Category Archives: local news

We’ve turned whistleblower!

Adrian Harris 2

Professor Adrian Harris, consultant medical oncologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, addressing the meeting. © Peter McIntyre

The Oxford NUJ branch is blowing the whistle on NHS England for its lack of transparency and its attempts to frustrate efforts to hold it to account for its decision relating to the future of Oxfordshire’s diagnostic cancer scanning services.

The question we are asking is this:

Why is NHS England being so secretive about the basis for its decision regarding the future of Oxfordshire’s PET-CT diagnostic imaging services? What is the basis for its decision to take this service away from the world-class radiology team at the Churchill hospital, where it operates as an integrated part of a world-class cancer care service? Why has NHS England awarded preferred bidder status to a private company that operates from mobile units, and has no-one with a licence to administer the radioactive substances used in PET-CT?

This are questions that should normally be posed by reporters, and our local journalists are certainly doing their best to get answers. It is a question also for Oxfordshire’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which is empowered to ‘call-in’ questionable decisions made by our public healthcare services, and they too have been doing their best to get answers.

Our NUJ branch got involved because we are alarmed at the lengths to which NHS England seems to be prepared to go to avoid being scrutinised and held to account for this decision. It has not addressed questions of substance relating to the impact the change to the service will have on the quality and safety of patient care. It seems intent on stifling those who seek to voice their concerns, and withholding information that the public has a right to know.

The Oxford NUJ branch is saying that it is not OK for public bodies to hide behind legal threats, to seek to silence critics or to create a climate of fear in public bodies.

We took the unusual step of calling a public meeting in Oxford Town Hall to try to build up a picture of what is going on. We posted the speakers’ presentation on our YouTube channel. You can view the full playlist here. Video recordings are courtesy of Peter McIntyre.

What they said

We invited Professor Adrian Harris, a consultant medical oncologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, to tell us the story so far from the perspective of those currently running the service at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust (OUHT).

Adrian explained that the quality of PET-CT scans matters because they change treatment decision in up 40% of cases. Referring to correspondence from NHS England, he argue they had built their case on “incorrect data to force the issue to allow InHealth to come in and disrupt an outstanding service,” and that they were blocking access to key information by claiming there were “discussions” and a “legal review” that do not exist.

“NHS England have not told the truth, they have put legal pressure on doctors, they don’t reply to emails, when corrected in things they don’t respond and the role of Bruno [Dr Bruno Holthof is Chief Executive Officer of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust] in not taking us through what the doctors say, what the Trust wants to do, passing on messages very worrying to me. We have to have an open access. How can we have an explanation, not only just from NHS England but the local Trust leaders as to why they are behaving like that?”

You can see his full presentation here (11 mins)

We also invited Tamsin Allen, a partner at Bindmans law firm who specialises in defamation law and has long experience representing whistleblowers, to comment on the legal issues.

Tamsin talked about the letter NHS England’s lawyers had sent to the OUHT, warning them that any statement that suggests that the result of awarding the contract to InHealth puts patient safety at risk or compromises the provision of cancer care and research in the health system “would be defamatory if repeated to any third party”.

“That’s an incredibly broad and sweeping claim, and it’s also legally wrong,” said Tamsin. She questioned a later clarification from NHS England that the letter had been intended as helpful advice regarding possible defamation suits from others, rather than a direct threat. “Lawyers are used to using language precisely particularly when talking about the law. That was a deliberate sentence. It’s an intimidating statement.”

You can view her presentation here (14 mins)

We also invited Seamus Dooley, the Assistant General Secretary of the NUJ, to talk about the role of a strong local press in championing the public interest by scrutinising the behaviour of those in charge of our public services.

“This is not about the law. This is about bullying and unacceptable behaviour. From the NUJ’s perspective, we are under no doubt that what this is intended is to have a chilling effect which inhibits debate and inhibits questions. It is about the use of law to close down debate. Does it mean journalists will stop asking questions? I hope not.”

You can view his presentation here (5 mins).

The meeting was chaired by Anna Wagstaff, Secretary of the Oxford and District NUJ branch. In her opening remarks she said, “This is behaviour you could maybe expect from a tobacco company but not from our health service. We’d like this to be a practical meeting focused on how we can bring some accountability and transparency to this process to ensure decision are made in the best interests of the public that the NHS is meant to serve.”

You can view her presentation here (2 mins)

You can see the Banbury Guardian’s report (26 June 2019) on their battle to get access to the relevant correspondence between NHS England and the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust here.

You can see the Oxford Mail report of the meeting here

Leave a comment

Filed under local news, Oxfordshire, public interest journalism, recent events, reporting, union

Council cuts: we’re hacking for Oxfordshire

Journalists at the hack day.

Bureau Local organised a hack day on local government budgets last weekend. There were five hack gatherings across the country. I attended the one in London, along with fellow Oxford branch member Gill Oliver.

Was it worth the sacrifice of a Saturday? Yes, I think it was. These guys are onto something important.

As they say in their blurb about this project, “Councils across the country are planning cuts to vital local services in next year’s budgets ‒ including adult and children’s social care, sexual health support, alcohol and substance rehabilitation and youth groups. With an estimated funding shortfall of £5.8 billion over the next two years, and having already cut back many services they don’t legally have to provide, local authorities in England face an unprecedented challenge. Not just to maintain ‘frontline’ services, but, in some extreme cases, to avoid bankruptcy.”

Bureau Local isn’t offering solutions. It’s doing something better. It is helping promote informed debate about the problems and possible solutions at a local level, by skilling up its growing network of collaborators to research their local data and publish stories based on what they find.

The preparation

In the run up to the Hack Day, Bureau Local had brought together an impressive “local government roundtable” to get ideas about some of the key issues to look for. Included on the 15-strong panel were:

  • leader of Peterborough Council
  • director of corporate resources at Leicestershire County Council
  • public affairs officer, County Councils Network
  • research and policy officer, Women’s Budget Group
  • director of the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort
  • director of the Business and Local Government Data Research Unit
  • committee member, Disabled People Against Cuts.

The message coming out of councils themselves is that there is an urgent need for discussions on the state of local government finances, and the implications for the services people rely on, to extend beyond local government circles.

The reasons why that isn’t happening much at present became clear to us when we saw that data. Even leaving aside the fraught heading of housing, local authority spending covers a huge swathe of vital areas. Making sense of it requires factoring in inflation and demographic changes, and remembering that “savings” may mean doing less of something or doing it cheaper, but could also mean charging people more for the service, or securing a grant or ‘viring’ funds that had been allocated to another part of the budget.

This is a job for an army of local government reporters, and where they exist they do a great job. But they don’t exist in large parts of the country, and where they do, their numbers have been slashed – local authority press offices are replete with journalists who used to work holding those same authorities to account.

The panel offered helpful advice about the sort of things we should all be looking for.

  • Children’s services: Lack of local authority homes. Private sector charging too much.
  • Children’s services: “Safely” reducing the number of looked after children. Is this possible given statutory requirements? Perhaps through early help, but early help budgets being cut back; suggestion that councils now keep looked after children arrangements under constant review and some may end earlier (saving money).
  • “Moderate/critical” eligibility for Adult Social Care. (If you’re perceived as having a social network of support then you will not be seen as critical).
  • Moving homelessness ‒ moving people around the country. Single parents losing support networks, disabled people cannot take their care support package with them, pays for their assistants.

The data

We were given access to more data and information than we could process in a month of Saturdays. Key among them was an Excel file compiled by Bureau Local showing the “outturn” (government speak, I’m told, for actual spending) of most local authorities in England over the past five years, broken down into fairly detailed spending categories on which they are obliged to report, and adjusted for inflation.

Added to each local authority entry was a link to the relevant minutes of local council draft budgets for 2018/2019, which in turn gave links to a series of pdfs giving details of different aspects of the draft budget – what money is coming in from where, where it’s being spent, “pressures” ‒ additional spend not anticipated in original budget (pretty mega for adult social care and children’s social care), and then the “savings” agreed to help pay for them, impact on resources etc.

Questions about what things mean and why they didn’t add up could be posed and answered using Bureau Local’s Slack chat channel. As luck would have it, however, Gill and I found a dedicated source of information sitting a few seats away in the form of Neil Lawrence, digital development manager at Oxford City Council, a veteran of local authority budgets from his time at Cherwell district council – and a champion of open data.

What did we find?

Here are a few things that stood out for us:

Children’s services

Taking inflation into account, total spending on children’s social care has gone up by more than 57% between 2014/12 and 2017/18, despite a 90% drop in spending on children’s services for asylum seekers from £3,096,000 in 2016/2017 to £309,000 in 2017/2018 and an almost 99% drop in funding for “Other children’s and families services”, from £2,060,000 in 2014/2015 to £39,000 in 2017/2018.

This raises many questions, including: is this down to an increase in kids in care? If so why? Is it down to increased costs in paying for services for looked after children? If so why? Are we reaching the point at which there will be no money to pay for anything that is not a statutory requirement? And if so, what happens next?

Adult care

Total spending on adult social care has stayed relatively stable, rising by around 3% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018 (from £192.5 million to £198.4 million), which is probably less than the rise in the elderly population over the same time period (those figures were probably somewhere on the Slack channel, if we’d had the time to find them). The draft budget for 2018/2019 reveals “pressures” (additional spend not anticipated in original budget – as explained above) of £10.6 million, and proposes savings of around £1.5 million to be made by changes to charging policy – who has to contribute how much.

This is the mechanism by which more elderly people are being required to pay more for essential services due to the lack of government policy on sustainable adult social care. What will the implications be for whom? And could cuts to support services (or raised charges), imposed to try to make up the shortfall, be fuelling greater costs down the line? Maybe in services like social care activities, down by 54% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018, or assistive equipment, down by 56%, or support for carers – who are subsidising the whole system often at a big price to themselves – down by 54%. Good to see, however, a tripling of spending on “Information and early intervention”.

Public health

Public health? Who knew that responsibility for public health has been devolved from national to local authority level? There has to be a reason behind the data that shows that Oxfordshire County Council cut spending on helping people quit smoking by 99% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018, from £1.08 million to a mere £2000.

A hack day for Oxfordshire

More generally, we learned that when it comes to data-led journalism, what matters is less your Excel skills (pretty much guesswork in my case) than knowing what data exist and how to get access, understanding exactly what is being measured, having lots and lots of time to sift through it, look for trends and key indicators, and then having lots and lots more time to line up the data of interest and use it to ask the right questions to the right people to get the story.

We also learned that it is fun and helpful to work collectively on big datasets with people who may be coming at the same data from various perspectives. So at the February branch meeting we intend to propose organising an Oxfordshire hack day.

If you are interested in attending or helping organise the hack day, let us know at

Leave a comment

Filed under data journalism, local news, reporting

A Panama Papers moment for Oxford?

Remember the Panama Papers? Who doesn’t? At the root of the story was the leaking of 11.5m files from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. The documents showed how the rich exploit secretive offshore tax regimes. What made the story memorable was the international collaboration that allowed 370 journalists across almost 80 countries involving more than 100 media organisations, to make sense of this huge amount of complex information, pick out the angles most relevant to their own national audiences, and publish simultaneously across the world.

What if that could be done by local journalists? Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under digital, local news

Local News Matters – the videos

We were out and about during the NUJ’s Local News Matters campaign in March, creating videos to celebrate our local news infrastructure – from the BBC and local radio to online and print hyperlocal titles. You can watch all the videos on our YouTube playlist.

And to see the highlights of our social media campaign, check out our Local News Matters story on Storify.

1 Comment

Filed under local news

Why local news matters

"Local News Matters" campaign logo.

Oxford and District NUJ has always stood up for local news, arguing that strong news gathering is vital to local democracy. Now this matters more than ever, as more and more local newsrooms are being expected to do their job with fewer and fewer people.

That’s why we’re supporting the NUJ’s Local News Matters Week, starting this Friday (24th March). Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under local news

Local News Survey: A mental health nurse in East Oxford gives her views

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 a mental health nurse who lives in East Oxford and works for the Oxfordshire Mental Health Trust, who opted to remain anonymous.

This interview was done on the day of the latest changes to the Oxford Mail and Herald series.

Where do you go for your local news?

I get the Oxford Mail most days and watch the BBC for local television news. We love Geraldine Peers – she supported the scouts! I go to the BBC rather than ITV because it’s more local. ITV’s Meridian is all about Southampton and Portsmouth. And I listen to OX105.1FM [now off air]. It’s local music with local people running it.

How well does the local news serve your needs?

I like ‘What’s On’. I want something that keeps me up to date with what is happening in Oxford here and now. It’s really good at that, and giving feedback on what happened and how it went. My kids read it because I have it in the house, and there are local things they have a connection with. I’m not asking for intellectual debate. It’s a local paper.

It could be more political; it’s very neutral. It needs to take up local issues that actually matter. The Mail does have opinion columns, but they tend to be views on very politically correct and Green issues – like cycling and the development of Warneford meadow, gravel pits, house building in rural areas. Personally I’m pissed off with planning permissions given in places that are already residential. I’d like the Mail to start questioning, for instance, why are all these sheds being built at the ends of gardens? My garden now floods all the time because there’s nowhere for the water to go.

It shouldn’t be a political paper, because it’s a local paper, but it should take a stand more on issues that affect local people, and not just middle-class campaigns.

I like the ‘Scales of Justice’ in the Oxford Mail, naming and shaming. It’s good to be able to see who has been done for what. But I think they may be doing too much about crime. They could do a lot more stories about what’s good about the community. There are a lot of good neighbourhood initiatives, like the Barrack’s Lane garden.

They need to find out who the Oxford population is. They stereotype the population. They think it’s all Green because they have a strong voice. And it’s lovely they still report on the Aunt Sally, and they have that sense of history, reminiscences about the Cowley Works and bell ringing and so on. But if you buy news around here it is from an Asian news vendor. They sell it, but they don’t read it. I don’t know how you make it more relevant to Oxford of today. The Mail readership is 50 years and over – people who have lived here for ever. Also it is very focused on East Oxford, Barton, Blackbird Leys and Cowley. You rarely get North Oxford, or Marston or Hinksey.

Of the reporters, it’s mostly white men, very few women and no African Caribbean or Asian reporters. I do think it needs to be more diverse, properly diverse without being tokenistic or patronising. The Irish community, for instance, is enormous, but it has no voice, except for one programme on Oxford [BBC] radio on Sunday night. A lot of the inter-racial stuff is negative. Unfortunately Bullfinch [the child sex abuse criminal trial], of course, had to be a huge focus, but there are plenty of good stories that don’t get reported.

How effectively are mental health issues – your area of work – covered in local media?

One in three people have mental health problems, possibly more depending on where you live, and that isn’t really reflected. You get the odd article about “I’ve been through depression”, but very little about attitudes to mental health.

There is actually a lot of expertise in mental health in Oxford, and we have a very large mental health group – Littlemore, the Warneford, the Park. There’s a lot of research done here and we have a lot of professors, but they never get mentioned.

Mental health does deserve more coverage. Not just to talk about things that are going wrong, but also the good things. In Oxford there is really good face to face care, and it is not being reported.

There was a good article recently about the Luther Street centre for homeless people, and how they address mental health and health issues generally. That was good. It’s been there a long time unpraised. But there are so many groups doing really good work, and they never get a mention unless they organise a special day. You don’t hear them on BBC Oxford chat shows. No one recognises them for the job they do. The Samaritans is a very strong campaign group, MIND is fantastic, and so is Rethink [a charity that supports the families of people with mental health problems]. The media could take the initiative and ring up these groups and report more on the fantastic work they are doing.

Have you ever used the local media to express your own views or publicise information?

Never, but I probably would write a letter  if I felt strongly enough. I was going to contact them about the mental health cuts that happened here about five years ago, but it was more difficult to do then without putting your job at risk. There’s more protection now with all the whistleblowing stuff, there’s a proper procedure for going to the media, but you’re still meant to go through the [Mental Health] Trust.

How important do you feel effective local news services are for a good cohesive local community?

Very important. It needs to be informative, but it should also be political – not party political, but taking a stand on issues that matter.

Leave a comment

Filed under local news, Oxfordshire

Local News Survey: Zoé Patrick, county councillor for Grove and Wantage

patirckThe 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under local news, Oxfordshire

Local News Survey: Mark Gray, Independent District and County Councillor

ImageThe 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 Mark Gray, who is an Independent Councillor on South Oxfordshire District Council and Oxfordshire County Council, Chair of the Cholsey Parish Council, and full-time community worker, about his experience of local news.

This interview was done before the latest changes to the Oxford Mail and Herald series.

Where do you go for your local news?

I read the Oxford Mail, occasionally I read the Oxford Times, I read the Wallingford Herald, I listen to Radio Oxford.  I try and put Radio Oxford on every morning at 8 o’clock, just to get the news, though I think their breakfast show is far too repetitive. I watch the BBC Oxford news because the ITV one’s a bit of a waste of space now – it covers such a massive area.

ITV made a big mistake when they rationalised their local news output and that’s been proved in the ratings – people don’t watch it any more. The old Central News South, which used to cover Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, up to Milton Keynes, was incredibly popular locally. It was proper local news, and was very popular for 15 years. Wesley, the presenter, was a real local personality and they just completely scrapped that when they rationalised their news output.

I read the parish magazines, which come out three or four times a year. The parish council would like to produce something more frequently, but the problem is finding people to do it.

In terms of local websites, there’s a thing called Cholsey Info that I look at. Vance [who runs it] harvests stuff off other people’s blogs and websites, for instance he’ll take things off my blog. He’s got a local weather link-up that he posts every day. He’s a working chap – I think he’s really into technology and that’s a practical way of using it.

I would love to follow other people’s blogs but I’m not aware of any other people [in Cholsey] having blogs.

What are you looking for from local news?

I want to see what’s behind things, find out what’s going on.

I think the Herald is less than people expect. People think there isn’t enough news in it. There are three pages that relate to the whole of this area. Look at this front page [29/5/13] – only just over 50% is actually news, there’s an advert along the bottom, what’s in the paper and the strapline at the top. It’s very poor. And some weeks one of the two inside pages will be taken up by an advert and I think the precipitate decline in their circulation tells you that.

I’m not blaming the local journalists. They’re run out of Oxford. But I’m not sure it was even particularly better when they had a man locally on the ground. I think Andy Ffrench does a great job. When you’re only left with three pages it’s a bit difficult. It’s a very small amount of space.

I think the local press should have different news values [from nationals]; it should be more inclusive, which is why I think the Henley Standard is so good, it just covers everything. You get what the Women’s Institute has been up to – now probably 90–95% of people don’t want to see what the WI has been up to, but for the 10% who do, it’s really important. So, it’s this broad catch-all kind of news coverage.

There are newspapers like the Maidenhead Advertiser and the Newbury Weekly News that are astonishing newspapers; they don’t cover particularly big settlements, and every week they’re thumping great wodges of newsprint that come out – full of adverts, but they’ve got a damn good lump of news at the front and features as well.

The whole Newsquest thing doesn’t help: it’s all centrally controlled, they make massive profits and they don’t give much back to the community and they try and dress that up with that grant thing they do once a year. It’s not about the individuals, Andy Ffrench does a fantastic job working out of an office in Oxford and they send the photographers to take the pictures. It works very well, but I don’t think that you get that local knowledge you get if you’ve got someone on the ground.

How effective is media coverage in your area of work?

If you’re talking about local politics, I don’t think that’s covered very well at all. The parish councils don’t get covered, even the town councils don’t seem to get covered unless there’s some major controversy, but again I would say the Henley Standard seems to view things very differently.

Re: changes in the quality/quantity of coverage. It’s very obvious ITV have cut their broadcast hours. The BBC I notice has cut their coverage on a Friday night: you used to get 30 minutes of South Today Oxford on a Friday night, you don’t any more. It’s just the 10 minutes at the start of the South Today programme, the same as other weekdays – which I imagine is a response to the fact the government has capped the licence fee.

I’m not sure the Herald has changed: they just gather the news in a different way. It’s obvious Fox FM, now called Heart, doesn’t have anywhere near the local news coverage it used to have, now they’ve moved from Oxfordshire to Berkshire. The interesting one is Jack FM based in Oxford. They seem to have a fair bit of local news, and I would say their local news is actually very good.

The best coverage is the BBC, I think. Actually the Oxford Mail covered the [Bullfinch] trial in Oxford remarkably well: the day of the verdicts there was a really impressive pull-out, 8 pages of the paper – even 10 pages – covering it, written really well. So, that’s very impressive. They’d obviously been resourced to do that – they’d been given extra resources because the paper doesn’t usually look like that.

You could make an argument for that kind of resource-based targeted journalism. Why spread the money out over the year when you could cover big news stories in much greater depth?

The [big local] gravel pit story has been covered really well by the Herald and I know that’s gone into the Oxford Times and presumably the Mail. I think as a village we’d like to see more Cholsey stories.

Does local journalism get across information important to your community?

Take the new Cholsey pavilion, for instance, I think the thing is everybody who wants to know knows. A lot of people live their lives in a bubble and they can’t tell you who the Prime Minister is. I think if you’re interested and you want to be part of the community – most communities – you can. Cholsey’s no different to anywhere else. There are lots of community organisations, lots of facilities.

I think planning issues tend to be well covered. Generally people living in the local area get to know about things that are going to cause them problems or that they are going to be concerned about.

I think there might still be too much ‘Fred & Flo have reached their 100th birthdays in the same week’ or they’ve got to their 70th wedding anniversary, and a slightly more serious tone might help.

This library, for example, was on the national news twice when we opened it, because we opened it just when libraries were starting to be closed down and we were an example of a community library. But there were still many many local people who had no idea we were here: it was in the local press, local magazines, we had a presence in the centre of the village for weeks, with a big A-board. And yet there were many, many people who had no idea we were here. It’s a big issue with community groups: how do you get the news out to people?

 Do you use local media to get your message across?

Yes – letters, press releases, phone-ins, I’ve done all of those. I talk to Andy Ffrench about things that are going on, and he looks at my blog as well and if he thinks something’s sufficiently serious he’ll put it in, if he doesn’t he doesn’t.

We’re not in continual dialogue, but he’ll ring me up if he’s got an issue, and sometimes I’ll ring him up about things.

How important do you feel quality local news services are to the community you live in?

I think it’s absolutely incredibly important, and I think people go to the good stuff. I think the BBC’s investment in journalism in Oxfordshire has paid dividends for them, because so many people tell you they watch South Today Oxford.

Leave a comment

Filed under local news, Oxfordshire

Local News Survey: Ian Hudspeth Woodstock county councillor


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.

Leave a comment

Filed under local news, Oxfordshire

Local news survey: can you help?


According to the results of a series of focus groups organised by the Oxford Mail, readers’ no.1 priority is for the Mail to “stand up for them, to hold those in authority to account and scrutinise and challenge decisions that affect their lives,” (Mail June 29).
We couldn’t agree more, and the branch is now conducting its own survey of people who are active in different ways within our communities across the county to find out how well they feel the county’s news services – print, broadcast, online – fulfil this function.
Edited versions of the interviews will be published on our website – the first will be uploaded later in July.
Can you join our team of interviewers? Interviews are done by phone, and use a standard set of questions, with leeway to follow leads. Each interview lasts between 20 mins and half an hour.
We would also welcome suggestions about who to include in the survey
Contact the secretary at if you think you can help.

Leave a comment

Filed under local news, Oxfordshire