In a speech to local authority leaders on the way reporters and councillors could co-operate with each other, Nicholas Jones recalled the day in the early 1960s when the father of the late film director Anthony Minghella agreed to help create a story line that captured the local headlines.  Eddie Minghella, then chairman of the Entertertainments Committee on Ryde Borough Council, was persuaded to suggest that his local authority should adopt as a summer advertising slogan Ticket to Ride, the latest hit by The Beatles.

Jones presented the awards at the annual lunch of the North East Charter on Elected Member Development at The Sage, Gateshead (25.3.2008).  He said councillors and staff had only themselves to blame if they failed to challenge press misreporting. He urged them to take advantage of new opportunities opened up by the internet which provided new ways to communicate through websites and the blogosphere. Jones said he had found a collective failure on the part of council members and staff to respond. 


I am delighted to be here to help you celebrate the successes of the local authorities in the north east and to present your awards. Eleanor Hayward was very brave in inviting me to do the honours: journalists aren’t always the pin ups of local councillors. But indeed I do share your concern about the negative approach adopted in so much press reporting about the work of local councils. Of even greater concern is the dearth of coverage, not just in local newspapers but radio and television as well. What can we do about it? Well my remarks will be directed to that very point. But first let me say how pleased I am to be here in The Sage, an illustration if ever you needed one, of the vibrancy of the north east.

The new-found strength of the North East Region is a tribute to you all and especially to the local authorities which had the vision to plan for the future. I know how bleak it was. In the early 1980s I was a frequent visitor because British Shipbuilders -- which ran the nationalised shipyards -- had its headquarters across the Tyne at Long Benton. The closures and redundancies were horrendous: sometimes there would be four, five even six thousand redundancies announced in one day. The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions would hold delegate conferences out at Whitley Bay -- there would be protests and demonstrations -- but the unions couldn’t stop the decimation of the shipyards.

In the mid 1980s, I was here again during the 1984-5 miners’ strike; a visit to the picket line at the Ellington Colliery sticks in my mind. What a tragedy: the death of the coal industry. But by the late 1980s change was afoot. Just one example: the expansion of the Tyne and Wear Metro was attracting plaudits from employers around the country. Industrial correspondents like myself did stories about the north east’s success in attracting new investment and new industries. The Metro provided easy access, it opened up job opportunities for people living in a wide travel to work area and industries and services which depended on twenty-four hour working found they could draw on a well-educated and well-motivated workforce to fill their vacancies.

Now let me try to relate my experience as a journalist with your work as local councillors. How can you be heard in a crowded media market place? What more can you do to promote the strengths and successes of local government? I speak with a sense of conviction. My first success as a journalist was as a local government reporter. I come a family of journalists. My grandfather was a reporter for a weekly paper in mid-Wales and he went one step further, he became a local councillor as well as a journalist and in the 1920s he became chairman of Llandrindod Wells Urban District Council. His greatest achievement was seeing through the purchase of the local electric light and power company which had just gone bust.

Llandrindod Wells UDC already had its own waterworks -- and it was said at the time to have the best quality water in mid-Wales -- and here was the local council expanding into the production of electricity. Those were the great days of municipal expansion. Local authorities had the freedom to innovate in ways which you can only dream about today. My grandfather was the only one who crossed the line and became a councillor but my father was also a diligent reporter of local authority meetings and I followed in his footsteps. In ten years as a reporter on local papers, I covered parish councils, UDCs, RDCs, Boroughs and then graduated to city and county councils in Portsmouth, Oxford and Leicester.

It was in Leicester that I joined the local BBC Radio station and we used to broadcast the city council’s proceedings live on the radio once a month. My job was to provide a commentary. Therefore I was delighted to hear at an LGA conference last month that some councils now broadcast their meetings live via their websites. That is just the kind of innovation I would like to talk about. I don’t think local councils do anything like enough to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the internet, by the growth in websites, blogs and so on and the opportunities which this has opened up for inter-action. Yes councils have websites to promote themselves and provide information. But authorities could do far more to provoke discussion and engage in that debate.

Currently I lecture on the relationship between the media and politicians and other public figures.

I speak regularly to young local authority workers on the Young Local Authority programme, I assist with a course for trainee press and publicity officers for local councils and hold seminars for Unison helping branch officials understand the media. What comes through repeatedly is a collective failure on the part of council members and staff to seize the opportunities which are out there. Whenever I ask if there is anyone in the authority whose job it is to monitor websites and blogs and respond and communicate on behalf of the council, I am invariably told that is not seen as a priority. Big companies are nowhere near so complacent.

They are desperate to find ways of communicating through websites and all the numerous social networking sites which are opening up. In the world of corporate public relations, their nightmare is that there is a discourse going on out there via the web over which the information staff have no control. There has been the same slow appreciation of the blogosphere on the part of central government but Whitehall departments are waking up at last and are now anxious to get feedback from new media monitoring surveys to find out what the internet chatter is all about. Officials need to know the direction in which the arguments are going. So from your perspective the question to ask is this:

Is it the policy of your council to engage and respond and if need be to challenge and correct what appears on websites and blogs? Why not go even further and use your websites to go on the offensive if you think you are not being fairly reported in the local press. Why not challenge misreporting? Local councils could easily reproduce offending articles from local newspapers and then run alongside them a full account of precisely what the local authority has said. Set out clearly what the council is proposing and make it clear why you think the news report -- and perhaps the headline -- is incorrect. I can tell you this for free: the local editor and reporters won’t like it. They are not used to being challenged. But believe me they will be careful not to repeat the same mistakes.

Again when I talk to young local authority workers and trainee press officers they say they wish their authorities would be more robust. They say that it doesn’t happen because so often party political differences and arguments get in the way and stop the authority speaking with a united voice. But when it comes to controversial services -- like parking control, which is never going to be popular -- there is no reason why councils couldn’t do more to explain their case. The staff say they hate being demonised by wildly inaccurate reporting and would like their authorities to be more forthright. Again more often than not the blame for this not happening is an overriding need to score party political points rather than act collectively to strengthen the good name of local authorities.

So my advice is that sometimes you should set your political difference aside. Do act collectively and go on the offensive. Believe me I know how difficult this can be: local politics are the lifeblood of council work but don’t let legitimate rivalries get in the way of seizing the new opportunities, especially at a time when the local press has drastically reduced its reporting of local affairs and journalistic standards are sadly in decline. I try -- often without much success -- to defend public service broadcasting. Having been a beneficiary of the BBC’s expansion in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990 I now see my former colleagues having to face cut back after cut back. There is a sense of demoralisation within the Beeb.

What I find so alarming is a reluctance on the part of the BBC’s top management to come out fighting in defence of the BBC licence fee. It is as though the corporation’s strategists have thrown in the towel and accept the inevitability of top slicing, that is the sharing out of the BBC’s income with other broadcasters. So I know how you feel about the difficulty which local authorities have in getting their positive messages across, in defending the good name of council services and promoting your successes.

But remember: local reporters are worth cultivating and in return for a good story, we will do you a favour. Back in the early 1960s -- when the Beatles were top of the charts -- they had a hit with "Ticket to Ride". I was Ryde reporter for The News, Portsmouth, and the day the record came out I was covering the monthly meeting of Ryde Borough Council, a seaside resort in the Isle of Wight. Along with two other local reporters from the Isle of Wight Times and Isle of Wight County Press, we suggested to the chairman of the Entertainments Committee that he should propose that Ryde Borough should adopt "Ticket to Ride" as the slogan for that summer’s advertising campaign. He was as good as gold -- he did just what we suggested -- and we three hacks got our headline. That chairman of the Entertainments Committee was Isle of Wight icecream maker Eddie Minghella whose son Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient, died so unexpectedly last week. So give it a try: journalists and councillors can have a creative relationship and never doubt the ability of journalists to use their expertise, dare I say even our imagination in order to manufacture a new storyline.