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, Roger Howe interviews Zoé Patrick, county councillor for Grove & Wantage and leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Oxfordshire County Council.
This interview was done before the latest changes to the Oxford Mail and Herald series.
Where do you go for your local news?
The Oxford Mail is the daily newspaper for Oxford. Where I live, which is Grove, we get the Herald – the Wantage Herald – once a week. Then we have the Oxford Times – the only problem is that just repeats what’s in the Oxford Mail. I don’t buy the Mail every day, I tend to find it’s very focused on the city.
We get all the local ones for us to read here, which is very good, because in my role as Leader of the Opposition it’s important for me to know what’s going on all over the county. In our members’ lounge we can look at those.
I follow Emma Vardy on Twitter. She’s moved on to other things at the BBC. It would be good if they could replace her with somebody devoted to political reporting. It gives us a contact.
The BBC also do South Today. The problem with some of the regional news is the ITV Meridian one covers a huge area, right down to Kent. Sometimes it’s not as relevant as it was. ITV used to have a studio in Abingdon.
I usually keep BBC Radio Oxford either on in my car or at home. They also give travel updates which is handy. They do try and cover us on radio, Bill Heine did a studio debate on a Sunday morning.
A lot of people buy the Wantage Herald, though not as many as used to actually, because some of the stories are a bit run of the mill sometimes.
What are you looking for from local news?
If anything there should be more coverage. This will be the first time the County Council elections will be at the same time as there is no general election and no European election. When there are [just] local elections you get very poor turnout, we’re lucky to get 30%.
I don’t think people were aware of the elections until they got their poll cards. The last election we had, where the turnout was abysmal, was the police commissioner one, last November. Nobody knew what was happening. Nobody in my area received any literature at all. All they did was set up websites.
The website I use most is the Oxford Mail. What I like about it is that you can get on that website and see all the stories posted up as they come in.
How effective is media coverage in your area of work?
I also have Shadow Cabinet members. Those people will go to the relevant scrutiny committees. I have had a problem with the Oxford Mail in particular. The portfolio holders would complain to me that they [reporters] would only quote the Conservative Cabinet member who was there, and put a Labour quote. Now it might be because as I have said the Oxford Mail is very city-based and the city council in Oxford is run by the Labour group. And there’s often a bit of this thing that it’s either Labour or Conservative. I would often have a battle with them saying, “Look, our spokes is the official opposition spokes”.
The Oxford Mail have a high turnover of reporters. I have been Leader of the Opposition for six years, I used to make a point of meeting local government reporters. You just got to know them, six months later they’d gone. So in the end I didn’t continue doing that because people would always move on.
Ben Wilkinson, he’s now the crime reporter, he was our local Herald reporter. He was so good. He used to follow my blog. He’d often ring me up if he’d spot a story on there and then he’d take it up, which was great.
A big issue in our area is potholes. We had a motion to Council last week. They’re absolutely dreadful. It really is bad. There’s a pothole in the main road in Grove which every day everyone is going over. I reported that on 25th March. It was marked off in red which means it was a dangerous pothole and it should be mended within 24 hours. And it’s still there, two weeks later, and the red marking is actually wearing off!
I said twice to the local reporter this is a really good story, because nearly all my casework at the moment is people going on about potholes, telling me “my car’s been damaged” – I’ve got a chap who’s out of work because this local van is off the road.
From what I’ve heard from some of the crews who work in the area, they’re saying it’s almost impossible to keep up with the demand. In a day some of them have said they’re travelling about 150 miles to fill one pothole in each town! It should be looked into. There was an article in the Mail and we’ve had good coverage on the radio. It’s an everyday issue. Some of these really deep potholes get full of water. Then you can get a puncture. You can do an FOI and find how many people have claimed compensation.
What we want at the end of the day is the contractors to meet their obligations – 24 hours if it’s red or 28 days if it’s marked in white. If not, there must be some way they can be brought to account.
Do the local media cover most of the important issues?
Social care is very much a County Council issue. Those issues do get quite good press coverage. About 18 months ago through budget cuts my local library was going to be closed, that does get good press coverage.
Many people don’t want to talk to the press or don’t want their photos in the press. They get worried. Some people don’t want to be named. They think there may be a repercussion on them if they are named. I think that’s certainly the issue with things like social care. If there’s an issue about a nursing home – there’s one in my area at the moment that’s on a red alert – nobody would be willing to go to the press on that because they would be so worried if they’d got a parent or a grandparent there.
Do you use local media to get your message across?
I’ve done that many times. Sometimes I’ll read a story in the press. Maybe I hadn’t been quoted, and it gives you an opening in, “referring to that article in last week’s Herald/Mail…”
Political press releases they rarely take up. The best way of getting stuff in is either to write a letter, and they use it as a story, or you ring them. I’ve done phone-ins several times.
How important are quality local news services?
Very important. It’s how people feel involved in local politics, their local council and sometimes people get mixed up about who does what. If the story’s written well, it’s a way people can see the local councillor is doing their job. We all have a duty to keep our people involved.
I use Twitter to interact. Because people can see that, they’ll say, “Ooh, I might go and see her at the next surgery.” At my surgeries I get five or six people in an hour! I get a lot of interaction with my local residents, which I enjoy.