South of the River – Sunday Papers

Compass-SouthComment logo 2Phone hacking is back in the news with the Daily and Sunday Mirror having to make big payouts to their victims.

I think this case raises some big questions for journalism and the state of the press. Phone hacking at the Mirror was described as being on an industrial scale, in other words it was routine and every journalist was expected to do it.

One who refused and even handed himself in to Police and has been prosecuted, Graham Johnson, was interviewed on Newsnight last night. He described the editors’ insatiable demand for celebrity stories. He wasn’t impressed with the topics he was told to report on or the methods for getting the stories, so he walked away.

Reporting celebrity trivia and ‘scandal’ isn’t a new phenomenon, Joe Jackson wrote the song of my headline in 1979 and it goes back a lot further than that. I suppose the digital revolution just speeded it up in the way it has speeded up so many things. GCHQ and the CIA can track all our emails in a way that they could never track all our post, so they do. We voluntarily give away our personal information to Facebook, Google and through loyalty cards.

Why does the press demand these stories. Very simply, because they sell newspapers. The press blame the paying public, but that’s a bit like the drug dealer blaming the addicts he sells to. Who created and fed this desire for trivia about famous people, some of whom are only famous for being famous?

South Leeds Life is a tiny, volunteer run, hyperlocal website and newspaper, we’re hardly the Daily Mirror. And yet we feel the pressure to publish ‘popular’ stories. I’ll let you into a secret, every morning over breakfast I fire up my laptop and look at the statistics produced by our friends at Google. If we had more than 1,000 page views the day before I start the day with a smile, if we’re below 1,000 I’m a bit deflated (it was 1,317 this morning – woo-hoo!).

As well as the totals, we know which stories you good people are reading. There are no great surprises – job opportunities, new supermarkets and other big developments and crime are the big issues. Occasionally we get taken by surprise – a certain chippy’s food hygiene record had me choking on my muesli when 8,112 people read it on one day.

Reporting on planning issues and job opportunities are fine, totally in line with our aims of keeping you informed of issues and opportunities in the area. Crime is slightly different and we do think twice before publishing crime stories.

One of the reasons we set up South Leeds Life was that crime stories were all you ever seemed to hear in the mainstream media about our area. This has two negative effects, it makes us scared to leave our houses and involve ourselves in the community. It also paints an image to other people that South Leeds is a place you don’t want to go to.

We set out to counter those images and tell the many positive stories. Stories about people doing amazing things, community groups providing opportunities for sport, gardening, crafting, socialising or helping people find jobs, deal with debt. It’s a long list and we never run out of stories.

We don’t report every crime or every court case, but of course some crime stories have to be reported. When that poor young woman was attacked and left for dead on Beeston Road, of course we wanted to help spread the Police appeal for witnesses and information. We wanted to alert women to the danger so they can take precautions. But what we didn’t want to do was inadvertently frighten women so much that they stopped going out. It’s a fine line.

Anyway back to the Mirror. There are other consequences from this court judgement. The company that owns the Mirror is called Trinity Mirror and they own a sizeable chunk of the regional press – local papers. They don’t own the Yorkshire Evening Post, that’s part of a similar sized group called Johnston Press. All of these regional chains have been following the same path: cutting staff and closing papers as circulation figures decline.

Trinity Mirror now faces a big dint in its accounts, the settlements were far higher than anticipated and there are hundreds more cases to follow this week’s judgement. I would not be surprised to see more local papers close. This is bad news for communities who are already poorly served for a proper news service. Who will report on the issues that will never make the Ten O’clock News, but matter to people in their neighbourhood? Who will hold the local council to account and shine a light on corporate decision making?

The fact that it may spur some people to set up their own website or newspaper like we did is a very small silver lining to large black cloud.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.