plymouth herald

April Fools Day, as told by the regional press

According to Martha Gill, writing in The Guardian, Twitter has killed April Fools Day. Why? According to Gill, the fact that you see hundreds of brilliant jokes on Twitter, day in, day out, means the idea of a once-a-year occasion to make up funny stories is no longer required.

Bobbins. If anything, social media has made April Fools’ Day all the more important, while ‘the internet’ in general has made it more important for news brands to take on human traits – not least the ability to try and make the audience smile, and laugh with them.

April Fools’ Day is a bond between reader and news provider – the one day of the year the reader will tolerate something completely made up, so long as it’s done for the right reasons. On any other day, that story would be just be made-up fiction, risking the credibility and trust the audience has with that brand.

On April Fools’ Day, however, there’s a licence to be as creative as you want. For regional media, creating an online presence which people want to engage with involves joining in the things the readers are doing online. I think April Fools’ Day will get bigger online for the regional press in the years to come, not least because it removes the dilemma of whether the regional press should indulge in April Fools’ Day at all.


FOI FRIDAY: HIV cases rise, council spending on credit cards, school transport appeals, active GMC investigations and more

FOIFRIDAYLOGOHIV cases rise sharply < < < Plymouth Herald

THE number of people who have tested positive for HIV in the city in the last five years has risen by 60 per cent, The Herald can reveal.

Figures from Derriford Hospital’s GUM Clinic, released to The Herald under a Freedom of Information Request, show that in 2008/2009 the number of people who tested positive for HIV was 28. During the last financial year, 2012/2013, that figure rose to 46.

Numbers of parents winning appeals to get help with school transport costs < < < Gloucester Citizen

UTS mean fewer parents are now entitled to get help in paying for school transport – and appeals cost Gloucestershire County Council nearly half a million pounds.

However, despite these payouts, the county council is still on target to save £1.5million on school transport by 2016.

Figures obtained in a Freedom of Information request show that in 2012-13, 89 of 113 appeals were granted, 100 of 165 appeals were granted in the previous year, and in 2010-11, 87 of 139 appeals were granted. That resulted in the council paying out £506,000 in 2012-13, although this includes money paid out for successful appeals and reviews in the previous year.

However, the number of appeals heard and the number granted fell last year.

How councils are spending money on credit cards or ‘procurement cards’ < < < Express and Star

Taxpayers have footed a bill of £7.5 million spent on council credit cards in the West Midlands in a single year – with executives using them to fund foreign trips, hotel stays and even meals at KFC.

Officers in local authorities have used them to pay for visits to Paris and Venice, a tour of Arsenal Football Club and even pay off parking tickets slapped on cars by their own council’s wardens.

An investigation by the Express & Star has revealed five councils spent a total of £7.5m in just one financial year – on almost 1,500 ‘purchase’ or ‘procurement’ cards that are used by their staff.

They have bought two patio sets costing a total of £640.38, three SpongeBob SquarePants cushions at £11.97, eight ukuleles for £159.92 and a bowler hat priced £9.99.


FOI Friday: Cannabis, university spending, race crimes at the football and asbestos in council buildings

FOIFRIDAYLOGOUnpaid court fines tops £4million – Bedfordshire On Sunday

MORE than £4 million in court fines is owed to courts in Bedfordshire, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.

The figures, released by Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), show that last September the amount of fines owed to the county’s courts stood at £4,286,800.

The criminal with 145 crimes to his names – Newcastle Journal

A ONE-MAN crime wave racked up 145 offences in two years, re-offending figures have revealed.

The string of crimes makes the 20-year-old male from Durham the region’s most prolific offender.

He was closely followed by a 38-year-old female and a 45-year-old male who committed 130 crimes each between January 1, 2011, to December 31, 2012, say Durham Constabulary.

In total, the top nine offenders together were responsible for 702 crimes across the force area.

Freedom of Information requests to North East police forces revealed just 19 criminals were behind more than a thousand crimes in the region over the last two years.

1000 council buildings containing Asbestos – North Wales Daily Post

SCHOOLS, leisure centres and public toilets are among more than 1,000 council-owned buildings in North Wales which contain asbestos.

A Freedom of Information request by the Daily Post has revealed that all types of the dangerous substance which is now illegal to use – are found in buildings across the region including the most hazardous material, crocidolite.

The figures showed Gwynedd to have the highest number of buildings containing asbestos with 409 in total, which included Arfon Leisure Centre in Caernarfon, Bangor Swimming Pool and Hafod Y Gest care home in Porthmadog.

Pauper funeral rise in Plymouth – Plymouth  Herald

ALMOST 100 people in Plymouth have been buried in so-called ‘paupers’ graves’.

The depressing statistic paints a harrowing picture of people in the community dying penniless and in isolation.

The figures on state-funded funerals were released to The Herald through the Freedom of Information Act.

But the reality could be much worse, since people who die in hospital are the responsibility of Plymouth Hospitals Trust.


FOI FRIDAY: Asbestos, Facebook, police cells and sham marriages


10 good examples of FOI in action from the local, regional and national media:

1. Asbestos found at public buildings – Milford Mercury

Asbestos, known as the silent killer, is regularly the subject of health and safety campaigns – so an FOI which reveals that the majority of council buildings in an area contained asbestos, although often in non-dangerous uses, has the potential to make waves.

2. Prisoners communicating by Facebook – Yorkshire Evening Post

I’ve seen a few stories about those behind bars using Facebook to taunt victims, witnesses and so on – but this is the first time I’ve seen FOI used to find out how many Facebook accounts have been investigated by prison authorities.

3. Health and safety deaths and injuries in the workplace – Bradford Telegraph and Argus

A good example of why ‘open data’ will never give the public as much power as the right to ask for information. This FOI asked how many deaths in the workplace had been recorded by the Health and Safety Executive in the Bradford area, and the number of injuries recorded. The amount of detail per case varied.


FOI Friday: 10 things we’ve learnt thanks to the Freedom of Information Act this week

1. Schooling ‘on the cheap’

Schools are bound by the Freedom of Information Act,  but have 40 days to reply. That can make FOI-ing schools a bit of a challenge, but the results can pay off, as demonstrated by the Norwich Evening News this week. It found that high schools in Norwich are employing a growing army of unqualified staff to look after lessons.

Under an agreement on the use of  ‘cover supervisors’ in schools, the supervisors are only supposed to hand out lesson plans prepared by teachers, and to maintain order. They should also not take classes for more than three consecutive days. But asking questions of schools under FOI, the News found 16 admitted they had used the staff in such a way in 2008/9 – with a total of 143 occasions where the three-day limit was passed. Six said they could not access the information and 11 failed to answer the request.

2. The North East rail fiasco

The Journal reported on the nationalisation of the East Coast mainline this week. The Tories used FOI to get hold of correspondence between National Express, the operator, and the Government about its financial plight. The Tories suggest the documents show the government was aware of financial problems long before they became public. It looks as though FOI may be a key way of getting info out of government for the opposition parties ahead of a general election – although it does beg the question as to why politicians have to resort to FOI at all.

3. Run down universities

The Edinburgh Evening News reports on an FOI request to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which  compiled a database on the state of buildings owned by universities. At one Edinburgh university, surveyors judged more than 40 per cent of the university’s lecture theatres, libraries and other non-residential buildings as “inoperable” and “posing a serious risk of major failure and breakdown”.


FOI Friday: 10 things we learnt this week thanks to the Freedom of Information Act

Here’s the first FOI Friday round up of 2010. I’ll be posting a round up of the stories which made the papers over the Christmas period in the next couple of days

1. Phone masts

You’d think something as controversial as a mobile phone mast would need planning permission at a planning meeting. If you did think that, then you’re wrong. According to the Lancashire Telegraph, mobile phone firms need planning permission for masts over 15 metres tall, although structures can be built on private property without it if town halls do not object within 56 days. So the LT used FOI to ask all the councils in its areas for a list of approved phone masts in the area. Although this information would have appeared on weekly planning lists, in this case the total is greater than the sum of the parts. It found 165 mobile phone masts and another 50 proposed, including ones at hospitals. Oddly, Blackburn with Darwen Council said it did not hold a list of mobile phone masts in its area.

2. Broke university students

The Liverpool Daily Post turned to its univerisities for a different take on the financial hardships students can face, asking its four universities for the amounts it had paid out in ‘emergency handouts’ to students who couldn’t make ends meet. The overall figure across Merseyside was in excess of £1.3million to help students. The pay-outs were for a number of reasons ranging from students unable to pay rent, delays, student loan payments, debt repayments, general living costs, travel and childcare.

3. A cushy life for prisoners?

The prison service can be very hard to get information out of via FOI, especially if you’re looking for details relating to a particular prison. But someone’s managed to come up trumps, judging by this story in the Journal. It reports that details of classes prisoners can take at a County Durham jail have emerged via FOI. Inmates at HMP Frankland in County Durham, where Soham killer Ian Huntley is held, can choose to study from a long list of bizarre qualifications, including yoga, meditation and “soap opera studies”.