A council gagging its own councillors? No match for digitally-savvy journalists

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Politicians, should they wish, have more means than perhaps ever before with which to communicate their thoughts to those they represent. There’s blogging, social media, Youtube even. Community newsletters. And, of course, good old local media – be it newspapers, websites, TV or radio.

Unless you happen to be a councillor in Birmingham, in which case you’ve been told to stay silent – on an issue which should be a talking point for every single politician in the city.

Birmingham City Council is, in many respects, a council in crisis. Under monitoring by the government, facing millions of pounds of cut backs on top of the hundreds of millions of pounds and thousands of jobs it’s lost, the city council could well be the first in the country to have to hold its hands up and say: “We can’t do this with the money you give us anymore.” It could well be the council which proves that no council is too big to fail.

So to that end, the announcement that the council’s chief executive is departing is big news. The fact it’s happened while the council’s Labour leader is on holiday only serves to create a further sense of crisis.

But according to the Birmingham Mail:

“Birmingham’s councillors have been GAGGED from commenting on the crisis enveloping Britain’s largest local authority following the shock departure of city council chief executive Mark Rogers.

As Mr Rogers is locked in talks about the terms of his exit, the council’s chief lawyer has written to councillors, warning them against social media posts and public statements on the issue.”

And then:

Labour group bosses are already believed to have told Moseley and Kings Heath councillor Claire Spencer to delete a blog post in which she speculated about government interference in the running of the council.

As Tory councillor Matt Bennett said:

“The leader is on holiday and has not responded to our emails, we have no chief executive and we need to know what happens next, how we are going to get through this.

“Then we get this email warning us not to discuss it. How can we when we haven’t been told what’s going on. It’s a farce.”

The argument in favour of not speaking out would be that there are legal negotiations on going at the moment over the chief executive’s exit. But to ban elected representatives from speaking out suggests little, if any, faith in the ability of elected representatives to say sensible things, and near contempt for the people who pay the council’s wages: voters.

The Birmingham Mail has ensured people in Birmingham know of the ban:

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And if ever there was an example of how working hard to embrace readers wherever they are – print, digital, social etc – enables newsrooms to do what they’ve always done more effectively than ever, it’s this story.

It made the front page, and that front page provided a compelling image for use on social media, where the link to the story was widely shared and commented upon – not just by journalists, but by councillors, politicians from elsewhere in the country and community groups in the city. The list of people and organisations sharing it was pleasingly diverse.

It became a story read by tens of thousands of people in Birmingham, and a talking point in local government and Whitehall circles quickly. It demonstrated very clearly the power of the local Press to hold councils to account through the oxygen of publicity.

For a council to believe it could control the commentary on an issue like this is, at best, very niave. Journalism has the tools to have the audience to do its job like never before – we just need to do that job in way the Birmingham Mail has over the past few days.

 

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The Second City Derby and the other problem with Facebook Trending

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The ‘Second City Derby’ took place yesterday – between Aston Villa and Birmingham City. Having worked with the Birmingham Mail for almost a decade, I now understand why so many fans of the two sides get so frustrated with the national media’s attitude to the city’s football clubs.

You don’t need to spend a long time with fans of Blues, Villa, West Brom (not in Birmingham I know) and other Midlands teams to know that they are as passionate as any other set of fans, so the constant referencing by radio commentators and media pundits to the ‘passion on show’ from the fans always suggests more about how much Midlands football is ignored most of the time than anything else.

It made an appearance in the Facebook Trending box on my timeline today too – or rather, a reference to Gary Gardner, who scored for Villa, appeared.

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FOI FRIDAY: 10 FOI ideas for journalists is back!

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Welcome to the return of FOI – a weekly look at FOI stories which are worth sharing (and in many cases, copying).

As an added incentive to read on, this blog will also celebrate/shame those councils who prove that actions speak louder than words when it comes to delivering on the principles of FOI and accountability.  

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Infographic: How to create great journalism online

Feeling inspired (and not a little hungry) as a I left the Regional Press Awards last Friday, I did what any sane person in that situation would do: Head to Upper Crust at Euston for a sandwich, before turning my thoughts into a Venn Diagram.

The result of a two-hour train journey on a packed Virgin Train was this: A recipe for great digital journalism?

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FOI Friday: Council credit cards, mental health beds crisis, schools with asbestos and 50 Shades of Grey…

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

So, what are councils using credit cards for at the moment? < Bristol Post

Taxpayers in Bristol have been footing the bill for council workers to stay in expensive hotels, eat at posh restaurants and buy designer clothes, the Bristol Post has learned.

Almost £680,000 was spent on Bristol City Council payment cards last year, with thousands of pounds spent on fast food, cinema trips, iTunes downloads and orders from online retailer Amazon.

Figures obtained by the Post under Freedom of Information rules show that in 2014, an average of £1,860 a day was spent on council procurement cards, which are used by council workers to pay for expenses like travel, office supplies and catering.

Mentally ill patients held in prison cells because no hospital beds are available < Swindon Advertiser

A SWINDON patient had to spend almost two days in a police cell under the Mental Health Act because there was nowhere else for them to go.

Figures released after a Freedom of Information request show that in the past two years almost 200 people have been held in Wiltshire Police cells because there was no suitable healthcare provision.

The longest holding period was 37 and a half hours, while a 16-year-old was detained for eight hours.

Ninety-four people were detained in Swindon and Wiltshire in 2013 and in 2014 the figure was 95.

How many schools contain asbestos? < Nelson Leader

Teaching leaders claim lives are being put at risk after it was revealed more than 90% of Lancashire schools contain asbestos.

Figures obtained after a Freedom of Information request reveal as many as 41 schools in the Burnley and Padiham area could be classed as being “at risk”, as well as a further 38 in Pendle and 22 in the Ribble Valley.

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The power of digital journalism: The appeal for information solved in just 30 minutes

Here’s a story to warm the cockles of any journalist worried that digital journalism means losing many of the things we hold dear as regional journalists.

Shortly after lunchtime on Thursday, the Birmingham Mail published an appeal from National Express, which runs the buses across Birmingham, for information about a man wanted in connection with an assault which left a ticket inspector unconscious.

Using a variety of tools available to the newsroom, not least Facebook and Twitter, the Birmingham Mail got the appeal out to a wide audience very quickly:

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What happened next was quite remarkable – and shows the strength of reaction regional news brands can enjoy in a digital world.

Within 30 minutes, according to the Mail, National Express knew the name of the man they wanted to speak to – and hundreds of people rang in with information.

Of course, the Mail won’t have been the only outlet publishing the appeal, and the fact the CCTV quality is so sharp will have helped massively.

National Express were quick to follow up with the Mail and others, thanking the public for their quick response.

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And it’s the speed of the response which journalists worried about what digital journalism means for local journalism should take heart from.

Done well, with the right focus on building an audience and understanding what that audience wants – including the audience’s desire to make a difference – the tools which comes with digital platforms have the power to make our local journalism a more potent force than ever before.

As I discussed in my blog post on Friday, building a loyal digital audience make newsrooms more powerful than they’ve been in a long time – able to start and win campaigns at a stroke, hold those in power to account more effectively than ever and make a difference when it really matters within minutes.

For those who fear digital journalism is underpinned by clickbait articles ‘which aren’t real journalism,’ here’s the proof that nothing could be further from the truth.

FOI FRIDAY: Clown crimes, daily A&E visitors, attacks on buses and pauper funerals

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Sexual exploitation within a police force < Birmingham Mail

Three West Midlands Police officers abused their position of authority by sexually exploiting underage children in the last two years.

The predators in uniform were sacked or resigned after being convicted at court for targeting a 15-year-old and two 14-year-olds.

Meanwhile, other officers from the force have been dismissed or disciplined for a range of offences or conduct relating to sexual exploitation of members of the public.

The shocking details were revealed after a Freedom of Information request by the Mail to the force.

The problem with clowns < Liverpool Echo

Disguised with colourful wigs and white face paint, the Echo today reveals how crooks dressed as clowns carried out bogus charity collections, vandalised property and even armed robbery.

Police on Merseyside dealt with 14 incidents involving people posing as clowns in the past two years – and most were no laughing matter.

One of the red-nosed crimes was caught on camera, when a robber dressed as a clown walked into a Walton shop in July to demand cash.

Attacks on buses < Cambridge News

sleeping girl was groped on a Cambridge school bus and is among victims of sex attacks and violent abuse while travelling on public transport.

Hair pulling, throat grabbing, torrents of verbal abuse, racist onslaughts using the ‘n-word’ and sex attacks have been reported to Cambridgeshire police after the incidents happened on buses in the county, new data has revealed.

There has been a total of just 21 such incidents reported to the force since 2012 but documents obtained by the News detailing what happened make for disturbing reading. And police have issued advice on what to do in a dangerous situation on a bus.

Visiting hospital every other day < Liverpool Echo

A 45-YEAR-OLD man went to A&E at the Royal Liverpool Hospital more than 150 times last year.

The patient racked up a total of 164 casualty attendances between January and December 4, according to records obtained through Freedom of Information requests.

This means he was attending A&E once every two days on average.

A second patient – an 84-year-old woman – visited A&E at the hospital 140 times over the same period, while a third patient – a 55-year-old man – clocked up 102 visits.

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