The Oxford & District branch is trying to build up a picture of how Oxfordshire residents use local news services – and what they think of local news provision. We’re carrying out a series of interviews and publishing the write-ups on our website.
Here, Anna Wagstaff interviews Woodstock county councillor Ian Hudspeth about his experience of local news.
The interview was done before the latest changes to the Oxford Mail and Herald series.
Where do you get your local news?
For really local news I read the Woodstock and Bladon local magazine, which comes out monthly. The Witney Gazette focuses primarily on Witney and West Oxfordshire things, so that would be the next level if I were looking in that sort of direction. Also probably the Oxford Times for Oxfordshire issues.
There is Radio Oxford which, to be fair to it given its coverage area, gives a good coverage if there is something local going on, but it has to be a news story, by its own definition.
There is Witney Radio, which is purely on the Internet. It is very Witney-focused, like the Gazette; all you hear about is Witney issues, and in Woodstock that’s not what we want to hear about. Perhaps it’s because there is not a lot going on in Woodstock, and things can go along nicely, but then maybe a contentious planning application comes up, for instance. The chances are that everyone outside just thinks people are just being NIMBYs there, but there may be major concerns in Woodstock.
So when there’s an issue, it needs something more in depth, but I don’t think there are sufficient newsworthy items to generate business, because it would mainly just deal with the table-top sale at the scout club. I think what we have at the moment is adequate.
What do you think of the adequacy of news services across the county?
I read the Oxford Mail because I’m on the council, and I want to know what is going on in Oxford, but it doesn’t actually give me a good indication of what is going on in Oxfordshire.
I think places like Abingdon, Grove, Didcot and Witney feel that they are sold a bit short, and they are probably right, because the Oxford Mail/Times and BBC are based in Oxford. They get reasonable coverage, but just by the geographical nature I think they lose out – where there are stories of equal importance it will always be the Oxford one that wins. Going round the county with the BBC Radio Oxford breakfast show seems to have worked reasonably well.
The Witney Gazette doesn’t have the office in Witney any more, so you have a reporter covering from Oxford – again Oxford stories will probably take precedence. It’s a great shame they took away the Witney reporter’s office. At the end of the day, Witney is the Prime Minister’s constituency.
The interesting ones are the Abingdon Herald and the Didcot Herald, because those two papers are identical bar a couple of pictures. I can understand why on cost grounds, but actually if you read both of them, they’re effectively the same paper trying to be different. Probably very few people read both papers, so the great Oxfordshire public are probably not aware that they are being conned, in a sense. The reason for a local paper is that you want something local.
Radio Oxford and BBC South do a pretty good job at getting from Faringdon to Henley to Banbury. They do go out and try to find the stories that exist. Certainly Radio Oxford gives better coverage to the local stories because they can devote more time to it.
As for Meridian, do I want to know about local news in Kent? The answer is no, and I’m really not that interested in Hampshire. They have shot themselves in the foot. The only time I watch Meridian is if I’m told there is going to be an Oxfordshire story.
BBC South Today I tend to watch every night. It would be a great shame if the local service was lost. My concern with the BBC is if they decide to cut costs and cover a bigger area and we would lose the locality of it.
At the very local level you’ve got Witney TV, and they do a good thing for local events. But is it really sustainable for the future? You’ve got Heart gone down to Reading – the local service from them is minimal; you don’t really feel anything for it. Glide and Jack are very low budget radio stations, but they do focus locally. For instance the travel information is exclusively for Oxfordshire and that’s good – your travel information has to be local.
What do you look for from local news?
It needs to be up-to-date and relevant. There is a lot going on in the area, and it doesn’t have to be just the nasty stories. As a local resident I want to know the nice stories that are going on too. Broadcasters and print journalists shouldn’t be scared of printing the good things because, generally, from your local news provider, that is probably what you want to hear. It’s getting that balance between Mrs Miggins winning the best cake of the year awards… Is it a news story? Well, it’s something that is going on. It is community.
From the leadership position [leader of Oxfordshire County Council] I want to see fair and balanced reporting, and on the whole I’m pretty relaxed about the reporting we get. I think it’s pretty fair. I fully accept that when there is a bad story we have got to stand up and ’fess up to things – we’re not going to get the positive stories all the time. But there are an awful lot of positive stories we put out that don’t seem to get reported. Even the Oxford Mail the other week had a story on potholes, with the headline Pothole Lottery on the front page. But then inside it had pictures of the pothole before and after it had been repaired, and I thought: well it might take three or four weeks, but it’s been repaired – surely we are doing our job. The angle it was coming from was: the roads are a mess, it’s awful. Well if they had a picture of a pothole taken months ago, and the same pothole still there now, that’s bad. But actually 39,000 potholes were repaired in the last year. We haven’t been doing that badly. We haven’t been sitting on our backsides doing nothing.
Every journalist seems to want to get the top killer scoop story. Sometimes there’s just not the angle to get it.
Do you think the press and broadcasters pick up the things that matter?
Yes, I think they do. It’s very difficult because when you get a vociferous organisation, which might only be a few hundred people complaining about something, they can make you feel as if it is the end of the world. Generally the media get it pretty correct: planning permission, road conditions, health service. Generally they get the key stories. Whether it comes out in the correct manner sometimes is always arguable.
Any particularly good or poor examples?
When the Game Fair came to Blenheim in 2008, we had massive traffic problems. The plans that we put in place didn’t work, and we were wrong initially to try to blame it on an overturned chicken lorry on the A40 or something. We were rightly hammered. When the Game Fair returned in 2011, we put better plans in place. We worked with the press and actually the press coverage was good, because although everyone was trying to find similar issues to 2008, traffic problems this time were minimal.
All the media, radio, TV and press, were very sceptical and said it was going to be a failure, but it wasn’t a failure, and the reports gave credit that it wasn’t a failure and it worked well.
That shows balanced reporting and the press got it right on both occasions.
Whereas going back to that pothole story last week, I think they were trying to get the story to say that the potholes were terrible and we weren’t doing our stuff. But they didn’t have the ammunition to shoot us down, and they would have done better to say: “OK this pothole may have taken six weeks, but it is repaired, they are fixing 39,000, let’s congratulate the guys out there doing the hard work.” You could see from the report there were probably three or four journalists all trying to get us to say something different that they could pick up on and use to criticise us. But while they said, for instance, we don’t know where temporary repairs are, they also reported that we don’t close a defect until the permanent repair has been done. So it is sort of contradicting themselves to get the story.
How important is it to have journalists present at council meetings and reading the paperwork?
I do think it is important that journalists can look through the committee papers first of all, and pick on the points that they want to pick up – which are probably not the points the press officers want the journalists to pick up on – so they can ask questions and understand the answers. One of the best council meetings we had recently – surprisingly not the budget meeting, but the one before – Freddie Whittaker from the Mail and Emma Vardy from the BBC sat through the entire day. It was probably one of the best council meetings in terms of the contributions and the reporting back on it. The press were there, able to understand, able to ask the questions that they felt were justified. If they ask a question, it is up to us to explain why something isn’t perhaps they way they think it should be. I’m sure the journalists – and I’m not being patronising – would accept the argument and see there is not a story in it.
The journalists were there and there seemed to be a good atmosphere. If you go to a full council meeting and there are no journalists there, it’s not that you are playacting, but it’s more you feel that – who is going to find out about this? We are going through all this procedure and the journalists can’t even be bothered to turn up.
Full county council meetings happen six times a year. At the last meeting only the Henley Standard reporter was there. I don’t think the BBC or the Mail turned up.
It’s very frustrating that you are debating and discussing things and the press aren’t there to understand what goes on, and then at the end of it out comes a report. Well how can that journalist say anything if he has not been there? When the journalists are there it seems to be a better quality of debate.
Should there be more coverage of political issues?
Before the budget, when we had the leaders debate on Radio Oxford, and we had 9.00–10.00. Afterwards Phil [the presenter] said: “That was good, but you only covered two topics. How do you get [your views] out?” So I said, “Well it’s up to you guys as well to give us the mouthpiece to engage people.” Out of that 60 minutes, probably only 45 was debate by the people involved. Seven minutes out of an hour is not sufficient to put an argument across. Do we really need the travel during that hour? Do we need the weather and sport and news updates? That hour could have been 9.00–10.00 the political debate. They did say afterwards that perhaps we should have cut all the general stuff. If we’d done that we might have engaged more people and more people would come back to us. But at the moment sound bites come out, which are perhaps not the best way of getting across the message.
It is also noticeable that when you get a journalist who has been there for a while, you build up a rapport with them, and an understanding, and you can have much better conversations than if it’s Jim this week and next week it’s Tom, then Dick and Harry.
Take Alex Forsyth at the BBC. We built up a relationship, she could understand, I got to a situation where you had a conversation and she would know what was applicable and not applicable. Then Emma Vardy came in, and again the conversation built up. But both of them moved on to better things – that will always be a problem. On the Oxford Mail side, Freddie Whittaker seems to have been around for a while now. Reg Little has been around for ever so long.
But journalists often scatter their attention all over the place. Sometimes it can be quite frustrating, you’re discussing something and they say: oh we must cut now and talk about something else, or they say, well I’ve come for the meeting but I also have to go and do x, y, and z. Having a political reporter is good because it gives consistent coverage to all parties.
I’d also like to float ideas such as live webcasting of council meetings. You don’t get the flavour, but at least you can look back and see what actually happened and it might encourage them to come to the next meeting to get more of a flavour.