Every journalist has their breaking point and today I met mine.
For anyone who may be visiting this blog for the first time, I publish the website birminghambudgetcuts.blogspot.com along with Andy Watt.
It’s a news website that aggregates information about the impact of historic spending cuts in Birmingham but we also write a great deal of original content. People seem to find it useful and we’re gratified to be approaching 4,000 page views in just five weeks.
Here’s my problem. I woke up early and spent four hours this morning digesting 39 pages of “budget-speak” in the form of Birmingham City Council’s Business Plan for consultation with the public on how to cut £300 million in spending. It wasn’t an easy read and it contained bombshells including a plan to axe 7,116 full-time jobs and another 3,000 part-time jobs.
I could have simply linked to one of the local newspapers, but I’ve been living this story for two months, have extensive background knowledge and wanted to write it myself.
It wasn’t until after I posted my own story that I looked at the online coverage by other media outlets and discovered that the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail had excellent quotes from two of the main players, Cabinet Member for Finance Randal Brew and Chief Executive Stephen Hughes.
Mainstream media has better access
It was apparent to me immediately that they had been invited to a news conference yesterday afternoon and we had been excluded, left to fend for ourselves to interpret the release.
There are two things that make this particularly galling.
First, I had telephoned the Birmingham Council press office on Monday to inquire when the budget consultation would begin and officially request that we be notified.
Second, I was at Birmingham Council House all afternoon covering the protest and occupation by students over proposed increases to tuition fees. I was standing outside talking to the press office on my mobile trying to get into the building. I asked the press officer why two television crews were being waved in by police, I was told that they were there “for another reason”.
This morning I realized what the reason was and it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. My anger was fueled by the fact that the Birmingham Council press office has been ignoring me and our website for seven weeks.
Press office ignoring our site
Several times I have filled out the form at birminghamnewsroom.com requesting information and heard nothing back. I have sent them personal emails and heard nothing back. I have telephoned and not heard back. Once, I called seeking a quote for a story and was told that Birmingham councillors are “important people” (I don’t know what that implies about “the public’s right to know”) and was told to simply write no comment. The refusal by the press office to deal with us has made it exceedingly difficult to cover all sides of the story on our website.
I’ve been a journalist for 29 years and have never been treated this way but I suspect it’s because I’m writing online for the first time. Instead of writing a knee jerk blog post about discrimination against digital media, I telephoned the press office this afternoon and spoke to Deborah Harries, Head of News at Birmingham City Council.
Why we weren’t told about news conference
At first, Harries told me that it wasn’t a news conference but “a small briefing of regional journalists that we know”. She deflected blame from the staff member who left me literally out in the cold yesterday. Harries said she handled the briefing personally and thought she had the bases covered with print, radio and television, both public and private.
Harries described them as five people, “local, traditional journalists” who were on her “automatic invite list”. She said they were journalists that the press office has been talking to about all aspects of the budget cuts and have “an understanding of the threads of these stories”.
She also said they were journalists who have talked to Stephen Hughes before and “know where he is coming from”.
Harries added that she “didn’t want the world and his wife there”.
Harries said they were not purposefully excluding our website from the news conference but suggested “it may be that we don’t know you”. At that point I filled her in on all of my fruitless attempts to get information from Birmingham Council and explained that her staff definitely knew who I was. I also gave her the url for our website which she had never seen.
The irony in all of this is that birminghamnewsroom.com is an impressive news site that won the “Digital Innovation Award” at this year’s Midlands Media Awards. It is also the information arm of a local government trying to establish a reputation as a world leader in digital communication.
Harries told me the website is trying to have a two-way conversation with people instead of just pushing information out one way. I told her I admire the site for many reasons, including transparency because it links to stories that are negative about Birmingham Council.
I was pleased that Harries said they might need to rethink their policy on how they deal with digital media and bloggers. I had already suggested that notification of news conferences should be posted on the website instead of being on an “invite-only” basis.
I have smoothed over my relationship with Harries and provided her with all of our website’s contact details. If the folks at birminghamnewsroom.com read this, I’d like to think that they would consider it fair comment and still be inclusive of digital media, but you never know.
Transparency in government
I’ve written this post because I feel there is a broader point that needs to be made.
I am a guest in the UK and I try not be obnoxious by saying things like “this is the way we do it at home”.
That being said, let me tell you how they do it in Toronto.
City Council meetings are considered a valuable source of news and attended by most of the local media and not just two print reporters, as they are in Birmingham. Interested citizens show up in the gallery to watch. Council meetings are broadcast live and journalists who can’t attend can watch the proceedings on television along with the general public.
It is acceptable behaviour to walk up to a politician with your camera rolling and start asking questions which the politician will then answer. If politicians are reluctant to answer questions they are often “scrummed” and wind up answering anyway.
When major budget announcements are made by the federal government, politicians at every other level of government, as well as interest groups, hold news conferences to provide reaction. Quite often, they go to the legislative chamber where the announcement is being made to make themselves more readily available to journalists (and, of course, to spin).
In Toronto, the departing mayor David Miller is an inveterate tweeter ( formerly @mayormiller, now @iamdavidmiller) who tweets interesting, useful information and doesn’t wind up getting arrested.
Toronto had a municipal election in October and the voter turnout was 53%.
I’m just saying.