Why was a one-sided attack allowed to become a debate on a newspaper’s coverage?

Once upon a time, if someone accused a newspaper  or journalist of bias, it would be the subject of a discussion between the complainant and the journalist and that was pretty much that. If the journalist or editor didn’t feel there was a bias, that was the end of the discussion.

In this multimedia world we inhabit now, when an accusation of bias is made, it tends to become news. I’ve blogged before about the irritating cycle of one voice making a complaint/accusation/statement and it being seized upon by journalism bloggers who normally repeat the claim, add their own opinion but rarely set out to present a fair and balanced look at the original statement.

It happened again this week. A chap called Chris Underwood, who runs the Shepherd’s Bush blog, has made the suggestion that the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle has stopped being critical of the local council since it signed a £75k-a-year deal for all local authority advertising to appear in the Chronicle.

Regular readers of this blog will know that Hammersmith and Fulham Council was at the forefront of the council ‘newspaper’ row after launching its own newspaper, H&F News. It was a fortnightly publication, underwritten by the council with hundreds of thousands of pounds of public sector advertising being diverted into it. The ‘news’ agenda was set by the council, and as such generally painted a very rosy picture of the council and downplayed negative stories and issues, such as crime or criticism of the council.

Fulham Chronicle page 1 - Feb 4

Fully aware of the fact that the public wouldn’t believe a newspaper which was overtly a council publication, this newspaper also carried detailed what’s on listings, sport, TV guides from time-to-time, history sections and restaurant reviews. H&F wasn’t alone in doing this, and thankfully the government knocked this situation on the head earlier this year by insisting that councils shouldn’t be running propaganda sheets.

I work for Trinity Mirror, owner of the Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle, but have had nothing to do with the deal with the council. All council advertising now goes into the Chronicle, and a clearly-labelled double-page spread of council information also appears in the Chronicle. Unlike the council-run H&F News, it’s impossible to be unaware that this double-page spread this council information.

As for the allegation of the Chronicle suddenly going soft on the council as a result of the deal – which is the crux of the Underwood’s complaint – I decided to do some digging and looked through the back issues of the Chronicle since the beginning of February. Underwood first suggested the Chronicle had gone soft in early April.

Stories which have appeared in that time include anger at plans to sell off community buildings, the high salaries of council chiefs, Funding cuts to Sure Start centres, anger at plans to close archives, 500 jobs to go as councils get closer, protests fail to make a difference (feature), Celebrities oppose H&F plans for tower blockSweeping budget cuts approved, Campaigners oppose council plan to regenerate street and English Heritage criticising the council.

Fulham Chronicle - April 8

But it also carried more positive stories, such as the charity work of council officers and the number of people who have been helped to buy houses, excellent Ofsted reports and how CCTV helped catch criminals.  The paper is equally fair of other aspects of public sector affairs in London – reporting on good news and bad involving Transport for London, the London Mayor and so on. It does exactly what a newspaper is supposed to: Scrutinise local authorities, not act as an guaranteed opposition to them.

In short, Underwood’s suggestion that the paper has gone soft on the council simply does stack up when you scratch the surface. Underwood then followed up that post with one about local MP Andy Slaughter complaining his column had been censored.  The column he submitted included the paragraph:

“Sadly, this newspaper is also prey to such tactics, reporting the White City and Shepherd’s Bush Market schemes without any critical commentary, and of course carrying the council’s propaganda pages, paid for from our council tax.”

The Chronicle didn’t carry that line, and as Roy Greenslade noted, they were quite right not to – especially when you look back at the paper’s coverage of both issues.

The one involving White City is huge, and rightly made the front page. The page 2 comment urged all residents in the area to read the 167-page document the council had produced on it to make sure they had their say, under the headline: “Don’t let others decide your future.” That, to me, is fair and balanced – certainly not evidence of the paper ‘being in the pay of the council’ as Underwood suggested.

As for the Market plan, type in the name of the market into the Chronicle’s internal site search and plenty of stories presenting both arguments appear – see here for an example.

Two things irritate me about this incident. The first is the irony of a blogger accusing a newspaper of having a bias towards the council while failing to present a balanced account of affairs himself. I have no problem with hyperlocal sites holding newspapers to account, in fact I think it is a good thing. Those behind sites such as Lichfield Live, Ventnor Blog and Saddleworth News often make constructive comments about the local media and journalists should take note.

Of course, there are also those who simply don’t like their local paper and will have a pop at every opportunity – I suspect Underwood falls into that category. [Update: – I based that assumption on the tone of the posts I’d read on Underwood’s blog – he’s commented below that he has supported the Chronicle in the past, particularly in the campaign against council newspapers, and doesn’t consider himself an enemy of the Chronicle. That’s good to hear.]

He’s entitled to do that, but it needs to be taken into account by those who report on what he says.

Which brings me on to the second point: Underwood’s comments were picked up by various bloggers, but only Press Gazette sought to get a comment from Adrian Seal, the paper’s editor.  Greenslade commented:

Can the paper show that it is still an independent publication holding local power to account?

I have pulled up several stories on its website from May and June and can find nothing in the least bit critical of the council.

That’s not conclusive proof that it is a propaganda organ. But it is surprising, is it not?

No it’s not surprising. Because it isn’t true. Having looked through the papers for May and June, plenty of critical stories are there, and they are easy to find online too, such as this one: Is Hammersmith and Fulham Council undemocratic? It wasn’t hard to find.

What is surprising is that such a one-sided attack on a newspaper – written in a manner which suggests there’s an axe grinding somewhere – was repeated with little real fact-checking and no real attempt at balance. Some things, it seems, never change – rather like the Fulham Chronicle’s continued scrutiny of the local council

Fulham Chronicle June 3 - when the paper apparently didn't have any critical council stories

4 comments

  1. http://shepherds-bush.blogspot.com/2011/04/white-city-housing-boost-row.html

    and

    http://www.fulhamchronicle.co.uk/fulham-and-hammersmith-news/local-fulham-and-hammersmith-news/2011/04/14/major-re-development-of-white-city-unveiled-82029-28515625/

    which one quotes all sides in the argument?

    I rest my case. Actually if you had yourself done a little research you would have found that I supported the Chronicle’s “proper papers not propaganda” campaign throughout and called on my readers to do the same. My “axe” is simply to see a local media that is both independent and able to consistenly reach professional standards of impartiality. That is not currently the case and is clearly not just my opinion.

    1. Thanks Chris. Three things:

      1. great to hear you supported the campaign about council newspapers. I never suggested otherwise.

      2. I have researched before writing this,hence the large volume of examples of coverage about the council which presented a view which is not the council’s. There are other front pages I could have put up on here too. You appear to have chosen one example and used it to paint a picture which I don’t see from the evidence.

      3. If your desire is for a local media which is independent (which is what the Chronicle is) surely it makes sense to seek a comment from those you criticise?

  2. Hi David

    Your points answered in order

    1 Yes you did – you said “there are also those who simply don’t like their local paper and will have a pop at every opportunity – I suspect Underwood falls into that category”.
    2 You clearly researched very heavily from the Chronicle but not at all from my blog, thus presenting a very one sided view, something which I have grown accustomed to from the Chronicle itself
    3 Journalists at the Chronicle regularly answer points made in my blog and I highlight those as a basic right of reply. You can see this here http://shepherds-bush.blogspot.com/2011/04/fulham-chronicle-wins-contract-for.html where I went to all the trouble to print what were fairly aggressive comments by Adam Courtney, for example

    I am really not the Chronicle’s enemy – I will highlight their errors just as I do the councils and our MPs and they all have a right of reply – their enemy at the moment seems to be themselves. That said, following the furore of this week, they produced a very balanced article today on Shepherd’s Bush Green quoting from all sides. That is excellent, and I suspect the events of this week may ensure they take a more balanced approach in future.

    In which case it hasn’t done anyone any harm at all

    Chris

    PS nice blog by the way

    1. Thanks for the kind word on the blog, Chris.

      You made the suggestion that a newspaper had been less critical of the council in the run up to the start of the new deal. The only way to prove, of disprove, what you’ve said is to look at the evidence – and that’s the content of the Chronicle. I’ve done that, and my conclusion is that they run articles which are critical of the council when it’s right to do so, but also run stories which could be seen as flattering towards the council. That’s part and parcel of the news mix at any newspaper. All I’ve done is look at the evidence, so it’s not biased, it’s just my opinion contradicts yours.

      As I said in my original post, I think it’s good that bloggers hold newspapers to account – it shows, often, that they care. But that doesn’t always mean they’re right…..

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