and shame’ organisations costing it money through Freedom of Information requests has prompted a lot of criticism.

My main bugbear is that, in the scheme of council spending, the cost of handling FOI requests remains tiny, as illustrated brilliantly by the Daily Mirror’s Ampp3d data journalism website here.

Staffordshire County Council’s actions have also concerned the Information Commissioner, with fears that the ‘name and shame’ approach is designed to put people off applying for information this way in the future. Well, that’s one way to reduce council service costs – how long until children receiving free school meals can expect their picture pinned up outside the canteen? An outrageous suggestion of course, but the principle is the same.

Paul Bradshaw makes a very good point that the roll of dishonour published by Staffordshire prompts many questions, and also fails to reveal what people were asking for. In other words, why they were having to use FOI.

Staffordshire argues the list – which appears to be based on the assumption that the minimum FOI cost is £50, which is a flaky position to start from – is designed to show ‘wrongful’ use of FOI. That’s a very subjective position for a publicly-funded authority to take.

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Removing all trace of appearing in a vox pop … or why using the ‘right to be forgotten’ is an own goal

You can hide in Google …. but you can still be found

What sort of person contacts Google to make the most of the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling which entitles people to demand the search engine remove any results about themselves which they think are ‘outdated’ or ‘irrelevant.’?

This week, publishers began to find out who was making the most of the opportunity served up by a European court ruling. According to the Guardian, 70,000 such requests have been received so far, and whether they are are true, accurate or fair articles doesn’t enter into the equation thanks to the Google ruling.

Google has notified websites of links it will no longer be able to show ‘for certain searches’ on its European search pages – and the first bunch of links I’ve seen this week make cover a wide range of issues – and where more than one person is involved in a story, we don’t know who has triggered the complaint.

Not surprisingly, there were a whole bunch of links to stories of people who were either on the wrong side of the law, or being exposed as being such by the newspaper.

The most random one, though, was the story of ‘parking rage’ being a regular occurrence in a Buckinghamshire village. No-one’s court appearance was reported, no-one’s embarrassing exploits shared with the world. Just the concerns of people who didn’t like the way people were falling out over parking. It appears to be a

There has been a lot of concern about this ruling, and I saw one comment which likened it to ‘burning the books in the library.’ That’s not quite the case, because there is nothing in the ruling compelling publishers to remove stories people want to disappeared off the internet.

Many of the newsrooms I work with have had calls from people demanding content be removed from online archives ‘because I now have a right to be forgotten.’ That’s wishful thinking on their part … they have a right to be removed from Google in Europe, that’s all.

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More local people visited local news websites in local election week than voted. What does that mean for local journalism and accountability?

Labour celebrates a near red-wash in Manchester. But with more people reading a local news websites in a week than turning out to vote, is anyone really winning? Picture: Manchester Evening News

In Manchester at the local elections, 115,000 turned out to vote. In the 10 days around the election, more people than that within Manchester visited the Manchester Evening News website.

In Birmingham, it was a similar story on the Birmingham Mail website – more people from within Birmingham visited the Mail website than appear to have turned out to vote.

I mention this for two reasons. It debunks the myth the detractors of the regional press put about that brands that have served their communities for over 100 years are irrelevant in the digital age.

But perhaps more importantly, it shows the power returning to journalists to hold public authorities to account for the greater good.

Many of my colleagues were pleasantly surprised by the level of interest in the local elections on the websites I work with. There could be a number of reasons for this. It could be that the determination by the Westminster parties to run the elections as a referendum on current national party politics performance meant fewer outlets focused on local matters. The predicted rise of UKIP could have been a factor.

Or it could be more  mundane – most councils now release the results of their elections the day after voting closes, rather than overnight. Websites in towns and cities with next day counts saw, in my experience, more people viewing the results than those that didn’t.

At the Revival of Local Journalism conference, held by the BBC at MediaCity last week, the importance of public authorities being held to account was raised time and again.

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If he looks like Luis Suarez and bites like Luis Suarez … a CCTV still destined to go viral

 

Luis Suarez ‘copycat’ incidents have been all over the national press today, perhaps blowing the ‘footballers aren’t paid to be role models’ argument out of the water once and for all.

But spare a thought for the man police are seeking in relation to a biting incident in Manchester which occurred four months ago.

He has the misfortune to bare a passing resemblance to said biting footballer … and as a result, what should have been a bog standard police appeal has suddenly gained much more momentum:

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Spin doctors and social media: Can public bodies be trusted to tell it straight?

Harsh but true … but how many public bodies are getting social all wrong?

There’s a theory, normally floated by press officers at organisations who feel they get a raw deal from the the local Press that they don’t actually need the local press any more.

The theory goes that, well, no-one reads local newspapers any more so they don’t have much impact and, well, there’s social media. We’ll talk to people directly! We’re the council/police/hospital, people trust us. And so on.

Previously, that theory didn’t involve social media, it was the rationale for creating council newspapers, with the added benefit of being able to spend tens of thousands of pounds of council advertising budget on getting a one-sided message across.

Now, however, that theory is bust. Reporters who previously saw their stories read by a diminishing number of newspaper readers now know the number reading them online is going up by the day. A story which begins life in a local newsroom can go across the country within minutes. Tesco knows this – which is why its marketing director tells his teams to take queries from local journalists seriously.

Social media is a two-way street for journalists. It makes it easier to get past the myriad of press relation regulations local public organisations have in place,  but it also gives those public bodies the chance to speak to people directly.

The question I want to pose is this:  Is that access to the public being abused?

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