Grab your keys, pad, pen & get moving - Local News Matters
27 March 2017
I'm a crime reporter with a local paper in Plymouth. Before that I was a crime reporter with a local paper in south Essex. I'm not bad at my job, I've got a few awards for my work and while I'm still paid below the average national wage, I'm supporting my three-bedroomed mortgage and three kids relatively well. I even get home in time to see them occasionally.
Like most reporters, specialist or not, you cover a bit of everything in the locals. You can't afford to grandstand and be precious. If you have to go to a council planning meeting, then off you go. An obituary? A warship homecoming? An escaped lynx from the local zoo? Grab your keys, pad and pen and get moving.
People read local papers because they want to know what's going on locally. They want to read about their schools, their shopping and business centres, the nightlife, the plans and schemes of the local council and why the hell is that flipping pothole still not bloody fixed.
They also want to know about the ne'er do wells and how the police and the courts are – or are not – dealing with them. And let's be frank, since Leveson and austerity that's become a bit of a bugger.
In Plymouth the CPS's office was closed down. Cutbacks. And moved 50 miles east to Exeter. The friendly CPS prosecutors who you could rely on handing you material shortly after the end of a court case can no longer be found. The CPS press officer in Bristol who left and wasn't replaced for several months is rarely available. Most of the magistrates court staff have been let go, their phones turned off and their office almost empty. Those that remain also have to cover the nearby crown court and are already stressed and busy without an inquisitive journalist asking questions because they couldn't cover four courts at once.
We're lucky here – or rather we've got a very sound editor – because we still actually have a dedicated crown court reporter and an understanding that we should get ourselves down to the magistrate's court as often as possible. Justice is not only done, we make sure it's seen to be done. The readers know people have been caught for committing crime and appeared at court. They may not be overjoyed with the sentences imposed or the jury's decisions, but they see the results of their taxes. Justice is seen to be done and it is debated and questioned and praised and criticised. The local community can and do take part in the implementation of local justice.
We have fewer and fewer police officers, fewer detectives, fewer police staff. They have less and less time to talk to me, but I try. But, well, (sigh)… Leveson. Phone-hacking. Dodgy payments and subsequent decisions to save the captain by throwing contacts to the wolves. Thanks London-based national papers, thanks Met police and thanks MPs who were too weak to challenge media moguls. Too often I get the "brown envelope" jokes, the demands for payment from readers who think I'm sitting on gold, I get nervous officers refusing to breathe near me, let alone tell me about an incident or investigation.
Because of the so-called premiership journalists who forget where they came from (or maybe never even needed to work their way up from the local rag because, well, seven-month internships at The Times sorted by uncle Gideon are so much easier) my time in the LDV Van trophy league is more often as not about bridge-building and damage-limitation.
Basically, I have to spend rather too much of my time cleaning up the mess left behind by others, convincing coppers that actually, I'm not going to shaft them, that I can be trusted, that I will be fair. No seriously, stop laughing at the back.
From my perspective – and I hope from my readers – crime reporting is vital in a community.
Courts are closing in some parts and cases moved miles away to other centres. Cases in Torquay are being heard in Plymouth and there's no way a reporter is going to trek 20 miles plus each day to cover our court when they're increasingly under pressure and understaffed.
So that town's paper will not be reporting on justice being done. So that town's readers will not find out which crime has been committed, by who and what happened to them. Were they caught? Where they sentenced? Have police done their job?
No crime reports gives a false, Disney-fied, image of a community. Everything's rosy in the garden because who's to say otherwise. They've no idea if crimes are being solved, if victims are being treated well, if justice is being done, let alone being seen to be done.
When you create a hole, something will fill it. In my little local newspaper world, now more than ever, that should be good journalism. Otherwise you only need to look at social media rumours to see what else will happily fill it. Total made-up, unverified, unchecked rubbish - what we now like to call #fakenews.
Local papers are not beholden to a political ideology, to a class, to a gender, to a religion, to an age group. My readers are potentially every person in my patch and I have to write for all of them, not just one section of them.
We are the antidote to fake news because our agenda is actually their agenda. We live in our patch, we party in our patch, we bring up our kids in our patch. We have an absolute stake in our own community and we honour that community by not lying to it but by telling people what is going on in it.
Yeah, it's cheesy. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Carl Eve is the Crime Reporter with the Plymouth Herald
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