Liverpool is a great news city. There’s always something happening. Which is just as well for the regional TV news people, because it means they’re never short of a strong story from the city.
Last night was no exception. There was a court case about the murder of an army cadet. There was the new chief constable promising more bobbies on the beat. And then there was the bizarre case of how an error in the Liverpool ECHO became the third story from one of the region’s main cities.
Before I go on, I should point out that I work closely with the Liverpool newsroom in my role as head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror. I also worked in the Liverpool newsroom for around two and a half years, first on the newsdesk for the Liverpool Daily Post, and then on running the website for the LDP. For a (very) brief period of time, I was assistant editor (digital) for both papers. And I count a lot of people in that newsroom as good friends. I should also point out the views expressed here are my own.
However, I’m pretty certain that I’d have written this post even if it was about a newspaper I’d never worked on or, indeed, one that I didn’t even like.
For anyone missed it, the Liverpool ECHO carried a nib in Saturday’s paper which said Taylor Swift would be coming to play at a school assembly on Monday. Sadly it wasn’t the international country music star visiting, but an unknown 16-year-old called Taylor Bright.
As one reporter I know wrote on Facebook today: “Doctors bury their mistakes, we publish ours.” Now, there’s no getting away from the fact it was written in error, but the ECHO moved swiftly to correct the mistake, the school in question put a big notice up on its website and the planned concert with Taylor Bright was cancelled amid fears fans expecting Taylor Swift would swamp this school.
But, as Taylor Bright’s spokesman pointed out, all the children at the school in question knew who was coming.
There was no mass crowd of teenagers waiting to see Swift in the end and the ECHO has made a donation to the school as a gesture of goodwill.
So did that warrant BBC North West Tonight dispatching a TV reporter – a chap by the name of Ed Thomas – and camera crew to film a full package for the show? For those of you not lucky enough to have Gordon Burns reading the news to you five nights a week, North West Tonight is pretty much like any other regional BBC news show. It carries eight, maybe nine, full packages a night, several news in briefs, a bit of sport, some weather and some chatter between presenters.
And, as any regional newspaper report will testify, it often follows up stories which are broken by local newspapers. And in a region with papers as diverse as the North West Evening Mail (Barrow), the Lancashire Telegraph (Blackburn), The Oldham Chronicle, the Manchester Evening News, the Liverpool ECHO and the Liverpool Daily Post, the BBC in the North West are well blessed in that respect. And that’s even before you look at all the strong paid-for weeklies here.
Like many regional news programmes, North West Tonight isn’t quick to announce the original source of the stories. Countless times throughout my career in the North West, I have worked long and hard on stories which, after appearing in print, find their way on to the regional telly news. Sometimes it is a pleasent surprise, more often than not a call comes in for a contact number, and very occasionally the reporter will get ratty if you won’t help them and threaten never to help you again.
In short, regional newspapers are like a free feed of stories for the regional telly news (freeish in some cases as payment will sometimes be made) and while it’s very flattering in some respects, it makes it all the more annoying when the BBC pounces on a newspaper error and decides it’s worthy of being one of their nine most worked on stories of the day.
Now, had the error led to some sort of mass truancy across Liverpool today, or a crush outside the school, then the story in case here would stand on its own merit. But all Ed Thomas could muster up was a vox pop of people, the most memorable of which was ‘I knew it was a mistake when I saw it.’
He was left to walk through the school playground without even a sniff of someone turning up by mistake, and just the fact the police put a community support officer on the school gates on the off-chance people would turn out to play with. That’s how seriously the police were taking it – not even a police constable was tasked to the scene. The Birmingham Christmas lights crush this was not.
So why cover this story at all? Sure, it will have been hilariously funny, no doubt, to the BBC North West Tonight team based in Manchester, but who beyond Liverpool would even care about the story? There’s an argument that BBC Radio Merseyside should report on it to ensure no-one thinks Taylor Swift is turning up, but on the telly, after school has shut, after nothing has happened, and after the error has been corrected?
The North West Tonight team have around 26 minutes of live news to fill every evening. A quick glance through the pages of the local newspapers will demonstrate there were many more stories they could have sought to get their teeth into. Heck, the error story wasn’t even one of the nine biggest stories in Liverpool today – although a glance at the BBC website for Liverpool would suggest differently. Put bluntly, today wasn’t a slow news day.
North West Tonight will never escape the accusation that they are biased towards Manchester and Liverpool for as long as they leap on the chance to turn a simple error into one of their main news stories of the day.
This incident is made all the more astonishing by the fact that this is the same North West Tonight which ran a competition for a school to win a performance from McFly, only to later go along with a request from the band that they’d only play a school in Greater Manchester – meaning all those schools that entered from Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria and Cheshire never had a chance of winning. What’s more, they never corrected the error in public until critcised by Ofcom. The ECHO’s honest error v what some might describe as being a much more cynical deception? Glass houses and all that?
Ed Thomas signed off with the patronising phrase: “It’s a lesson to always check your facts.” One Twitterer pointed out Ed Thomas said Swift won three Grammys last night, when she actually won four. Proof perhaps that no journalist is above an error, and that a journalist making a story out of another journalist’s error is always walking on dangerous ground.
And perhaps the biggest lesson of all is the one journalists find the hardest to take: Just like the fact the word exclusive means more to us than the reader, nothing turns a viewer/reader/user off more than stories about a rival media. Unless, of course, you’re into your media.